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|Trogdon's book to highlight William Clark's 1798 visit to Natchez, boundary line|
In the summer of 1798 below Fort Adams, 28-year-old William Clark visited the boundary line, where scores of men were working to mark a path through the wilderness.
Axmen and other workers were employed by both the U.S. and Spanish governments for this massive task. This boundary was the line of separation between the new U.S. possession known in this region as the Mississippi Territory on the north and Spanish territory on the south. The boundary began on the east side of the Mississippi River along the 31st parallel and stretched to the Atlantic Ocean. This line was marked as part of the terms of the Treaty of San Lorenzo.
Clark, a Virginian by birth, was at a crossroads in his life when he journeyed through Natchez country. He had joined the army a few years earlier and became an officer, but he retired in 1796.
Little did he know when he visited the boundary line in 1798 that just five years later he would begin one of the most extraordinary journeys of his life. He and Meriweather Lewis would lead what became known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, exploring the far-reaches of the Louisiana Purchase.
What's also interesting is that among the men at the boundary camp at this time was William Dunbar of Natchez, the great inventor, explorer, scientist and planter. Dunbar would go on to lead another exploration connected with the Louisiana Purchase. He and Dr. George Hunter -- from October 1804 to January 1805 -- explored the Ouachita River valley up to the hot springs in present day Arkansas.
We get a glimpse of Clark's visit to Natchez country and the boundary line from Jo Ann (Jan) Trogdon of Missouri, who is writing a biography of Clark. Last year, Jan and her husband William Least Heat-Moon spent some time in this region as both researched individual book projects. (Heat-Moon is the author of "Blue Highways," which was on The New York Times bestseller list in 1982-83 for 42 weeks. The book is his acount of a 13,000-mile journey through the country's backroads.)
Jan says that William Clark, on a business trip, "landed his flatboats at Natchez on April 15, 1798, and stayed until the next day, writing nothing more than that he had arrived there and left. Since the ledger section of his journal shows he spent a few dollars there, I'm surmising he paid for room and board somewhere in town.
"He returned to Natchez by horseback on July 1 and stayed until the 8th, again spending money commensurate with lodging/boarding for that length of time. While in town he bought a hat and blankets and shot billiards. He also sold two horses and bought a pirogue in which he'd paddle back to New Orleans."
Before and after that second visit to Natchez he stopped at the boundary line camp.
"Clark wrote minimalistic journal entries," says Jan. "I wish Clark had more to say but his entries are frustratingly terse."
Jan explains that the book "concerns three years of Clark's life as described in an original but little-known journal he kept from 1798 to 1801. Most of his writings in that book concern a voyage he made in 1798 from his Louisville home to Spanish New Orleans to sell tobacco and other trade goods.
"The United States was then on the brink of war with France, and Louisiana was expected to become a battleground as Spain was an ally of France. Clark spent most of 1798 wondering how to protect himself should the feared war become a reality.
"My book, based on his journal, with corroboration from a wealth of sources including the Spanish Archives, reveals a very three-dimensional Clark we've not seen before. In 1798, his 'big break' with Lewis was still unforeseeable, his career was going nowhere (he had retired from the Army and was spending civilian life trying unsuccessfully to help his debt-ridden, alcoholic brother George.)
"Clark was getting desperate to make his mark in the world. He took the trip to New Orleans hoping to earn a fortune or at least to make some fortunate connections with men of power and influence.
"The 1798 and 1801 journeys not only led to Lewis's inviting Clark to help lead the great western expedition, but had some very unexpected results. Afterward Clark made no known mention of his 1798 activities, as if he was trying to distance himself from that year."
Jan hopes to finish the book by the end of this year.
At the time Clark arrived in Natchez in 1798, Capt. Issac Guion was in charge of keeping the peace with his small garrison of soldiers. He alone was the government for a brief period of time.
The Spanish had turned over possession of Natchez to the Americans -- led by Guion -- in late March 1798. The newly-appointed governor of the newly-formed Mississippi Territory, Winthrop Sargent, did not arrive in Natchez until August of 1798.
As Guion placed a firm thumb on the populace to keep order, he saved all the major decisions for Sargent.
Clark arrived in Natchez at an exciting time. Many were wanting a piece of the political pie but old Sargent was determined to first set about enacting some rules and regulations for this rough-and-tumble frontier country.
This change in government also provided employment for many men in Nathez. The boundary line work south of Natchez required axemen, and laborers of all kind.
The U.S. had stretched its arm into this southwest region and the eyes of the country were on Natchez. More exciting times were to come, particularly when the Louisiana Purchase came in 1803. Just across the river from Natchez in Concordia, new opportunities came, while William Clark found his life forever changed as he and Meriweather Lewis journeyed westward to explore this new American land.
After months of hardship, the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean. There, in only three words, Clark beautifully expressed in his journal his impression of this great accomplishment.
"Ocean in view," he wrote, adding, "O! the joy."
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