Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book Review: Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark

Image Courtesy of Barnes & Noble

William Foley’s Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark is an impressive biography of the famous explorer and career long government official. Foley starts with discussions of the various Clark family members and then works his way through “Billy” Clark’s early years as a frontier soldier. A large portion of the book is not surprisingly dedicated to the Corps of Discovery’s trek from St. Louis to the Pacific which paved the way for Clark’s future as an Indian agent and as territorial governor of Missouri. After the disproportionate attention to the three years of Lewis and Clark’s expedition Foley provides a nuanced treatment of Clark’s post expedition career which included plenty more cross country trips to the east. Throughout the book Foley strikes a good balance between Clark’s personal and public life and demonstrates the connections between the two. It would have been too easy to have only briefly mentioned his family’s struggles and tragedies, but Foley instead keeps them at the heart of the story.

Foley’s treatment of the Lewis and Clark expedition is on the whole straightforward and not groundbreaking. However, he sufficiently manages to tell the story of the expedition fairly briefly given other academic treatments of the trek and ties it in well with his explanation of Clark’s later actions and his treatment of both his slaves and Indian peoples. While the expedition’s story does take up a large portion of the book, Foley would be remiss to have cut it short given that those three years are some of the most fascinating and important years in William Clark’s life. He sagely demonstrates that Meriwether Lewis held Clark to be his complete equal despite having been given a lower rank. After returning east, Lewis made sure his partner and close friend received what he deserved including an equal tract of land to his own and equal pay.

Throughout the book Foley’s representation of Clark is positive, but not overly glorified. He represents Clark as a thoughtful and calculated captain of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but he does not tarry from criticizing Clark’s faults such as his harsh treatment of his slaves, especially York. He points out that Clark delayed freeing York and often kept him away from his wife and family back in Virginia for years.  While Clark’s treatment of York and his other slaves such as the pregnant woman he had whipped should certainly not to be overlooked, Foley makes it clear that Clark was a man of his day.

In contrast, Foley does not criticize Clark’s handling of Indian affairs. He again and again asserts that Clark worked to ensure fair treatment of the Indian “children” placed under his watchful gaze, but from a Native perspective Clark likely seemed as bad as many of the other American officials. For example, Clark extracted a slew of land cessions through various treaties while he was an Indian agent and superintendent. Many of which were more dubious than Foley lets on. Foley is also quick to note that despite Clark’s comments about a war of extermination against the Sac and Fox he calmed down after they had been soundly defeated and pledged allegiance to the United States.  To be sure Foley makes it clear that Clark’s expansionist views led him to push for cessions and led him to believe that Indian peoples must be pushed back in the face of American settlers. Interestingly, Foley does not adequately address Clark’s defense of Indians against white squatters or the political affects of those actions as Stephen Aron did in American Confluence.

When it comes to why William Clark lost the first election for governor of the new State of Missouri, Foley larger places Clark’s defeat in the light of Clark’s family hardships.  During the election Clark went east to see his wife only to find out that she had died, most likely from breast cancer, before he had even left St. Louis. Foley focuses on the fact that while Clark did essentially no campaigning his opponent McNair was actively campaigning and attacking Clark for being aloof, allied with Indians, and dedicated to the St. Louis elite. Whether or not Aron’s emphasis on Indian relations or Foley’s attention to Clark’s family life was the most pressing issue in the campaign is not immediately clear. Both authors had reason to focus their attention in differing ways given the emphasis of their books and in the end both of their explanation are likely accurate; Clark’s regular absence and failure to campaign coupled with his contentious relationship to Indian peoples combined to propel McNair to victory over the former territorial governor.

On a whole, Foley’s treatment of Clark is incredibly detailed and based on his extensive sources, well researched. He demonstrates that “Billy” Clark was both a man of his day and at the same time a particularly talented leader of men and Indian diplomat. While a more critical discussion of some of Clark’s actions would have been appreciated, Foley does a sound job telling the complicated story of Clark’s triumphs and his family’s devastating losses. Oddly, Clark’s death is sudden at the end of the book and only receives a very brief treatment.
Wilderness Journey: The LIfe of William Clark can be found at your local book store or online at, Barnes & Noble, or The University of Missiouri Press.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mid-American Conference

My wife Lauren and I recently visited Springfield, Missouri for the 35th Annual Mid-America Conference on History. The conference was hosted by Missouri State University and included presentations by a few dozen historians on a wide range of topics. We were there because I was presenting a paper based on my research on George Davenport an English sailor turned American soldier turned fur trader during the early 19th century. This paper focuses primarily on Davenport's influence on the outbreak of the Black Hawk War in 1832. The conference was a great experience, and we loved the opportunity to visit with Dr. John Reda and Dr. Alan Lessoff of Illinois State University who were both instrumental in my education while I studied at Illinois State University. You can read the full paper here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Frontier Artist: George Catlin

