William Clark, the celebrated explorer who joined Meriwether Lewis in leading an overland expedition to the Pacific from 1804 to 1806, looms large in the history of America’s westward expansion. Lewis and Clark’s daring trek across the North American continent is the stuff of high adventure that even today retains the power to fascinate and inspire. Clark’s fame rests heavily on his role as coleader of the Corps of Discovery, but his post-expedition career was no less consequential. In 1807 Clark moved to St. Louis, where he resided until his death in 1838. While in Missouri he achieved further distinction as a militia officer, territorial governor, federal Indian agent, and patron of western exploration and travel. His actions, public and private, helped facilitate the opening of America’s vast trans-Mississippi hinterland to an avalanche of white settlement that methodically deprived the region’s indigenous inhabitants of their native homelands and gave free rein to the nation’s expansionist impulses.
William Clark was born in Caroline County, Virginia, on August 1, 1770, the ninth of John and Ann Rogers Clark’s ten children. The Clarks’ modest landholdings and small number of slaves gave them social respectability and more than a nodding acquaintance with some of Virginia’s better families. That social milieu equipped Billy, as the family liked to call him, with the sociability, good manners, and gentlemanly bearing that he exhibited as an adult, but it also tainted him with the beliefs of a society that rested on a slaveholding system and treated African Americans as human chattel.
During the Revolutionary War the Clarks were staunch defenders of the American cause, and all five of William’s brothers served as officers in Virginia’s fighting units. The most celebrated of his siblings, Brigadier General George Rogers Clark, won national acclaim for his role in wresting control of the trans-Appalachian West from the British. Billy was too young to take up arms in that contest, but the family’s military tradition undoubtedly influenced his decision to become a soldier when he came of age in the post-Revolutionary era.
After the war, John and Ann Clark moved to Kentucky with their four youngest children and settled on a farm south of Louisville at the urging of their second son, George Rogers Clark, who had preceded them there. While Kentucky had much to offer new settlers, educational opportunity was not among its enticements. Consequently, young William failed to receive the kind of classical education available to his older brothers in Virginia, but the Clarks were determined to see that their youngest son’s education was not neglected. He was home-schooled under the tutelage of his brother George, who sparked his lifelong interest in history, science, and natural history and helped him hone the essential wilderness survival skills of shooting, hunting, and navigating the woods. William Clark exhibited a special talent for describing the landscape and developed proficiencies as a draftsman, cartographer, and land surveyor. His inadequacies as a speller are often cited, but his “wrighting,” while not always florid, was generally clear and concise.
In 1789 William Cark joined the militia and embarked upon the first of several expeditions that took him north of the Ohio to fight Native Americans. He found the military life to his liking, and in 1792 secured a commission as a lieutenant in the regular army. Clark fought under General Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, but disappointed by his failure to advance in rank, he resigned his commission in 1796. He returned home to try his hand in the world of business and to look after family property put at risk by George Rogers Clark’s mounting debts and periodic alcoholic binges. Eager to improve his own fortunes, he headed down the Mississippi in 1798 with a cargo of tobacco, furs, and pork destined for Spanish New Orleans. The venture took on more ominous overtones when the fledgling entrepreneur allowed himself to become ensnared in the more dubious pursuits of bribing customs officials and smuggling money for Kentuckians linked to a Spanish conspiracy spearheaded by General James Wilkinson. Fortunately for Clark, those associations went largely unnoticed, and the risky enterprise allowed him to sharpen his cartographic and navigational skills.
When Meriwether Lewis, a fellow Virginian with whom Clark had served in the Ohio campaigns, invited him to become coleader of an expedition to the Pacific for the president, Thomas Jefferson, he was well prepared for the task and eager to accept the challenge. Clark’s affirmative response in 1803 launched a great friendship and one of the more successful partnerships in US history. Confusion concerning Clark’s military rank (Lewis had promised him a captain’s rank, but he was commissioned as a lieutenant) never became an issue, and Lewis, who treated Clark as his equal, never bothered to tell the men under their command about the mix-up. In history they would be forever known as the “Captains of Discovery.”
