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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the June 2, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
An Introduction to William Clark
Everyone knows his name, but until now, few knew his story. “William Clark is the most famous American who never had a biography,” says Landon Y. (Lanny) Jones. “William Clark and the Shaping of the West,” Jones’ biography of Merriwether Lewis’ partner in the exploration of the uncharted territory that became the American West, was published on May 24.
Seated in a green leather office chair in his Princeton home office, shoes off, one leg tucked under the other, books and papers all around him, Jones, a retired Time Life executive, who also wrote “The Essential Lewis and Clark,” talks about the unsung hero of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and of parallels between his era and our own.
“The situation in Iraq is oddly similar to the Indian wars,” says Jones. “There were horrible atrocities on both sides.” President Bush has said that the torture and humiliation that American soldiers inflicted on their Iraqi prisoners does not represent “the America I know.” This remark is not surprising to Jones. “So much of history is wishful thinking,” he says.
Taking an unflinching look at the life and times of Clark led Jones into one of the most brutal chapters in American history, for the story of Clark is the story of the removal and extermination of native Americans. After spending four years learning all there is to know about Clark, mythic explorer and Indian fighter, does Jones like him?
“I struggle with that,” he says. “I do like him. He was a charismatic person — he could fill up a room. He was a good person, and he was smart, and empathetic. He was courageous. But he was deeply implicated in the most shameful chapter of American history.”
In the end, says Jones, “I accept the complexity. He’s like America. Yes, he was a good man. And, yes, he was implicated in a tragic episode. People at times were avaricious, but that wasn’t his motive. And he didn’t hate Indians. He sincerely thought that removal was the only solution for the Indians, that it was the only way they could learn to live with the white man.” Jones, who coined the term “Baby Boomer” in his 1980 book, “Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation,” says a younger writer might have been judgmental, but that he worked to present Clark just as he was. Toward the end of his book, he writes “The fact is that for most of his life, Clark embodied the contradictions and hypocrisies of the federal government’s Indian policy.”
Jones’ fast-paced book on the complex man begins with a bang as he uses vivid detail to portray the scene of the Indians’ greatest military triumph against the advancing white man. It occurred in 1791 on the Wabash River, just east of the present Indiana border, and has come to be known as St. Clair’s Defeat, named for the general in charge. Fourteen hundred soldiers, caught unaware at dawn in their encampment, were attacked by some 1,000 Indians. Six-hundred-and-thirty Americans, including about 56 women traveling with the soldiers, were killed, and most of the rest discarded their weapons and fled across frozen ground.
Jones quotes one survivor: “The bodies of the dead and dying were all around us, and the freshly scalped heads were reeking with smoke, and in the heavy morning frost looked like so many pumpkins through a cornfield in December.”
“It was the only event I took out of context,” says Jones. He decided to open his book with the horrific battle because he found it so interesting. “Three times as many people died there than died at the Battle of Little Big Horn,” he says. Yet there were no survivors at Custer’s famous last stand, and therefore no first hand accounts. After St. Clair’s Defeat, however, many survivors wrote of the sound of war whoops and the sights of slaughter in their journals.
The image of the “smoking heads” is something everyone who has read the book comments on, says Jones. It is indeed a striking image. The first chapter of the book also contains any number of equally riveting, but substantially less gruesome, details on the natural world as it existed in America in the mid-to-late 18th century. In this chapter, and throughout the book, Jones provides breathtaking descriptions of the virgin land the Americans found in their push toward the western frontier.
“There were red and white oaks and maples 100 to 150 feet tall, enormous chestnuts and buckeyes 18 feet in girth,” he writes. “Along the frozen river bottoms stood huge thickets of cane, with stalks 12 to 20 feet high, tall enough to hide a man on horseback. The hollowed-out trunks of sycamores, called buttonwoods, could shelter a family.”
Jones chose to begin his book with the battle scene and its context, both in the natural world and in the political world, for another reason. “It was the high water mark for the Indians,” he says. “It was their greatest victory. From then on, everything was downhill.”
“The great tribes of the Ohio Valley would never again realize such power,” he writes at the close of his first chapter. “Almost from their moment of victory, the tide of violence in the West began to turn against them. Over the ensuing five decades, defeated by treaties and raw force, the Indians would be driven out of the eastern United States. The same brutal process would repeat itself west of the Mississippi.
“Both removals would be made possible by a man who joined the territorial militia in 1790 with a commission signed by Arthur St. Clair and Winthrop Sargent. By his good fortune he had not joined the march to the Wabash, though he would live the rest of his life with its bloody legacy. He was William Clark.”
Jones is able to grab his readers’ attention and draw them into the life of a little-known explorer, military man, and territorial administrator, at least in part because of his background as a writer and editor at a number of Time Inc. publications, including People magazine and Money magazine.
A graduate of Princeton University (Class of 1966), he went to work for Time Life right after graduation. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Princeton, where he edited the Princeton Alumni Weekly from 1969 to 1974. Then it was back to Time Life, where, during a 30-year career, he became managing editor of Money and of People, launched a number of new magazines, and retired as vice president for strategic planning.
“People shaped my story-telling style,” he says. “I had to distill a gargantuan amount of material.” He recalls one particularly challenging, but not terribly unusual, assignment. “After Nelson Rockefeller died,” he says, “we decided to do stories on all of his brothers. The researchers brought me all the stories Life magazine had run on them. They came up from the morgue in shopping carts.” The shopping carts rolled into Jones’ office at 10 p.m., and he was charged with writing an article on each brother by the next morning.
