Lewis and Clark: William Clark for Expedition Co-Captain
Thomas Jefferson was leaning on Lewis to find a second in command for the expedition. Lewis went a step further than naming a second: He wrote to William Clark in June of 1803 and offered him co-command. In one of the more unusual moves by a commander in the history of the United States, perhaps in the history of the world, Lewis thought about a successor and decided not to find a subordinate but to offer to share his command. Sharing command is pretty much unheard of and thought to be foolhardy by the military — confusing and risky.
Historians have long speculated about why Lewis wrote William Clark and offered him co-command. Clark was four years older than Lewis and had previously been Lewis’s superior officer. Or, perhaps, Clark’s greater experience with Indians may have persuaded Lewis. Although Clark had fought tribes as an Army officer, he also knew a number of Indians as individuals and from his own perspective, and Lewis’s, had an affinity with Indians.
Maybe Lewis badly wanted Clark on the trip and knew he wouldn’t accept the role of junior officer. Lewis knew Clark had more experience than he did as a frontiersman and a frontline military leader. Lewis wrote Clark on June 19, 1803, to invite him to help find “some good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods, and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree.” Also, and more critically, Lewis needed Clark to participate in the fatigues, dangers, and honors of co-leading the expedition.
The reason may have been that Lewis understood that he and Clark would complement each other, each making up what the other lacked, each taking up the other’s slack. Maybe Lewis was an intuitive genius!
However, Lewis’s wisdom and good intentions were overridden when Clark’s commission came through the next year (after the expedition had launched). The War Department, in a fine show of red tape, made Clark a second lieutenant instead of captain. Clark had resigned from the Army at the rank of captain (to go home and help his older brother), but the Army didn’t have to re-commission him at that same rank, and in fact did not. Lewis was furious and mortified, but helpless to change the official outcome. Instead of accepting it, however, he told Clark he would address him and treat him as Captain Clark, co-commander, and would keep the official lower rank secret from the men and anyone else they encountered on the expedition. The men of the expedition knew their commanders only as Captain Lewis and Captain Clark.
In any event, Lewis was correct that William Clark was the right man with the right experience for the job.
William Clark, Kentucky frontiersman
“Billy” Clark was the sixth son and ninth child from a family of ten children, born near the Rappahannock River on August 1, 1770. Attracted after the American Revolution by reports of rich land in the Northwest Territory, the Clark family, including 14-year-old Billy and a dozen or more slaves migrated across the Allegheny Mountains and down the Ohio River, settling above waterfalls near today’s Louisville, Kentucky.
When the Clark family arrived, the Louisville area was a hot bed of conflict between Indians defending their territory and hunting grounds and settlers migrating from the East. Indians killed one of Billy’s older brothers in a skirmish at the Little Wabash River.
At war with the British and then the Indians
All of Clark’s brothers were Revolutionary War veterans, but it was George Rogers Clark, the family’s second son and 22 years William’s senior, who is best remembered for his Army exploits. As a general after the war, Rogers Clark gained a reputation as a cruel and pitiless Indian fighter, leading a series of raids into Shawnee country north of the Ohio River, burning and plundering anything and everything of value to the Shawnee.
William Clark grew up to be tall — about six feet — red-headed, strong, and muscular, with an easy-going manner. Following in his older brother’s footsteps, Clark joined the militia in 1789, becoming a supply officer and fighting in several Indian skirmishes, earning the reputation of a young man “brave as Caesar.” On two occasions, he was sent to spy on the Spanish, who were building forts high up the east bank of the Mississippi. He then transferred over to the Army with a commission as a lieutenant in 1792, when he was 22 years old, and served under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne. He also led a military expedition to Chickasaw Bluffs near today’s Memphis.
Fighting in the Battle of Fallen Timbers
During Clark’s Army service, the United States and a confederation of Indian tribes — the Miami, Shawnee, Delaware, and their British allies — sought control of the Northwest Territory, a vast area north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi rivers: modern-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The struggle culminated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, where Clark commanded a rifle company and the Shawnee were killed or driven off the battlefield to a British fort, where they were turned away. Giving up their struggle for their homeland, the Shawnee signed the first treaty — the 1795 Treaty of Greenville — between the U.S. government and Indian tribes. It was the first time that the United States acknowledged the sovereignty of tribal nations.
By 1795, Clark had received successive promotions to leadership roles, attaining the rank of captain. Ensign Meriwether Lewis was among the men assigned to Clark, and the two struck up a lasting friendship.
Quitting the Army to help big brother
In 1796, Clark quit the Army and returned to his family and property in Indiana Territory, to Clarksville, a city named after his brother George Rogers, directly across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. He left the Army to help his brother recover from a financial jam: The elder Clark had pledged his own funds to support his earlier Army campaigns in the Illinois Country and was besieged by creditors.
Getting a boost from big brother
In December of 1802, George Rogers Clark wrote President Jefferson from the Falls of the Ohio to recommend his younger brother, William, for service in the government. “He is well-qualified almost for any business,” Rogers Clark wrote. “If it should be in your power to confur on him any post of Honor and profit, in this Countrey in which we live, it will exceedingly gratify me.” Jefferson surely remembered that letter when Lewis told him that he wanted Clark to be his co-captain.
Clark: The right man for the job
By 1803, William Clark was 33 years old and was an expert woodsman, waterman, and mapmaker. He had traveled extensively throughout the Northwest Territory, commanded military expeditions, built and supplied forts, and fought Indians. After seven years at home, with no wife or children of his own, he was probably bored numb with life above the falls and needed an adventure.
He certainly had the qualifications plus something else: Lewis liked and admired Clark, saying in his letter of invitation “no man on earth” is more qualified to be co-captain of an expedition to the Pacific.
Responding immediately, Clark sent a letter to Pittsburgh, where Lewis was readying boats and supplies for the journey, receiving the letter on July 29. Clark wrote: “. . . I will cheerfully join you. . . . This is an undertaking fraighted with many difeculties, but My friend I do assure you that no man lives whith whome I would prefur to undertake Such a Trip &c. as your self . . . .”