Missing map by William Clark turns up with an unflattering revelation

The historian who found the map says it exposes an ‘aggressive’ colonizer.

 

A long-missing map, hand-drawn by William Clark of the 1803-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, has been rediscovered, apparently misfiled in historical archives. The more than 200-year-old document sheds an unflattering light on Clark and his anti-Indigenous scheming.

In 1816, Clark, then the governor of Missouri Territory, sent the map to Washington, D.C., accompanied by a letter that proposed extending the territory’s southern boundary into lands held by the Quapaw. By extending the boundary to the south and dispossessing the Quapaw people, Clark could legitimize squatter encampments on their land. That plan failed, but Clark floated a lot of similar lines with Washington, and only a couple years later there was a Quapaw cession of even more land than he originally proposed — 28 million acres that later became territory for reassignment during the removal of the Eastern tribal nations.

(Click to enlarge) A map drawn by William Clark in 1816, that accompanied letter proposing the extension of the Missouri Territory’s southern boundary into lands held by the Quapaw. A second, unlabeled line in the north foretold plans to settle on the Osage Nation’s land.
Clark map: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Redrawn map: Courtesy of Robert Lee

In his 1816 map, however, Clark had also offhandedly sketched another border extension to the north, one not based on any existing treaties or agreements.

Robert Lee, the assistant professor of history and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge who found the missing map, calls the northern boundary extension line “a cartographic equivalent of a Freudian slip.” According to Lee, the rediscovered map shows that Clark also wanted to push the border north, dispossessing the Sauk, Miskwaki and Iowa people, in order to legitimize another illegal settler encampment called Boon’s Lick. This plan succeeded. Over the next two centuries, however, nobody appeared to know how or when Missouri Territory first sought to expand northward.

 “A cartographic equivalent of a Freudian slip.”

“If you just ask the question, ‘How did the northern boundary of the state of Missouri come into being?’ and you go into the library and look for material on that, you won’t find any clear explanation,” Lee told HCN.

Clark’s map finally provides an answer. When he became governor of Missouri Territory in 1813, the most recent treaty defining the boundary was one signed with the Osage Nation in 1808. But that treaty was vague, saying only that the Osage had relinquished “all lands situated northwardly of the river Missouri.” How far northwardly — or westwardly, for that matter — was left undefined.

Clark tried to retroactively define where exactly that boundary should fall, encouraged by squatters from Boon’s Lick, who urged him to legitimize and protect their illegal settlement against the Sauk members who were rightfully and legally defending their lands. 

First, Clark tried to purchase the 10.5 million acres from the title-holding Sauk, Meskwaki and Iowa people in 1814. When that failed, he reinterpreted the 1808 treaty, and, in 1816, sent surveyors into the field to assess the new border. The year before that, however, Clark issued a declaration, saying that this new line — which had not yet even been surveyed — had been the border all along. Boon’s Lick spontaneously went from being an illegal squatter camp on Native land to a part of the Missouri Territory. A massive land grab followed, with colonizers flooding the area and establishing plantations fueled by slave labor. 

A detail of the northern boundary of Clark’s map, which shows Boon’s Lick as part of the Missouri Territory.
Courtesy of Robert Lee

“After Clark issues this proclamation, it just explodes the population,” said Lee. The moving of this boundary line precipitated the Missouri Crisis and played a significant, if heretofore unrecognized, role in the history of slavery as well as Indigenous dispossession. 

When Lee announced the map’s rediscovery in early February, he framed it as an insight into just how manipulative Clark's behavior really was. “Clark is not just toeing the line of what others want,” Lee said. “He is aggressive and ambitious in his efforts to obtain territory.” 

“Clark is not just toeing the line of what others want. He is aggressive and ambitious in his efforts to obtain territory.” 

The map also clearly reveals how the United States consistently dissolved Indian title and converted Indigenous land into U.S. real estate: not through military acumen, but by dishonestly manipulating treaties and legal rhetoric. In this sense, Clark’s actions were in line with U.S. norms. Matthew Fletcher, a citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and a professor of law at Michigan State University, told HCN this kind of manipulation occurred frequently. It was, in fact, the cornerstone of Indigenous dispossession.

“Surveyors would go in and incorrectly survey things; the government would invite people in over the course of time, who were not Indians, to settle on land that didn't belong to them,” Fletcher explained. “After enough time passed, you just throw up your hand and say, ‘It’s done.’ I would probably hazard a guess that you couldn't find a treaty where some aspects of that didn't happen.”

Lee said he hopes this discovery will prompt historians to dig more deeply into aspects of U.S. history that are often glossed over or taken for granted especially considering that the map was never truly lost — only misfiled, because nobody had bothered to look at it closely and critically. “The history of the taking of Indigenous land and the production of real estate by the United States are two sides of the same coin,” he said. And while Indigenous recovery of the land might be a “pie in the sky” expectation in this specific case, “getting the story right is the first task.”

B. Toastie (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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