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

Scattered on the prairie around William Clark and two other federal commissioners was one of the largest assemblies of Indians ever seen by white men. It was the summer of 1815. Some 2,000 warriors, women and children from more than a dozen tribes had arrived at Portage des Sioux, where the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers meet just above St. Louis.

White birch canoes of the Kickapoo and the Potawatomi from the Upper Mississippi and rough-hewn dugouts of the Omaha and the Osage from the Missouri lined the banks. The fur trader Manuel Lisa had just delivered several barges loaded with 43 chiefs, many of them colorfully dressed in tribal finery. Two American gunboats, the Governor Clark and the Commodore Perry, patrolled the rivers under the limestone bluffs. A scene of 100 white tents, pitched by U.S. soldiers and lined up in orderly rows, met the Indians. Drums rolled and flags whipped in the 90-degree heat.

For William Clark this was a watershed moment in a life already rich in drama. It also proved a pivotal one in American history. Standing in the shade of a brush arbor, dressed in a dark suit with a high white collar that set off his red hair and large blue eyes, Clark saw many familiar faces in the crowd. A decade earlier, he had met some of these same chiefs when he and Meriwether Lewis led the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River and across the Rockies to the Pacific on their famous 8,000-mile journey.

But as governor of the MissouriTerritory, Clark now had a different agenda. Using the salutations of the day, he assured his Indian “children” that their “Great Father” in Washington wanted nothing more than peace. Obtaining it, however, would require all of his well-known negotiating skills. Under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, the defeated British had left it to the Americans to deal with England’s former allies, the Indians. Abandoned by the British and alarmed by increasing numbers of American immigrants invading their homelands, some tribes had continued to resist. How this difficult situation would resolve itself lay largely in the hands of this one man.

That William Clark played a formative role in shaping the West of 1815 may surprise those who think of him only as the lesser-known leader of the two-and-a-half-year expedition—the first ever by Americans across the continent—to map the lands acquired by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

Dozens of books about Lewis and other members of the Lewis and Clark expedition—Sacagawea, John Colter, the slave, York, even Lewis’ dog, Seaman—have been written. Stephen Ambrose’s 1996 biography of Lewis, Undaunted Courage, ends with Lewis’ suicide in 1809. Yet, surprisingly, no full-length biography of William Clark has ever been published. One reason may be the duration of Clark’s public life. Contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “there are no second acts in American lives,” Clark’s post-expedition contributions to Western history are so significant that his name might well be better known had he never gone to the Pacific with Lewis. Today, as the Lewis and Clark bicentennial approaches (2003-2006), new evidence about his personal qualities is emerging, most recently in James Holmberg’s Dear Brother, a collection of recently unearthed letters between Clark and his eldest brother, Jonathan.

For 30 years after the expedition, William Clark ranked as the leading federal official in the West, the point man for six Presidents, from Jefferson to Van Buren, who trusted him with protecting American interests on territory bitterly contested by both Britain and Spain. At the same time, Clark was also the one white man that Indians on both sides of the Mississippi thought they could trust. Yet his treaties would extinguish Indian rights to millions of acres on either side of the Mississippi.

It is Clark’s role in the removal of Native Americans that so discomforts us today—and may contribute to the reluctance of biographers to tell his story. And unlike the triumph of the expedition, the story of white and Indian relations is messy. Were Clark’s post-expedition efforts well-meaning attempts to save native peoples who would have been more tragically pushed aside by the encroaching white culture? Or was he the agent for land-hungry Americans who thought nothing of cheating Indians? Or was the truth somewhere else? Did Clark embody all the ambivalences and contradictions of his time in matters of race and country?

The record is clear that Clark’s efforts to reconcile the clashing interests of Indians, westward moving settlers and the federal government consumed—and profoundly disappointed—him. The record is equally clear that those efforts led to an overwhelming tragedy: the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Indians from their homes in the East and South, across the Mississippi to lands in Oklahoma and Kansas.

At the time of portage Des Sioux, St. Louis was still a remote settlement of some 2,000 people, perched like an early-day Beirut on the edge of the continent’s most contested lands. It was the only non-Indian town of any substance west of the Mississippi. Americans, English, Spanish and Russians all competed for the loyalties of 100,000 Indians, who were the main suppliers for the fur trade, the bubble of its day. The steady supply of furs depended on peace with the Indians.

But to American settlers fearful of Indians in the months after the Treaty of Ghent, their trading partners looked more like terrorists. In the spring before the council, the Missouri Gazette reported that “very few days elapse without unfolding some horrid deed; a family cut off, travelers shot and cut to pieces on the frontiers or in the neighborhood of our villages; the thing is passed off as a matter of course until the news of another massacre arrives.”

