Descendant Portrays William Clark
Descendant Portrays William Clark

Charles Clark, sixth generation descendant of the famed Capt. William Clark, who was playing the role of his great-great-great-grandfather, looked into his telescope as they came around the bend. He turned toward the re-enactor for York, a slave who took part in the expedition, and reminded him that St. Charles had 400 residents during the original trip. He laughed and added, "It looks like they all came out to greet us."

The crew got out and the crowd parted like the Red Sea, allowing them to approach the flagstaff and raise the 1795 American flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes. "Then we sang 'Chester,' our first national anthem," Clark said, his face beaming as he spoke of the exhilarating moment.

Clark, now 51, is thrilled that the Voyage of Discovery is finally getting its due. When he was a youngster, his school history books included a mere paragraph or two on the event. "Basically the books talked about two men, a dog and an Indian," he said.

This year Americans everywhere are learning about the journey in books, documentaries and newspaper articles. And those fortunate enough to live in areas where the Discovery team traveled, including Washington, have the opportunity to see their local events re-enacted before their very eyes.

Charles Clark said he feels very fortunate to have played the role of William Clark this past week in St. Charles, although he hasn't done it alone. His cousin Bud Clark has alternated the role with him and, when they arrive in Washington Sunday evening for the "Rendezvous at the Riverfront," the role will be assumed by Washington resident David Hommes.

Clark, a St. Louis resident, said he became involved with the re-enactment group several years ago when he began participating in Lewis and Clark Heritage Days in St. Charles, an annual weekend event.

"The group founded the Corps Discovery Expedition of St. Charles in 1996 and built its first keelboat," he said. "The group grew from that."

Clark said he and his cousin Bud fell into the role of William Clark by virtue of being blood relatives. Bud is retired and will be with the group for the duration of the trip, whereas Charles is working and has limited vacation time.

"I'll commute to be with the group at signature events whenever I can," he said, adding that he is especially looking forward to seeing the still pristine condition of the headwaters of the Missouri River in North Dakota.

Flexibility, he added, is the key to the success of the re-enactment. "There are no scripts," he said. "We just have to redo the trip as we believe they may have done it. We have no control over the weather or river conditions, and neither did they."

Some things, however, are different now. The re-enactors use bug repellent and cell phones and the boats have motors. And, whereas the original crew ate a diet of meat during the early part of their trip and salmon once they got to the West Coast, the re-enactors have brought a variety of nutritious foods with them.

"We've made concessions for the safety of the crew and the boats," Clark said. "We're taking advantage of things we know now and can do better than they did then."

Playing the Part

Clark wears his "costume" proudly, never forgetting the stately gentleman and ancestor he represents. "William Clark was a gentleman and would have worn finer attire (than some on the expedition)," he said.

His re-enactment uniform is that befitting a captain of artillery for the U.S. Army. His navy jacket has red turnbacks and gold braiding with brass buttons emblazoned with an emblem of a cannon. One epaulette indicates his captain's rank and the rest of his outfit includes ivory colored pants and ruffled shirt, vest, black boots and black felt hat.

"This is called a round hat," he said. "William Clark also had another, more Napoleonic hat, which was the dress hat for his uniform. But William Clark didn't particularly like it and neither do I. This one is more comfortable and provides protection from the sun."

Around Clark's neck is a gorget, a large, gold ornamental collar, which was originally a piece of armor created to protect the throat from swords or spears. "Now it's just a decorative piece," he said.

Learning From the Past

When the keelboat and pirogues took off from St. Charles 200 years ago, the crew had feelings that were much different from those of the current crew, who will head to Washington for more commemorative activities and a full military ball.

"Back then, St. Charles was the end of civilization as they knew it," Clark said. "They reloaded their boats, had their parties and balls and headed out into the unknown for two years."

Clark said he's not sure he would have wanted to be part of the "real" trip, with its many unseen dangers.

"Maybe if I were 20 years younger (than I am now) and in better shape I would have given it a try," he said.

For now he enjoys being part of the action and sharing history with young people.

More than 250 students a day have visited St. Charles during its signature event and more than 900 are expected at the Washington riverfront.

"It's wonderful to see their enthusiasm," Clark said. "If we can keep the kids' interest alive, we will consider our mission a great success."