George Rogers Clark

views updated Jun 11 2018

George Rogers Clark

George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) was an American Revolutionary War soldier. His capture of British posts on the far frontier was of considerable importance, though the idea that Clark "won the Northwest" is an oft-repeated exaggeration.

Standing 6 feet tall, topped by flaming red hair, George Rogers Clark was a true frontiersman. He talked the language of his men and shared in all their hardships. With a flair for the dramatic, he was known to the Native Americans as "Long Knife" and was skilled in the high-flown, metaphorical oratory that they appreciated.

Born on a small plantation near Charlottesville, Va., Clark had only a rudimentary education before becoming a surveyor. By the age of 20, he had staked out his own land claims on the Ohio River and obtained "a good deal of cash by surveying." Commissioned a captain in the Virginia militia, Clark saw extensive campaigning in Lord Dunmore's War against the Shawnee Indians in 1774. The next year the Ohio Land Company engaged him to lay out its tracts on the Kentucky River. Clark made his home in Harrodsburg, the first settlement in Kentucky. Quickly emerging as a dominant figure, he led the Kentuckians in their successful efforts to be formally annexed as a county of Virginia.

Revolutionary Career

Kentucky's survival against the Native Americans—who looked upon "the dark and bloody ground" as their own and who were mainly pro-British during the Revolution—was Clark's great concern. Consequently, he went to Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, to sell the state leaders on a plan for the capture of the British-held villages north of the Ohio and eventually Detroit as well. In January 1778 the Virginia Legislature commissioned Clark a lieutenant colonel, granted him £1,200, and authorized him to take as much of the interior as possible. It was no easy task to get men to leave their thinly populated settlements exposed, but at length, with 175 recruits, he floated down the Ohio and, before its juncture with the Mississippi, set off on foot across southern Illinois. Early in July 1778, Clark took the hamlets of Kaskaskia and Cahokia without bloodshed, and Vincennes a little later. Soon the entire region became known as the county of Illinois in the state of Virginia.

But Clark had to defend his conquests, for Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton and a mixed force—Indians, French Canadians, and regulars—swept down from Detroit to restore royal control. Initially, the advantage belonged to Hamilton, who easily wrested Vincennes from the Americans and with superior numbers threatened Clark at Kaskaskia. But Hamilton decided to sit out the winter at Vincennes before attacking and soon saw many of his Frenchmen and Native Americans return to their northern homes.

Clark, in contrast, would not let adversity bar the door. Believing that "great things have been affected by a few men well conducted," he and his "boys" marched 180 miles through torrential rains and other discomforts to recapture Vincennes on Feb. 5, 1779. He also bagged Hamilton himself, who was hated by the Americans for his allegedly indiscriminate use of Indians—"the Famous Hair-Buyer General," boasted Clark of his prize prisoner.

Clark's Significance

Clark's conquest of the Illinois country stood as a dramatic feat accomplished under tremendous physical and material handicaps by a bold and resourceful leader. Unfortunately, he failed to receive the reinforcements that would have enabled him to move against Detroit. Therefore it seems dubious to accept such extreme statements as that Clark "added three—perhaps five—states to the Union;" or that his "rearguard operations" on the frontier "saved the American Revolution from collapse." Moreover, the diplomats who negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783 were only very dimly aware of the military events in the back country. In fact, Clark was on the defensive along the Ohio during the last 2 years of the war as the Indians continued to devastate the frontier. In his last important action Clark launched a counteroffensive against the Shawnee tribe, driving it back into central Ohio.

When Clark retired from the Virginia service as a brigadier general, he became chief surveyor of the military lands granted to his soldiers north of the Ohio. In 1784 Congress appointed Clark one of several commissioners to settle outstanding differences, such as land claims, with the Indians of the Old Northwest. His efforts failed, and 2 years later Clark was again in the field with the Kentucky militia. At Vincennes he impressed much-needed supplies owned by Spanish merchants. James Wilkinson, a former Continental general and a paid secret agent of the Madrid government, used the episode to try to destroy Clark's character. Clark also had trouble with Virginia authorities attempting to settle the accounts of his campaign against Henry Hamilton. In the absence of records that had disappeared (they were discovered in the attic of the Virginia Capitol in 1913), Clark was never compensated for heavy personal losses in the public service. Financially ruined and filled with bitterness, he turned increasingly to liquor as an escape.

Visions of glory prompted Clark to join a French-sponsored expedition aimed at taking Spanish Louisiana in 1793, but President Washington prevented its departure and the scheme collapsed. When still another military venture in behalf of France failed in 1798, Clark returned to Louisville. Later, following the loss of one leg and a stroke, he made his home with a nearby sister. Impoverished, partially paralyzed, and plagued by alcoholism and creditors, he was once heard to say on learning of a friend's passing, "Everybody can die but me." For Clark the end came on Feb. 13, 1818.

Further Reading

The two standard biographies of Clark are James A. James, The Life of George Rogers Clark (1928), and John Bakeless, Background to Glory: The Life of George Rogers Clark (1957; 1992). Both are factually reliable, and Bakeless is especially interesting. Both, however, tend to exaggerate the importance of Clark's conquests in the Northwest. Recommended for general historical background are Milo M. Quaife, ed., The Capture of Old Vincennes: The Original Narratives of George Rogers Clark and of His Opponent Gov. Henry Hamilton (1927); Randolph C. Downes, Council Fires on the Upper Ohio (1940); and Francis S. Philbrick, The Rise of the West, 1754-1830 (1965).