As Clark looked over the vast assemblage, he realized that one tribe was conspicuous by its absence of highlevel chiefs. A band of Sauk from the Rock River (near present-day Davenport, Iowa), led by a charismatic war leader named Makataimeshekiakiak but known to whites as Black Hawk, had sent only subordinates. If the treaty were not signed by the Sauk, the most aggressive and warlike tribe on the Mississippi, Clark’s peace initiative would have little meaning.

Both Clark and Black Hawk were in their mid-40s at the time. Black Hawk was as commanding a figure in his culture as Clark was in his. Just under six feet tall, the warrior was sinewy, broadshouldered and weighed only about 140 pounds. His shaved head bore a single short tuft of hair, to which he attached a feather.

Angered by Black Hawk’s absence at Portage des Sioux, Clark delivered an ultimatum: either he come to sign the treaty or, as one Sauk chief remembered it, “blood would be spilt for their disobedience.” Tribal enemies of the Sauk were so heartened by Clark’s public threat that they stood and cheered. Alarmed, the Sauk left the council, slipping away under the cover of darkness.

No sooner had negotiating begun than another event threatened to derail the Portage des Sioux meeting. Black Buffalo, a Sioux chief whom Clark knew well from the expedition, died suddenly, a potentially disastrous omen to the Indians. But Clark responded diplomatically, giving the chief a full military funeral, complete with rifle salutes. Then, in a dramatic moment, an Omaha chief named Big Elk delivered a stirring eulogy for his traditional enemy. “Do not grieve,” he counseled the other tribes. “Misfortunes will happen to the wisest and best men.”

Big Elk’s oration cleared the air. Clark further eased tensions by displaying his skill in imitating birds and animals, while his 6-year-old son played nearby. In the end, 13 tribes signed treaties assuring “perpetual peace and friendship.” In return, Clark promised to protect them and safeguard their remaining lands. He sealed the peace with whiskey and $30,000 in gifts, a largesse that outraged St. Louis settlers still crying out for vengeance.

The Grand Council would become more of a turning point than any of the participants could have guessed. By putting themselves under the “protection” of the federal government, the tribes lost their ability to play off the British against the expanding American nation. Settlers held back by the War of 1812 began to pour across the Mississippi. From that time on, councils between Americans and Indians would not be about “perpetual peace and friendship” but about removal and loss of land.

Black Hawk would prove more of a problem than Clark could anticipate. After several delays, he finally paid Clark a visit in St. Louis the following May. “I touched the goose quill to the treaty, not knowing, however, that, by that act, I consented to give away my village,” he later bitterly recalled. Unwittingly, Black Hawk had ratified a much-hated 1804 treaty that had turned over millions of acres of his tribe’s homelands along the Upper Mississippi to whites. The price? Goods valued at $2,234.50 and an annuity of $1,000. The 1816 treaty marked another step on the way to the brutal Black Hawk War, which would erupt 16 years later; Black Hawk believed that the whites had once again deceived him.

From an early age, clark lived in a world rent by Indian and white violence. Attracted after the Revolution by reports of the fertile and game-rich lands beyond the Appalachians, the Clark family, including 14-year-old Billy, picked up their possessions, which probably included a dozen or more slaves, and moved west from Virginia in 1784, settling above the waterfalls near today’s Louisville. There, the family found itself in the middle of bitter conflicts between migrating settlers and Indians defending their traditional hunting grounds. One of Billy’s older brothers (he was the ninth of ten children) was killed by Indians on the Little Wabash River.

George Rogers Clark, the family’s second son and a Revolutionary War hero 22 years Billy’s senior, was an especially remorseless Indian-fighter. He led a series of search-and-destroy missions into Shawnee country north of the Ohio, burning villages and cornfields and plundering graves for burial goods and scalps.

In the midst of this “dark and bloody ground,” as the Ohio frontier was then known, Billy grew up to be a solidly built six-footer with an easy manner. He joined the militia in 1789 and took part in several Indian campaigns as a supply officer, building forts and escorting supply trains. He saw several skirmishes with Indian tribes—and soon stood out as a fearless and capable soldier, even within the confines of his overachieving family.

In 1792, the 22-year-old Billy moved over to the regular army, with a lieutenant’s commission signed by George Washington. He served under Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne and led an expedition to Chickasaw Bluffs, near today’s Memphis. In 1794, he commanded a rifle company at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which crushed Shawnee resistance to American settlement north of the Ohio. The following winter, Clark met Ensign Meriwether Lewis, four years his junior, when Lewis was transferred to his rifle company.

