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 the stereotypes mask distinctive attributes of both men. During the expedition, Lewis acted more like the group’s grand strategist, a visionary CEO to Clark’s more hands-on chief operating officer. But, apparently beset by frequent depressions, Lewis inexplicably failed to write in his journal for long stretches of time. Clark missed only a handful of entries while on a hunting expedition. During the expedition’s most perilous hours, when the party nearly starved crossing the Lolo Trail in Idaho in the fall of 1805, it was Clark who made the decision to push ahead to find shelter and food.


Indians were especially fond of Clark. Lewis had taken medical training under Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia, intending to be the expedition’s primary doctor. But the temperamental Lewis was often angered by the Indians, while Clark treated them with genuine compassion. By the return trip Clark had emerged as the Indians’ “favorite physician,” drawing large crowds of patients to villages.


When one Indian woman was beaten by her jealous husband, Clark unhesitatingly went to her aid. Sacagawea was so drawn to Clark that, when the entire party was near starvation, she gave him a “piece of bread” she had reserved for her infant son. On Christmas Day 1805, she gave Clark “two dozen white weazil’s [ermine] tails.” Clark returned her friendship after the expedition by virtually adopting her son, Jean Baptiste (“Pompy”), and paying for his education. (Later befriended by a German noble, Prince Paul of Wurttemberg, Pompy traveled to Europe before returning to the frontier as a guide and translator for military expeditions and for gold-seeking forty-niners. He died in 1866 at the age of 61.)


Sometime during the journey—probably after the expedition left Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805 and headed into territory unknown to white Americans—Clark became the de facto leader. The men had always dealt more directly with Clark, but by then something had changed. For one thing, Clark’s mapmaking and navigational skills had come to the fore.


Both men returned as heroes. President Jefferson appointed Lewis governor of the new LouisianaTerritory. Clark became brigadier general of the militia and principal Indian agent. First, though, he returned to Virginia to court and marry Judith Hancock, the daughter of a prominent family. He had named the Judith River in Montana for her during the expedition. She was 16; he was 37.



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