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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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Big Elk’s oration cleared the air. Clark further eased tensions by displaying his skill in imitating birds and animals, while his 6-year-old son played nearby. In the end, 13 tribes signed treaties assuring “perpetual peace and friendship.” In return, Clark promised to protect them and safeguard their remaining lands. He sealed the peace with whiskey and $30,000 in gifts, a largesse that outraged St. Louis settlers still crying out for vengeance.


The Grand Council would become more of a turning point than any of the participants could have guessed. By putting themselves under the “protection” of the federal government, the tribes lost their ability to play off the British against the expanding American nation. Settlers held back by the War of 1812 began to pour across the Mississippi. From that time on, councils between Americans and Indians would not be about “perpetual peace and friendship” but about removal and loss of land.


Black Hawk would prove more of a problem than Clark could anticipate. After several delays, he finally paid Clark a visit in St. Louis the following May. “I touched the goose quill to the treaty, not knowing, however, that, by that act, I consented to give away my village,” he later bitterly recalled. Unwittingly, Black Hawk had ratified a much-hated 1804 treaty that had turned over millions of acres of his tribe’s homelands along the Upper Mississippi to whites. The price? Goods valued at $2,234.50 and an annuity of $1,000. The 1816 treaty marked another step on the way to the brutal Black Hawk War, which would erupt 16 years later; Black Hawk believed that the whites had once again deceived him.


From an early age, clark lived in a world rent by Indian and white violence. Attracted after the Revolution by reports of the fertile and game-rich lands beyond the Appalachians, the Clark family, including 14-year-old Billy, picked up their possessions, which probably included a dozen or more slaves, and moved west from Virginia in 1784, settling above the waterfalls near today’s Louisville. There, the family found itself in the middle of bitter conflicts between migrating settlers and Indians defending their traditional hunting grounds. One of Billy’s older brothers (he was the ninth of ten children) was killed by Indians on the Little Wabash River.


George Rogers Clark, the family’s second son and a Revolutionary War hero 22 years Billy’s senior, was an especially remorseless Indian-fighter. He led a series of search-and-destroy missions into Shawnee country north of the Ohio, burning villages and cornfields and plundering graves for burial goods and scalps.



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