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William Clark
William Clark

Captain William Clark, the red-haired co-captain of the Corps of Discovery, was born on August 1, 1770, the sixth son and ninth child from a family of 10 children. Originally from the same area of Virginia that was home to both Jefferson and Lewis, Clark’s parents relocated their family near the Rappahannock River, where William was born. All of Clark’s brothers were Revolutionary War veterans, including the famed George Rogers Clark, who commanded Virginia’s troops in the Kentucky region during Jefferson’s term as Virginia governor. After the War was over, the Clark family migrated across the Allegheny Mountains and down the Ohio River to Mulberry Hill, near Louisville. Clark learned about wilderness skills and natural history from his older brother, George.

Clark began his military career at age 19 when he joined the Kentucky Militia. He later joined the regular army and was promoted to lieutenant. During this strenuous time, Clark “learned how to build forts, draw maps, lead pack trains through enemy country, and fight the Indians on their ground.” On two occasions, Clark was sent to spy on the Spanish, who at the time were exploring and building forts high up the east bank of the Mississippi. By 1795, he had received successive promotions to leadership positions, eventually attaining the rank of Captain. Ensign Meriwether Lewis was among men assigned to Clark. The two struck up a lasting friendship that would lead to their co-commanding the Corps of Discovery.

William Clark possessed many physical and mental qualities that were beneficial as a leader of the Corps. Clark was over six feet tall and had a strong and muscular physical frame. The only major exception to his physical health was an obscure digestive ailment from which he suffered. He was quite proficient at eliciting information from native tribes during the expedition, which he recorded in his journal-writing and sketches. With less formal educational training than Lewis, Clark filled his journals with frequent grammatical and spelling errors, and long and confusing language.

Once the terms of the Louisiana Purchase were agreed upon on April 30, 1803, it became clear that the expedition’s mission was not simply driven by scientific inquiry, geographic mapping, and commercial development of the unexplored territory. The mission was to be concurrently a diplomatic one. The transfer of sovereignty from the French/Spanish administration to United States hands would need to be communicated to every Indian tribe and foreign interest occupying the lands within the Missouri River watershed.

The increased importance of the exploration warranted an additional commander to assist Lewis, President Jefferson’s first choice to lead the journey. Lewis wanted William Clark. On June 19, 1803, Lewis penned a letter to Clark, who was then out of the army, expressing his desire that Clark share command of the expedition and help recruit able-bodied, qualified men to enlist in the Corps. Lewis, with the President’s concurrence, offered Clark a permanent commission as Captain. Responding to Lewis in Pittsburgh on July 29, where he was readying boats and supplies for the journey, Clark wrote, “My friend I assure you no man lives with whome I would perfur to undertake Such a Trip &c as your self.”

Lewis, with a “party of eleven hands” and his Newfoundland dog, Seaman, departed Pittsburgh in a specially designed keelboat, accompanied by a pirogue (small riverboat), August 30, 1803. Navigating down the Ohio River during a period of low water, Lewis experienced several instances of grounding in the shallow water that required hiring teams of horses to refloat the keelboat. To lighten the cargo, Lewis purchased a second pirogue at Wheeling (West Virginia). The two pirogues would, during the course of the expedition, be navigated up the Missouri, nearly 2,500 miles, to the Great Falls of the Missouri (Montana).

In mid-October, Clark joined Lewis at Clarksville, Indiana Territory, opposite Louisville. Here, after making interim preparations for the journey and enlisting several recruits, Clark, together with his black manservant, York (who had been willed to Clark by his father), boarded the keelboat. Considered an equal among members of the expedition, York was allowed to vote and participate in many of same activities as the others.

Proceeding on, the embryonic Corps of Discovery reached St. Louis in mid-December, 1803. The Spanish commandant at St. Louis denied the explorers entry to Louisiana Territory due to their lack of a Spanish passport. Consequently, they established their camp on the east side of the Mississippi, at River Dubois, Illinois Territory, opposite the confluence of the Missouri River with the Mississippi. Clark, the more rugged frontiersman, would supervise the building of their 1803-1804 winter camp.

Over the winter the men were disciplined in army regimen, and trained for the rugged conditions that they would encounter. Supplies and equipment for the journey that came in from the east were packed and sorted for the three vessels that would take them upriver.

On May 7, 1804, Clark, to the agonizing disappointment of both leaders, received his commission. It was for the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Artillerists. Clark had been addressed as “Captain” by both Lewis and the men, continuously, since Clark had boarded the keelboat, October 26, 1803, and he would remain “Captain” throughout the journey. To legitimize the pseudo rank, an organizational unit designation to which Clark would be attached was necessary when he signed official documents, such as detachment orders, court martial proceedings, “Indian Certificates,” and similar formal records.

