Who was George Rogers Clark? This is probably a question most people in America couldn’t answer. The reason is very simple, George Rogers Clark was a hero in an age of heroism. He simply could not compare with the legends of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Revolutionary War heroes. Clark nevertheless is very important, especially to the people of Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana who became apart of the United States of America because of his great leadership and bravery in military campaigns at Kaskaskia, Illinois and Vincennes, Indiana during the Revolutionary War.
George Rogers Clark was born in Albermale County, Virginia on November 19, 1752 to John and Ann Rogers Clark. The Clark family consisted of six boys and four girls living on a four hundred acre plantation. George Rogers Clark was not even the most famous person in his family, his younger brother William later came to fame with his good friend Merriwether Lewis for exploring Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. The Clark family was very well to do and influential, which enabled them to send young George to very good school, and have him tutored by some of the great minds in the region, like George Mason.
George Rogers Clark had three friendships as a child that forever changed and shaped his future as a leader and revolutionary war hero. Thomas Jefferson’s father owned a nearby plantation, though there was a nine year age difference between Thomas Jefferson and George Rogers Clark, the two enjoyed a life long friendship. He was also a classmate of James Madison, who would later be a strong supporter of George Rogers Clark and his military campaigns. Last, George Mason, a future Revolutionary war statesman and member of the continental Congress was a close friend of the family, and mentor to Clark. Thus, George Rogers Clark was born in a hotbed of heroes whose influences, along with the love and support of his family, helped to make him a courageous leader.
As a young man, Clark dreamed of going to the unknown, beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, a mere ten-minute walk from the Clark Plantation. Clark accomplished this dream by becoming a surveyor just as his personal hero George Washington had been. In 1775, Clark began founding settlements and leading settlers into a region of the back-country claimed by Virginia, today known as Kentucky. George Rogers Clark estabilished five settlements in Kentucky and fought off Indian attacks at every single one of the settlements. For this reason, he demanded Virginia give him support in the way of ammunition, so he could continue to protect the Kentuckians from the many Indian attacks. With the help of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, the bill to make Kentucky a county of Virginia was created on December 7th 1776, making George Rogers Clark the founder of the commonwealth of Kentucky.
George Rogers Clark was a leader and hero to all of the Kentuckians he protected from both Indian and possible British attacks. After the Revolutionary War broke out, he decided to attack the British army at their forts in Kaskaskia, Vincennes, and Detroit. George Rogers Clark who had four brothers fighting in war wanted desperately to be a part of it. Clark later wrote, It was at this period that I first though of paying some attention to the interest of the country. And attention he did pay, from this point on he became one the greatest military leaders in American history.
George Rogers Clark left Kentucky on October 1st, 1777 on his long journey back to Williamsburg Virginia to explain his plans to Governor Patrick Henry and the Virginia Legislature. He arrived on December 1st , spent one day with his parents and then set to meet with Governor Henry. Governor Henry loved Clark’s idea, and was willing to support him in any way possible, but knowing the plan was risky he only gave part of the plan to the legislature. The legislature approved a vague plan to march against and attack any of our western enemies. Governor Henry then gave Clark two sets of instructions. The public order authorised Clark to enlist seven company’s of fifty men, he gave Clark 1200 dollars in currency,promoted him to lieutenant, and told him to proceed to Kentucky and await instructions from Governor Henry. The second, private order gave Clark total control of the troops.
Though he felt it would take 500 men to make his campaign a success Clark returned to Kentucky on January 2nd with no more than 180 soldiers. The journey was very tranquil, with no attacks from Indians along the way, and on May 12, 1778 they arrived close to the Kentucky shore on Corn Island a small island of about seventy acres that lied in the middle of the Ohio River. It was here that they cut down trees and set up camp, building two rows of cabins for the troops and their families to live in and two blockhouses to store ammunition and provisions . Corn Island was very important to the Clark’s campaign because it provided complete safety, surrounded by rushing water and trees they were protected from attacks of any kind. It allowed Clark and his soldiers to relax before going to battle.
