A well-considered life of Capt. William Clark, reluctant hero of the early frontier.
Retired journalist and People magazine editor Jones does a service in recounting the whole of Clark’s career, bracketed by wars and treaties with the Indian nations. In doing so, Jones misses or glosses over a few matters that have been exercising historians lately: Clark’s relationship with co-captain Meriwether Lewis, his status as a slaveholder and defender of slavery. As Jones notes, Clark rose to hero of exploration somewhat accidentally; though he had been a brave fighter in the wars against the Indians of the Old Northwest during and immediately after the Revolutionary War, it was his older brother George Rogers Clark who earned most of the glory. When Thomas Jefferson sought to enlist George on a military survey of the West, George suggested that William take his place—and, importantly, urged that the surveying party be small so as not to offend the Indians along the way; “ ‘three or four young Men’ could do the job at ‘a Trifling Expense’ over four or five years.” The party that Lewis and Clark led up the Missouri was ten times that size, but still small enough not to be confused for an invading army. As Jones notes, Clark was in the habit of keeping detailed journals even of mundane events, a habit that proved of particular usefulness during the journey. He was also not easily rattled, and a keen student of all that he saw, such that at the end of the overland journey, “Clark knew more about the Indian nations west of the Mississippi than any living American.” Following military service in the War of 1812, Clark put that knowledge to use as a negotiator, one who surely held a paternalistic view of the Indians but did not particularly want to rub them out; his signature, Jones notes, is on more treaties than that of any other American.
A readable, welcome contribution in this bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery’s transcontinental journey.