Etched into U.S. history as Meriwether Lewis' trusty sidekick, William Clark has long been a symbol of national pride and perseverance. His bronze likeness stands especially tall along the St. Louis riverfront, where the storied traveler lifts his hat high in triumphant greeting.
Missouri native Jo Ann Trogdon wouldn't have it otherwise. But there's a lot more to Clark than that 28-month journey and the fame that followed it. As Trogdon shows in her book The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark (University of Missouri Press, 2015), Clark was making his mark on the continent well before then.
The portrait revealed by Trogdon's narrative raises questions about Clark's status as a national hero — not something she anticipated. In fact, Trogdon didn't expect to write the book at all. An attorney and the mother of young children in the early 1990s, she'd just recently researched and written St. Charles Borromeo: 200 Years of Faith when a late-eighteenth-century signature appearing in the parish's records — that of a William Clark — drew her attention.
"I thought, 'I've got to find out what William Clark was doing before the expedition,'" Trogdon recalls. She began exploring Clark's largely unexamined 1798-1801 journal — in the care of the State Historical Society of Missouri since 1928 — which documented his life just preceding the westward adventure. While handwriting samples quickly revealed that the John Hancock in the parish records must be that of a different William Clark, the content of the explorer's entries further sparked Trogdon's curiosity.
Of the journal's 88 pages, 77 outline Clark's 1798 travels deep into what was then Spanish territory, with New Orleans as his main destination. Involving the strenuous navigation of hundreds of Mississippi River miles, the journey initially struck Trogdon as fodder for an article shedding light on the practical reasons he was later selected by Lewis to be his co-lead.
"I thought my theme would be how William Clark developed the skills that Meriwether Lewis didn't master," Trogdon says. But as she pored over Clark's notes in this especially concise journal, more questions arose. For example, if Clark was merely on a business trip, wouldn't he record his transactions and dealings with his usual precision?
"If making money was his sole motivation, he'd have kept careful details of his revenues," Trogdon explains. "Nowhere in the journal, however, is any mention of amounts he earned. At that point I thought to check the Spanish archives."
Her language skills and previous work with those very archives helped direct her research, and what she discovered led to many years of investigation and the resulting volume — a hefty but engrossing read. Not only did Trogdon find that the Spanish treasury department records make mention of a Kentucky-based "Guillermo" Clark arriving in Spanish New Orleans that spring with many barrels full of goods — the records also place Clark in close association with several of the treasonous masterminds behind what became known as the Spanish Conspiracy.
Centered on Kentucky, the plot was an ongoing attempt by Spain in the 1780s and '90s to sunder the fledgling United States and its then-western territory. Several European powers vied for vast swaths of North America, and the fresh independence of a young nation didn't mean an end to conflict beyond the Appalachians. Trogdon's book thoughtfully raises the question: Might Clark have been working for Spain in some capacity?
While never offering proof beyond reasonable doubt, the evidence uncovered is compelling. As just one example, Clark's 1798 journal makes cursory mention of smuggling money in connection with a "Mr. Sebastian" and "Mr. Brown," and Trogdon's discoveries in the Spanish archives shed alarming light on just who these individuals were.
"Those men were Kentuckians secretly conniving with Spain in order to receive thousands of Spanish dollars," Trogdon says. "Then I found in Clark's family papers proof that his father was a close friend of Sebastian."
Sebastian's legacy of corruption pales in comparison to that of James Wilkinson, by far the most infamous character in the book. The man who was Spanish Agent 13 (a fact not known to the American government until long after his death in 1825), Wilkinson's duplicity and unending greed were extensive — as were his personal connections to Clark. Clark served under Wilkinson in the U.S. Army in the 1790s, and his writings from that period express high praise for the general. The two often worked together closely. But like so many others serving the young nation at a tumultuous time — including its first few presidents — Clark may well have been unaware of his superior's venal nature.
Still, the dots that Trogdon connects suggest Clark was involved to some degree in 1798, however unaware he may have been of Wilkinson's intentions. The ascending list of strategic latitudes and longitudes that Clark compiled along the Mississippi would have been especially useful to someone scheming to cause a war, Trogdon points out. And Clark appears to have been smuggling a very specific and secret payment of $670 in Spanish silver dollars.
"The Spanish correspondence with Wilkinson shows that he was still trying to collect an old debt of $640," Trogdon says. "With interest, this amount by 1798 would approximate the $670 Clark sent up river, hidden in a barrel of sugar, care of a 'Mr. Riddle.' It was the right amount and the right time for that debt to be paid."
But Trogdon isn't out to tarnish Clark's celebrated legacy as an explorer and public servant.
"My goal through this whole process was to show Clark as a three-dimensional person," she says. "He was definitely not the cardboard character he's come to seem. I hope readers gain an appreciation for what a complicated person he truly was — and an appreciation for carefully examining accepted notions in light of contradictory evidence."
Jo Ann Trogdon discusses and signs copies of The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark at St. Louis County Library Headquarters (1640 South Lindbergh Boulevard, Frontenac; www.slcl.org) at 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 25.