Scattered on the prairie around William Clark and two other federal commissioners was one of the largest assemblies of Indians ever seen by white men. It was the summer of 1815. Some 2,000 warriors, women and children from more than a dozen tribes had arrived at Portage des Sioux, where the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers meet just above St. Louis.
White birch canoes of the Kickapoo and the Potawatomi from the Upper Mississippi and rough-hewn dugouts of the Omaha and the Osage from the Missouri lined the banks. The fur trader Manuel Lisa had just delivered several barges loaded with 43 chiefs, many of them colorfully dressed in tribal finery. Two American gunboats, the Governor Clark and the Commodore Perry, patrolled the rivers under the limestone bluffs. A scene of 100 white tents, pitched by U.S. soldiers and lined up in orderly rows, met the Indians. Drums rolled and flags whipped in the 90-degree heat.
For William Clark this was a watershed moment in a life already rich in drama. It also proved a pivotal one in American history. Standing in the shade of a brush arbor, dressed in a dark suit with a high white collar that set off his red hair and large blue eyes, Clark saw many familiar faces in the crowd. A decade earlier, he had met some of these same chiefs when he and Meriwether Lewis led the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River and across the Rockies to the Pacific on their famous 8,000-mile journey.
But as governor of the MissouriTerritory, Clark now had a different agenda. Using the salutations of the day, he assured his Indian “children” that their “Great Father” in Washington wanted nothing more than peace. Obtaining it, however, would require all of his well-known negotiating skills. Under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, the defeated British had left it to the Americans to deal with England’s former allies, the Indians. Abandoned by the British and alarmed by increasing numbers of American immigrants invading their homelands, some tribes had continued to resist. How this difficult situation would resolve itself lay largely in the hands of this one man.
That William Clark played a formative role in shaping the West of 1815 may surprise those who think of him only as the lesser-known leader of the two-and-a-half-year expedition—the first ever by Americans across the continent—to map the lands acquired by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803.