William Clark

William Clark

William Clark was born in Caroline County, Virginia on 1st August, 1770. When Clark was a teenager the family moved to Kentucky and later he served as a militiaman against local Native Americans.

Clark joined the army in 1788 and by March, 1791 had reached the rank of lieutenant. Later that year he was assigned to the 4th Sub-Legion. During the Ohio Indian Campaign he met and became friends with Meriwether Lewis. On 20th August, 1794, he took part in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in which 107 white people were killed or wounded.

In 1796 Clark resigned his commission and returned to the family plantation in Kentucky. He managed the Mulberry Hill plantation until taking over its ownership after the death of his father in 1799.

When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801 he appointed Meriwether Lewis as his personal secretary. At this time Jefferson read about the adventures of Alexander Mackenzie. In his book, Voyages from Montreal, Mackenzie had described his two expeditions where he had tried to find a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean. For the next few months Jefferson and Lewis discussed the possibility of exploring these unknown lands.

As part of his preparation, Meriwether Lewis was sent to the University of Pennsylvania to study botany, natural history, medicine, mineralogy and celestial navigation. One of his tutors was Benjamin Rush, who asked Lewis to find out from the Native Americans about their burial customs, diet, medicines, breast feeding, bathing, crime and religious practices.

On 18th January, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson requested permission from Congress to explore the vast lands to the west of the Mississippi. Jefferson claimed that there were "great supplies of fur and peltry" to be obtained from the Native Americans living in this area. He argued that the expedition would provide opportunities for "extending the external commerce of the United States".

The following month Congress approved the venture that became known as the Corps of Discovery. Lewis selected Clark as his co-commander of the expedition. It was decided that Clark would also take responsiblity as the map-maker and artists of the expedition. While the two men prepared for their journey, Jefferson's emissaries in Paris were involved in negotiating the sale of the French possessions in America. In April 1803 the two parties agreed on the terms of the Louisiana Purchase. For the cost of $15 million, the American government purchased 800,000 square miles between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains.

Lewis and Clark assembled a party of 30 men. The group included animal hunters, boatmen, carpenters, soldiers and blacksmiths. They took with them a Native American to serve as an interpreter. The main source of transport was a 60-foot keelboat (barge). Lewis and Clark also spent $669 for presents for those people they met on their journey. This included colored beads, calico shirts, handkerchiefs, mirrors, bells, needles, thimbles, ribbons, kettles and brass curtain rings. They also took dozens of peace medals for the Native Americans. On one side was a picture of Jefferson and on the other side was two hands clasped in friendship.

The expedition began when their keelboat left St. Louis on 14th May 1803. Their main problem during the early weeks was the attacks from gnats and mosquitoes. In his journal Lewis complained that they "infest us in such a manner that we can scarcely exist... they are so numerous that we frequently get them in our throats as we breath".

It was eleven weeks before the party encountered its first Native Americans. The Otos responded well to being given gifts but did not understand the speech made by Lewis that included the following: "The great chief of the seventeen great nations of America, impelled by his parental regard for his newly adopted children on the troubled waters, has sent us out to clear the road. He has commanded his war chiefs to undertake this long journey. You are to live in peace with all the white men, for they are his children; neither wage war against the red men, your neighbours, for they are equally his children and is bound to protect them. "

On 16th August, a member of the party, Moses Read, deserted. He was captured and was punished by being forced "to run the gauntlet four times through the party". A few days later Sergeant Charles Floyd died after suffering from a severe stomach ache.

At the mouth of the Teton River the party made contact with the Sioux. They were unimpressed with the gifts they received and made attempts to stop the party progressing by raising their bows. Lewis responded by ordering the cannons to be aimed at the Sioux warriors. At this the Sioux withdrew and the expedition was allowed to continue.

When the party reached the mouth of the Knife River they decided to make winter camp among the friendly Mandans. The men erected a wooden fort. It was well built and the men were able to survive temperatures of 45 degrees below zero. During the next five months Lewis had to amputate the frostbitten toes of several men in his party. Clark and Lewis also spent time interviewing Mandans about the local terrain. With this information they were able to produce maps that they felt would help them find their way to the Pacific Ocean.

Before they left on their next stage of their journey Clark and Lewis recruited two people living in a neighbouring Minnetaree village. Toussaint Charbonneau, was a French-Canadian, who could speak English and various Native American languages. The other one was Sacajawea, a Shoshoni who had been captured by the Minnetarees when she was about 11 years old and later sold Charbonneau as a slave. Sacajawea, although only 16 years of age was pregnant with Charbonneau's child.

On 7th April, 1805, the Corps of Discovery headed West. A few weeks later Lewis shot a buffalo. Before he had time to reload he was attacked by a bear. Lewis later wrote: "It was an open level plain, not a bush within miles nor a tree within less than three hundred yards. He pitched at me, open mouthed, and full speed, I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then ran into the water the idea struck me to to get into the water to such a depth that I could stand and he would be obliged to swim... he declined to combat on such unequal grounds and retreated."

