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Joyous View

A biographer and his subject, William Clark, meet in St. Louis

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We are pleased this month to have an early look at what I expect will be the definitive biography of William Clark, the man invited by Meriwether Lewis, 200 years ago next summer, to join him on an epochal exploration of the American West. The biographer is my former Time Inc. colleague Landon Y. Jones, and the piece in this issue, "Iron Will", tells the historically important but neglected story of Clark's life after the expedition. Clark, says Jones, "was not only the key interpreter of the undiscovered West to white America but was also the interpreter of white America to Indians."

In retrospect Jones, who was a writer at Time and editor of Money and People magazines, seems almost fated to tell Clark's story. He grew up in St. Louis, near where Lewis and Clark launched their expedition in 1804 and where Clark spent the last years of his life; attended Clark Elementary School, named after the general; edited the pair's journals (The Essential Lewis and Clark, HarperCollins, 2000) and serves on the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, the group charged with planning the expedition's official commemoration.

A requisite for writing this kind of book, Jones says, is "a cast-iron butt, since you spend a lot of time sitting in libraries leafing through archival collections." But fieldwork is also a must. Jones toured sites central to the Lewis and Clark adventure, from Fort Clatsop, Oregon, where they spent the winter of 1805-06 huddled against lashing rains, to Rock Island, Illinois, where there is a moving monument to Sauk warrior Black Hawk, Clark's tragic, worthy adversary. Of the places Jones visited, the most memorable was Lemhi Pass, near Dillon, Montana, where Lewis and Clark first crossed the Continental Divide. "You get there by ascending a creek that they thought was the headwaters of the Missouri," he says. "When you walk up to the crest of the pass, as they did, you look over and see—not rivers flowing down to the Pacific, as they hoped, but row after row of mountain ranges receding to the horizon. You can almost hear them gulp and say, ‘Uh oh, this is going to take longer than we thought.'"

Jones also relishes his memory of the moment, sitting in the library at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, when the archivist brought Clark's elkskin-bound field journal to him and Jones read what Clark wrote upon first seeing what he thought was the Pacific: "Ocian in view! O! the joy." (It was actually the estuary of the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington State.)

Says Jones: "Those words still give me a shiver."

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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