In the last few years, scholars and armchair historians have aimed spotlights on Clark’s post-expedition life. The focus has been specifically on his interactions with Native Americans at a time when settlers relentlessly gnawed at the proverbial bit to grab lands traditionally held by Indians through historical precedent or treaties.
As noted historian Dr. Jay H. Buckley wrote in his groundbreaking 2008 book, William Clark: Indian Diplomat, the federal government often dispatched Clark to negotiate purchases of Indian territories. Huge swaths of land that he negotiated through treaties removed natives from their titles to portions of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
By the time of Clark’s 1838 death, the United States had acquired about 420 million acres of land since 1795 through conquests or treaties. Clark is believed to have been involved in the U.S. gaining 100 million acres of those 420 million acres.
After the expedition returned to St. Louis, Clark went on to lead a life of public service in Missouri. This included appointments as territorial governor and federal superintendent of Indian Affairs. Many considered him the leading western federal official charged with protecting American interests. His value as a treaty-maker melded nicely with his experiences with Native Americans on the expedition and in his early years living at the edge of wildernesses and serving in the Army.
His civic duties as Indian Affairs superintendent for 30 years—the longest in our country’s history—were far from easy, both professionally and personally. If he showed too much favoritism toward Native Americans, the federal government would likely have removed him from his position. On the other hand, Indians would have mistrusted him if he exclusively focused on the government’s interests.
Although from our modern viewpoint we’ll never know for sure what went through Clark’s mind and decision-making process, we can easily see that his life spanned—and most likely was influenced by—two different American eras, with each era largely opposed to the other in philosophies toward Native Americans. Each era had different impacts that potentially shaped Clark and his reputation.
The Jeffersonian Era, popular in Clark’s early life, generally espoused the belief that Indians and white people could coexist, and put forth the idea that Native American assimilation could be accomplished through education, land ownership, Christianization, and farming lifestyles. It appears, from our modern viewpoint, that Clark tended to believe this would happen if Indians were relocated away from white settlements. This separation would give them time to enculturate into American life.
Later in Clark’s life, the Jacksonian ideology, named after Andrew Jackson, became popular. The ideology advocated forcible removal of Indians to lands where they could continue in their traditional lifestyles.
Today, the most commonly known event resulting from the Jacksonian ideology was the infamous Trail of Tears in the 1830s that forcibly removed tens of thousands of Cherokees and other Indians from their lands in southeastern America. Tragically, the government forced them to undertaken a deadly journey to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. More than 5,000 Indians died from starvation and disease on the way.
Other lesser-known and far less brutal trails of tears occurred, sometimes through treaties created with Clark’s involvement. During his career, Clark was involved in 37 treaties. To his credit, the trails of tears that he helped create were far less blackened by disease and death than what might have happened if a man with less sympathy and respect toward Native Americans had been in charge.
Clark’s last treaty, completed two years before he died in 1838, set the boundaries of Missouri as they are known as today. To accomplish that, however, the Osage, Shawnees, Delaware, Kickapoos, Sauk-Fox and Ioways were relocated out of Missouri.
The issue of Indian relocation was a complex and very complicated matter with strong viewpoints among Americans. Sympathy for Native Americans revolved around the theory that the only way to avoid Indian extinction was to remove them to other lands to give them enough time to absorb the American way of life. Other Americans believed any removal tactics were immorally disgusting. And, to put it bluntly, many Americans did not care what happened to Indians as long as they got off the lands that settlers wanted.
The public and government recognized Clark as a person with a knack for acquiring Indian lands. He seemed to believe Indian lands should be acquired through treaties rather than taking them by force. He attempted to balance the land rights and desires of the federal government, the Native Americans and settlers in search of land. Nonetheless, many Missourians thought Clark was unwilling to force tribes to sell their lands. This opinion of the public contributed to his overwhelming defeat in 1820 in the only election he ran for, the first gubernatorial election in Missouri.
As a Clark descendant, Bud Clark, 77 years old and a retired engineer who was a manufacturing specialist with Ford Motor Company, has spent decades researching and pondering the life of William Clark during and after the expedition. Bud also has first-hand experience along the Lewis and Clark trail and exchanging views with Native Americans.
One of Bud’s extended travels involved being a re-enactor in the role of Captain William Clark during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration from 2003 to 2006. The Lewis & Clark Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, Missouri, provided the re-enactor volunteers and full-scale replicas of the boats used by the original expedition. Re-enactors retraced the length of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. They gave presentations to schools from Pittsburgh to Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. They met with tens of thousands of people along the trail, including Native Americans. Bud’s time on the trail honed his views of his ancestor in ways that some historians could never experience or, for that matter, expect.
“Sadly enough,” Bud said in a telephone interview from his Michigan home, “many of the treaties that Clark oversaw were treaties of relocation. Ultimately, the more we learn about Clark the more we learn about a dark chapter in our history. The fate of Native Americans is not a Walt Disney story; it’s not always pleasant to digest. Clark found himself right in the thick of things.”
