William Clark

The American explorer and soldier William Clark (1770-1838) was second in command of what has been called the American national epic of exploration, the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, which traveled from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.

William Clark was born on Aug. 1, 1770, in Caroline County, Va. He joined militia companies fighting local tribes in the Ohio country in 1789 and 3 years later won a lieutenant's commission in the U.S. infantry. He was on the Native American and Spanish frontier of the United States and served in Mad Anthony Wayne's successful campaign, terminated by the victory of Fallen Timbers (1794) over the Native Americans.

Clark resigned his commission in 1796, became a civilian, and tried to straighten out the chaotic financial condition of his famous brother, a hero of the Revolution, George Rogers Clark. However, when Meriwether Lewis offered him a role in what would be known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, he leaped at the opportunity.

In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson had chosen his White House secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, to lead a corps of discovery up the Big Muddy (or Missouri) River and across the Rockies to the Pacific via the Columbia River. He gave Lewis complete freedom to choose his second in command. Without hesitation the Virginian picked his old Army buddy William Clark. When the Army failed to give Clark the promotion he deserved, Lewis ignored the "brass" and addressed Clark as captain, treating him as a virtual co-commander of the expedition.

It was Clark who led the fleet of boats upriver on May 14, 1804, while Lewis was detained in St. Louis by diplomatic and administrative matters. The two officers led their men up the Missouri to the Mandan Indian country of North Dakota, where they wintered before continuing in the spring of 1805. With great difficulty they shifted from canoes to horses and back to canoes as they crossed the unknown Rockies and followed the Columbia River to the sea. Clark was sharing leadership with Lewis in one of the most successful partnerships in the history of the nation.

After wintering at Ft. Clatsop on the Oregon coast, Lewis decided to split the party on its return to Missouri. He sent Clark to explore the Yellowstone River while he reconnoitered the Marias River. Although Lewis never yielded his command to Clark (except when accidentally wounded and incapacitated during a hunting expedition), Clark's wilderness and leadership skills contributed to the success of the corps of discovery. While Lewis was more brilliant and intellectual, Clark got along better with the men and was a fine map maker. Both men kept diaries, although spelling was not one of Clark's strong points.

Safe in St. Louis in September 1806, Clark resigned his commission to become brigadier general of militia and superintendent of Indian affairs for Louisiana Territory (later Missouri Territory) under the new governor, Meriwether Lewis. Clark was governor himself from 1813 to 1821, then became an unwilling—and unsuccessful—candidate for governor of the new state of Missouri. He devoted much of his time during the War of 1812 to Native American affairs and kept Missouri Territory almost unharmed by British-inspired Native American raids. He continued in Indian diplomacy after the conflict and by his good sense was able to avert trouble with the Indians, who came to trust him more than any other white man.

Clark died in St. Louis on Sept. 1, 1838. Highly respected as an administrator, soldier, and explorer, for a half century he had served his country well, particularly in keeping the peace on the Native American frontier.


Further Reading on William Clark

There is no biography of Clark, although one has long been in preparation. The best sources are those on Meriwether Lewis, including John Bakeless, Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery (1947), and Richard Dillon, Meriwether Lewis (1965). An interesting retracing of Lewis and Clark's exploration is Calvin Tomkins, The Lewis and Clark Trail (1965). A one-volume abridgment of The Journals of Lewis and Clark was edited by Bernard DeVoto (1953).

Additional Biography Sources

Ambrose, Stephen E., Undaunted courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Bakeless, John Edwin, Lewis and Clark: partners in discovery, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1996.