Captain William Clark

Captain William Clark


This undated, unsigned engraved portrait of William Clark is based on Charles Willson Peale’s 1810 oil painting of the famed explorer. Although wearing similar clothes and in a similar pose, Clark is depicted as a few years younger here than he is in Peale’s well-known portrait.

William Clark was born on August 1, 1770, near Charlottesville, Virginia, the sixth son of plantation owners John and Ann Rogers Clark. After the Revolutionary War, the Clark family moved to Kentucky, which at the time was on the western edge of Euro-American settlement. William Clark spent his teenage years on the frontier, learning outdoor skills from his famous brother, Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, and other frontiersmen. At age 19 he joined the Kentucky militia to fight against the Indians of the Ohio Valley, then trying to prevent whites from settling their lands.

In 1792, Clark transferred to the regular army, where he furthered his frontier education and obtained valuable command experience. Three years later he met a young officer by the name of Meriwether Lewis. The two Virginian Republicans struck up a lasting friendship.

In 1803, while living in Indiana, Clark received a letter from his old friend Lewis, by then a captain in the army. In this historic document, Lewis invited Clark to help him lead an exploratory expedition across the continent. Clark eagerly accepted the offer.

Although Clark, who had resigned his commission in 1796, was technically only reinstated at the rank of lieutenant, both he and Lewis shared leadership of the Corps of Discovery. Clark was also the Expedition’s cartographer, producing dozens of maps of previously uncharted areas.

Upon the return of the Expedition to the United States, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Clark brigadier general of the militia and superintendent of Indian affairs for Louisiana Territory. Clark spent his later years serving in various political offices—including governor of Missouri Territory—and speculating in fur trade enterprises. He died of natural causes on September 1, 1838, and was interred on his nephew’s farm outside of St. Louis.

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Related Historical Records

Captain Clark at Tillamook Head, 1806

In the journal entry reproduced here, Captain William Clark offers a detailed description of the northern Oregon coast as he encountered it on January 8, 1806. Standing at the top of Tillamook Head, Clark described the view in every direction, noting the natural features of the landscape as well …

Clark's Drawing of White Salmon Trout

This is a copy of a sketch made by William Clark in February 1806, while Expedition members were at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River. The drawing depicts coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), which Clark identified as a “white salmon trout.” It is one of many …

William Clark, c. 1810
Clark, Pomp, York, and Sacagawea

Unlike Lewis, Clark lived into his sixties and played an important role in the development of the Louisiana Territory, including investment in one of the first fur companies to work the upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. By 1813, Clark had become governor of the newly created Missouri Territory, a position …

Map of Lewis and Clark's Track

This map, titled A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track across the Western Portion of North America from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, published in 1814, is based on William Clark’s cartography from the 1804–1806 Expedition and information from fur trappers and other explorers in the American West …

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

No two explorers are more firmly imprinted in the American consciousness than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Rivers, counties, towns, schools, and wildlife refuges in Oregon are named after them. Monuments honor them, hundreds of books have been written about them, and a formal organization, the Lewis and Clark Trail …

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This entry was last updated on Sept. 19, 2019