Location: Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri
Years ago, I read a wonderful article in American Heritage about the great jazz singer Ethel Waters. The author speculated as to why Waters sometimes wasn’t given her due alongside legendary greats such as Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. She concluded that living to old age does little to fascinate fans. Holiday was tragic and doomed; Waters was a fat old lady who hugged Nixon.
William Clark is in much the same boat. Though Clark lived out a full, eventful, and historic life for decades after the Expedition, and survived Meriwether Lewis by thirty years, his fate is often lost in the controversy that rages on over Lewis’s death. A good place to pay tribute to the life and legacy of William Clark is by taking a pilgrimage to his gravesite at Bellefontaine Cemetery, a very large, beautiful Victorian cemetery that is the last resting place of many prominent St. Louisians.
Though Clark’s hair turned white at a fairly young age, he contined to be vigorous and active well into his 60s as one of the nation’s most important Indian diplomats, not to mention pater familias to his huge brood of children, stepchildren, and nieces and nephews. In 1832, Clark granted an interview to the famous author Washington Irving, who penned these notes:
General arrives on horseback with dogs — guns. His grandson on a calico pony hallowing and laughing. Gov. Clark fine, healthy, robust man — tall — about fifty, perhaps more — his hair, originally light, now grey — falling to his shoulders — frank, intelligent.
The impression Clark gave Irving is all the more striking considering that Clark was 62 at the time, not fifty, recently widowed, and that the “grandson” was his own eight-year-old son, Jefferson. Similarly, the artist George Catlin, whom Clark sponsored in going up the Missouri to paint his famous Indian pictures, wrote that Clark’s “whitened locks are still shaken in roars of laughter, and good jest among the numerous citizens, who all love him, and continually rally around him in his hospitable mansion.”
A young lawyer named Salmon P. Chase, later to go on to fame as Lincoln’s Secretary of Treasury and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, met Clark two years later at a dinner party in Cincinnati. Chase didn’t know who Clark was, but wrote an arresting description in his diary:
This gentleman resides far up the Missouri, between the State of that name & the Rocky Mountains. He was attired in a brown hunting shirt, which opened a little upon the breast. It was furnished with a small cape which was copiously fringed. A quantity of fringe also lined the back of the sleeve from the shoulder to the wrist. The skirts were also fringed. The whole was confined to the body by a crimson sash which was tied at one end and the ends hung down to the thigh. The whole dress was extremely picturesque and the whole appearance of the old veteran highly interesting. He was asked if there was a post office in his neighbourhood, & answered with perfect naivete, that there was one about a hundred miles off to which he sent twice a month. He described several peculiar plants & flowers, & and proved as interesting in conversation as he was in appearance.
Not everyone was such a fan of Clark’s in his later years. A travel writer who lambasted Clark as “the shadow of a man, scarcely sane,” echoed others who considered Clark to be a man of the past, whose concern and friendship for the Indians was outweighed by the injustices that were actually befalling the Native Americans as a result of the treaties so painstakingly negotiated by Clark and others. Over the course of his career, Clark personally negotiated 37 Indian treaties that resulted in the extinguishment of Indian title to over 419 million acres of Western land.
The journalist’s cruel comment heralded a sudden downturn in Clark’s health. Late in 1834, Clark seems to have suffered a small stroke that left him with palsy and ended his lifelong habit of keeping a journal and writing letters. He was never really well again.
Physically, he was weak and unsteady on his feet. Emotionally, he was as big-hearted as ever, but he could not longer act as his family’s rock. Financial problems preyed on his mind as never before, and the many troubles of his sons (especially William Preston, who was a raging alcoholic) left him upset and drained. Though he kept his job as superintendent of Indian affairs, his assistant took over most of the complex work.
By early 1838, Clark was suffering dizzy spells and had fallen several times. He moved in with his son Meriwether Lewis Clark and his wife Abby, but his health declined rapidly in the course of the summer. He died on September 1, 1838, just one month past his 68th birthday.
Clark was buried in the family tomb at the farm of his nephew, a wealthy St. Louis businessman named John O’Fallon. His funeral revealed his status and popularity in the community; it was the largest ever held in St. Louis, with thousands lining the four miles between downtown and the O’Fallon farm (present-day O’Fallon Park). Ironically, although the people prized Clark as a beloved representative of the past, they’d long since rejected most of what he tried to stand for, especially decent treatment of the Indians. Even as Clark lay dying, the Cherokee removal disaster known as the “Trail of Tears” was underway.
In the 1850s, after Bellefontaine Cemetery opened, Clark’s sons bought a large family plot on a bluff overlooking the Missouri. The graves of William Clark, his wife Harriet, and several of their children were moved to the new cemetery. The impressive obelisk and bust depicting a handsome and dignified Clark in the prime of life were unveiled in 1904 during the centennial of the Expedition with funds donated by Clark’s youngest son, Jefferson. It was restored and rededicated in 2004.
On our visit, we paid our respects by placing a Texas flag on the grave. I was struck by the fact that servants were also buried in the plot. Undoubtedly these were family slaves, and it was both touching and sad to realize how intertwined were the lives of masters and slaves in those years. It was also moving to see that some of the graves were recent, testifying to the family unity that still binds together the Clark descendants. Overall, this great American could not ask for a better resting place: a serene and peaceful spot surrounded by his family.