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Clark, beyond the expedition

William Clark and the Shaping of the West Landon Y. Jones Hill & Wang: 394 pp., $25

June 06, 2004|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of several books, including "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

Like other great pairings in American history, ranging from Mason and Dixon to Simon and Garfunkel, the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are welded together as a single phrase. But some of the most vivid and resonant episodes in Clark's life took place long before and long after the vaunted Lewis and Clark expedition.

William Clark's remarkable life story is told with color, panache and authority by veteran journalist and historian Landon Y. Jones in "William Clark and the Shaping of the West." As it was understood in Clark's lifetime, "the West" was a boundary in motion that started along the western stretches of the original 13 colonies and moved steadily across the continent. When the Clark family decamped from Virginia, for example, the western wilderness was to be found in the Ohio River Valley, and the family seat was established in "a bustling hamlet of about a hundred log cabins" called Louisville.

In describing the world in which Clark was born and raised, Jones presents us with a rich and often strange glimpse of "America's First West," as he calls it. Native Americans, for example, came to know when white settlers were approaching their tribal grounds by the appearance of what they called "white man's fly" -- that is, the honeybees that were driven westward as the newcomers cleared the old-growth forests to make room for farms and towns. "The honeybees were thought to keep about a hundred miles in advance of white migration all the way across North America," explains Jones.

The Native Americans too were driven out. Much of the narrative, in fact, focuses on the bitter, sustained conflict between native dwellers and the practitioners of what would soon be known as Manifest Destiny. And it is here that Clark makes his first appearance in the annals of American history. Among the earliest entries in the journals that Clark kept is an account of a firefight with a party of Indians that left four men and four "squaws" dead, and "2 children 16 horses and 100£ worth of plund'r" in the hands of the frontiersmen.

"There was no room for Indians in Jefferson's empire of liberty," writes Jones. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson himself spoke frankly of what we would today call genocide. "We must leave it to yourself to decide [whether] the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal," Jefferson once wrote to Clark's older brother, the storied Indian fighter George Rogers Clark. "The same world would scarcely do for them and us."

Clark first met Meriwether Lewis when they were both serving in the long war that was waged against the Native Americans, an encounter that prefigured their famous expedition. Jones invites us to see the Voyage of Discovery on which they embarked at the invitation of Jefferson in 1804 as an expression of Jefferson's geopolitical ambitions -- a water route "from sea to sea" would allow the United States to dominate the continent of North America to the exclusion of Britain, France and Spain.

Lewis committed suicide a few years after the end of the expedition, and Clark struggled to turn his celebrity into cash. His dubious reward was a job as the superintendent of the Indian Office, a government agency charged with keeping the conquered nations and peoples of Native America under control and supervising their "removal" from the path of white settlement; significantly, he reported to both the secretary of State and the secretary of War. Later, as governor of the Missouri Territory -- "the most powerful American in the West," as Jones puts it -- he directed a series of punitive expeditions against the "Hostile Indians" who refused to submit to his authority. At the same time, Jones credits him with "struggling to find a balance between his conflicting constituencies," including "the land-hungry citizens of his territory, and the Indians he was supposed to protect."

Some of the most charming moments come when Clark sits down with Nicholas Biddle, the highborn Philadelphia attorney who would edit his journals. Biddle interrogated Clark on every detail of the expedition: "Did both Indian men and women have the venereal? Are there oysters on the Pacific coast? How do Indian mothers flatten the heads of their babies? Does [Clark's slave] York have a wife?" The touchiest question focused on what Biddle delicately called "the point of rank and command" between Lewis and Clark. "Equal in every point of view," insisted Clark, still bitter that he had been denied the rank of captain that Lewis enjoyed.

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