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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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But with the outbreak of the War of 1812, Clark changed his mind and accepted President James Madison’s appointment to the governorship. He organized a militia and kept the tribes of the Lower Missouri from aligning with the British—even if it meant letting them fight one another—and led a campaign to the Upper Mississippi that helped blunt British ambitions there. Amazingly, the Osage volunteered 500 warriors to support Clark, a testament to his persuasive powers.


A visit with Clark became a required stop for any V.I.P.s who came to St. Louis. If the visitors were lucky, they might see Clark’s great map of the American West—the first to accurately show the inner continent we know today—which he had drawn during the expedition and painstakingly refined afterward by talking to returning fur traders and Indians who knew the territory intimately. When it was finally published in 1814, Clark’s map literally redrew the continent. It remains one of the seminal feats in the history of cartography.


In 1820, Clark reluctantly entered the first election for governor of the new state of Missouri—and lost. Ironically, voters, rankled by the gifts distributed at Portage des Sioux, thought that “the Red-Headed Chief ” had become too soft on the Indians. Preoccupied by the illness and death of his wife, Judith, that June, Clark hardly campaigned. Two years later, though, Congress appointed him to a newly created Superintendency of Indian Affairs at St. Louis.


By this time, Clark had become convinced that the survival of the Indians depended upon moving them out of the reach of whiskey-selling traders and land-hungry settlers. “Their power has been broken, their warlike spirit subdued, and themselves sunk into objects of pity and commiseration,” he wrote to his superiors in Washington. “While strong and hostile, it has been our obvious policy to weaken them; now that they are weak and harmless, and most of their lands fallen into our hands, justice and humanity require us to cherish and befriend them. . . .”


But how would they be cherished? Like Jefferson, Clark concluded that the tribes must be moved away from the United States and its territories “to a country beyond those limits, where they could rest in peace and in perpetuity reside on the lands on which their building and improvements would be made.” He thought that relocation to Indian country in today’s Oklahoma and Kansas would buy them time to develop the farming skills necessary to adapt to the white man’s world—and in the process would hand over the rich Indian lands east of the Mississippi.


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