During the fall and winter of 1803–1804 Lewis and Clark busied themselves recruiting members for the expedition, ordering the necessary equipment and supplies, and overseeing the arrangements required for such an ambitious undertaking. They established a winter camp on the Rivière à Dubois (Wood River), a small stream opposite the mouth of the Missouri. During their stay there, both men often traveled to St. Louis, where they became fast friends with many of the city’s leading traders. Those visits provided a welcome diversion from camp life, but the pleasant gatherings also allowed them to confer with the individuals who, aside from the region’s indigenous inhabitants, knew the most about the country that the American expedition was preparing to traverse.
With Clark in charge, the Corps of Discovery broke camp on May 14, 1804, and headed up the Missouri. Lewis joined them in St. Charles, where on May 21 the forty-some members of the expedition embarked on their historic journey. Lewis’s choice of Clark as his coleader turned out to be a good one. The partners worked well together. Clark was an experienced woodsman and a seasoned soldier who knew how to command. His excellent cartographic skills, abilities as a waterman, and aptitude for negotiations with Native Americans proved especially valuable. Clark’s less-polished writings remain the sole sources of information about the expedition’s day-to-day activities for some parts of the journey, since his daily journal entries for those dates are the only ones extant.
After successfully completing their eight-thousand-mile, twenty-eight-month excursion, the Captains of Discovery received a rousing reception in St. Louis on September 23, 1806, followed by equally enthusiastic outpourings during a triumphant trip to the national capital. Their accomplishments far exceeded Jefferson’s expectations, notwithstanding their failure to discover an all-water route to the Pacific. Jefferson especially welcomed the wealth of new geographic, scientific, and ethnographic information they had painstakingly collected and carefully recorded in their maps and journals. In gratitude, the president offered Lewis the governorship of the Louisiana Territory, and he invited Clark to serve as the principal US Indian agent for tribes west of the Mississippi and as brigadier general of Louisiana’s territorial militia. In their new capacities, the partners in discovery set about to impose American sovereignty in a culturally diverse region that the US government only recently had claimed by virtue of the Louisiana Purchase. Clark’s new assignments launched his lengthy and productive association with the territory and the state of Missouri, which he would come to call “the home of my choice and the country of my permanent residence.”
When Clark arrived in St. Louis to take up his new duties in early May 1807, the escalating tensions unleashed by Europe’s Napoleonic Wars threatened to engulf the United States in a conflict with Great Britain. Clark immediately took steps to counter the growing British influence among the neighboring Native American tribes and to shore up the territory’s inadequate defenses. Among other things, he worked with local officials to improve the state of military readiness by revising territorial militia laws. He devoted most of his time, however, to overseeing affairs with Indigenous nations inhabiting the western borderlands. Land expropriation was the primary objective of US Indian policy, and Clark dutifully embraced that cause. Claiming that Native people would be better off living in the manner of Euro-American-style farmers, Thomas Jefferson sought to portray dispossession as an act of kindness rather than one of cruelty or injustice. Native American removal, he contended, would give them the time they needed to make the requisite adaptation. Clark shared the president’s views and endorsed the idea that trade could be a useful tool in reaching the government’s objectives. While he labored diligently to implement US policies, he saw firsthand their tragic consequences for Native people.
With the threat of war looming, in 1808 Governor Lewis dispatched Clark to a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River, near the present town of Sibley in Jackson County, to establish a combined US trading factory and military fort and secure an agreement with the Osages relinquishing control over an immense tract of land in the Louisiana Territory. With the assistance of a detachment of troops from Cantonment Belle Fontaine and a company of mounted dragoons, Clark supervised the construction of the new installation sometimes referred to as Fort Clark but better known as Fort Osage. He also persuaded representatives of the Osage Nation to sign a treaty ceding their homelands in Missouri and Arkansas to the United States, with assistance from White Hair (Paw-Hiu-Skah), a compliant tribal leader. However, that treaty soon came under fire and had to be renegotiated when angry members of the fragmented Osage tribe rejected White Hair’s claims to leadership and questioned his authority to represent them in negotiations. Clark placed the blame for the misunderstandings on the interference of the powerful Chouteau family eager to protect its interests. The disgruntled Native Americans succeeded in forcing US officials to revise the original agreement, but even with those changes the die had been cast. A subsequent treaty Clark negotiated in 1825 completed the Osage land cessions to the United States.