The captains, accordingly, conceived the title: “Corps of Volunteers on an Expedition of North Western Discovery.” Clark’s signature, and rank of captain, appears in the journals with that organizational designation, usually abbreviated to: "Wm Clark Capt on E. N. W. D." (See p. 170, Vol. 3, Moulton Edition) This arrangement, which confirms Lewis’ promise to Clark in offering him a co-captaincy, “...your situation if joined with me in this mission will in all respects be precisely such as my own.” Clark’s pseudo-captaincy was never revealed to the men throughout the mission.

The short version of the organizational designation, “Corps of Discovery,” is not found in any of the explorers’ original longhand manuscript journals. Sergeant Patrick Gass is credited with popularizing that term, which appears on the title page of his 1807 published journal.

The expedition broke camp at River Dubois on May l4, 1804. Clark wrote in his journal: “...set out at 4oClock P.M, and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missouri.” At the end of October, the explorers reached the villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, near modern Bismarck, North Dakota. Here, they built their 1804-1805 winter quarters, which they named Fort Mandan, in honor of the local inhabitants. The explorers spent five months at Fort Mandan, hunting and obtaining information from the Indians and French-Canadian traders who lived nearby. The blacksmiths set up a forge and made tools and implements, which were traded for the Indians’ garden crops of corn, melons and beans.

A French-Canadian named Toussaint Charbonneau visited the captains with his young, pregnant Shoshone Indian “wife,” Sacagawea. The captains knew that there would be high mountains to cross on the westward journey. The two Charbonneaus were enlisted as an interpreter team for the purpose of negotiating for horses, in the event the explorers encountered her Shoshoni tribe, who lived near the Continental Divide of the Rockies. On April 7, 1805, as the Corps prepared to proceed westward with the two pirogues and six dugout canoes, the keelboat was sent downstream with collected specimens, maps, and detailed reports they had compiled since their departure.

Of the two captains, Clark was the expedition’s cartographer. The first significant map he drafted was completed during the Corps’ stay at Fort Mandan during the winter of 1804-05. Though highly conjectural, this map contained all the new information and corrections from their explorations and conversations with traders and Indians. The map focused on the areas between the upper Mississippi and the Missouri, and the major tributaries of the lower and middle Missouri, with less detail provided for the upper Missouri and the Continental Divide, which had yet to be explored by the Corps. There were several inaccuracies in the map, mostly due to miscommunication and cultural differences in describing geography between the American and Indians. Even so, this updated map was a valuable reference.

As the Corps proceeded on to the Pacific, Clark continued to keep careful compass records, measure distances and produce detailed strip maps for areas between major landmarks. One of the more detailed mappings was done on the Great Falls of the Missouri, where Clark led a surveying team to measure the chasm’s length, the elevation of the Falls, and the total drop of the cascade. The maps included notes on native botanical and zoological specimens and on potential mineral deposits. These strip maps were incorporated into the larger map drafted at Fort Mandan. This map would be of critical importance to U.S. expansionist forces in years to come.

In late October 1806, after completing the expedition and returning to St. Louis, Lewis and Clark led a cavalcade eastward that included Mandan and Osage Indian representatives. The packtrain was loaded with whatever “plants, seeds, bird skins, animal skeletons, and furs [that] had not been ruined in water-soaked caches,” in addition to their journals and Clark’s large map of the American West. Clark and York stopped in Louisville to meet Clark’s family and visit with Julia “Judy” Hancock, Clark’s future wife.

In mid-January 1807, Clark visited Washington to receive his rewards for having successfully completed the expedition: double pay while on service with the Corps (amounting to $1,228); a warrant for 1,600 acres of land; and a double appointment as Brigadier General of Militia and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Upper Louisiana, which was put into effect in early March 1807.

William Clark
William Clark

On January 5, 1808, Clark married Julia Hancock in Fincastle, Virginia. Julia would later bear Clark a son, whom they would name Meriwether Lewis Clark in honor of his father’s closest partner. That summer, Clark became a business partner in the newly-formed Missouri Fur Company, which planned to send militia units, hunters, and boatsmen up the Missouri to develop the American fur trading industry.

In Louisville, on October 11, 1809, the Clark family was told of Lewis’ death. Upon hearing the news, Clark traveled to Washington to visit the grieving Jefferson and Lewis family members. He would later go to Philadelphia to arrange for the rewriting of their journals, which were finally published in 1814 with Clark’s map as a supplement.

Clark’s final years were the opposite of Lewis’. In 1813, Clark was named Governor of the Missouri Territory until the state of Missouri was created in 1820. Although he was defeated in the first election for state governor, Clark continued enjoy his Brigadier General rank, and to serve as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Throughout the remainder of his life, he garnered the respect of Native Americans, traders and trappers alike. They brought new information to him regularly, which he was able to use to update his master map of the American West, a map that reflected the fast-changing face of a nation that now stretched from coast to coast. Clark died of natural causes in St. Louis, September l, 1838.


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