Additional Sources

Bakeless, John Edwin, Background to glory: the life of George Rogers Clark, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Harrison, Lowell Hayes, George Rogers Clark and the war in the West, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976.

Rankin, Hugh F., George Rogers Clark and the winning of the West, Richmond: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1976.

Schrodt, Philip A., George Rogers Clark, frontier revolutionary, Bloomington, Ind.: Buffalo Wallow Press, 1976. □

Clark, George Rogers

views updated May 29 2018

Clark, George Rogers

CLARK, GEORGE ROGERS. (1752–1818). Officer in the Virginia militia. Born near Charlottesville, Virginia, on 19 November 1752, George Rogers Clark had little formal education when he started studying surveying at the age of 19. He read widely in history and geography, however, and his letters indicate a sharp intellectual curiosity. Starting in June 1772, Clark made several journeys by flatboat from Pittsburgh, traveling down the Ohio River and finally staking claim to some land at the new community of Fish Creek, 130 miles below Pittsburgh. Clark took part in Dunmore's War in 1774 as a militia captain, and then surveyed land on the Kentucky River for the Ohio Company.

With the beginning of the Revolution, Clark returned to Virginia to raise arms and ammunition for the western settlers. He anticipated a war against the Indians, whose land the settlers were in the process of stealing. It took Clark a year to acquire the munitions and to transport them west. During that time several Indian nations, including the Miami, Wyandot, and Shawnee, were themselves negotiating with the British for military support in an effort to reclaim their lands from the white settlers. Governor Patrick Henry commissioned Clark as a major and placed him in charge of the defense of the Kentucky settlements. Clark developed a bold plan of attack against the British military bases in the region. In 1777, Clark again traveled to Virginia to request aid. Governor Henry enthusiastically supported Clark's plan, covering its expenses and promoting Clark to lieutenant colonel.

In 1778 Clark recruited 175 men in the Pittsburgh area, without bothering to inform them of their mission. In June this small force took flatboats down the Ohio River to the mouth of the Tennessee River and then struck overland for Vincennes, where he planned to capture a British outpost. The surprise was complete, for both parties. When Clark roused the astonished outpost's commander from his bed, he discovered, to his chagrin, that his prisoner was French, and that there were no British at the outpost. Though the French were allies to the Patriot cause, Clark left a company under the command of Captain Leonard Helm at Vincennes and headed for Kaskaskia, on the Mississippi River. Clark found no British troops there, either.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1778, the lieutenant governor of Canada, Henry Hamilton, led a small group of Canadian militia, British regular army forces, and Indians against Vincennes, taking the post by surprise and without loss of life. Hamilton sent his regular army troops back to Detroit and settled in for the winter. In January 1779, Clark recruited the French militia at Kaskaskia to join him at Vincennes. He attacked on the night of 25 February, opening fire on the garrison as they came running out of the blockhouse. Hamilton surrendered and was sent as a prisoner to Virginia. With this quick victory, Clark claimed control of the northwest territory for the United States.

In 1781 Clark went to Richmond, Virginia, to garner Governor Thomas Jefferson's support for an attack on Detroit. Their conversations were interrupted by General Benedict Arnold's raid, which sent them both fleeing for safety. Arnold burned several buildings, one of which contained Clark's vouchers for his military campaigns. Virginia never made good on these debts.

After the war, Clark served for a number of years on the board that supervised the allocation of the 150,000 acres north of the Ohio River across from Louisville that Virginia had granted for Clark's veterans. He also served with Richard Butler and Samuel Holden Parsons on the commission that concluded the treaty at Fort McIntosh in January 1786. In this treaty, the Indians acknowledged U.S. sovereignty over some of the western territory ceded by Great Britain. In 1786 Virginia and Kentucky charged the Indians living along the Wabash (Piankashaw, Shawnee, and others) with breaking various treaty promises and asked Clark to lead a punitive expedition. This mission failed when the Kentucky troops mutinied, charging Clark with ineptness. Clark returned to Vincennes with his Virginia troops and established a garrison there. Back in Kentucky he found it necessary to defend himself from both creditors and political enemies intent on ruining his public standing. Clark then entered onto a number of ambitious schemes, including a plan to establish a colony in Spain's Louisiana Territory and an expedition to take possession of disputed lands between the Yazoo River and Natchez, which President George Washington stopped.

More or less desperate, Clark accepted a commission as general in the French army, and set out to attack the Spanish territories west of the Mississippi River. The United States government demanded that he surrender this commission, and he was forced to take refuge in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1803 he built a cabin at Clarksville, on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, near the falls. Here he ran a grist mill until a stroke and the amputation of his right leg forced him to move to his sister's home near Louisville in 1809. He died and was buried there nine years later. His younger brother, William Clark, would gain fame as one of the leaders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

SEE ALSO Dunmore's (or Cresap's) War; Indians in the Colonial Wars and the American Revolution.


Bakeless, John Edwin. Background to Glory: the Life of George Rogers Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Carstens, Kenneth, and Nancy Carstens, eds. The Life of George Rogers Clark, 1752–1818. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

                           revised by Michael Bellesiles

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George Rogers Clark