On June 24th, 1778 at 9:00 am under a total eclipse of the sun Clark and his four companies began a four day trip down the Ohio River to the mouth of the Tennessee River. The men continued on foot to the Kaskaskia River where they Procured a sufficiency of vessels to cross the Kaskaskia River to the British Fort Gage in the city of Kaskaskia. On the night of July 4th, 1778 Clark and his men took possession of the fort without firing a shot. The story of what Clark did is much more interesting than the plain fact that they took the fort. On that night after all the inhabitants of the fort had been disarmed Clark proceeded to the British Governor’s home where Mr. Rocheblave, the acting Governor was having a party. According to the legendary account, Clark stood up in the middle of the ballroom and told all the party goers to continue with their dance, but they were now dancing under Virginia’s flag, not England’s.
The importance of Clark and his small force being able to secure Kaskaskia without bloodshed is that they did not lose any soldiers or waste any of their limited supplies, but as important was the fact that Clark got the citizens of Kaskaskia to take an oath to America because he was willing to allow them the freedoms that the British never had. Thus, the residents of Kaskaskia, including Father Pierre Gibault and Francis Vigo Were very important allies to Lieutenant Clark for the remainder of his campaign.
After conquering Kaskaskia George Rogers Clark had to turn his plans to the trip to and conquering of Vincennes. Before he could get to Vincennes however, he would have to deal with the fifteen or more Indian Tribes that inhabited the valley between Kaskaskia and Vincennes, some peaceful, some warlike and some on the British payroll. Clark met with many of these Indians during his time in Kaskaskia, and it was in these meetings that Clark showed his diplomatic ability. General Clark held a conference with most of the Indians in the region. Clark and the small group he brought along were vastly outnumbered by the Indians. During this meeting George Rogers Clark gave a very eloquent and persuasive speech to the Indians, telling them of his plans to thwart the British, and states that he has no problems with them as long as they leave his men and the residents of Kaskaskia alone. You can now judge who is in the right. I have already told you who I am. Here is a bloody belt and a white one. Take whichever you please. Behave like men and don’t let you present situation, being surrounded by the Big Knives(white American soldiers), cause you to take up the one belt with your hands when your hearts drink up the other. In this statement Clark was giving the Indians the choice of going to battle with him and his troops, or having peaceful relationship. The Indians chose the white belt of peace and they and Clark’s forces smoked from the peace pipe and partied all night. After this act of diplomacy, George Rogers Clark and his forces had no further problems with the Indians from this area. Now Clark could give all his attention to attacking Hamilton and his British Troops at Fort Sackville in Vincennes.
Upon hearing of the conquering of Kaskaskia Governor Hamilton and about 500 troops came to Vincennes from Detroit to secure Fort Sackville. Clark hearing of this and Hamilton’s plan to attack Kaskaskia, capture him and join the British forces in the East was pushed into a very tough decision. With his limited troops and ammunition there was no way his force could fend off an attack from the British. Also, many of his troops service was up, so Clark was going to have to convince his army to stay and get as many of the Kaskaskians to join him as he could. In a speech to the troops that were free to leave Clark thanked them for the care they had of my person and told them it was the fate of war that a good soldier never out to be afraid of his life where there was a probability of his doing service by venturing of it. Again Clark’s diplomacy was very important, he was able to get some of the troops to stay and more importantly got many of the Kaskaskians to join America’s cause. Next, Clark had to procure supplies and ammunition for the trip to do this he went to his trader friend Francis Vigo who gave him all the supplies he needed in exchange for bills of credit from Virginia which Clark himself indorsed. On February 4th 1779 Clark and his small band of no more than 170 troops began the long 200 miles journey to Vincennes, after receiving absolution from Father Pierre Gibault, the priest of Kaskaskia.
What made Clark’s plan both ingenious and desperate was that Hamilton and his troops were planning to leave during the spring to attack Kaskaskia. In order to prevent this from happening Clark and his men would have to arrive at Fort Sackville before the British left to attack them. This meant an almost impossible 200 mile journey through flooded valleys during the dead of winter. The plan to attack during the winter was a stroke of genius, the fact that he had no other choice is what made it a last ditch desperate attempt that would either succeed in the taking of Vincennes or fail with the death of everyone involved.
