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George Rogers Clark Biography

George Rogers Clark was the second son of John and Ann Rogers Clark. Both families were Virginia landholders, and after their marriage they moved to a 400 acre farm left to Clark by his father, Jonathan. This land was located on the Rivanna River, two miles east of Charlottesville and two and one-half miles northwest of Shadwell, where Thomas Jefferson was born. Their first son, Jonathan, was born in 1750, and their second son, George, in 1752.

In 1757 the Clarks sold their land and moved to a small plantation in the southwest corner of Caroline County, VA, which had been left to them by an uncle, John Clark.

George's boyhood was probably typical of rural Virginia at the time. He would have learned to plant, trap, hunt, ride and wrestle. He probably received most of his schooling at home from relatives. From his later journals, we learn that he almost invariably bought some books when he returned to Williamsburg, so he must have been well-read, and his writing is well above average for the period.

Although the facts are not proven by records of the school, some historians contend that when George was 11, he and Jonathan were sent to live with their grandfather, John Rogers, in order to attend a private school on the Mattapony River run by Donald Robertson, and that George was sent home after six or eight months. (Others known to have been enrolled at the time were James Madison and John Tyler.) If these tales are true, this schooling was probably the only formal education Clark received.

In 1770, when George was 18 his youngest brother, William, was born. This brother would later win fame as a leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The family consisted of six sons and four daughters and was closely knit, maintaining affectionate ties throughout their lives. At about this time, George learned surveying from his grandfather.

Despite the British rules and laws against settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, many young men in Virginia were crossing over to Kentucky in quest of land and adventure. In 1772, just turning 20 years of age, Clark left on a surveying trip to the West. During the next four years, he located land for himself, his family and other friends in Virginia and acted as a guide for settlers. He participated in Lord Dunmore's War and gained recognition as a formidable Indian fighter.

Increased Indian harassment of the Kentucky settlers led Clark to call a meeting of representatives from all the forts at Harrodsburg, KY in June 1776. He and another delegate were elected to go to Virginia to seek a more definite connection between Kentucky and Virginia. They wanted recognition and protection as a county, and failing this, Clark advocated a separate state. Gov. Patrick Henry and the Executive Council granted him 500 pounds of gunpowder for the defense of Kentucky, and the General Assembly made Kentucky a county of Virginia.

The fact that the Kentucky settlers entrusted Clark with such great responsibility at the age of 24, and that he was sufficiently persuasive to bring the General Assembly and a number of important men around to his way of thinking was indicative of his personal charisma, speaking abilities, leadership and qualities of mind. He was well over six feet tall, had red hair and was reliably reported to have been rugged and handsome. The fear and respect which he inspired in his Indian enemies indicated that he was a formidable warrior. Contemporary records show that he enjoyed an unusual rapport with his men, inspiring them to believe that they were unbeatable and firing them with an eagerness for battle. Even after he had lost favor in the East, he was still the leader of choice on the frontier among the men who knew his abilities best. He was also a leader in setting up the forms of government on the frontier, and whenever possible he used diplomacy and bluff rather than battle in dealing with the Indians. When he retired to Clarksville in later life, the 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 the year of the "Bloody '77s" Clark returned the gunpowder to Kentucky settlements. The settlements were attacked continually and had difficulty planting or harvesting crops to sustain them through the coming winter. Clark learned that the "hair buyer" Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton was paying the Indians for prisoners and scalps in Detroit and supplying them from posts in the Illinois country. After receiving reports from two spies he had sent to the Illinois country, Clark returned to Virginia to outline a plan of attack to Governor Henry. He received authority from the General Assembly to raise a force for the defense of Kentucky and a commission as Lieutenant Colonel over a force of seven companies with 50 men each. Secretly, Henry gave him written orders to attack Kaskaskia and posts in the Illinois Country.

With battles raging in the East, Clark had difficulty raising the authorized force and finally set out from Redstone and Fort Pitt with only 150 frontiersmen and some 20 settlers and their families. Reaching the Falls of Ohio, they established a supply base on Corn Island and were joined by a handful of reinforcements from the Holston River settlements. Clark revealed his plan to attack Kaskaskia and was hard-pressed to prevent desertions.

On June 26, 1778, 175 men left for Kaskaskia. They "shot the falls" during a total eclipse of the sun and concluded that this was a good omen for the campaign (perhaps at Clark's suggestion?). With oars double-manned they avoided detection and reached the mouth of the Tennessee River where they hid the boats and marched overland for six days. They were dressed in Indian fashion and proceeded single-file in order to leave fewer tracks to reveal their presence.

