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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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In the midst of this “dark and bloody ground,” as the Ohio frontier was then known, Billy grew up to be a solidly built six-footer with an easy manner. He joined the militia in 1789 and took part in several Indian campaigns as a supply officer, building forts and escorting supply trains. He saw several skirmishes with Indian tribes—and soon stood out as a fearless and capable soldier, even within the confines of his overachieving family.


In 1792, the 22-year-old Billy moved over to the regular army, with a lieutenant’s commission signed by George Washington. He served under Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne and led an expedition to Chickasaw Bluffs, near today’s Memphis. In 1794, he commanded a rifle company at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which crushed Shawnee resistance to American settlement north of the Ohio. The following winter, Clark met Ensign Meriwether Lewis, four years his junior, when Lewis was transferred to his rifle company.


By 1803, the 33-year-old Clark had traveled extensively through the trans-Appalachian west. He had commanded military expeditions on the move on rivers, making maps and keeping journals along the way. He knew how to build and supply forts. He had seen combat with Indians and was familiar with their cultures. Lewis was not far from the truth when he wrote Clark on June 19, 1803, that there was “no man on earth” more qualified to join him as cocaptain on the journey to the Pacific.


Lewis, by then a captain in the Army, had planned the expedition while working in the White House as President Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary. Though Clark was to be his cocaptain, an expected promotion by the Army never came through—an awkward fact both men concealed, preferring to be treated as equals.


These equals did not have similar personalities, however. For years scholars and writers portrayed Lewis and Clark as temperamental opposites. If Lewis was the educated, aristocratic, mercurial Virginian, then Clark was the blunt, homespun, down-to-earth Kentuckian. The written record of the expedition’s journals seems to support this notion. Lewis’ entries are often long and learned, full of rhetorical flourishes; Clark’s are short, matter-of-fact and rich in rococo misspellings. Lewis rhapsodized over “truly magnificent and sublimely grand” sights; Clark wore “mockersons” and slapped away annoying “musquetors.”



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