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of Lewis and Clark fame
William Clark was born on a Caroline County, Virginia, plantation on August 1, 1770. The youngest of six sons, one of his brothers was George Rogers Clark, a hero of the Revolutionary War. In 1784, his family moved to a new plantation in Kentucky, a move that kept him from receiving the same formal education his brothers had received, since there were no schools in the area at the time.
In 1789, Clark joined the Kentucky militia, in which capacity he participated in several campaigns against Indians in the Ohio River Valley. He became an officer in the U.S. Army in 1792, and, in 1794, participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. He first met Meriwether Lewis in 1795, when he commanded a unit that included Lewis. In 1796 he resigned from the Army to manage his family's plantation, which by then was in debt. He was able to get the plantation's affairs back in order, and when his father died in 1799 he inherited a large amount of land and some slaves.
In 1803, Clark eagerly accepted Meriwether Lewis's offer to join his "Corps of Discovery" as co-commander. The expedition left St. Louis on May 14, 1804, reached the Pacific Ocean in December of 1805, and re-entered St. Louis on September 23, 1806. Along the way, Clark made detailed maps of the lands they explored, and he was also responsible for recording the many scientific findings made by the expedition. During the return trip, the two men divided the expedition and took slightly different routes so they could explore more territory -- Lewis stayed north of the Missouri River, while Clark returned by way of the Yellowstone River. During his return journey, Clark stopped at a rock formation near present-day Billing, Montana, that he named Pompy's Tower, after the nickname the expedition had given to the son of Sacagawea, who had acted as their native guide; the inscription he sctached into that formation, "W Clark July 25 1806," can still be seen there today and is the only known still-existing physical trace of the expedition. Lewis and Clark rejoined their two parties along the Missouri River and re-entered St. Louis together. For his part in the expedition, Clark was awarded 1,600 acres of land and $1,228 in back pay.
In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Clark principal Indian agent for the Louisiana Territory and Brigadier General of its militia. He held both of those posts until 1813, when he was appointed Governor of Missouri Territory. In the latter capacity, he strengthened the territory's defenses and established friendly relations with many of the tribes of the Missouri and upper Mississippi rivers. In 1808, he married Julia Hancock, who bore him five children (two of whom died in childhood); the couple also cared for Sacagawea's children after her death in 1812; Julia died in 1820. In 1821, Clark married Julia's cousin, Harriet Kennerly Radord, who bore him two more children (one of whom died before reaching one year of age); Harriet died in 1831.
The sudden death of Lewis in 1809 left the task of organizing, editing, and publishing the Corps of Discovery journals and scientific discoveries to Clark. Uncomfortable with his own grammar skills, Clark was able to convince Nicholas Biddle to take over those tasks, and they were finally published in book form in 1814.
When Missouri became a state in 1820, Clark made an unsuccessful bid to become its first Governor, after which he returned to his position as Indian agent. In 1822 he was named Superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis. Despite having to supervise the removal of several eastern tribes to lands in eastern Kansas, he built a reputation for fairness and honesty among both whites and Indians. He moved to St. Louis to live with his son, Meriwether Lewis Clark (from Julia), in 1838, and died there on September 1, 1838; he was buried in that city's Bellefontaine Cemetery.
This page was last updated on January 22, 2017.