Introducing: John Clark

John Clark was not one of the original protagonists in The Three-Cornered War

Clark was a surveyor, lawyer, and landowner in Illinois when the war began. Too old to shoulder a rifle, he hoped to serve the Union in other ways. President Lincoln appointed him surveyor-general of New Mexico Territory in the summer of 1861, and Clark left his large family in Illinois in order to take up this post, which he held until 1868. 

I found Clark’s 27 volumes of diaries at the Frey Angélico Chávez History Library at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe pretty early on in my research. They were astounding documents: rich in detail regarding life in the territorial capital from the fall of 1861 through the spring of 1868, with periodic pencil sketches of New Mexico landscapes and towns. 

John A. Clark, New Mexico Surveyor-General, c. 1860s. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Negative No. 047652.

At first I was going to use Clark’s diaries to create context for some of the other protagonists in the book (Louisa Canby, Kit Carson, and James Carleton), all of whom Clark knew and socialized with during the war. He wrote several entries, for example, describing séances he attended with Louisa in Santa Fe in the winter of 1862, events that left him fascinated and flummoxed. 

As I read through the entirety of his journals (I had only been able to take notes on his 1861-62 volumes on site during my first trip), however, it became clear to me that Clark himself played a more pivotal role in events in the Civil War West than I had thought.

He was the voice of the Lincoln Administration in New Mexico Territory, a dedicated Republican who believed in the party’s vision for the West: a landscape of free white labor, cleared of both secessionists and Native peoples. 

Readers of The Three-Cornered War will meet Clark when he arrives in Santa Fe in October 1861, and follow him as he evacuates the city before it falls to the Confederates in March 1862.

His subsequent surveys of Bosque Redondo, Chiricahua Apache territory in the Mogollon Mountains, and the Arizona gold country help to justify Union Army campaigns against Apaches and Navajos in 1863-64. And the letters Clark writes to his superiors in Washington help the Lincoln Administration and the Republican Party envision the conquest of the West. 

Although John Clark took several furloughs to travel to Washington, D.C. and home to Illinois to see his family between 1861 and 1868, he is one of only two protagonists in The Three-Cornered War (Juanita is the other) whose experiences of the Civil War West shape the book from beginning to end.


To tell Clark’s story, I used his diaries at the Chávez Library; his letters to the General Land Office and survey maps, in pristine condition and collected in several boxes at the National Archives; secondary sources on surveyors and surveying in nineteenth-century America; and New Mexico newspaper accounts that noted Clark’s activities in that territory and in Arizona. 

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