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Iron Will

While William Clark is best known for the expedition he made with Meriwether Lewis, his later life was as historic and more consequential

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But to American settlers fearful of Indians in the months after the Treaty of Ghent, their trading partners looked more like terrorists. In the spring before the council, the Missouri Gazette reported that “very few days elapse without unfolding some horrid deed; a family cut off, travelers shot and cut to pieces on the frontiers or in the neighborhood of our villages; the thing is passed off as a matter of course until the news of another massacre arrives.”

 

As Clark looked over the vast assemblage, he realized that one tribe was conspicuous by its absence of highlevel chiefs. A band of Sauk from the Rock River (near present-day Davenport, Iowa), led by a charismatic war leader named Makataimeshekiakiak but known to whites as Black Hawk, had sent only subordinates. If the treaty were not signed by the Sauk, the most aggressive and warlike tribe on the Mississippi, Clark’s peace initiative would have little meaning.

 

Both Clark and Black Hawk were in their mid-40s at the time. Black Hawk was as commanding a figure in his culture as Clark was in his. Just under six feet tall, the warrior was sinewy, broadshouldered and weighed only about 140 pounds. His shaved head bore a single short tuft of hair, to which he attached a feather.

 

Angered by Black Hawk’s absence at Portage des Sioux, Clark delivered an ultimatum: either he come to sign the treaty or, as one Sauk chief remembered it, “blood would be spilt for their disobedience.” Tribal enemies of the Sauk were so heartened by Clark’s public threat that they stood and cheered. Alarmed, the Sauk left the council, slipping away under the cover of darkness.

 

No sooner had negotiating begun than another event threatened to derail the Portage des Sioux meeting. Black Buffalo, a Sioux chief whom Clark knew well from the expedition, died suddenly, a potentially disastrous omen to the Indians. But Clark responded diplomatically, giving the chief a full military funeral, complete with rifle salutes. Then, in a dramatic moment, an Omaha chief named Big Elk delivered a stirring eulogy for his traditional enemy. “Do not grieve,” he counseled the other tribes. “Misfortunes will happen to the wisest and best men.”

 

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