William Clark Biography

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William Clark was an American explorer, soldier, Indian agent, and territorial governor.

William Clark came from a pioneer family skilled in wilderness survival. Soldier, explorer, and government Indian Agent, he served his country well for over forty years.

William Clark is best known as the co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Tall, bluff, outgoing and congenial, Clark was a different person from the mercurial and moody Meriwether Lewis. In spite of their contrasting personalities, the men got along well and were fast friends. After their epic journey to the Pacific and back, both men were amply rewarded for their achievement. Clark became a Brigadier General and chief Indian Agent for the Louisiana Territory. Later, he was governor of Missouri Territory in the years before it became a state.

William Clark’s Early Years

William Clark was born in Caroline County, Virginia, on August 1, 1770. He came from a family that was of primarily English stock. Five older brothers served in the American Revolution, though William himself was too young to participate. One of William’s brothers was George Rogers Clark, the man who helped secure the Old Northwest by his capture of Vincennes from the British during the Revolution. It was George Rogers Clark who taught young William the skills of wilderness survival.

Clark participated in the campaign against the Miami Confederacy in the 1790s. He enlisted in the Legion of the United States under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne. On September 4, 1792, he was commissioned a Lieutenant in the 4th Sub-Legion. Clark distinguished himself in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, but resigned his commission and returned home to the family plantation at Mulberry Hill, near present day Louisville, Kentucky.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

In 1803, Meriwether Lewis was asked by President Thomas Jefferson to lead an exploring expedition west. Jefferson was hoping that a direct water route could be found to the Pacific. He also was curious about the land, its plants, its animals, and its Native American tribes. Lewis accepted, but insisted that his friend William Clark be taken on as a co-leader. It was done as Lewis wished.

The expedition, dubbed the Corps of Discovery, consisted of about 40 men. Clark’s main duties were to hunt, to manage supplies, and to make maps of the new territory. The epic journey took over two years—1804-1806– to go to the Pacific and return. On the return trip Clark led an independent party through the Yellowstone River country. In July, 1806 Clark carved his name on Pompey’s Pillar, a high sandstone butte in Montana. You can still see it today.

William Clark and his slave York

Clark seems to have been genuinely friendly towards Native American Indians. He seems to have respected their culture, and was well know among the tribes for his fair dealings. Clark liked Sacagawea, the Shoshoni wife of their French Canadian trapper/guide. The explorer called her “Janey,” and later educated her son Jean Baptiste at his own expense.

But Clark was a man of his time when it came to the issue of slavery. His slave York accompanied his on the expedition, where the mere sight of a black man would excite Indian interest, even awe. Clark seems to have been a good master, if judged by the standards of the time. The explorer even allowed York a measure of responsibility, scouting and trading with Indians.

At the end of the great journey rank-and file members of the expedition got double pay and land grants. York received nothing—but there were some hints that he requested his freedom. Clark threw cold water on the proposition.

In the Time article “The Slave Who Went With Them,” Brian Hall recounts that Clark gave strict orders about what to do if York persisted with his “freedom” notions. If he “ran off” or refused to “do his duty as a slave,” he would be sold or hired off to a “severe master” in New Orleans. Then perhaps, he’d come to his senses and appreciate Clark.

In his later years Clark claimed to have eventually freed York, but that York failed as a free man. We do not know how much of this is true, or a self-serving myth to make Clark look good.

William Clark’s Final Years

Clark was in essence an Indian agent from 1807 until his death in 1838. His formal title changed at times; he was officially Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1822 until 1838. But in addition to dealing with Native Americans he would also gather new geographical information from his base at St Louis. There, in his office, hung the map of the west hat he himself had drawn based on the Lewis and Clark expedition. When new information came in, he would amend his great map. William Clark is buried in St Louis, where his monumental grave can be seen today.

Sources:

  1. Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (Simon and Schuster, 1997)
  2. Brian Hall, “The Slave that Went With Them” Time Magazine, July 8, 2002
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