Main Content


Peace with the Indians

From Clark's Memoir:

"An Indian chief, called the Tobacco's Son, a Peankeshaw, at this time [August 1778] resided in a village adjoining St. Vincent. This man was called by the Indians 'The Grand Door to the Wabash' . . . I discovered that to win him was an object of great importance. . . . I now, by Captain Helm, touched him on the same spring that I had done the inhabitants . . . . At length the captain was invited to the Indian council and informed by the Tobacco that . . . he would tell all the red people on the Wabash to bloody the land no more for the English. . . . Thus ended this valuable negotiation and the saving of much blood. By this time [November/December], we had done business with almost all of the Indians on the Wabash and Illinois

. . . and the country . . . appeared to be in a perfect state of tranquillity."

The winter now approaching, things began to wear a more gloomy aspect. Not a word from government. . . . informed that there was a great preparation making at Detroit for a grand expedition and that some movement had already taken place . . . and talks sent to all the Indians. . . .

. . . No information from St. Vincent for some time past. . . . We sent spies that did not return, and we remained in a state of suspense. . . .

Clark Making a Treaty with the Indians
Clark Making a Treaty with the Indians

Note that the Indians have been presented in Plains Indian rather than Woodland Indian dress.

Lowell Thomas, The Hero of Vincennes: The Story of George Rogers Clark. Illustrations by F. C. Yohn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1929), facing p. 116.

Clark and American Indians

Most historians agree that Clark's success in the Illinois country was due in great part to reaching agreements of neutrality with most Indian tribes.

In a letter to his friend George Mason, November 19, 1779, Clark recounts his course of action:

"Domestic affairs being partly well settled, the Indian department came next . . . and of the greatest importance. . . . the French and Spaniards appearing so fond of us confused them [Indians]. They [Indians] counseled with the French traders to know what was best to be done, and of course . . . [the French advised them] to come and solicit for peace, and did not doubt but we might be good friends. . . . (I) always thought we took the wrong method of treating with Indians [gifts, showing weakness], and (I) strove . . . to make myself acquainted with the French and Spanish mode, which must be preferable to ours, otherwise they [French and Spanish] could not possibly have such great influence among them [Indians]. . . . (it) exactly coincided with my own idea [speak as strong warriors and gain respect and trust]."

At the Cahokia council in 1778, Clark presented his version of the American and British conflict to the Indians. George C. Chalou has noted that "Clark's treatment of tribal America was a primitive type of psychological warfare. His history lesson was filled with metaphors that Indians understood." Clark notes that "This speech had a greater effect than I could have imagined, and did more service than a regiment of men could have done."

Clark had studied the Indians. He was often brutal in his treatment of Indians if he felt that would teach the lesson or win the battle.

James Alton James notes, however, that "So skilfully had Clark dealt with the Indians at this critical time [1778] and so completely had he won their confidence that years afterward it was noted that when commissioners of the United States were endeavoring to treat with these Indians, if Clark were present he was the only man with whom they would speak."

William Hayden English, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783, and Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark (2 vols., Indianapolis: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1896), pp. 1: 420, 422; The French, the Indians, and George Rogers Clark in the Illinois Country (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1977), pp. 35, 41; James Alton James, The Life of George Rogers Clark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928), p. 130.

225th Anniversary Exhibit