by Jo Ann Trogdon
Colulmbia: University of Missouri, 2015. Pp. xxii, 470.
Illus., maps, appends, notes, biblio., index. $36.95. ISBN: 0826220495
New Light on a Mystery of the Early Republic
Although well known for his role in the “Lewis and Clark Expedition,” Army officer William Clark (1770-1838) also played a part in an earlier, much less commendable event in the history of the Early Republic. Working from a long lost diary, the adventures of which are itself an interesting tale, and extensive research in the U.S. and Spain, Missouri attorney and independent scholar Trogdon has unearthed details about this largely forgotten chapter in Clark’s early life.
In 1798 Clark, recently resigned from the Army, undertook a trading expedition from Kentucky down the Mississippi to New Orleans, then in Spanish Hands. He made a little money off the trip, but also become at least peripherally connected to the treasonous machinations of Brig. Gen. James Wilkinson. Wilkinson, who, one historian remarked, had never won a battle nor lost a court martial, was one of the most dubious characters in American history, and despite being for many years the senior-most officer in the U.S. Army, was also in the pay of Spain.
Although the exact details are still largely unknown, Wilkinson was part of a cabal that sought to detach parts of the western United States to establish a new republic, which would please Spain by serving as buffer state. Trogdon’s offers considerable analysis of the available evident, including Clark’s travel diary, about the complex web which Wilkinson and his cronies, among them Aaron Burr, wove. The plat failed, of course, yet almost everyone involved went unpunished.
As she explores this curious episode, Trogon also gives us a lot of detail on life in the period. She covers such matters as how settlers the Mississippi frontier build, managed, and profited from flatboat trade with New Orleans. We get a look at Spanish customs regulations, contemporary surveying and mapping techniques, American politics, secret diplomacy, and more.
Trogon concludes that there’s evidence Clark, who had once served under Wilkinson’s command, may have had some role in the slippery general’s conspiracy, but whether Clark was consciously committed co-conspirator remains unproven. She does, however, make a good case that the experience helped Clark acquire the command, managerial, and technical skills that caused him to be chosen to accompany the “Corps of Discovery,” and that those skills contributed greatly to the success of that expedition.
At times reading like a complex spy novel, this is an excellent book on an obscure event in the early history of the Republic.
Note: The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark, is also available as an e-Book, $36.95, ISBN 978-0-8262-7350-5