George Rogers Clark: Kentucky Frontiersman, Hero, and Founder of Louisville
"My name is Clark, and I have come out to see what you brave fellows are doing in Kentucky and to lend you a helping hand, if necessary." - Account of Clark's appearance in Harrodsburg, Collins History of Kentucky
During a time when the British attempted to suppress United States settlement west of the Alleghany Mountains, many young adventurous men were ignoring royal law and crossing into the meadowlands of Kentucky in search of acreage and adventure. One of these was George Rogers Clark.
Kentucky was a rich wilderness before the American Revolution. The abundant game, meadows and virgin forests attracted both Native Americans from the North and frontiersmen from the East. At the time, Kentucky did not have many Indian settlements; Indians from areas both north and south visited the region on hunting and warring expeditions. Yet their presence and their often fiercely defended claims caused conflicts between themselves and the frontiersmen. During the mid-1700's, tensions between the two increased even further when the British, in hopes of further suppressing Union partisan expansion, began encouraging Indian uprisings and backing them with munitions.
Despite possible danger, in 1772, Clark purchased surveyor's instruments and a copy of Euclid's Elements, left his home in Virginia, and initiated his practice as a surveyor for the Ohio Company. Clark's journey took him along the Ohio River, Kanawha River and Fish Creek (Pennsylvania). Over the next four years he was a guide for settlers, and located land claims for himself, his family and other friends by establishing communities such as Leesburg, now a part of Frankfort, Kentucky.
Clark gained recognition in western settlements also as an adept Indian fighter. His military prowess earned him rank as a militia captain during Lord Dunmore's War, in which rich, white land speculators sponsored militiamen to fight Northern Indian tribes for control of the Ohio River Valley. After the end of the war, Clark returned to Kentucky and became instrumental in protecting Kentucky from future Indian conflict.
"I am sorry to find that we should have to seek protection elsewhere... if a country were not worth protecting, it was not worth claiming." - Clark, to the Virginia Council (1775)
Increased harassment by Indian tribes and indifference towards Kentucky by the Virginia legislature led Clark to call a meeting of representatives from all Kentucky-based forts at Harrodsburg. Clark expressed the vital need of securing for Kentucky a government with both military authority and an organized militia. At the time, the Virginia militia, as well as the rest of the nation, was preparing for war with Britain and left Kentucky, a district in the far reaches of Virginia's Fincastle County, virtually defenseless against not only the Indians, but also British marauders. Clark and the other settlers concluded that either they could pledge alliance with the British, or seek inclusion of Kentucky as a separate Virginia county. In Kentucky's first election, Clark and John Gabriel Jones, were elected as deputies of the people and were sent to negotiate with Virginia's governor, Patrick Henry, for favorable terms of inclusion into Virginia's juridiction as a separate entity, and also for government assistance for the protection of the beleaguered forts. On December 31, 1776, Kentucky County of Virginia was created, and five hundred pounds of gunpowder was supplied to defend the settlements against Indian attack. As an added bonus, Clark, only 24 years old, was given command of the Kentucky militia.
"I carry in my right hand war, and peace in my left... Here is a bloody belt and a white one. Take which you please." - Clark, Speech to the Indian Chiefs at Cahokia (1778)
The fact both Kentucky and Virginia entrusted Clark with such great responsibility at such a young age, when most government officials and military leaders were much older, was indicative of Clark's personal charisma, leadership ability, and mental acumen. Even in the face of loss, Clark's men, and even his enemies, retained a great respect for him.
With the ammunition supplied by Virginia, Kentucky County was still unable to protect itself from Indian attacks. In 1777, Clark returned to Virginia to gain support for an expedition against British posts in Illinois. Clark hoped that the gaining of this territory would create a buffer zone around Kentucky, decreasing settler vulnerability to both British and Indian forces. Virginia promoted him to lieutenant colonel in the militia and gave him secret written orders to attack.
With only 175 men and a few settlers, Clark set up a fort near the Falls of the Ohio, Corn Island, which would later become Louisville. There the small fleet of Clark's men, disguised as Indians and with faces smeared with dark mud, embarked upon the journey to Illinois in canoes and shot the falls. Unfortunately, during the ordeal, a total eclipse of the sun caused many of the superstitious men to desert, leaving Clark with about 150 men. Clark was able to persuade a few to return, citing the eclipse as a good omen, but most did not.
