One of our publicity fliers for The Fairest Portion of the Globe (due out in five weeks!) is headlined “Some men are born to be heroes.” If so, the nursery at John and Ann Clark’s home was mighty crowded with heroic babies. All six of their sons grew up to be heroes, and two of them, George Rogers and William, became legends. And the girls were no slouches either.
John Clark, the father of William Clark, was born in 1725 in King and Queen County, Virginia. As discussed in last week’s post about Lewis’s parents, John grew up in a world in which the unit of family was not the nuclear family of today, but a vast and strongly interwoven cousin network so loyal and powerful that in the Clarks’ case, their detractors called it a clan, something the Clarks seldom bothered to deny. By the time John came along, the family’s roots in American soil were already deep; John’s ancestors had arrived in the James River area sometime in the 1500s, in the earliest days of British settlement.
Over the generations, the Clark family had earned a reputation for being honest, sincere, hardworking small planters. But they were no fancy aristocrats. John Clark’s dad, Jonathan, couldn’t even write his own name, and John himself had only a few years of primary education (often called “blab school” for its emphasis on recitation) under his belt. But old Jonathan had done well enough that when he died, he could leave land to each of his two sons.
John got a 400-acre farm in the frontier county of Albemarle. In fact, John’s near neighbor was a man named Peter Jefferson, who was developing a 1400-acre farm named Shadwell. Unlike Jefferson, John wasn’t too interested in public affairs, and he wasn’t yet of the social stature to give his farm a name. He was more interested in starting a family. Now age 24, he married 15-year-old Ann Rogers. The two were closely related through their cousin network; they had probably known each other all their lives. Within a year, they welcomed their first child, a big healthy boy, named Jonathan to honor John’s father. The Clarks’ brood grew fast: by the time Ann was 21, she had added a son George Rogers, named after her brother, a daughter named Ann, and another son named John (originality in naming was not something the Clarks put a lot of stock in).
John and Ann Clark were more fortunate than most frontier families. Eventually their family would grow to ten children (William, born in 1770, was the next-to-last). All of the kids lived to healthy adulthood, and Ann retained glorious good health. A grandson would recall her as “a tall stout woman with red hair,” while another contemporary said simply, “She was a majestic woman.” Ann was never accused of being a shrinking violet. George Rogers would recall that as a teenager, he once swindled a neighbor boy out of a good knife, and was foolish enough to boast about it. He learned to his sorrow that Ann did not consider a sixteen-year-old too big to thrash.
In 1757, John inherited another farm, this time from a bachelor uncle in Caroline County, near Spotsylvania. The unexpected windfall prompted the Clarks to do something that Clarks hardly ever did: move east, away from the frontier. John was a successful farmer, but he knew that with such a large family, his boys would have to make their own wealth, not inherit it. For that, they would need a good education. A relation of Ann’s ran a respected boy’s school just six miles from the new farm: that settled the matter. The farm in Caroline County would become the Clark’s true “homeplace.” There John and Ann raised wheat, oats, corn, tobacco, and children.
By all accounts, John Clark was a friendly, methodical, salt-of-the-earth kind of a guy. As a nephew wrote, he was “a man of amiable excellent character, of sedate thoughtful appearance and not apt to say much in company.” He and Ann seem to have been amazing parents, working in turn to set each son up with a profession and each daughter with a good marriage. They had high standards, but there was also plenty of time for food, fun, and laughter. William Clark would recall a boyhood of hunting and fishing, climbing the beautiful big trees on the Clark farm, uproarious Christmases and May Days, singing and dancing at the parties his parents hosted, and the social whirl of fox hunts, election barbeques, and church suppers that wove the Clarks tightly to their neighbors and relatives.
Revolution and war would change John and Ann’s world forever. Their ties with England had faded long ago; they were Americans and patriots. All their sons except for little William, and all their sons-in-law, enlisted in the patriot cause. The elder Clarks could only wait and worry as word reached them of battles in places like Brandywine, Monmouth, Paulus Hook, and Germantown. Three of the boys–Jonathan, John, and Edmund–were taken prisoner of war and held under hellish conditions. (See our earlier post The Clark Brothers as Prisoners of War.)
George Rogers, their wild son, had left home at age 19 to go adventuring on the raw frontier of Kentucky. Once, John Clark had even gone out to visit him, returning amazed by the vast tracts of rich land there for the taking but terrified of the anger and violence of the Indians who were not about to give it up without a fight. Now that war had begun, 24-year-old George Rogers emerged as one of the most charismatic and daring leaders of the American cause. Commissioned as a colonel in the Virginia militia but usually acting on his own authority, he assumed responsibility for nothing less than the salvation of Kentucky. John and Ann could only marvel along with everyone else at what George could do with fewer than 200 men–including another son, Richard–against the might of the British frontier forces and their Indian allies.
Abraham Lincoln famously wrote to a woman who lost five sons in the Civil War of “the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” Similarly, John and Ann must have emerged from the searing trial of the Revolution stunned with pride and grief. Jonathan and George were known to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Because of George’s derring-do, the United States had ended the war in possession of not only Kentucky, but 260,000 square miles of frontier, the territory that would one day become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
But the price was high. Their son, young John, one of the few survivors of the British hell ship Jersey, made it home to Virginia only to die of tuberculosis contracted as a prisoner. Dick’s death, if possible, was even more painful. He disappeared on a scouting run for George along the Wabash river. Not a trace of him was ever found. And then there was George. The hero had not been paid in four years. The state of Virginia refused to honor the $20,000 in expenses he had incurred on his own credit to feed and clothe his army in the west. It appeared that unless the new national government agreed to pay George, their son might be in very deep trouble indeed.
