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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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They moved to St. Louis, by then a roistering jambalaya of Americans, Creole French, Spanish, Indians, French-Indian metis, slaves and free blacks. With the family were their household slaves, including York, Clark’s personal servant and the only black man on the expedition. York had been treated as an equal of the other men during the journey. Upon their return, he petitioned for freedom to join his wife in Louisville. But Clark refused—and did not hesitate to beat the man who had accompanied him to the Pacific. “I fear you will think I have become a severe master,” Clark worried to his brother Jonathan, after he had whipped a pregnant female slave named Easter. “It is not the case, but I find it absolutely necessary to have business done.” It would take Clark another decade to finally free York. 



Clark’s contradictions, to be sure, were hardly his alone. Visitors from Europe were often appalled by American hypocrisy. “You will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves,” wrote English traveler Frances Trollope. “You will see them one hour lecturing the mob on the indefeasible rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil, whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties.”


Clark similarly struggled to reconcile his own warm feelings for individual Indians with the harsh policies he pursued as principal Indian agent. Charged with supervising some 100,000 Indians living on the Missouri and the Upper Mississippi rivers, Clark set about to negotiate treaties to keep peace between them and whites on the borderlands. One of the first was with the Osage, the dominant tribe on the Lower Missouri. They were a proud, resourceful people described by Washington Irving as “Romans . . . the finest looking Indian . . . in the West.” The Osage had never fought a war against the Americans. Yet in 1808 Clark forced on them a treaty that all but destroyed their culture.


In return for ceding 50,000 square miles of their prized hunting grounds—almost all of Missouri—thereby ruining their fur-based economy, the Osage were given $1,400 in gifts, an $1,800 annuity, the services of a blacksmith, some farm tools and the use of a gristmill. Osage land purchased by the government for 10 cents per square mile was later resold for $1 to $2 per acre. Even Clark came to regret the terms of the treaty. Ethan Allen Hitchcock said Clark told him “it was the hardest treaty on the Indians that he ever made, and that if he was damned hereafter, it would be for making that treaty.”


Lewis’ suicide by gunshot a year after the treaty was signed proved a severe blow to Clark. “I fear, O’ I fear the waight of his mind has overcome him,” he wrote in anguish to his brother Jonathan. A week later, he called Lewis’ death “a turble Stroke to me, in every respect.” Clark dutifully set about securing publication of the expedition journals Lewis had been carrying—but was hesitant to succeed him as territorial governor. “I do not think myself calculated to meet the storms which might be expected,” he said, reflecting the self-effacing style that he displayed throughout his entire life.


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