The Lewis and Clark party saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time on 26th May, 1805. They proceeded up the Missouri they eventually reached the Great Falls. Lewis recorded that the torrent was "300 yards wide and at least 80 feet high". It took the party 24 days to get around the falls. The party was now in Shoshoni territory and Sacajawea began to recognise landmarks and helped guide the party to the Columbia River. She was also able to introduce Lewis and Clark to her brother, Chief Cameahwait. Although reunited with her family, Sacajawea decided to continue with her work as a guide to the Corps of Discovery.

Over the next weeks the party encountered several different tribes including the Nez Perce, Chinooks and Clatsops. On 7th December, 1805, the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean. The men built a fort and remained there until heading east on 23rd March, 1806. The return journey was marred by an attempt by a group of Blackfeet to steal rifles. In the fighting that took place one warrior was killed and another was seriously wounded.

On 23rd September, 1806, the party arrived back at St. Louis. The 28 month expedition produced a considerable body of data concerning the topographical features of the county and its natural resources. They also provided details of animals and birds that lived in the territory they explored.

In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson appointed Clark as Brigadier General of militia for Louisiana Territory and principal Indian agent for the entire West and Northwest. After the death of Meriwether Lewis in 1809 Clark was offered his position as Governor of Louisiana Territory. However, he refused the position.

Clark became governor of the Missouri Territory in 1813. The following year he led an expedition up the Mississippi to Prairie du Chien. He built Fort Selby and became the first person to raise the American flag in Wisconsin. In 1824 Clark was appointed Surveyor General of Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. Six years later he negotiated the important Treaty of Prairie du Chien.

William Clark died on 1st September, 1838.

Primary Sources

(1) William Clark, letter to Thomas Hart Benton (27th December, 1828)

After the trader reaches his post, his first object is to supply the Indians with such articles as are indispensable, or to furnish them with an equipment, as it is called. It will be observed that the Indians are at this time poor, the proceeds of their labor during the preceding winter having been paid to the trader, and exchanged or paid by him for previous supplies. Every family, therefore, must receive an advance, to prepare them for the winter's chase, and this must consist of ammunition and clothing, and is generally proportioned to the number of the family, and the character of the men for skill and punctuality. Without this credit the Indians would perish, and it varies in amount from fifty to two hundred dollars to each family. The loss sustained by the trader from this system may be easily imagined, when it is recollected that there is no means of enforcing the collection of a debt from the Indians, nor is it dishonorable by the customs of the remote tribes to refuse its payment; and after the first year their credits are termed dead debts, as no Indian ever considers it necessary to meet them. During the winter, the Indians are scattered through the country, employed in taking the animals which furnish them with food and furs. In fortunate seasons, they are enabled to take enough of the latter to pay the credits they have received; and they are generally willing to do this, unless rival traders interfere with each other, or the proximity of the British trading establishments induces the Indians to supply themselves at one post, and to exchange their furs at another. As early in the spring as the navigation is open, the traders depart for their place of supply, to renew the duties and cares of the preceding year; and during their absence some of their men remain to take charge of the posts and the property left in them, and, in the wild rice regions, to gather a quantity of that useful grain.

The engagees employed in this trade are generally Canadians and half breeds, and are hired by the year. Their pay is from 120 to 200 dollars a year, depending on the distance of the posts and the nature of the service. Five or six men are employed at each post; but in the interior, where danger is always to be apprehended from the predatory habits of the Indians, their number is considerably increased. Their subsistence is a heavy expense to the trader, and the privations they must endure can never be realised by any who have not passed through the country. Every winter many of the Indians perish from actual starvation; and when this is the case, the trader and his men must suffer severely, although not in an equal degree. At some of the intermediate posts, provisions are a regular article of trade. The improvidence of the Indians is well known. They seldom in a time of abundance provide for a time of scarcity. Labor is disgraceful among the men of those distant bands, and it is hopeless to argue with them upon the subject. They cannot work, but they can die.

The powerful current of the Missouri presents formidable obstacles to the ascending navigator; and unless the goods destined for the Indians can leave St. Louis early in the spring, they cannot reach the Yellow Stone the same season; and of course the capital is left unemployed, while the expenses of the trader are untermitted. The expeditions to the Rocky mountains generally leave the Missouri at or near the Council Bluffs, and from thence the goods are transported upon horses to the places of destination. They here supply the hunters and trappers who are found in that country. These regions abound with the beaver and otter, and the furs of these animals are almost the only articles which the traders receive. Great sacrifices have been made in the prosecution of this trade.

It is a moderate computation, that we have lost, in these abortive attempts, and in several minor ones, five hundred men, and at least five hundred thousand dollars. In the contests for superiority in those remote regions, between foreign traders and our own, the Indians are excited to take part; and to this day an influence is exerted, and measures pursued, not less injurious to our citizens than inconsistent with our rights. Within a year, twenty men have been killed by the same means which have heretofore been successfully employed. It is not probable that an efficient remedy can be applied, until we take military possession of the country, and establish such posts as may be found necessary - a measure equally demanded by our interest and safety.

