With Meriwether Lewis, William Clark led an epic expedition that captured the young nation’s imagination and prompted talk of its expansion across the continent.
That was in 1804.
Six years earlier, however, Clark had been associating with those who sought to diminish the United States.
In 1798, Clark loaded two flatboats with tobacco and animal pelts and headed from Louisville, Ky., to New Orleans, the exotic port that served as center for the Spanish government’s aspirations in North America.
Clark documented his trip in a leather-trimmed journal, but made only minimal observations in its diary sections once he arrived in New Orleans.
Since 1928, that artifact has been held by the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia.
Jo Ann Trogdon, a Columbia lawyer and historian, details what Clark did and did not record in her book “The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark.”
As noted by Trogdon, Clark had written down little of his impressions of New Orleans other than to describe the hot weather or add cryptic entries such as “All well.”
Trogdon knew there were other sources.
While preparing a previous book about the early history of St. Charles, Mo., she had consulted Spanish government archives from the period.
Although the original documents are housed in Seville, Spain, facsimiles are held in several repositories across the United States. Trogdon — who holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish — obtained microfilm of many records through interlibrary loan from Loyola University New Orleans.
“I found a lot of collaborating records and discovered that Clark was doing a lot more than he was talking about,” said Trogdon.
On the same day that Clark reached New Orleans and unloaded his flatboats, the Spanish customs office recorded his arrival and cargo. “The customs records give in glorious detail the amount of tobacco and different kinds of furs,” Trogdon said.
The archives also document that Benjamin Sebastian, a Kentucky lawyer and judge, was in New Orleans at the same time that Clark was in 1798.
In the late 18th century, Sebastian was among those seeking to perhaps break Kentucky — admitted to the Union in 1792 — away from the young United States. They were appealing, in part, to Kentucky businessmen who felt ignored by Washington and wanted to be free to strike their own deals with the Spanish.
By that time, Sebastian secretly had been taking Spanish dollars for his complicity in the conspiracy, Trogdon said.
Sebastian received about $265 in a barrel of coffee provided by Clark, according to Trogdon. While Clark didn’t make that delivery himself, the owner of the boat that carried that coffee upriver was Samuel Montgomery Brown, an accomplice of Sebastian’s also in New Orleans that summer.
Clark noted in his journal that he arranged for the transport of Sebastian’s Spanish dollars in his barrels of coffee.
“So the question is, did Clark know about Sebastian’s involvement with the conspiracy?” Trogdon asks.
Although it might appear obvious that Clark likely connected the dots, Trogdon said she still doesn’t know exactly what Clark knew, citing a lack of evidence. Clark never wrote anything about what came to be known as the Spanish Conspiracy, Trogdon said.
But, she added, little was certain then about the infant United States.
“In 1798, Clark didn’t know what the future held,” she said. “He was looking for something to build a career on.
“Over the years Clark has become a kind of cardboard hero. My goal in this book is to present Clark as a complex, fully three-dimensional person.”
In 1806, Sebastian pleaded guilty to all charges after being investigated by the Kentucky legislature for his alleged role in the conspiracy. That was the same year that Lewis and Clark made their triumphant return to St. Louis.
By the next year Clark’s future was secure after President Thomas Jefferson appointed him head of the Louisiana (later Missouri) territory militia, and a federal agent for western American Indian tribes.
Trogdon speaks at 6:30 p.m Wednesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more info, go to kclibrary.org.