Why did Clark attack the Illinois country?


George Rogers Clark, an oil painting on canvas by Rosemary Brown Beck, painted in 1976 for a bicentennial exhibit in honor of Clark's victory.

Courtesy: Indiana State Museum


Since the mid-1700s, at least, American colonists under British rule settled land west of the Appalachian Mountains. European control of these lands was claimed first by France. Native American tribes had occupied the lands for generations.

France and Great Britain fought the French and Indian War (1754-1763) for control of land and power in North America. The Treaty of Paris-February 10, 1763-gave the victorious British control of Canada and most land east of the Mississippi River.

Over the following years, there was continuing conflict. The British tried to restrict the freedoms of American colonists. American settlers on the western frontier and Indians fought to occupy the land. American settlers and Indians committed atrocities against each other.

Conflicts with the British resulted in the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and the American Revolution. The Native American tribes were caught in the middle, and both sides sought their allegiance. American officials generally wanted Indian neutrality. After mid-1777, many Indians fought against the Americans to help Great Britain gain control of the frontier. Indians worked for the British for weapons, food, and other supplies.

The British government in the west ruled from Detroit. In 1775 Henry Hamilton became the lieutenant governor of Detroit. He directed Indian raids against American frontier settlements, and Americans generally expressed hatred of him.

In late 1777, George Rogers Clark went from Kentucky County, Virginia to Williamsburg with a plan. Governor Patrick Henry and the Virginia Council agreed publicly to provide money and men to protect the Kentucky settlements from the Indians. Privately-in the secret orders of January 2, 1778-Clark was authorized to attack British forts in the west-called the Illinois country.

The goal was to protect the settlements by gaining control of the area north of the Ohio River. The plan required winning the loyalty of mainly French settlers in the region, gaining the neutrality of Native American tribes, and removing British troops. Clark also wanted to attack Detroit.

In early 1778, Clark went from Williamsburg to Fort Pitt to recruit men and supplies. He then travelled down the Ohio River. At the Falls of the Ohio River, he established his camp in May 1778, beginning the campaign described in this issue.

Historians generally believe that Clark's successful campaign assured United States possession of the territory north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River in the peace treaty with Great Britain in 1783. The area was formed into the Northwest Territory in 1787.