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George Rogers Clark

"conqueror of the Northwest"

George Rogers Clark

George Rogers Clark was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, on November 19, 1752, the second son of John and Ann Rogers Clark. In 1757 the family moved to a small plantation in Caroline County, Virginia. He received little formal schooling, but was well schooled at home and his later writings show an above-average intelligence. Sometime around 1770 he learned the trade of surveying from his grandfather, John Rogers.

In 1772, Clark left on a surveying trip to the West. He spent the next four years surveying lands along the Ohio River, locating and buying land for himself along the way, especially in what is now Kentucky. He also participated in Lord Dunmore's War against the Indians in 1774, gaining a reputation as a formidable Indian fighter.

When the Revolutionary War broke out Clark quickly realized that the Kentucky frontier was vulnerable to attacks from both the British and the Indians. Elected by a mass meeting of Kentucky pioneers to present their problems before the Virginia government, Clark attended a session of the Virginia General Assembly and was able to persuade that body to create a separate county of Kentucky and become responsible for its defense. He returned to Kentucky with a supply of gunpowder, which he distributed to the various settlements. During the first two years of the war Kentucky settlements were continuously being attacked and raided by Indians. In 1777 Clark learned that Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton was paying the Indians for prisoners and scalps in Detroit and supplying them from posts in the Illinois country, so he worked out a plan of offensive operations that would result in the capture of those posts. His plan was approved by Virginia Governor Patrick Henry and the General Assembly and he was authorized to raise a force for the defense of Kentucky and a commission as Lieutenant Colonel over a force of seven companies (350 men). Henry also gave him written orders to attack Kaskaskia and other posts in the Illinois country.

With the Revolutionary War in full force to the east, Clark had difficulty raising the authorized force, and when he set out from Redstone and Fort Pitt his "army" numbered only about 150 frontiersmen and some 20 settlers and their families. Reaching the Falls of the Ohio River in May 1778, they established a supply base. The "army" then proceeded to Fort Kaskaskia, on the Mississippi River. The fort was defended by a small British garrison which depended on the support of the French inhabitants of the surrounding area. The French, who had recently learned of a French-American alliance, quickly accepted Clark's offer of safe passage in return for an oath of allegiance to Virginia, and the fort was taken without a single shot being fired. The same offer was made to the French inhabitants around Forts Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher and St. Phillip, and all three forts were also subsequently taken without incident. Meanwhile, Clark had gained the friendship of Father Gibault, the priest at Kaskaskia, and through his influence the French at Vincennes (in present-day Indiana) also agreed to ally themselves with Clark. Clark spent the months of August and September gathering Indian tribes from as far as 500 miles away. Using his understanding of the Indian concept of manhood and some skillfully applied bluffing, he succeeded in winning their neutrality during the remainder of his campaign.

Hamilton succeeded in retaking Vincennes on December 17, but postponed plans for an attack on Kaskaskia until spring. Clark, who had been informed of Hamilton's plan by a Spanish fur trader who had been permitted to leave Vincennes, quickly determined that he needed to move against Vincennes before Hamilton had a chance to gather his forces. On February 6, 1779, Clark and 172 men, nearly half of whom were French volunteers, set out from Kaskaskia. After an arduous 240-mile march across flooded bottom land in freezing weather, they reached Vincennes on February 23. Clark then ordered that all of his company's flags be marched back and forth behind a slight rise to convince the British that there were at least 600 men, rather than the actual 172, surrounding the fort. Clark's men were so accurate with their gunfire that the British were unable to open their gunports and return fire. Hamilton was forced to surrender on February 25, and he and his garrison were sent to Williamsburg as prisoners of war. Clark then set his sights on Detroit, but Virginia was unable to send reinforcements and he spent the remainder of the war stationed at Fort Nelson, a fort he had built at the Falls of the Ohio. In 1780 he aided in the defeat of a British expedition against the Spanish settlement of St. Louis. That same year he also made a swift campaign against the Shawnee Indians and destroyed two of their towns, Chillicothe and Piqua. A final offensive against the Shawnee in 1782 put an end to British plans for an Indian alliance and secured the frontier against future Indian attacks. By the end of the war Clark had attained the rank of Brigadier General of the Western Forces.

Clark's conquests in the Old Northwest doubtless influenced the award of the territory to the United States by the Treaty of Paris (1783). Unfortunately for Clark, however, those conquests also left him deeply in debt. Having assumed personal responsibility for expenses incurred in his campaigns, Clark was never able to obtain full repayment from either Virginia or the United States and he was hounded by creditors for the remainder of his life.

Clark was appointed an Indian Commissioner after the war, and in 1786 he played a leading part in a treaty with the Shawnees. Unfortunately for Clark, a man named James Wilkenson coveted Clark's office of Indian Commissioner and the military command that came with that office. Rather than gain the office through ability and merit, Wilkenson decided to send forged documents and testimonials to Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph charging Clark with constant drunkenness, military incapacity, and a treasonable plan to lead a military expedition down the Mississippi River against Spain. For reasons known only to him, Randolph believed Wilkenson and relieved Clark of his command, appointing Wilkenson in his place. Disappointed at his country's ingratitude, Clark spent the rest of his life at Locust Grove, eight miles from present-day Louisville, Kentucky. (It would later be revealed that Wilkenson was in fact a spy in the pay of Spain.)

In 1809, Clark suffered a stroke which necessitated the amputation of his right leg, an operation which was performed without anesthetic. He suffered a third stroke and died on February 13, 1818. His remains were moved from the family plot to Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville in 1869.

See Also

Revolutionary War
Patrick Henry
Edmund Randolph

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The Robinson Library >>The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on August 22, 2018.