Clark was successful at capturing Kaskaskia and Cahokia; Kaskaskia was captured without the loss of a single life. British forces at Vincennes, on hearing the news, voluntarily changed allegiance to the United States. Clark was also able to win the support of the French inhabitants.
British, in an effort to block the patriots access to Fort Detroit, sent Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton to Vincennes to counter Clark's move to Kaskaskia. Hamilton, known as "The Hair Buyer," not only commanded British troops, but also a group of Indian bounty hunters who received their wages based on the number of American scalps and prisoners they provided to Hamilton. Hamilton's forces counterattacked in 1778, and temporarily regained the territory. However, Clark and his force of 130 men, which included 60 Frenchmen, marched overland through partially frozen and flooded Illinois prairies to surprise British forces at Fort Sackville in Vincennes. Although Clark's men had suffered greatly from exposure to the elements and from the lack of food, Clark did not wait to attack. After a short siege, the fort surrendered, and the United States was able to claim territory spanning Kentucky to Detroit.
"Great things have been affected by a few men well conducted." - Clark, to Patrick Henry, then Governor of Virginia (1779)
Using intelligence, daring, persuasion, and psychology, Clark had siezed the Illinois Territory and became known as the "Conqueror of the Northwest." Many of his military strategies were based solely on inspired fear and bluff, which saved many lives on both sides. Letters and diaries of members of his detachments show that he enjoyed an unusual rapport with his men, inspiring them to believe that they, even in small numbers, were unbeatable.
Clark continued to lead military actions in the Northwest until the end of the War in 1783, and in 1784 he was named as a principal surveyor of public lands set aside for the men who served in the Virginia state military forces. Much of the time until 1813 he acted as chairman of the Board of Commissioners, which supervised the allotment of lands in the Illinois grant and promoted improvements. He began construction of Fort Jefferson, near the mouth of the Ohio River, and established a garrison, Fort Nelson, at the Falls of the Ohio. In 1784, Clark laid out the town of Clarksville, Indiana, and was granted the right to erect the first saw- and gristmill in the region, which was later retracted by the Virginia Assembly. In 1804 he was able to begin construction of a canal that would circumvent the Falls of the Ohio to facilitate trade and commerce to the Louisville area.
Over his ten years of military expeditions, Clark personally funded his campaigns by mortgaging and/or selling land claims he amassed during his work as a surveyor, as well as serving in the Virginia military without pay. At the end of the war, the Virginia legislature allotted Clark 18,000 acres of land and 2,193 pounds sterling as back pay for five years service; they refused to pay for any other military expenses, including Clark's debts of over $20,000 to the Illinois battalion that he had organized to support Virginia's war effort. Clark was left in financial ruin. Much of his time was spent in court defending himself against frustrated military men who were left unpaid or without land claims to return to after the siege at Vincennes.
From that point on, Clark's career faltered. In 1783 reports circulated of Clark's overindulgence in liquor. Stress, financial pressure, and increasing health problems were attributed. Also, Clark's beloved "fair land" was experiencing a sea of troubles: paper money issued by Virginia and the Continental Congress became worthless as the nation faced bankruptcy as a result of the war - creating rampant poverty, dissension, and public and private demoralization. In order to reign in on the chaos, Virginia split Kentucky County into three counties: Fayette, Jefferson and Lincoln. Jealousies among the three counties sparked territorial feuds, and lessened the united defense against Indian attack.
Clark was offered a military commission from France to attack Spanish-held New Orleans. Wishing to again experience military success, he readily accepted the title of major general in the armies of France and commander-in-chief of the French Revolutionary Legions on the Mississippi River. In June 1798 Clark was informed by the United States government that he must resign the position or be arrested.
Years of alcoholism and deteriorating health impacted Clark's military career. Ill health health resulting from exposure during the long march to Vincennes, as well as severe rheumatism, limited his activities. He retired from military service and started work as a consultant helping establish civic organizations and governments, as well as promoting commercial trade, in the Clarksville-Louisville area. By 1805 Clark's mobility was limited to the confines of his home; he was described by a friend as "frail and helpless." In 1809 Clark suffered a stroke and fell unconscious in front of his fireplace, burning one of his legs so badly that it had to be amputated. Clark was then moved to Locust Grove, the home of his younger sister, Lucy (Clark) Croghan, near Louisville, where he remained for nine years. Even in retirement, Indian chiefs and warriors still came to smoke the pipe of peace and friendship with their conqueror, calling him "the first man living, the great and invincible long-knife."