They surprised Kaskaskia on the night of July 4, occupying the fort and the town without a shot being fired. Clark offered the French inhabitants "all of the privileges of American citizenship" in return for their oath of allegiance of safe conduct out of the area. This offer and the news of the recent French-American alliance won their support. Captain Bowman was then dispatched to Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher and St. Phillip. These communities also accepted Clark's terms without resistance.

Kaskaskia's priest, Father Gibault, went to Vincennes and secured the allegiance of the French there to Clark, and Captain Helm was sent to take command of Fort Sackville. Meanwhile, at Kaskaskia, Clark used August and September to gather Indian tribes from as far as 500 miles away. He offered them the red belt of war or the white belt of peace, and by his understanding of the Indian concept of manhood and some skillfully applied "bluff" he succeeded in winning their neutrality during the coming campaign.

Learning of Clark's occupation of Kaskaskia, Hamilton gathered his forces and traveled down the Maumee and Wabash Rivers from Detroit, reaching Vincennes on December 17. Helm was forced to surrender. Hamilton made an ill-fated decision to postpone an attack on Kaskaskia until spring and used the time to strengthen the fortifications at Sackville. He sent his Indian allies home for the winter. A Spanish trader, Francis Vigo, was permitted to leave Vincennes for St. Louis, and he promptly reported Hamilton's plans to Clark.

Clark realized that his small force could not hold the Illinois posts if Hamilton was given sufficient time to gather his forces, and he boldly decided to move on Vincennes immediately during "the depth of winter." He wrote to Patrick Henry, saying that if he failed "this country and also Kentucky is lost."

On February 6, 1779, Clark outfitted and supplied the armed galley "Willing," which was to rendezvous with the rest of the force on the Wabash down river from Vincennes. Mounted on a handsome horse, Clark led 172 men, nearly half of which were French volunteers, from Kaskaskia. They marched the 240 miles through flooded country, often shoulder high in water, sending out hunting parties for food and sleeping on the bare ground. It required 17 days to make what was normally a five or six day trip. Clark kept the spirits of the men high, encouraging them to sing, and regaling them with the actions of "an antic drummer boy who floated by on his drum."

On February 23, they surprised Vincennes. Clark ordered that all of the company's flags be marched back and forth behind a slight rise to convince the British that there were 600 men rather than under 200. They opened fire on the fort with such accuracy that the British were prevented from opening their gunports. On the morning of the third day, February 25, Hamilton surrendered and was sent to Williamsburg as a prisoner. The British never regained control of these posts, and the American claims in the old Northwest served as the basis of the cession of these lands to the United States at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The British withdrew from Detroit, and the Great Lakes became the northern boundary of the United States.

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 was consulted on the subject of Indian affairs all along the Ohio.

Clark had assumed personal responsibility for many expenses incurred in his campaigns and was never able to obtain full repayment from Virginia or the United States Congress. He was hounded by creditors for the remainder of his life and finally held in his own name only the land he retired to in Clarksville, IN in 1803. He built a two-room cabin on a beautiful point of land overlooking the Falls of the Ohio, where he lived with two servants, operating a grist mill in the town. He corresponded frequently with Jefferson and over the years sent him many specimens of his private museum from this area. In 1809 he suffered a stroke which necessitated the amputation of his leg. This was performed without anesthetic, and at Clark's request two fifers and two drummers played outside for two hours during the operation.

He lived thereafter at Locust Grove, eight miles from Louisville, KY, with his sister Lucy and her husband, Maj. William Croghan, until he suffered a third stroke and died at the age of 66 on February 13, 1818. His body was moved from the family plot to Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville in 1869.

In his funeral oration, Judge John Rowan said, "The mighty oak of the forest has fallen, and now the scrub oaks may sprout all around .... The father of the western country is no more."

The nation's failure to reward Clark for his remarkable accomplishments in an adequate manner was probably due to many factors:
1. An obsession with events in the East and a failure to recognize the magnitude of his achievement, or the importance of the Northwest Territory to the future development of the country.
2. The distance which separated the western country from the seat of power in the East. Whereas Clark was a hero to the people in the West, his accomplishments were unknown to many in the East.
3. The slander committed against him by men who plotted against him in order to gain power in Kentucky.

Taken from The George Rogers Clark Teaching Units created by the Indiana Department of Public Instruction and the Indiana State Museum [1979].