From the review which has been taken of the course of this trade, and of the interchange of commodities between the Indians and the traders, it will not be difficult to account for the influence acquired and exerted by the latter over the former. The traders are generally married into influential families in the Indian country, and many of their men have Indian wives. The Indians look to them for supplies which are essential to their comfort and subsistence. The trader identifies himself with the band in whose country he is located, and in all disputes he espouses their cause, partakes of their prejudices, and feels his own interest involved in theirs.

There is a source of protection on one side, and of dependence on the other. The consequence of all this is, that no important measure is adopted without the knowledge of the trader; and if his advice is not formally requested, it still influences the determination adopted at the public council fire. And when a long established trader, who has treated the Indians justly and kindly, chooses to exert his influence for evil or for good, it may well be imagined that such exertion will not be in vain.

The actual cost of the goods sent into the Indian country in 1827, was $290,052.39. To this must be added the value of the investments we have stated, the wages of the men, and various contingent expenses, inseparable from such a business. One hundred and fifty-four posts are occupied by our traders, and probably not less than two thousand men employed in the trade; and it has required many years to train them to the business, and to fit them for its duties, its risks, and its fatigues. But this subject is more important as a measure of policy affecting our relations with the Indians, than as a branch of national industry and enterprise. We have stated the mode in which the trade is carried on, and we have succinctly shown the time which has been consumed, and the loss of capital and of lives which have been incurred, in securing the positions and forming the establishments now held by our traders. Most of our Indians are migratory tribes, roaming through the forests and prairies, and occupying a border country, divided partly by a natural and partly by an imaginary boundary between the United States and Great Britain. Along this boundary, and in many cases upon our side of it, the British traders are stationed, with ample supplies for the Indians: these traders are enterprising, active, and well acquainted with the habits of the Indians, and the course of the trade; and they are in the employment of a great company, wanting neither power, nor wealth, nor disposition to push any advantages which may be offered to them. Should any circumstances occur to induce our traders to withdraw from the business, the Indians would be immediately supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company; and whether this were done by sending traders into our territories, or by inviting the Indians into theirs, the effect would be the same. Our own establishments would be broken up, and we should lose the fruits of twenty years' exertions; an influence would be again acquired over the Indians, to be again exerted when most useful to one party and most injurious to the other.

The British traders have two important advantages over ours: they pay no duties upon their goods, and they are allowed a free importation of their furs into the United States. The former enables them, in similar situations, to undersell our traders, and the latter gives them a choice of markets. It is well known that the value of furs is very fluctuating. Accidental circumstances, such as a war in Europe, or a change in some prevailing fashion, will raise the price of particular furs; and these prices will decline as rapidly as they rise. The uncertainty in the state of the market constitutes one of the principal inconveniences of the trade. The supply is, from its own nature, uncertain, and the demand not less so. It has happened in the history of this trade, that shipments have been made to England, which have been sold there at such a sacrifice as to leave some of the charges unpaid, and to sink the whole capital embarked.

The Indians are peculiar in their habits; and, contrary to the opinion generally entertained, they are good judges of the articles which are offered to them. The trade is not that system of fraud which many suppose. The competition is generally sufficient to reduce the profits to a very reasonable amount, and the Indian easily knows the value of the furs in his possession; he knows, also, the quality of the goods offered to him, and experience has taught him which are best adapted to his wants.

(2) Chief Joseph, An Indian's Views of Indian Affairs, North American Review (April, 1879)

My friends, I have been asked to show you my heart. I am glad to have a chance to do so. I want the white people to understand my people. Some of you think an Indian is like a wild animal. This is a great mistake. I will tell you all about our people, and then you can judge whether an Indian is a man or not. I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our hearts more. I will tell you in my way how the Indian sees things. The white man has more words to tell you how they look to him, but it does not require many words to speak the truth. What I have to say will come from my heart, and I will speak with a straight tongue. Ah-cum-kin-i-ma-me-hut (the Great Spirit) is looking at me, and will hear me.

My name is In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder traveling over the Mountains). I am chief of the Wal-lam-wat-kin band of Chute-pa-lu, or Nez Perces (nose-pierced Indians). I was born in eastern Oregon, thirty-eight winters ago. My father was chief before me. When a young man, he was called Joseph by Mr. Spaulding, a missionary. He died a few years ago. There was no stain on his hands of the blood of a white man. He left a good name on the earth. He advised me well for my people.

Our fathers gave us many laws, which they had learned from their fathers. These laws were good. They told us to treat all men as they treated us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain; that it was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak only the truth; that it was a shame for one man to take from another his wife, or his property without paying for it. We were taught to believe that the Great Spirit sees and hears everything, and that he never forgets; that hereafter he will give every man a spirit-home according to his deserts: if he has been a good man, he will have a good home; if he has been a bad man, he will have a bad home. This I believe, and all my people believe the same.

The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clarke. They also brought many things that our people had never seen. They talked straight, and our people gave them a great feast, as a proof that their hearts were friendly. These men were very kind. They made presents to our chiefs and our people made presents to them. We had a great many horses, of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Perces made friends with Lewis and Clarke, and agreed to let them pass through their country, and never to make war on white men. This promise the Nez Perces have never broken.