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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Clark signed treaties with dozens of tribes on the lawn of Castor Hill, his country house outside St. Louis. What had begun as a steady trickle of Indians moving west across the Mississippi River became a torrent—Shawnee, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Sauk and Fox, Delaware, Chickasaw and many other tribes traded hundreds of millions of acres in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas for land of unproven value west of Missouri.


Any who chose to resist were quickly crushed. In April 1832, Black Hawk and about a thousand Sauk and Fox, including women and children, crossed to their former lands on the east bank of the Mississippi to plant crops and reclaim their village at Rock Island, Illinois, now occupied by whites. “My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold,” Black Hawk said. “The Great Spirit gave it to his children. . . . So long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have the right to the soil.”


Clark was furious. He had counted on the Indians not to inflame settlers during their removal—and now the worst was happening. “I hope the Indians will be forced to fight and receive a complete chastisement for their horrid crimes,” he wrote his 23-year-old son, Meriwether Lewis Clark, then aide-decamp to Army Gen. Henry Atkinson


In August, Clark boarded the steamboat Warrior and headed up the Mississippi to the contested lands. But when he learned that U.S. troops had brought cholera aboard, he transferred to another boat to return home. The Warrior continued upstream, where troops commanded by Atkinson pursued and eventually caught up with Black Hawk’s warriors and their families as they attempted to flee across the Mississippi River.


The Battle of Bad Axe was nothing less than a massacre, with soldiers firing at Indians attempting to swim across the river. When the so-called Black Hawk War ended, most of Black Hawk’s followers lay dead.


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