In 1813 a second stroke left him paralyzed. On February 13, 1818, Clark suffered a third stroke, which took his life. Clark was initially buried in the Croghan family cemetery at Locust Grove, but his remains were exhumed in 1869 and buried in Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery.
Featured below are titles about George Rogers Clark that are available for viewing and/or check out from the Kentucky Department for Libraries & Archives.
Hero of Vincennes; the Story of George Rogers Clark. Thomas, Lowell. ill. F.C. Yohn. Call number: KB Clar
George Rogers Clark, Pioneer Hero of the Old Northwest. Lockridge, Ross F. Call number: KB Clar
Background to Glory; the Life of George Rogers Clark. Bakeless, John Edwin. Call number: KB Clar
Clark of the Ohio; a Life of George Rogers Clark. Palmer, Frederick. Call number: KB Clar
George Rogers Clark, Frontier Revolutionary. Schrodt, Phillip. Call number: KB Clar
George Rogers Clark, His Life and Public Services. Bodley, Temple. Call number: KB Clar
George Rogers Clark, Soldier of the West. Havinghurst, Walter. Call number: KB Clar
Vicennes: Portal to the West. Derleth, August. Call number: 973.334 Derl
George Rogers Clark and His Men: Military Records, 1778-1784. Harding, Margery Heberlin. Call number: K973.34 Geor
How George Rogers Clark Won the Northwest; and Other Essays in Western History. Thwaites, Reuben Gold. Call number: 977.008 Thwa
Stories of the Great West. Roosevelt, Theodore. Call number: 978 Roos
Few Men Well Conducted. Motion Picture Production Unit of the National Park Service. Call number: VC1454
Records, 1780-1883 (bulk 1780-1813). Locust Grove. Location: Kentucky Guide
Kentuckiana Digital Library
Kentucky Historical Society
Indiana Historical Bureau
* "In the Words of George Rogers Clark." Locust Grove. Louisville, Kentucky. http://www.locustgrove.org/aboutgrc_letters.html
"About George Rogers Clark (1752-1818)." Discovering Kentucky's Frontier Spirit. Locust Grove. Louisville. http://www.locustgrove.org/abutgrc.html
A Bibliography of George Rogers Clark. Jillson, Willard Rouse. Kentucky Historical Society: 1958. Call number: K 973.3 Jill
"The Chronicles of George Rogers Clark." Public Radio, Louisville. http://www.wfpl.org/grc/grc_bio.htm
"Clark Instrumental in Carving Kentucky Out of Virginia." Bryant, Ron. The Kentucky Gazette. September 12, 2000.
The Encyclopedia of Louisville. John E. Kleber, ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Call number: K 976.944003 Ency
George Rogers Clark: Fort Harrod's Pioneer Hero of the American Revolution. Harrodsburg Historical Society. Harrodsburg, KY: D.M. Hutton, 1939.
"George Rogers Clark, The Conquest of the Illinois, 1778-1779: Excerpts from George Rogers Clark, The Conquest of the Illinois". ed. Milo Milton Quaife Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1920. Online Version: History Department, Hanover College. http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/260grclark.htm
"George Rogers Clark Biography." Indiana Historical Bureau. http://www.statelib.lib.in.us/www/ihb/resources/grcbio.html
"George Rogers Clark in the Revolutionary War." Bodley, Temple. Kentucky Progress Magazine. vol. 6, Fall 1934.
"In the Words of George Rogers Clark." Locust Grove. Louisville, Kentucky. http://www.locustgrove.org/aboutgrc_letters.html
Kentucky Encyclopedia. Kleber, John E., Thomas D. Clark, Lowell H. Harrison, James C. Klotter. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1992. Call number: K 976.9003 Kent
"The Movement Grows to Honor Clark." Walker, Janet Lowell. Louisville Courier-Journal. "Thanks to Clark," Special Section. March 13, 1949.
"To George Rogers Clark - Annapolis, Dec. 4, 1783." The Letters of Thomas Jefferson. The Avalon Project. Yale Law School. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/jefflett/let21.htm