Although Clark had been willing to do what was necessary to secure tribal acquiescence to the confiscation of indigenous lands, in his later years he developed second thoughts about the harsh terms he had extracted from the Osage nation and confided to an aide that if he was to be damned thereafter it would be for making that treaty. From time to time, Clark did come to the defense of Native people, especially those he viewed as peaceful and accommodating, and on occasion he even attempted to mitigate the unfortunate results of the policies he helped implement. In 1810 he recommended a presidential pardon for a man in the Sac tribe convicted of murdering a white trader, and later that year he characterized a beleaguered band of transplanted Shawnee as “a peaceable and well-disposed people . . . of great service to our frontier settlements.” Clark’s benevolent notions failed to impede the quest for tribal lands, and his occasional expressions of sympathy for the plight of Native people aroused hostile reactions within the settler community that proved detrimental when he sought elective office.
Clark did not allow his public responsibilities to keep him from doing business on the side. In 1809 he joined forces with Manuel Lisa and other prominent traders to form the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company and promptly assisted his new partners in negotiating a lucrative contract with the US government to facilitate the Mandan chief Sheheke’s return to his village on the upper Missouri. Both as an Indian agent and later as a territorial governor, Clark was predisposed to favor his family members with government appointments and contracts.
The outbreak of the War of 1812 presented Clark with new and more serious challenges, especially after he became governor of the Missouri Territory in 1813, a post he held until Missouri became a state. In 1814 the governor took personal charge of a military expedition to Prairie du Chien on the upper Mississippi in the heart of British country. Clark believed that the establishment of a US presence there would effectively isolate the Native Americans on the lower Mississippi from their British allies in Canada and forestall renewed Native hostilities throughout the valley. Once the region had been secured, Clark returned to St. Louis, but by midsummer the British and their Indigenous allies had returned to capture the US outpost at Prairie du Chien.
Although the Treaty of Ghent, signed in late 1814, marked an official end to the hostilities, violence persisted along much of the exposed western frontier. In an attempt to secure a cessation of fighting, US president James Madison named Clark, along with Illinois Territory governor Ninian Edwards and St. Louis merchant Auguste Chouteau, to conduct negotiations with western tribes. The peace commissioners summoned representatives of various tribes to meet at Portage des Sioux in the Missouri Territory in July 1815. Clark and the other commissioners spent the remainder of the summer concluding treaties with tribal representatives. Land concessions were an essential component of each of those agreements. During the course of his lengthy career Clark negotiated thirty-seven such treaties, more than any other US official. His role in the systematic dispossession of Native American people is undeniable, but in contrast with most of his contemporaries engaged in the business of their removal, Clark maintained a continuing concern for the well-being of peaceable Native Americans. His feelings about defiant tribesmen who resisted the American government’s dispossession and relocation policies, however, were decidedly different. When a band of pro-British Sacs under the leadership of Black Hawk forcibly challenged the seizure of their tribal homelands in 1832, an angry Clark sanctioned a war of extermination against them.
Sadly, Clark failed to exhibit caring or concern for his African American slaves. His reluctance to grant freedom to his slave York for services rendered on the Pacific expedition and his refusal to allow his loyal enslaved companion to join the family he had left behind in Louisville were as cruel as they were inexcusable. Clark’s treatment of his numerous other slaves was no better, and he did occasionally employ the whip as punishment when they refused to acquiesce to his demands.
