Last week, when we were talking about Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. and the founding of the Kentucky Derby, Rebecca of My Adventures in History brought up the interesting question of Lewis and Clark’s friendship after the Expedition was over, and how William Clark reacted to the violent death of Meriwether Lewis just three years after the explorers returned home as heroes. This is a question I have spent years thinking about, and it forms the principal plotline of our novel To the Ends of the Earth.
It is difficult to imagine how any two men could have been closer than Lewis and Clark during the years they spent exploring the wilderness. They could have written the book on heroic friendship, an ideal permitted to men in those days. Together they shared responsibility for more than 30 lives, the most extensive exploration ever undertaken by the United States (comparable in its day to a journey to the moon), the almost laughably high expectations of President Jefferson in terms of data they were expected to collect, and incidentally the claims of the United States to the North American continent. By all accounts the partnership, while an unorthodox military arrangement, performed beautifully.
Lewis was just 29 years old when the Expedition left St. Louis, and had many assets that had won the trust of President Jefferson for such a critical mission. Besides being a talented woodsman and crack shot, he was a good writer, a natural (if hastily trained) scientist, obsessive in his powers of observation, audacious, self-disciplined, ravenously curious, and politically and personally loyal to Thomas Jefferson (never the least consideration in Jefferson’s book).
Lewis was also unique in a way that Jefferson probably never understood. Lewis was capable of understanding, acknowledging, and compensating for his own weaknesses. What were they? He was vain, hot-tempered, and a loner. He was subject to tormenting mood swings that ranged from incredible bursts of energy and improvisation to self-doubt and despair (some historians believe he was manic-depressive). He had little experience navigating powerful river systems. He lacked an understanding and empathy with the Indian mind.
Because of this self-insight, Lewis recruited William Clark, an old friend from his earliest days in the Army, to serve not as an assistant, but as co-commander. Lewis did this entirely on his own initiative; Jefferson couldn’t have cared less about Clark. Thrilled by the opportunity, Clark threw himself into his work. Clark trained the men into a cohesive unit that functioned with remarkable harmony, dignity, and grace. With his deep and intuitive understanding of river geography and topography, Clark handled innumerable crises with the boats, created the Expedition maps, and freed Lewis up to walk on shore and do biological field research. Clark genuinely liked Indians (except for the Teton Sioux) and brought a respectful and outgoing vibe to the Expedition’s diplomacy. Clark understood women and made a lifelong friend of Sacagawea. Even British traders, at that time enemies of the United States, found themselves liking him. Not least — and not coincidentally — Lewis had chosen a partner who was brave and relentlessly determined, yet willing to subordinate his own ego to a larger cause and a larger ego.
In short, William Clark was possessed of a personality so stable and rock-steady that historian Stephen Ambrose calls him “the steel in Lewis’s spine” and wrote:
Friends will go hungry for each other, freeze for each other, die for each other. … At its height, friendship is an ecstasy. For Lewis and Clark, it was an ecstasy, and the critical factor in their great success.
After the Expedition, Lewis and Clark were welcomed home as heroes by the public and a president who had all but given them up for dead. It was only natural that they go their separate ways for a while. Clark was a very focused and results-oriented person, and he was determined to parlay his success into the personal happiness and financial security that had eluded him when he was younger. He headed for Fincastle, Virginia, where he began a courtship of the very beautiful, very young, and very rich Julia Hancock. The two were married January 5, 1808, not long after Julia’s 16th birthday.
Clark also landed a big job in establishing government control over the territory he had just explored. Better yet, as Indian agent and head of the militia in St. Louis, he would be the right hand man of the new governor — none other than his great friend, Meriwether Lewis. It was “Lewis & Clark: Reloaded.”
Or so it seemed at first. The demands on Lewis were different than those on Clark. He was Jefferson’s man. Just being a tough soldier-explorer and a hero wasn’t enough. He was expected to be a politician and handle the snake pit of land claims and international intrigue in the new territory. He was expected to be a writer and produce a book on the Expedition. He was expected to be a scientist and work with the finest minds in Philadelphia to record data and preserve specimens. He expected himself to find a beautiful and well-connected wife, but somehow, he couldn’t make anything work.
As before, he turned to Clark, and the two of them made plans to live together. Lewis went house-hunting in St. Louis and found a small house that he arranged to share with Clark and Julia. Reading between the lines, I don’t think Julia was adequately consulted on this plan.
Lewis got his own place in short order, but he and Clark worked together very closely during Lewis’s brief governorship. Lewis, a prickly military man at heart, was not malleable enough to suit many of the powerful men of the territory, and struggled in particular with a poisonous relationship with Frederick Bates, the territorial secretary (it took every bit of Clark’s patented personal diplomacy to avert a duel between the two men).
On January 10, 1809, Julia gave birth to a son, and the baby was named Meriwether Lewis Clark, a testament to Clark’s esteem for Lewis if ever there was one. Lewis must have been happy about the baby, but personally something was wrong. Historians disagree on what combination of factors began to overwhelm Lewis; perhaps a perfect storm of political, financial, physical, and mental disasters. In August, he left St. Louis to travel to the Federal City (Washington) to answer charges of official wrongdoing leveled against him by his boss, Secretary of War William Eustis. Clark was outraged about how Lewis was being treated. He was also worried about Lewis’s mental state.
Clark also decided to go to Washington, but first he traveled to Kentucky so that he, Julia, and their son could visit with his relatives. They were on the road in Shelbyville when he heard some awful news. He wrote to his brother Jonathan:
I Saw in a Frankfort paper called the Arguss a report published which givs me much Concern, it Says that Govr. Lewis killed himself by Cutting his Throat with a Knife, on his way between the Chickaw Saw Bluffs and nashville, I fear this report has too much truth, tho’ hope it may have no foundation — my reasons for thinking it possible is founded on the letter which I recved from him at your house … I fear O! I fear the waight of his mind has over come him, what will be the Consequence?
This raw passage is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for those who believe that Lewis committed suicide. The man closest to him in all the world believed it. The letter Clark refers to has never been found.
Two days later Clark wrote again from Lexington:
We arrived here this evening all in the Same State of health we were when we parted with you, but not in the Same State of mind. I have herd with the Certainty of the death of Govr. Lewis which givs us much uneasiness.
Clark could think of nothing else but the death of his friend. He was also very worried about the journals of the Expedition, which Lewis was carrying with him when he died. Clark knew that if the journals were lost, stolen, or destroyed, it would be an irrecoverable loss. In many ways, it was be as if they had never gone on the Expedition at all.
I am at a loss to know what to be at his death is a turble Stroke to me, in every respect. I wish I could talk a little with you just now.
In the days that followed, Clark learned to his relief that the journals had been secured. He also learned heart-breaking details of Lewis’s final days:
his servent reports that on his way to nashvill, he would frequently Conceipt that he herd me Comeing on, and Said he was certain [I would] overtake him, and would come to his releaf.
After the initial shock and grief of Lewis’s death passed, Clark very rarely spoke of it. A nephew who was close to Clark in his later years wrote that his uncle did speak with great fondness about the Expedition and about his old friend — but never without tears in his eyes.