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Arts and Culture

Thinking Out Loud: A Closer Look at William Clark

Edgar Ailor III

What William Clark did on a 1798 trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers is the focus of this episode of Thinking Out Loud. KBIA's Trevor Harris interviews Columbia author Jo Ann Trogdon about her new book from the University of Missouri Press, The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark.

Before he went West on the Corps of Discovery trip with Merriweather Lewis, William Clark tried his hand at military service and trading on United States rivers. Jo Ann Trogdon's new book looks at the period in the decade before the 1804-1806 Corps of Discovery trip.

Clark resigned from the military in 1796 and settled again in his native Kentucky where he was interested in starting a business. "He was interested in making a trip down the Ohio River since 1796. He was looking for an opportunity to try his hand at commerce in  Spanish New Orleans."

When the ice on the Ohio River had thawed in March of 1798, Clark set out from Louisville for New Orleans with seven boatmen on two used flatboats. The boats were loaded with goods for trade. This included furs, Kentucky-grown tobacco and pork.

The author Trogdon drew details for her new book from a journal of William Clark. In this journal, William Clark detailed some of his 1798 travels.  This journal of Clarks told about his spending weeks, months in Spanish Territory. It was in this territory that Clark encountered American citizens and soliders who were allied with Spain. Some of Clark's interactions were with the leaders of the Spanish Conspiracy, a plot to overthrow the United States in Kentucky and reclaim that land for Spain.

"The Spanish Conspiracy was a series of plots that began under General James Wilkinson of the U.S. Army. He was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army... Wilkinson was a traitor to the United States. In 1787, even without a passport, Wilkinson took a commercial trip down the Mississippi River to Spanish New Orleans," said Trogdon. It was on that trip that Wilkinson bribed Spanish officials in New Orleans with gifts. He told them that for the right price he would and did become allegiant to Spain.

On Clark's own trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, he kept a diary and a ledger. "If this was a business trip, then where were the business records? said Trogdon. It was in New Orleans in 1798, that Clark bribed Spanish officers. He encountered men on his trip who were clandestinely on the Spanish payroll. Some of these men - principals in the Spanish Conspiracy - secured a commitment from Clark agreed to have his men haul Spanish currency back upriver to Kentucky.

Was Clark a traitor to the United States because of the associations he had in Spanish New Orleans? Trogdon said "Clark does deserve fame and honor as an explorer... He was a complex person and that's my goal in The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark to show that, yes, he was complicated and he had motivations as everyone else does. He was not a simple person."

Listen to new episodes of Thinking Out Loud each Tuesday evening at 6:30 on 91.3FM KBIA.

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