But what George did have was land–huge holdings of that amazing Ohio Valley land–and in 1784, with the ink barely dry on the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, John and Ann Clark turned their backs on Virginia forever, packed up their belongings and their four youngest children, and headed west. John was 59; Ann was 50. They were something more than the proud but ordinary parents they had been a few years earlier: sadder but stronger, and ennobled in the eyes of the settlers pouring into Kentucky by their own sacrifices and their exploits of their son.
Their new farm had a name–Mulberry Hill–and John and Ann had the help of all their children and a growing brood of grandchildren to make it work. They grew corn, tobacco, hemp, oats, rye, and vegetables. Before long, the farm was ringing with the same loud activity and laughter as the old place in Caroline County. And now the Clarks had a unique social status–their son was “the sword of Kentucky.” They had vaulted from respected small planters to frontier elite.
One thing that set the Clarks apart in early Kentucky was their holdings in human property. The success of the Clarks’ farm and lifestyle had always depended not only on their own hard work but that of their slaves. In Virginia, the Clarks were relatively small-time, never owning more than two dozen slaves, a fair percentage of whom were children or elderly at any given time. The Clarks did not believe in breaking up families, and virtually never sold their slaves (nor did they ever free any of them). By Kentucky standards, they were large slaveholders.
The Clarks knew many joys in their later years. Jonathan, Ann, Elizabeth, and Lucy were all married to steady spouses whom the Clarks loved, and grandchildren began to arrive in astounding numbers. Edmund never married but endeared himself to everyone with his business savvy and dedication to the family.
They also knew many sorrows. Elizabeth was not as fortunate as her mother had been: she died in childbirth in 1795 at age 26. Youngest daughter Fanny, who got all the beauty in a family of tall rangy redheads, married James O’Fallon, a flamboyant land promoter who was a close friend of George’s. The abuse Fanny suffered at O’Fallon’s hands and her wrenching struggle to break free of him form a major storyline in The Fairest Portion of the Globe.
As for George, his parents’s fears had been realized. George was never paid for his services in the Revolutionary War. In those days before bankruptcy laws, that made him personally liable for all the debts incurred in fighting the war in the west. George’s inability to pay his creditors wiped out patriots across the frontier who had extended credit in the cause. George himself was financially ruined. No woman of his station would consent to marry him, and he could not sell his land or accumulate any property, for any proceeds would be seized by the courts to pay his debts.
Being a soldier was all he knew how to do. George lived with John and Ann, an increasingly desperate and troubled man who swung wildly between epic drunken binges and audacious, breathtaking schemes to recoup all his losses by taking up arms again. At the same time, the frontier was being destabilized by foreign governments–France, Spain, and England–who sensed the weakness of the new nation and sought to tear away the frontier from the United States. It was the perfect recipe for international intrigue and forms the main storyline of The Fairest Portion of the Globe.
Eventually, George’s brothers and sisters realized that his problems had become too severe for their now-elderly parents to cope with. George’s brothers mounted a rescue plan. Jonathan, a lawyer, would lobby the Virginia legislature and the federal government for fair payment for George’s claims. Edmund would bolster George’s cause with cash from his own mercantile and gristmill businesses. And William–now 25 years old–would resign his commission as a junior officer in the frontier army and come home to settle the lawsuits, a job that required traveling hundreds of miles through the wilderness to survey George’s claims and sell off land in exchange for extinguishment of debt. William later estimated that he traveled 3000 miles in the course of three years on George’s behalf.
William also personally took on the task of taking the Clarks’ tobacco crop to New Orleans for sale, wrangling canoes and flatboats and riotous hired hands down the roiling current, driving rains, and unmapped sandbars and snags of the lower Mississippi, then making a return journey that took him through adventures such as playing billards in a low groggery in Natchez, deep sea fishing in the Caribbean, theater going in Baltimore, and visiting his relatives on Virginia.
When William arrived home at Mulberry Hill on Christmas Eve, 1798, he must have been in anticipation of a joyful reunion with his parents and one of the Clark family’s trademark Christmas revels. Instead he found only unspeakable grief. His unconquerable, majestic mother was on her death bed. Ann Rogers Clark died that day of the sudden onset of erysipelas, a strep infection of the skin. She was 64 years old.
At age 74, John Clark must have thought back to those simple beginnings on the farm in Albemarle County. Back then, there was no problem he and Ann couldn’t solve if they put their heads together. Now it was all so overwhelming. William helped him make a will that would ensure that George Rogers’ creditors couldn’t sweep in and seize the farm, the house, the mill, and everything else John and Ann had ever worked for. It meant he had to disinherit George.
Just six months after Ann’s death, John Clark died of a lung infection. In the summer of 1799, he was laid to rest next to Ann at Mulberry Hill, where you can still visit their graves today at Louisville’s George Rogers Clark Park. They didn’t live to see William become a hero to the whole country. But I suspect they wouldn’t have been too surprised. To them, he already was.