On the night of February 23rd Clark and his men were within a league of Fort Sackville. Clark had to make his final decision on how to attack Hamilton and his troops. I resolved to appear as darring as possible so that the enemy might conceive by our behaviour that we were very numerous and probably discourage them. Before marching on to Vincennes Clark sent a letter to Vincennes ahead of him telling the inhabitants of the town that he was going to attack the British Garrison, he warned them to stay in their homes, and if they didn’t they would be dealt with harshly after his victory. On the twenty-fourth of February 1779 Clark and his men made their attack on Fort Sackville.
The Attack was so well planned and shocked the British so much that they didn’t believe it was an attack until one of their men was shot dead. Instead they thought the gunfire was from a group of drunken Indians returning home from a hunting party. For the next eighteen hours Clark’s troops had the Garrison surrounded so well that whenever one of the British soldiers tried to man the cannon, or peek out they were immediately shot by one of Clark’s sharpshooters.
Knowing he was losing the battle and thinking that Clark had a large army, General Hamilton asked for a meeting with Clark to discuss a truce. Clark agreed to a meeting at the town church located about eighty feet from the fort. At this meeting the two discuss terms of a possible surrender. Clark asked for an unconditional surrender where all the British troops would become prisoners at discretion, and he also demanded Indian Partisians which meant that Clark had the right to kill all the Indians that assisted the British in any way. General Hamilton refuses these very harsh terms and returns to the fort to continue the battle, briefly.
It was only a short time after the meeting had concluded that some of Clark’s men captured a Warrior party of Indians that were returning to Vincennes, the group was hooting and hollering with their newly acquired scalps in their hands. Clark’s men attacked the Indians killing several of them in the field and capturing six of them. The prisoners were then taken to George Rogers Clark, who decided to make examples out of them. Six of Clark’s men each took one of the Indian’s to the front of Fort Sackville, lining them up in front of the Garrison they gruesomely tomahawked them right in front of General Hamilton and all his troops. General Hamilton immediately met with Clark and gave him his unconditional surrender on February 25th, 1779.
This was a very Historical conquest for America, as a result of George Rogers Clark’s victory at Fort Sackville Virginia gained the territories of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. It is also a historical belief that these gains made the acquisition of the Louisiana purchase possible for Clark’s good friend Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately for Clark this turned out to be the end of his military career, and in some ways the end of his life.
Most of the Revolutionary War heros like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry were revered and remembered fondly in history, this is not the case for George Rogers Clark. Clark spent the remaineder of his life financially ruined and in ill health. He was left financially ruined because the bonds he endorsed to Francis Vigo and other traders were not paid for by Virginia, instead they took all of Clark’s land and the military pay he had earned during his campaigns to pay off the debts. Clark was also left with ill health, during the remaining years of his life he suffered from rheumatism, nueritis, and eventually paralasis from all the time he spent in the harsh conditions of Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana. Even with all the ingratitude shown towards him George Rogers Clark never regreted what he did for his country, But a country was at stake; and if it was imprudence, I suppose I should do the same, should I again have a similar field to pass through(excerpt from a letter to Thomas Jefferson) This to me was very reminisasnt of Nathan Hales, famous speech, only far less famous.
George Rogers Clark died on February 13th 1818 in Locust Grove Kentucky. Sadly he died a tortured and broken soul because of the ingratitude the country he loved had showed him. His debts were cleared and all his land was paid to his remaining family twenty years after his death, but as was the case with Jim Thorpe’s gold medals this was a little to late to show a great man the respect he deserved. When we learn about Revolutionary war history in school we learn about George Washington, Patrick Henry, and even Nathan Hale. But never is a word spoken about the accomplishments of George Rogers Clark and his small band of soldiers who assisted to the victory in east with their victories at Kaskaskia and Vincennes.
Their has not been a serious work written on George Rogers Clark in nearly fifty year, and in schooling he is completely neglected. All of this is wrong, Clark was very important to the Revolutionary War victory and even more vital to opening the gateway to the west. For this reason his legacy and story should not die but instead be passed down to future generations along with the legends of Washington, Henry, Jefferson and all other Revolutionary War hero’s without whom we may not be where we are today.