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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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Dozens of books about Lewis and other members of the Lewis and Clark expedition—Sacagawea, John Colter, the slave, York, even Lewis’ dog, Seaman—have been written. Stephen Ambrose’s 1996 biography of Lewis, Undaunted Courage, ends with Lewis’ suicide in 1809. Yet, surprisingly, no full-length biography of William Clark has ever been published. One reason may be the duration of Clark’s public life. Contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “there are no second acts in American lives,” Clark’s post-expedition contributions to Western history are so significant that his name might well be better known had he never gone to the Pacific with Lewis. Today, as the Lewis and Clark bicentennial approaches (2003-2006), new evidence about his personal qualities is emerging, most recently in James Holmberg’s Dear Brother, a collection of recently unearthed letters between Clark and his eldest brother, Jonathan.

 

For 30 years after the expedition, William Clark ranked as the leading federal official in the West, the point man for six Presidents, from Jefferson to Van Buren, who trusted him with protecting American interests on territory bitterly contested by both Britain and Spain. At the same time, Clark was also the one white man that Indians on both sides of the Mississippi thought they could trust. Yet his treaties would extinguish Indian rights to millions of acres on either side of the Mississippi.

 

It is Clark’s role in the removal of Native Americans that so discomforts us today—and may contribute to the reluctance of biographers to tell his story. And unlike the triumph of the expedition, the story of white and Indian relations is messy. Were Clark’s post-expedition efforts well-meaning attempts to save native peoples who would have been more tragically pushed aside by the encroaching white culture? Or was he the agent for land-hungry Americans who thought nothing of cheating Indians? Or was the truth somewhere else? Did Clark embody all the ambivalences and contradictions of his time in matters of race and country?

 

The record is clear that Clark’s efforts to reconcile the clashing interests of Indians, westward moving settlers and the federal government consumed—and profoundly disappointed—him. The record is equally clear that those efforts led to an overwhelming tragedy: the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Indians from their homes in the East and South, across the Mississippi to lands in Oklahoma and Kansas.

 

At the time of portage Des Sioux, St. Louis was still a remote settlement of some 2,000 people, perched like an early-day Beirut on the edge of the continent’s most contested lands. It was the only non-Indian town of any substance west of the Mississippi. Americans, English, Spanish and Russians all competed for the loyalties of 100,000 Indians, who were the main suppliers for the fur trade, the dot.com bubble of its day. The steady supply of furs depended on peace with the Indians.

 

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