Bud believes that in some ways Clark, as well as his friend Lewis, failed to fully understand the Native American way of life. This shortcoming may likely have carried over for Clark after the expedition. Some questions—unanswerable now, mostly–can be asked. Did Clark, for instance, totally comprehend what the Indians were losing, both geographically and, perhaps just as importantly, spiritually, when they relinquished lands to Americans? Did he truly have any inklings of the poverty and hardships that would result from the mass movements of these natives from their own country and into unfamiliar lands? Today, diehard supporters of Clark like to think not. But, on the other hand, there seemed to be precedents for possible misunderstandings, even early on.
As an example, Bud Clark points to speeches delivered by Lewis and Clark upon meeting new tribes. The explorers dressed in their best military garb. In what can only be described as pompous displays of importance, they gave lengthy speeches through sign language and translation to inform the Indians about their new Great White Father in Washington, D.C. They also tried to communicate complicated political matters, including ownership of land.
“Lewis and Clark were good ethnologists in many ways, but they weren’t real good at picking up on the finer details of the cultures they encountered, and sacred tribal ceremonies and Indian spirituality were often overlooked,” Bud says.
“They missed the mark through poor sign language and interpretation. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Indians thought these white guys were nuts. I don’t believe the Indians were interested in the Great White Father who is now in charge of the land. What they wanted were kettles, axes and guns. After all, they believed you can’t own the land, just as you can’t own the sky and the moon.”
On the positive side
Native American leaders and others from western tribes often visited St. Louis. They invariably sought out Clark. Many called him “Redhead” due to his red hair. They nicknamed St. Louis the “Redhead’s Town.”
Clark kept a supply of medals and other symbols of honor on hand to give to the visitors. He sometimes used his own money to purchase the gifts rather than federal funds. Federal reimbursements for such gifts were tough battles to win.
Later in life, he expressed regret over his part in the demeaned condition of Native Americans. An engraved inscription at his St. Louis monument indicates as such. The inscription, added by Bud Clark during a 2004 rededication of the monument, is excerpted from a letter that Clark wrote in 1825 to Thomas Jefferson: “It is to be lamented that the deplorable situation of the Indians do not receive more of the human feelings of the nation.”
The Debate Goes On
It’s very likely that Clark’s post-expedition actions toward Native Americans will continue to be debated for years to come. Much to his credit—and overlooked by some pundits—was the way Clark exerted humanitarian and other efforts to help Native Americans.
Of all the books written about Clark’s post-expedition years (and there have been many), Dr. Buckley’s is one of the most thorough in reporting and analyzing Clark’s actions toward Native Americans, both pro and con, during the last half of his life. Dr. Buckley also explains the tough obstacles and resistance that Clark faced.
For example, after the War of 1812, settlers poured into Indian territories west of the Mississippi River and became squatters on tribal lands. As the top federal agent in the region, Clark attempted through a proclamation and use of the local militia to remove the squatters. However, his efforts failed when the militia resisted removing the squatters and insisted that Clark was supporting Indian claims over the needs of American citizens.
Clark also attempted to prohibit American traders from using liquor as a commodity to trade for furs and other Indian goods. This did not go over well with some influential Americans. Clark’s efforts failed as traders and even some government agents knew that liquor was a “powerful engine” that could sway Indians to cheaply relinquish not only furs and other goods but also land.
In his role as Indian Affairs superintendent, Clark encouraged smallpox inoculations as a way to stop the disease. Smallpox had been brought into the Native American world by white Americans and had killed untold number of Indians. By 1833, thousands of Native Americans under Clark’s sphere of influence had been inoculated. However, many refused. As a result, the federal government cut funding. For all practical purposes, the inoculation effort was abandoned.
On a more personal level, Clark became the guardian of Sacagawea’s two children: Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who as a baby accompanied his mother for 16 months on the expedition, and his younger sister, Lizette, born sometime between 1810 and 1812. Clark had a deep fondness during the expedition for Jean Baptiste, who was nicknamed “Pomp,” also known as “Pompy.” To honor the lad, Clark named a rock tower, Pompey’s Pillar, after him near Billings, Montana.
While other examples could be cited, an enlightening vignette from Clark’s post-expedition life offers a valuable insight into his personal views. Clark once encountered what Dr. Buckley referred to as “a group of destitute Indians” hired by a museum to dance as a “spectacle.” Clark, offended by the demeaning sight, offered the Indians the means to go back to their home.
Taking into consideration some actions by Clark in our far past, a person has to wonder how he would feel if he were alive today. Bud gave a talk during a rededication of Clark’s monument in 2004. He said, “If William Clark could rise up from the grave right now and step up to the podium, I think what he would say to his descendants is “Tell me, tell me what I should have done differently.”