George Rogers Clark

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George Rogers Clark
Painted by Rosemary Brown Beck

George Rogers Clark (November 9, 1752February 13, 1818) was the preeminent American military leader on the northwestern frontier during the American Revolutionary War. Clark was once regarded as one of the great American military heroes—hailed as the conqueror of the Northwest Territory at the apex of his fame—but his star has since faded considerably. He is now sometimes confused with his younger brother William of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Contents

Early years

George Rogers Clark was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, not far from the home of young Thomas Jefferson. Clark attended Donald Robertson's school with James Madison and John Taylor of Caroline, eventually becoming a farmer and surveyor.

In 1772, as a twenty-year old surveyor, Clark made his first trip into what would become Kentucky, one of thousands of whites moving into the area. Whites believed they had a right to settle the Kentucky lands as a result of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1768, but Native Americans living in the Ohio Country had not been party to that treaty, which ceded their Kentucky hunting grounds. The violence that resulted eventually culminated in Lord Dunmore's War, in which Clark played a small role.

Revolutionary War

During the Revolutionary War, the Kentucky settlements (then part of Virginia) were at war with militant bands of Indians in Ohio, particularly the Shawnee, Mingo, and Wyandot. Working on behalf of Virginia, Clark helped to raise a militia and to organize the defense of the region. He was selected as a delegate to the Virginia Convention and managed to obtain supplies of ammunition there that he used to repel attacks on Harrodsburg, Kentucky in 1777. After sending spies into the Illinois Country, he developed a plan to capture it. Receiving support from Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, Clark was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given authority to raise troops to carry out the plan.

In 1778, Clark led 175 volunteers from Fort Pitt to begin the secret mission. Clark traveled down the Ohio River along the northern border of Kentucky to the Falls of the Ohio with his troops and many families who joined the military convoy for security and protection from Indian attacks. On May 27, 1778, Clark chose an island he named Corn Island to set up camp at the falls. This marks the founding of the settlement later to be named Louisville.

On June 24, 1778, Clark and his troops landed at the abandoned Fort Massac in Illinois. Seeking to surprise the British soldiers occupying Fort Kaskaskia, they walked overland and arrived in the night on July 4. They captured the fort and city without firing a shot. Clark resupplied and intended to hold the fort. He sent the French Priest Father Pierre Gibault to Fort Sackville located near the city of Vincennes, Indiana to influence and secure the inhabitants of Vincennes and secure Fort Sackville. Clark then placed Capt. Leonard Helm in command of Fort Sackville.

The Fall of Fort Sackvilleby Fredrick C. Yorn
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The Fall of Fort Sackville
by Fredrick C. Yorn

Early in 1779, Clark received word from Fort Sackville that the Lieutenant Governor of Canada, Henry Hamilton, had retaken that outpost for Great Britain. On February 5, Clark lead 170 volunteers from Fort Kaskaskia 210 miles over "drownded country" in the dead of winter in 18 days to capture Fort Sackville from Hamilton. Upon arrival at Fort Sackville on February 23, Clark ordered all of the company's flags out to give the illusion of not 200 men, but 600 men. He then opened fire upon the surprised soldiers and threatened to storm the fort and give no quarter. Hamilton formally surrendered on February 25.

Clark's ultimate goal during the Revolutionary War was to seize the British stronghold of Fort Detroit and claim all lands west of the Appalachians for the American Revolutionaries (or perhaps for Virginia), but he could never recruit enough men to make the attempt. (The Kentucky militiamen generally preferred to defend their homes by staying closer to Kentucky, rather than making a long and potentially perilous expedition to Detroit.) However, Clark's capture of Governor Hamilton and occupation of the Illinois Country helped to reduce British effectiveness in the Northwest Territory.

At the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the Revolutionary War, Great Britain ceded the Northwest Territory to the United States. Many traditional accounts credit Clark's efforts with winning that vast territory. However, historians now question whether Clark's "conquest" played any significant role in the treaty negotiations.

Later years

After the American Revolution, Clark became the principal surveyor for the land west of the Appalachians. He was also consulted with regards to Indian activities in Ohio. Clark had financed the majority of his campaigns with his own funds. He was never able to obtain full repayment from Virginia or the United States Congress. He lived for while by himself in a small cabin in what is now Clarksville, Indiana, but was injured in a fireplace accident. He lived out the rest of his life at Locust Grove farm [1] (http://www.locustgrove.org/), just a short distance from Louisville, Kentucky with his sister and brother-in-law. He died of a stroke at the age of 63 still attempting to repay men and merchants from his military campaigns.

Memorials

On May 23, 1928, President Calvin Coolidge ordered a memorial to George Rogers Clark to be erected in Vincennes. Completed in 1933, the George Rogers Clark Memorial now stands on what was then believed to be the site of Fort Sackville. A statue of Clark also stands at Fort Massac, Illinois, placed there by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the early 1900s.

Other statues of Clark can be found in:

Places named for Clark include:

References

  • Bakeless, John. Background to Glory: The Life of George Rogers Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1957.
  • Harrison, Lowell H. George Rogers Clark and the War in the West. University Press of Kentucky, 1976; Reprinted 2001. ISBN 0813190142.
  • James, James A. The Life of George Rogers Clark. Originally published 1928, reprinted since.

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