By Wade Livingston
￼￼Missourians are likely familiar with the William Clark who journeyed with his partner, Meriwether Lewis, and the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River and then out west. That adventure, which began in 1804 by the order of President Thomas Jefferson, lasted more than two years and was the first American exploration of the western United States following the Louisiana Purchase. For his efforts, William Clark was awarded fame and money. He became a national hero.
But there is another side to William Clark, one that has been underexplored, buried in Spanish archives, and hidden in the hand-scrawled entries of an eighty-eight-page journal. This volume—Clark’s personal chronicle of his 1798 trip down two of America’s iconic waterways to Span- ish New Orleans—tells of an enigmatic journey that has been overshadowed by Clark’s later exploits. It also forms the basis of Jo Ann Trogdon’s new book, The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark, and it hints at a more complex man, one who was still acquiring the skills that would make him valuable to Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson.
In the preface, Jo Ann states her goal is “to present the most fully human and three-dimensional portrait” of Clark to date. To do so, she deviates from narratives that imagine Clark as “a stolid, uncomplicated explorer-turned-government official.” Instead, she paints a picture of a twenty-seven-year-old Clark who is learning the finer points of mapping, expedition management, and cross-cultural communication. She also raises questions about the motives of his voyage to Spanish Louisiana.
On the surface, Clark’s trip to New Orleans appeared commerce-oriented. There was money to be made with his load of tobacco, pelts, and provisions, but Clark had recently resigned his Army commission as he’d yet to achieve the distinction he desired. Clark also had ties to General James Wilkinson,his former commander who launched the Spanish Conspiracy—a series of covert plots to increase Spanish power in the Mississippi Valley, thereby weakening interests of the United States.
Was Clark’s voyage a reconnaissance mission for Wilkinson, who might have desired to break away territory east of the Mississippi from the United States and ally it with Spain? Why was Clark part of a smuggling operation that pushed Spanish pieces of eight up the river and into the pockets of conspirators in cahoots with the Spanish? And, in the wake of the journey, did Clark hope to obscure the journal of his 1798 activities? If so, why even keep it?
The book, however, is not a trial of Clark, but rather a presentation of evidence designed to illuminate his persona. Jo Ann readily admits that some questions cannot be answered—unless new information comes to light. This examination of Clark and his associates is thoroughly researched, and it offers a fresh look at the explorer who helped shape Missouri.
Readers—especially history buffs and academics—will enjoy her deep exploration of the subject matter. Everyone can appreciate the mini-history of how William Clark’s journal from that time came to be in the possession of the State Historical Society of Missouri. Moreover, readers will enjoy perusing a transcribed version of the journal in one of the appendices.
In the end, this book serves as a reminder of three important things: First, traveling more than two hundred years ago was a dangerous affair. Second, despite America’s recent revolutionary triumph and its acquisition of territory, the country was very much a fragile union as the nineteenth century approached. Finally, there’s value in challenging history’s narratives and learning more about the people we hold up as heroes. In the case of this book, readers will have to get comfortable forming their own opinions and pursuing their own inquiries.