Captain William Clark was the Lewis and Clark PR guy

August 1, 1770

On this day the public relations half of the Lewis and Clark team was born into a family of Revolutionary War heroes in Caroline County, Virginia.

William Clark was the ninth of 10 children and the youngest son.  He hoped to follow in his brother’s footsteps, Revolutionary War general,  George Rogers Clark. (Right)  Instead he distinguished himself, not on the battlefield, but on America’s frontier.

Clark’s role as second-banana to the more erudite Meriwether Lewis proved to be invaluable during the 8,000-mile trek to the Pacific. His talent for map making and provisioning, while critical may not have been as important to the Corp’s well-being as his skill as a negotiator with the many indigenous peoples encountered along the way.   In addition, historians agree that Clark’s journal, despite numerous spelling and grammatical errors, provides the most compelling account of the country’s vast new region. 

 His military experience before the expedition was actually brief.  Joining a volunteer militia at 19, at 24 Clark led a company of riflemen under Gen. Anthony Wayne at the  decisive Battle of Fallen Timbers.    He resigned his commission just two years later, citing unspecified health issues, retreating to the family’s tobacco plantation in Kentucky. 

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark 

Meriwether Lewis had served under Clark in the Virginia Militia.  An aide to President Thomas Jefferson, Lewis handpicked Clark to lead Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery.   While both men were said to have equal standing during the 52-month expedition and both were referred to as captain, in fact, Clark had been denied promotion by the U.S. Congress.

 Clark was just 36 when the pair returned in 1806, Lewis four years his junior.  Both explorers were granted a 1,600-acre tract of land (about two and a half square miles).  Jefferson appointed Clark brigadier general of the Louisiana Territory, later Missouri Territory, in 1813 and Indian agent for the Western tribes.  

Lewis, died just three years after the expedition.  His death, while controversial, was presumed to be suicide.  It left Clark with the formidable task of overseeing publication of the trip’s journals.  Believing he lacked the formal education needed, Clark enlisted banker and politician Nicholas Biddle to oversee the project.

Two years after returning to St. Louis, Clark married 17-year-old Julia Hancock, (left) daughter of a Virginia planter and Federalist politician.  

The couple had five children, three surviving to adulthood.  Following Julia’s death in 1820 at just 28, he married Julia’s first cousin, Harriet Kennelly Redford. (Right)  Only one of the couple’s three children lived past childhood.   In addition, Clark was granted custody of Sacajawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, (below) following her death in 1811. 

It was also widely held that he fathered a son, Daytime Smoker, with the sister or daughter of the Nez Percé chief, Red Grizzly Bear, in 1806.  While no verifiable evidence exists to prove or disprove Clark’s paternity, Daytime Smoker (below) was referred to as “Clark.” 

Photographed in 1877,  he was captured during the Nez Percé War and the pursuit of Chief Joseph.  If he was, in fact, Clark’s son, Washington apparently didn’t care.  He was exiled to Oklahoma with his fellow Nez Percé and died two years later at age 72.

Clark’s tenure as Indian agent gets mixed reviews.  Historians do credit Clark with efforts to maintain peace between the government and the West’s indigenous people.   However, he also figured prominently in President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy that decimated many southeastern tribes in the 1820s.

 In addition, Clark receives no accolades for his treatment of his slave, York, the only African-American to accompany the Corps of Discovery.  Accounts vary as to whether he actually ever freed York.  And as a young man he had a reputation for dealing harshly with the slaves on the Clark family’s farm.

Clark died in St. Louis in 1838 at the age of 69.  His grave site was originally located on his nephew’s farm but now is a part of Bellefontaine Cemetery.  A 35-foot granite obelisk marking his resting place was dedicated in 1904 and is a National Historic Landmark.  Reportedly, Clark family descendents raised $100,000 to refurbish and rededicate the monument during the bicentennial celebration of the Expedition.

Perhaps the famous explorer’s legacy was best served by his grandson, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (Left)  An architect in Louisville Kentucky, and avid horse racing devotee, he is credited with designing and building America’s most famous race track, Churchill Downs.

Churchill Downs in 1902, 35 years after it first opened.

The Missouri History Museum, Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park, Missouri, is a treasure trove of artifacts from Clark’s travels with the 1804 expedition including his journals and personal effects to his time as a territorial official.  Administered by the Missouri Historical Society,  it’s accessible to persons with disabilities.  With advance notice, special accommodations and a sign language interpreter can be provided by calling (314) 361-9017.

Open daily from 10 to 5 and Tuesdays until 8, closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Admission is free.  For more information go to, call (314) 746-4599 or write Missouri History Museum, Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park, 5700 Lindell Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63112.  

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.