- The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark by Jo Ann Trogdon
Jo Ann Trogdon is a lawyer who has turned professional historian. In her current book, she delves deeply into two trips made to, and then down, the Mississippi River by William Clark (of subsequent Lewis and Clark fame). The purpose of Trogdon’s book is to flesh out William Clark’s role, if any, with the Spanish Conspiracy that sought to bind Kentucky to Spanish Louisiana. Where most people might label Clark as innocent, or boyish, during the 1790s, her research demonstrates that young William was neither innocent nor boyish. She also describes how greed and corruption at different levels within the Spanish military and civilian administration were the driving force for personal gain and wealth along the [End Page 85] Mississippi and Ohio valleys for Spanish officials and Kentucky citizens.
Trogdon’s analysis relies on two sources: Clark’s previously unstudied 1798 diary and circumstantial evidence that only the keen eye of a lawyer might detect. Ironically, her use of circumstantial or omitted evidence, when tied with long accepted evidence, makes for a more complete reassessment of the character and drive of young William Clark. She makes a strong case for detecting patterns in what was not recorded in his diaries during his two important trips to the Mississippi River, including his 1798 trip to New Orleans as a private citizen under the pretext to sell Kentucky agricultural products. Both trips involved Clark’s clandestine recording of key locations of Spanish military installations. The 1798 trip also included his purposeful and illegal smuggling of Spanish reales out of New Orleans (notably, the same amount owed General Wilkinson by the Spanish). Clark’s diaries reveal that young William was much more covert with his espionage than Victor Collot, who had been arrested by Spanish officials and jailed.
What is unique to Trogdon’s legal historical research and interpretive approach is her uncanny ability to extract detailed data and narrative from what Clark wrote, how he wrote it, and from what he did not write in his diary when he otherwise should have made a diary entry. By using published and unpublished sources, Trogdon places Clark in the same location at the same time with individuals known to be involved covertly with the seditious Spanish Conspiracy. The guiding question asked by Trogdon in her book is: To what degree was William Clark an active or duplicitous participant in the Spanish Conspiracy?
As a biographer of George Rogers Clark, I was intrigued greatly by Trogdon’s assertion that young William Clark seemed to admire and look up to General Wilkinson, the very man often credited with destroying the reputation of his older brother, General George Rogers Clark! Yet, Trogdon uses William’s own writings, along with numerous other archival sources to link him directly to military espionage and interaction with other conspiratorial players during his 1798 trip down the Mississippi River. Building upon her legal brief concerning Clark and the conspirators, Trogdon unravels a complex fabric of deceit, smuggling, avarice, and intrigue!
In doing so, she fleshes out circumstances that have been poorly researched, poorly understood, or purposefully left out of American history. Perhaps young William had his own hand in hiding this part of his own history in [End Page 86] order to keep his subsequent historical standing unabashedly high (xix-xx). Some readers might see Trogdon’s book as an excellent example of revisionist history, but others will appreciate her unique insights.
Still, Trogdon does not want to demonize Clark. She shrinks from inquiry that would, in her words, “deny Clark, whose western Expedition and subsequent public service entitle him to lasting renown, and recognition for being the complex individual he surely was” (323). Nonetheless, she has provided a clearer understanding about the life of William Clark and his nefarious relationship to members of the Spanish Conspiracy. And yet, in her concluding paragraph, Trogdon admits that the actual smoking gun of Clark’s direct involvement...