Self Portrait, c.1835
     George Catlin is one of the most famous frontier artists in American history.  Catlin was born in Pennsylvania in 1796. His first career was as a lawyer, but he found himself drawn to the Native peoples of the Americas.  He taught himself how to paint and began his career as a painter painting members of the eastern tribes in the 1820s. 
     His most famous, and most important, works are those that he completed in the early1830s as he toured the Upper Mississippi and Missouri River Valleys. He was the first outsider to paint many of these tribes. The bulk of his work focused on western tribes that some claimed had been relatively untouched by European society even into the 1830s. However, even these tribes who may have had very little direct contact with Europeans had been altered by hundreds of years of contact between the Americas and Europe and Africa. This is perhaps most evident in the plains tribes whose lives had been tremendously altered by the arrival of the horse. Nonetheless, Catlin believed he was capturing on his canvases peoples who represented a quickly fading "natural" or "traditional" way of life.
Portrait of Black Hawk, Indian Chief
     Catlin was not alone in believing that the peoples of the America's were destined to fade away. Many scholars of his period believed they were destined to disappear as "civilization" moved westward. The evidence before them suggested little else was possible. By the 1830s, most of the tribes east of the Mississippi River had either been diminished to minute numbers by hundreds of years of warfare, disease, and dislocation or had been forced westward. By the late 1830s, many of the tribes Catlin had painted suffered from waves of disease and teetered on the edge of destruction. Among the many tribes Catlin painted during his travels were the tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley including the Sauk, Mesquakie, and Iowas who were then being pushed westward. Catlin was present for the treaty that ended the Black Hawk War in 1833 and painted influential leaders including Black Hawk and Keokuk.
     Despite the rich detail and historical significance of Catlin's paintings he was not able to support himself by displaying his works and artifact collection. However, his paintings, drawings, and books are still used by historians today who are interested in these tribes and this era. A large portion of Catlin's paintings can now be found at the Smithsonian.

See-non-ty-a, an Iowa Medicine Man
Chief Keokuk, 1834
To see more paintings by Catlin visit 

If you are interested in learning more about Catlin or the tribes that he painted take a look at his two volume Letters and Notes on the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians which has been been republished by multiple presses. Some of the newer editions contain full page photographic prints of his work.

George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians in Two Volumes (New York: Dover, 1973).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Fourth of July

Happy fourth of July everyone.

During the American Revolution, the Upper Mississippi Valley was largely undefended by the British.  At the close of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) in 1763 the western lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River were claimed by the British Empire. They did not however have a heavy presence in the region. They largely left the French colonists who lived along a series of villages on the bottom lands along the Mississippi in what is now southern Illinois.George Rogers Clark marched a ragtag group of a few hundred militia men from the Virginia back country into the Illinois Country and seized the bottom land villages without meeting much resistance.  Clark's expedition allowed American diplomats to claim the some most fertile lands in North America.

Years later, on July 4th 1845, most inhabitants of the Upper Mississippi Valley were celebrating Independence Day, but George Davenport remained home ill on Rock Island. He was reportedly concerned about being robbed and had placed weapons throughout the home. He had reason to be uneasy. Bandits were a serious threat along the rivers of the interior. In the evening he went to investigate a disturbance at the door. When he unlocked the door three men stood before him. One of the men fired a pistol ball into Davenport's thigh. Davenport stumbled backwards and reached for one of his weapons but was restrained before he could defend himself. The intruders then laid Davenport on his bed and proceeded to search the home for valuables. They found the safe locked and convinced Davenport to unlock it for them by choking and beating the injured man. Before they left the home the robbers only obtained a few valuables including some firearms and a gold watch. In total they made away with less than $600 in cash and goods. Davenport was able to relay the details of the burglary before dying of his wounds, likely from blood loss. After his death, the citizens of Davenport and Rock Island began a search for those responsible.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Moving to the City of Mills

Moline in 1869, original source unknown found on's Flickr page.  
Note the factories located just to the right of the bridge. The bridge is roughly the location of the dam that supplied power to the earliest factories.

     My wife Lauren and I will be moving to our new home in Moline, IL over the next few days. I thought I'd put a short post together about the early history of Moline.

     The city's name comes from the French word Moulin which means "mill town." The name derives from the factories that sprung up in the late 1840's and early 1850's along the Sylvan Slough after it was dammed by David Sears in 1837. The hydraulic power from the dam was used to power a number of mills. The town was initially going to be named the Rock Island Mills, but that name failed to take hold.

     John Deere was among the early manufactures to relocate to Moline having first established himself at Grand Detour, Illinois. His factory opened in 1848. The "Moline Plows" were prized throughout the country and within three years of opening Deere and his laborers were churning out seventy plows a week. Deere was in competition with other plow-makers in the area including the Moline Plow Company and Rock Island Plow Works. The Moline Plow Company supposedly sold plows which were based on Deere's own designs and depended on the fact that Deere's plows where often known as "Moline Plows" to help generate sales.

