Explorer William Clark stole 10.5 million acres of land from Native Americans, new discovery reveals

A ‘once in a lifetime’ archival discovery has revealed how controversial American explorer William Clark plotted a massive seizure of land from Indigenous nations and broke a peace treaty with Britain in 1816.

The card hid under a false identity and was only attributed, dated and decoded thanks to the work of Cambridge University historian Dr Robert Lee.

Lee saw the map on microfilm under the authorship of a certain Captain Eli B. Clemson, but the scholar saw that the map made no sense given the Osage Treaty of 1808 – where the Osage Nation ceded all lands east of the fort in Missouri and Arkansas north of the Arkansas River to the United States.

Clark, one of two members of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition that explored the interior of the United States from 1803 to 1806, was once revered as an American ‘hero’ but is the subject of controversy growing because of its reputation as a “friend of the Indians”. has been discredited.

As the William and Mary Quarterly newspaper reports, the map shows a massive land grab. Clark, then Governor of Missouri Territory, used the map to add 10.5 million acres of Sauk, Meskwaki and Iowa Territory to the United States – that’s an area equivalent to Switzerland.

“This stunning map shows how William Clark leveraged the American-Indian treaty system to promote settler supremacy in the United States at a time when he was praised for trying to protect Native lands from squatters,” said Lee in a statement. “Now we can see how scheming and dishonest he was.

William Clark, Map of the Extent of Settlement in the Mississippi Valley (1816). Image Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC

Scholars have explained how the style, spelling and symbols are consistent with Clark’s work – but it is one particular line that is key to restored authorship. The map, lost in 1951, was accompanied by a letter from Clark describing the line between Arkansas and the Red River.

This line is a unilateral overhaul of the 1808 treaty, taking half of present-day Missouri from the indigenous peoples living in the area. He also broke the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 with Britain. The official order was to restore pre-war borders, including those with Indigenous nations.

“A naïve interpretation could say that he found a huge loophole in the Treaty of Ghent. A realistic man would say he smashed it to grab a landmass three times the size of Connecticut,” Lee explained.

“Clark’s land grab worked by denying that his post-war interpretation of the Osage Treaty was novel. He carefully nurtured the fiction that he had clarified an ancient boundary, not fabricated. This plan worked so well that historians have tended to believe it or ignore the incident altogether.

The new (and cheap) land attracted thousands of emigrants, many of whom were slavers. A growing settler population led to Missouri becoming a state in 1821, and the claims of the Sauks, Meskwakis, and Iowans were ignored. Clark paid the Nations half a cent per acre in 1824, when the territory was selling for $4 to $12 an acre.

Clark is believed to be responsible for taking 419 million acres of Indigenous land. That’s about one-third of all land claimed by the United States at the time of Clark’s death in 1838.

Land grabbing has contributed to generations of hardship for Sauks, Meskwakis and Iowa.

Nohemi M. Moore