Forever linked to the epic achievements of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, William Clark returned from that adventure to become a respected administrator of Indian affairs during the early years of American expansion into the West.
Clark was born into a Virginia plantation family in 1770, the youngest of six sons and the youngest brother of George Rogers Clark, the hero of the American Revolution in the West. When he was fourteen, Clark's family moved to a new plantation in Kentucky, and he would spend the rest of his life on America's shifting frontier.
Beginning in 1789, Clark served as a militiaman in campaigns against the Indians of the Ohio Valley. He became an officer in the regular army in 1792, and in 1794 fought in the battle of Fallen Timbers. Two years later he resigned from the army to manage his family's plantation.
Clark had become friends with Meriwether Lewis when they served together in 1795, and quickly accepted his invitation in 1803 to serve as co-leader of the "Corps of Discovery." After several months studying astronomy and map-making, Clark joined Lewis as he traveled by keelboat down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. Together they journeyed to Wood River, Illinois, at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, where they made final preparations over the winter. The next spring, they set out up the Missouri, and by October had reached the Mandan villages in present-day North Dakota, where they decided to stay for the winter.
Their sojourn with the Mandan quickly made it clear just how much Lewis and Clark would need to rely upon the goodwill of Indian peoples for their success. The Mandans gave them food, military protection, and valuable information about the path ahead. Their most valuable help came in the form of Touissant Charbonneau, a French Canadian whom they hired as an interpreter, and his Shoshone wife Sacagawea, who provided help as a guide and interpreter. Her very presence helped insure good relations with Indian peoples, as Clark noted in his journal: "we find [that she] reconciles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions -- a woman with a party of men is a token of peace."
In April of 1805 all thirty-three members of the expedition left the Mandan village and started up the Missouri again. They reached the upward limit of the river's navigable stretch four months later. A band of Shoshone led by Sacagawea's brother provided invaluable assistance, primarily horses, as the expedition began to ascend the Rocky Mountains. By late September, they had crossed the Bitterroot Mountains, cold, wet, hungry and exhausted, and were taken in by the Nez Percé. They travelled down the Columbia River basin and reached the Pacific Ocean in November. Their spirits buoyed by success, they stayed the winter on the Pacific Coast and returned to the United States in 1806 over substantially the same route that had brought them West.
The Lewis and Clark expedition was as widely hailed upon its return as it is remembered in our own time, and William Clark shared in that glory. In 1807 Thomas Jefferson appointed him principal Indian agent for the Louisiana Territory and brigadier general of its militia, posts which he occupied until 1813, when he became governor of the newly-formed Missouri Territory. His chief concerns during these years were to strengthen the territory's defenses against hostile Indians and establish friendly relations with the tribes of the Missouri and upper Mississippi rivers.
When Missouri became a state in 1820, Clark failed in his bid to be elected governor and returned to a position in Indian affairs. In 1822 he was named Superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis, a post which during these years often involved supervising the removal of eastern tribes to lands assigned to them in what would become eastern Kansas. Clark remained superintendent until shortly before his death in 1838, winning a reputation for fairness and honesty from whites and Indians alike.