This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Clark on Aug. 1, 1770, in Caroline County, Virginia. Clark is best remembered as co-captain with Meriwether Lewis on their epic expedition from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Northwest in 1804 to 1806. What is less well known is the essential role he later in the development of the Missouri Territory, most notably as superintendent of Indian affairs at St. Louis.
The ninth of John and Ann (Rogers) Clark’s 10 children, Clark was born on the family’s tobacco plantation in Virginia. In 1785, the family relocated to Louisville, Kentucky in response to tales of the Ohio Valley told by William Clark’s older brother, George Rogers Clark, a military hero of the American Revolution. Like his brother, William Clark was swept up into the American Indian conflicts of the Ohio frontier, joining the militia in 1789 before enlisting in the regular army. In 1792, President George Washington commissioned him as lieutenant of infantry. Under Gen. Anthony Wayne, Clark helped build and supply forts along the Ohio River and commanded the Chosen Rifle Company, which participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794).
Clark resigned his commission in 1796 and returned home to regain his health and manage his aging parents’ estate. In 1803, he received an invitation to greatness from his friend Meriwether Lewis to help him lead an expedition west through uncharted American territory to the Pacific Ocean. Clark’s preparations for the expedition included modifying the keelboat they were to use, engaging the participation of several young woodsmen from Kentucky, and drilling the men during their winter camp.
The Corps of Discovery departed on May 14, 1804. Clark operated as the expedition’s principal operations officer and cartographer. His monumental maps of the West (1810-1814) represented the best available until the 1840s. Moreover, he kept one of the most faithful journals on the trip, his writing as expressive as his spelling was imaginative. Clark was accompanied by his slave York, known as “Big Medicine” by the tribes around present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, with whom the expedition spent the winter of 1804 to 1805. Although Clark treated York harshly upon their return from the expedition, he claimed to have eventually freed him.
The 52-month expedition established U.S. claims to the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest. Clark gained an appreciation for the tremendous diversity of native cultures and was often more skillful than Lewis in Indian negotiations. He liked Native Americans, and they seemed to like him; the Shoshone interpreter Sacagawea and her family spent the majority of their time with Clark. He also formed a lasting friendship with the Nez Percé and may have fathered a son, Daytime Smoker, with the daughter of Chief Red Grizzly Bear.
At the conclusion of the expedition in 1806, the U.S. Congress awarded Clark double pay and 1,600 acres of land for his efforts. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Clark brigadier general of militia for the Louisiana (later Missouri) Territory and a federal Indian agent for western tribes. Clark supported the “factory system” of government trading houses, which sought to put the government rather than individuals at the forefront of trade with Indians. He also oversaw the construction of Fort Osage on the Missouri River and promoted commercial fur trade activities farther abroad, joining Manuel Lisa in the Missouri Fur Company in 1809.
During the War of 1812, President James Monroe commissioned Clark as territorial governor of Missouri, a position he held from 1813 to 1820. In this role, Clark protected settlements and conducted the peace-seeking Treaty of Portage des Sioux in 1815. Later, he supervised the removal of tribes located within the Missouri and Arkansas territories. Clark attempted to broker amicable relations between the settlers and the Indians, but Missourians viewed him as too sympathetic to Native Americans.
This view and some of his business dealings may have cost Clark Missouri’s inaugural gubernatorial election after its attainment of statehood, which he lost to Alexander McNair. President Monroe appointed Clark superintendent of Indian affairs at St. Louis in 1822. In that capacity Clark exercised jurisdiction over existing western tribes and the eastern nations that were being removed west of the Mississippi River. He expressed sympathy for those uprooted tribes and promoted their interests as he understood them. Nevertheless, he agreed with and implemented the policy of Indian removal, negotiating 37, or one-tenth, of all ratified treaties between American Indians and the U.S. Over the course of his career, millions of acres passed from Indian to U.S. ownership by Clark’s hand.
Among his duties, Clark issued trading licenses, removed unauthorized persons from Indian country, and confiscated illegal alcohol. He extended patronage to American fur traders, artists and explorers who, in turn, assisted him in his mission by establishing friendly relations with numerous tribes. Clark and Secretary of War Lewis Cass wrote a report that resulted in the revision of the Trade and Intercourse Acts and the reorganization of the entire Indian Bureau in 1834.
Clark was also a patron of the arts, and supported the establishment of schools, the growth of banks, and the incorporation of cities. He invested in real estate and railroads, maintained one of the first museums in the West and promoted other economic and cultural endeavors in the St. Louis area.
Clark was a devoted family man and a valued friend. He and his wife, Julia Hancock, had five children. He named his eldest son Meriwether Lewis. The year after Julia’s death in 1820, Clark married the widow Harriet Kennerly Radford and fathered two more sons. A generous man, Clark served as legal guardian for Sacagawea’s children, cared for numerous relatives, and offered assistance to religious groups, missionaries, explorers and travelers.
Jay H. Buckley is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University and author of the award-winning book “William Clark: Indian Diplomat.” Philippa Newfield is the immediate past president of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, the citizen support group for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.