Although Native American affairs occupied much of Governor Clark’s time, he also had to address the problems of governing a culturally diverse frontier territory where personal feuds and animosities frequently exacerbated disagreements over public policy. In the rough-and-tumble arena of Missouri territorial politics, Clark generally sided with members of the St. Louis junto who had long dominated affairs in the territory. Influential French Creole fur merchants and powerful land claimants with substantial holdings in unconfirmed Spanish titles formed the junto’s nucleus, but they could also count on the support of some powerful Anglo-American allies, including the governor.
Clark’s open identification with the St. Louis clique made him a favorite target for the barbs of the anti-junto faction, controlled by rival land speculators who objected to the confirmation of large unapproved Spanish grants. Rightly or wrongly, Clark’s loyalty to longtime friends and members of the territorial establishment, coupled with his belief that their continuing support was in the national interest, guided his political choices. Ultimately, his close association with individuals representing the old order in a rapidly changing territory turned out to be a serious liability. Clark’s political instincts may have been flawed, but his considerable talents as a diplomat with Native Americans, territorial administrator, and military commander; his conscientious devotion to official duties; and his consistent commitment to the welfare of the territory and its settler community earned him the distinction of being Missouri’s most effective territorial governor.
However laudable Clark’s record of service might have seemed, his past achievements meant less and less in Missouri’s rapidly changing political climate. When the Missouri Territory gained congressional authorization to enter the Union in 1820, Clark announced that he would be a candidate to become the new state’s first elected governor. The death of his wife, Julia Hancock Clark, in Virginia kept him out of the state during the campaign. The absentee candidate chose to remain above the fray and ill-advisedly referred voters with questions about his suitability for the office to the old inhabitants and early settlers with whom he had long been on friendly terms. His close identification with his elitist backers and the unpopularity of his Native American policies sealed his fate among the legions of recently arrived American farmers in the new state’s outlying regions who expected candidates for public office to affect a more common touch. Clark’s opponent, Alexander McNair, defeated him handily. Clark, a product of Virginia’s old republican order, had fallen victim to the populist political dynamic that would subsequently catapult General Andrew Jackson into the American presidency.
Despite his loss in the gubernatorial contest, Clark continued to reside in St. Louis. After statehood he retained his position as US Indian agent, and in 1822 federal officials gave him the title of superintendent of Indian affairs at St. Louis, a post that he occupied until his death. Notwithstanding his more elevated designation, Clark’s power and influence were clearly on the wane, but his fame as an explorer enabled him to retain his status as a local celebrity. Distinguished guests visiting St. Louis routinely called on him, and he delighted in escorting them through his museum filled with Native American artifacts and other miscellaneous curiosities and showing them his vaunted master map of the West. In his final years, William Clark shared honors with (Jean) Pierre Chouteau as the city’s elder statesmen and its primary links to the past. When he died in St. Louis on September 1, 1838, his funeral attracted the largest outpouring in the city’s history.
Clark married twice. In 1808 he wed Julia Hancock in Virginia. The couple had five children, two of whom died in childhood. Julia died in 1820, and the following year he married her cousin, Harriet Kennerly Radford. They had two children prior to her death in 1831.
Buckley, Jay H. William Clark: Indian Diplomat. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
Clark Family Papers. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
Foley, William E. “Friends and Partners: William Clark, Meriwether Lewis, and Mid-America’s French Creoles.” Missouri Historical Review 98, no. 4 (July 2004): 270–82.
Foley, William E. Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
Holmberg, James J. Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
Jones, Landon Y. William Clark and the Shaping of the West. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.
Kastor, Peter J. William Clark’s World: Describing America in an Age of Unknowns. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Moulton, Gary E., ed. Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 13 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983–2001.
Rogers, Ann. Lewis and Clark in Missouri. 3rd ed. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.
Steffen, Jerome O. William Clark: Jeffersonian Man on the Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
Trogdon, Jo Ann. The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2015.
Trogdon, Jo Ann, and William E. Foley. “Dubious Pursuits: A Discussion of William Clark’s Enigmatic 1798 River Journey to Spanish New Orleans.” Missouri Historical Review 110, no. 2 (January 2016): 109–19.
Published June 24, 2020; Last updated September 25, 2023
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