By 1803, the 33-year-old Clark had traveled extensively through the trans-Appalachian west. He had commanded military expeditions on the move on rivers, making maps and keeping journals along the way. He knew how to build and supply forts. He had seen combat with Indians and was familiar with their cultures. Lewis was not far from the truth when he wrote Clark on June 19, 1803, that there was “no man on earth” more qualified to join him as cocaptain on the journey to the Pacific.

Lewis, by then a captain in the Army, had planned the expedition while working in the White House as President Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary. Though Clark was to be his cocaptain, an expected promotion by the Army never came through—an awkward fact both men concealed, preferring to be treated as equals.

These equals did not have similar personalities, however. For years scholars and writers portrayed Lewis and Clark as temperamental opposites. If Lewis was the educated, aristocratic, mercurial Virginian, then Clark was the blunt, homespun, down-to-earth Kentuckian. The written record of the expedition’s journals seems to support this notion. Lewis’ entries are often long and learned, full of rhetorical flourishes; Clark’s are short, matter-of-fact and rich in rococo misspellings. Lewis rhapsodized over “truly magnificent and sublimely grand” sights; Clark wore “mockersons” and slapped away annoying “musquetors.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Black Hawk was captured, put in chains and imprisoned at Jefferson Barracks, outside St. Louis. The author Washington Irving visited him there and found “an old man, upward of seventy, emaciated & enfeebled by the sufferings he has experienced and a touch of cholera. He has a small, well-formed head, with an aquiline nose and a good expression of eye.”

Clark dispatched his old adversary to Washington to impress upon him the spectacle of American power and to underline the pointlessness of further resistance. After a tense meeting, President Andrew Jackson promptly imprisoned Black Hawk in Virginia. Convinced that the defeated leader was no longer a threat, Clark and Atkinson at once petitioned for his freedom. After a tour before curious crowds on the Eastern Seaboard, the old warrior was finally returned to his people in Iowa. 

By the last decade of his life, in the 1830s, Clark was presiding over a remade West. The romanticized era of the mountain men was giving way to industrialized America. Five hundred steamboats a year were docking in St. Louis; railroads were on the way. In 1832, the steamboat Yellow Stone had churned all the way up the Missouri River from St. Louis to the junction at the Yellowstone in Montana, covering in three months what had taken Lewis and Clark a full year by poling and pulling their boats.

Now Clark was witnessing his worst fears for the Indians. During their removal from ancestral lands, he had urged the government to provide more assistance to the migrating Indians. But ravaged by settlers and alcohol, the tribes west of the Mississippi were outof his reach, sinking further into poverty. In 1837, the American Fur Company steamboat St. Peters brought smallpox to the Mandan—a tribe that had generously helped Lewis and Clark during the frigid first winter of the expedition—virtually wiping them out.

Meanwhile, Clark was recovering from personal blows of his own. Over a decade he had lost three of his seven children, and on Christmas Day 1831, his second wife, Harriet Radford, died. “My spirits are low and my course indecisive,” he wrote in a rare departure from his usual stout optimism. 

He was now 61. Visitors to St. Louis found what one called “a fine soldierlike-looking man, tall and thin. His hair was white; but he seemed to be as hardy and vigorous as ever.” The old explorer whose brothers were heroes of the Revolution was alive to meet the leaders of America’s next great upheaval. In declining health, Clark moved in with his son, who rented out a cottage he owned to a young engineer from West Point named Robert E. Lee. As an officer in the Black Hawk campaign, Clark’s son had served with Abraham Lincoln, then a captain in the Illinois militia. And among the officers who escorted the captured Black Hawk to St. Louis was Jefferson Davis. 

William Clark died at age 68 on September 1, 1838. His funeral was the biggest ever seen in St. Louis, with a hearse drawn by four white horses followed by a procession of carriages and mounted troops more than a mile long. He was the sole survivor of his nine siblings and among the last members of the Voyage of Discovery to die.

A month later, Black Hawk died too, at his home along the Des Moines River. He received a traditional Indian burial—sitting upright in a log mausoleum. Less than a year later, his grave was plundered by whites. His remains were recovered, and his skeleton wired back together and sent to a museum. His bones were destroyed in a fire in 1855.

By then, two illusions had been destroyed. One was the quixotic belief that to be saved, Indians had to be moved beyond the reach of white civilization. The other was Black Hawk’s conviction that armed resistance would somehow preserve his tribe’s traditional lifeways.

A bust of William Clark now sits on his grave site in St. Louis, overlooking the Mississippi. A seven-foot statue of Black Hawk stands high on its pedestal in a wooded park where the Rock River enters the Mississippi. The two stone statues gaze blankly at each other across a few hundred miles of land and two centuries, as though contemplating the fact that they could not find a place in their respective national narratives for each other.

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