The articles, on relatively obscure financiers and politicians, had to present information-filled portraits interesting enough to make the average subscriber keep on reading — without over-simplifying the material. “That’s the great danger,” says Jones, “over-simplifying.”
Jones met a similar challenge at Money magazine. “I don’t know anything about finance,” he says. But neither did most of the magazine’s target audience. If he was able to write — or edit — stories that made an aspect of finance clear and compelling to him, he could assume that he had done his job.
After moving from writing, to editing, to creating magazines, Jones found himself in a position where what he mostly wrote was memos. Toward the end of his tenure at Time, though, a book idea landed in his lap. His friend Joyce Carol Oates, most noted for her novels, had just completed “The Essential Emily Dickinson” for Ecco press. She suggested that he write a similar book. He demured at first, saying that the only thing he knew all about was the journey of Lewis and Clark. A lightbulb went off, and he began his book, a distillation of the voluminous journals kept by the explorers.
A native of St. Louis, where his father was an executive and his mother a civic-minded homemaker, he had grown up with stories of Lewis and Clark. “I went to Clark elementary school,” he says, “but I didn’t know it was named for that Clark.” In fact, despite his upbringing in the city from which Lewis and Clark began their journey, he didn’t become really interested in their westward exploration until he began to travel to the west, and visited the sites that Lewis and Clark mapped. He saw the enormous, craggy mountains that stood in their way, and began to grasp the scope and significance of their accomplishment.
In researching “The Essential Lewis and Clark,” Jones became interested in the lesser-known partner. Lewis, who committed suicide soon after the expedition, was a patrician, eloquent, and tragic figure. And he had gotten all of the attention, including a substantial recent biography by Stephen Ambrose, “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.”
Lewis, named head of the expedition by Thomas Jefferson, was a fascinating man, who wrote exhaustive descriptions of the hundreds of plants, animals, and Indian tribes encountered on the journey. But Clark, who organized the expedition, and kept often-unhappy troops in line, was an equally fascinating man, who, after completing the expedition, spent 30 years “managing” the trans-Appalachian Indian population as the new west was settled by white farmers and trappers.
Jones set out to write his story four years ago, right after he retired from Time Warner. Born just a few years too soon to be an official Baby Boomer, he concedes that his version of “retirement” may become the norm for that generation.
“I work all the time,” he says happily, as he looks out onto his backyard through a curved wall of windows in his office, a two-story loft attached to his home and accessed by way of a spiral staircase. “I work seven days a week,” he says. “I love writing — and research, too. I’m always working, except when I’m not. When I’m playing.” There doesn’t appear too be much play, though. “My wife and I talk about playing more golf,” he says, “but we never do. Well, in fact, my wife doesn’t play golf at all, and I’ve played once this year. Yesterday.”
Jones’ wife, Sarah, is a computer technician who works “about three-quarters time” for the Woodrow Wilson School. The couple have three grown children, a grandchild, and one grandchild on the way. They have a second home near Bozeman, Montana. “We try to spend the summer there,” says Jones, “as much of the summer as we can.”
During the summers that he was writing “William Clark,” Jones arrived at his Montana home “with a trunk full of books.” He supplemented the material-world research tools with liberal use of the Internet. “It’s amazing to me how many times I use Google,” he says. “There’s a ton of genealogy — names, dates, places; things you can’t find in books.” A problem, he concedes, is accuracy. He uses a triangulation system of cross-checks to confirm information, and always feels more comfortable when he does find the same fact in a book. Still, in the nine-page bibliography of his exhaustively researched new book, he does cite Internet-only sources twice.
In addition to Googling, Jones did a great deal of research in Princeton’s Firestone library and visited the libraries of many historical societies. He was amazed to find the latter chock-full of what he first assumed to be scholars. It turns out that the capacity crowds consisted mostly of folks researching their family trees. “Well, of course, they are scholars too,” he hastens to add. These informal researchers, who often put their findings on the Internet, were a great help to Jones as he put together the details of William Clark’s life and times.
In thinking about Clark’s time in history, and about the man’s lifelong work of clearing Indians from the country’s mid-section, does Jones see any way that there could have been a happy ending for the native Americans?
“No, there was no way at all,” he says. “There was nothing the Indians could have done.” The only thing that could have made a difference would have been a willingness on the part of the white settlers to live side-by-side with the Indians, and that was not going to happen. Putting it in a 2004 context, as his wife watched televised hearings of the 9-11 commission’s visit to New York City downstairs in the family den, Jones says, “It would have been like living side by side with al-Quida.”
The miracle, says Jones, “is that the Indians are still here.” After completing four years of research, this fact absolutely amazes him. “Lewis and Clark would never have believed it,” he says. Vice-president of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, he has been instrumental in helping to raise money to ensure that Indian tribes are an integral part of the multi-year anniversary celebration, which began on May 21.
“They survived!” Jones says of the Indians, “they’re here as tribes. Their culture has been preserved; it’s weakened, but it has been preserved. Lewis and Clark thought the Indians would have been long gone — eliminated for assimilated. But they’re here. They never would have believed it.”
William Clark and the Shaping of the West, a lecture and book signing by Landon Y. Jones, Barnes & Noble, 609-716-1570. June 3, at 7 p.m..
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