     Moline benefited from water power initially, but over the long term, it was its access to river transportation and the transcontinental railroad that lead to the creation of a booming industrial city by the late 19th century (See my article on the Rock Island Road Bridge case for more details on the railroads). The city boasted dozens of factories that manufactured clothing, furniture, wagons, iron, paper, and more. Because of the relative ease of transportation by railroad Moline was able to attract newly arrived immigrants who readily filled open manufacturing jobs as they fled economic ruin in Europe.

 Benjamin Franklin Tillinghast, Three Cities and Their Industrial Interests (Davenport: Glass and Hoover, 1884).
Deere and Company, "Little Known Facts about John Deere."
Moline Preservation Society
Neil Dahlstrom and Jeremy Dahlstrom, The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John and Charles Deere (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005).

Monday, June 18, 2012

George Davenport

I am currently in the middle of revising a year long research project titled "The 'Englishman' George Davenport and Opportunism on the Mississippi Valley Frontier" which will be presented as part of the The Thirty-Fourth Annual Mid-America Conference on History this fall. 

I thought I'd take a break and put together a post on Davenport. He was an English immigrant born in Lincolnshire, England in 1783. His birth name was George King.  King came to the United States as a sailor in 1804. He was injured while unloading a vessel in the New York harbor. Supposedly, he leaped to the rescue of a fellow sailor who had fallen overboard and in the process he broke his leg. The broken limb was a life changing accident for King. His uncle placed him in the care of a New York City doctor and returned to England. After King's leg healed, he was advised to explore the New England countryside. During his sojourn, he met Lieutenant Lawrence who was recruiting for the United States Army. King, thousands of miles from home and unemployed, decided to enlisted. King also changed his name to George Davenport and became an American citizen.

Before ending up on Rock Island in 1816, Davenport served in the army during the War of 1812 and fought against his former countrymen and many of his later Native American customers. When he was discharged he worked out of St. Louis for a government supplier. In 1816, he traveled up the Mississippi with Colonel Lawrence (the same man that had convinced him to enlist) as a supplier to the regiment that established Fort Armstrong to defend the Upper Mississippi Valley from Native American agitators and to ward off British influence. Davenport then became the army sutler at Rock Island for a short while. He is often remembered as the first permanent white settler in the Quad City region.

Beginning in 1818, Davenport began a twenty-six year, prosperous career as a fur trader. He began as an independent trader working with the Ho-Chunk tribe (Winnebago) on the Rock River, but when he was absorbed into John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company in 1824 he and his new partner Russel Farnham's primary customers were the Sauk and Mesquakie (Fox). 

Historians differ on their take on Davenport's career. Local historians tend to glorify Davenport whereas academic historians and independent researchers have tended to condemn fur traders in general for exploiting Native peoples. I have found that while Davenport certainly benefited from his trade with the region's tribes and that this trade in part helped lead to their removal, he maintained positive relationships with the Sauk and Mesquakie and other area tribes. Davenport was known as Saganosh or "The Englishman" by the local Natives. His heritage helped secure his place among them and he was even adopted as a son by on of the Mesquakie elders. He served on their behalf at treaty conferences, was a trusted advisor, and prior to the outbreak of the Black Hawk War went to Washington, D.C. to try to persuade President Andrew Jackson to placate Black Hawk's "British Band." After the Black Hawk War ended he was sought out by Sauk and Mesquakie leaders to serve on their behalf at later treaties. After Davenport's death, a delegation of Mesquakies traveled to Rock Island to commemorate the death of their trusted friend. 

On the other hand, Davenport was also involved in the escalation of tensions that led to the outbreak of conflict in 1832. Davenport betrayed Black Hawk's trust by purchasing former Sauk and Mesquakie land in  
1828 after having advised Black Hawk to remove his band west of the Mississippi.  The land would have been sold whether or not Davenport purchased it, but Black Hawk did not see it that way. When Black Hawk's band returned in 1832, Davenport was among those who raised alarmist concerns that led to the Illinois militia firing on the "British Band" and the outbreak of the Black Hawk War which was less a war than a short series of bloody engagements that took place as Black Hawk tried to lead his band to safety.

After the 1832, Davenport continued to trade, but he also switched his sights to land speculation. He and his business associates, especially Antoine LeClaire who had been his friend and translator for years, laid out settlements that eventually became Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa.

On July 4, 1845 George Davenport's life came to an untimely end. He was murdered in his home by a gang affiliated with the "Banditti of the Prairie" while the rest of the family was away celebrating the holiday. Before his death he was able to relay the details of the attack, and local officials and residents mounted searches for the culprits. Three men were eventually executed for the crime.


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Rock Island Arsenal 150th Anniversary

There have been some great articles posted to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Rock Island Arsenal. Check them out below at:
The Rock Island Arsenal at 150