Clark's Education

Clark the Scientist

At the same time, the paragraph Clark dutifully copied states in simple terms the practical basis of scientific method as it stood in the Age of Enlightenment. If Captain William Clark was not yet to become a Freemason, he was soon to become a scientist, of sorts. Indeed, immediately after his death in 1838, the Academy of Natural Science passed a resolution acknowledging his scientific achievements.

The explorers' principal tasks, beyond the primary one of searching for a water route from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, were to observe, measure, and record what–and who–they saw along the way. And so, without benefit of microscope or petri dish, without satellite imagery or photography, without a speedometer or an odometer, they measured the Northwest. What is more, they brought back verbal snapshots of what they observed, many of striking spontaneity, color and beauty, and in fascinating and sometimes exhaustive detail. Yet taken as a whole, as raw data, the Expedition's written records do not add up to what one would call "a good read."


By merely browsing through the expedition's journals, one notices that William Clark was, as historian Donald Jackson has said, "a creative speller" and "a versatile capitalizer." His punctuation was haphazard, too, and his syntax sometimes baffling. There are several explanations for these foibles.

Clark grew up in a young nation where public education was in a prenatal stage, and that was still amorphous, in terms of language and culture. If there was an unspoken rule for spelling, it authorized and excused phonetic verisimilitude–"Spell it as it sounds." The result was, as Noah Webster (1758–1843) perceived it, that the pronunciation of words, as taught in contemporary schools, lacked standardization, and spelling was correspondingly confusing. He therefore turned his vast energy and his eloquent pen to the challenge of demolishing "those odious distinctions of provincial dialects which are objects of reciprocal ridicule in the United States." The initial outcome was his highly successful and amazingly durable American Spelling Book, which proved to be "a declaration of American cultural independence, conceived to unite Americans in peace, much as the declaration of political independence had united them in war."1

But William Clark was only thirteen years old when the first edition of the American Spelling Book appeared in 1783, and his formal schooling was nearly at an end, so he simply followed the old rule for the rest of his life. While some of his solutions were obvious, such as "looner" for "lunar," words from foreign languages were exceptional challenges. He invented 14 different spellings of the name of Sacagawea's husband, Charbonneau, and 27 renderings of the name of the Indians the French had called Sioux. Perhaps his most valiant struggle was with the very word dictionary, upon which the ink in his pen nearly congealed with frustration and disgorged . . . Deckinsary.2


He might have learned better, but in 1784 his family moved from Virginia, where the landed gentry were traditionally well educated, to Kentucky, which was then the virtual Western frontier of the United States. He was only fourteen, which was a bad time to have one's formal education interrupted. Actually, terminated is a better word in this instance, for the basic demands of frontier subsistence overrode all other concerns. Nevertheless, William Clark was a highly intelligent man, and in terms of the practical knowledge required to make his way in the wilderness, to lead men, and to succeed in the world of frontier politics, he was highly educated and consummately effective.

William Clark was born in Virginia in 1770. He enlisted in the army at age 19, and served under General Anthony Wayne. After rising to the rank of captain, he left the army in 1796 to devote his full attention to the management of the family's large land-holdings in Kentucky and Indiana. Around 1800 he spent some time on the east coast in the orbit of his friends Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis.

In June of 1803 he received an invitation from Lewis, then the president's secretary, to share the command of the proposed exploratory expedition through the Northwest to the Pacific Ocean. Upon his return in September of 1806, he, like Lewis, received $1,228 plus 1,600 acres of land for his services. He was also appointed Indian agent for the entire Louisiana Territory, and brigadier general of the Louisiana Militia.

By 1820 the whole intellectual and political foundation of Jeffersonism and the Enlightenment, which had made the Lewis and Clark expedition possible, was turned upside down. The new order, symbolized by the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), rejected national interests and instead gave free reign to the interests of the individual citizen, without governmental intervention.

Thus the stage was set for the reckless exploitation of the land and the peoples that Lewis and Clark had observed, measured, recorded and, on the whole, come to love and admire.

1. Harlow Giles Unger, Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998), 55.

2. Donald Jackson, "Some Books Carried by Lewis and Clark," Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society, vol. 16, no. 4 (October 1959) 11-13.


Jerome O. Steffen, William Clark: Jeffersonian Man on the Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.

Robert B. Betts, " 'we commenced wrighting &c.': A Salute to the Ingenious Spelling and Grammar of William Clark." We Proceeded On, Vol. 6, No. 4 (November, 1980).