Location: On the banks of the Ohio River in Clarksville, Indiana, just across the river from Louisville, Kentucky.
Clarksville is the oldest American town in the old Northwest Territory, which included present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. Founded in 1783, Clarksville was part of a 150-acre tract of land known as “Clark’s Grant.” This huge land grant was awarded to George Rogers Clark and the men of his army by the state of Virginia, in recognition of their “reduction of the British posts in the Illinois” during the American Revolution. Clark and his men had taken British outposts at Kaskaskia and Cahokia, then improbably forced the British to surrender Fort Sackville at Vincennes. Clark’s military genius and audacity—as well as the incredible hardship he and his men endured—are the stuff of legend.
Clarksville is also the site of an amazing natural history treasure. The limestone at the Falls of the Ohio is composed of skeletal remains from countless numbers of corals, sponges, echinoderms, brachiopods, mollusks, arthropods, and microscopic organisms. 390 million years ago, the geography and climate of the Ohio Valley was completely different, and the Falls of the Ohio area was inundated by a warm, tropical, shallow sea. The ancient fossil beds formed by that sea are among the largest, naturally exposed, Devonian fossil beds in the world.
No visitor to Clarksville should miss the Interpretive Center at Falls of the Ohio State Park, a state of the art facility that gives a fascinating view of the geologic forces that shaped the area. The Interpretive Center overlooks a large dam that now obscures the falls and rapids that dominated the river in George Rogers Clark’s time (and are memorably navigated by Meriwether Lewis and young Charles Floyd in The Fairest Portion of the Globe). The Interpretive Center offers a great film to orient you to the amazing natural history of the area, and you can walk through well-crafted exhibits to learn about the fossil life that once inhabited the shallow sea that covered the Ohio Valley. Want to see the fossil beds up close? Outdoor walking trails will take you down to the river’s edge, where you can see the unique limestone formations made up of thousand of creatures. On the day we went, the wind was stiff, raising small whitecaps on the swift, fierce current of the Ohio.
Falls of the Ohio State Park includes the George Rogers Clark homesite. In 1783, land was cheap, and the 8,049 acres George Rogers Clark received as his share of “Clark’s grant” was the only compensation he would ever get for conceiving and commanding the campaign that secured the Northwest Territory for the United States. At the end of the war, neither Virginia nor the United States would honor the debts Clark had incurred arming, feeding, and outfitting his army. Hounded by creditors for the remainder of his life, the land Clark received from Clark’s Grant was the only property he held in his own name.
In 1803, Clark built a sturdy, two-story cabin on a beautiful point of land overlooking the Falls of the Ohio, known as “Clark’s Point” or “Point of Rocks.” Frail and bitter, Clark lived there with two servants, earning a small income operating a grist mill on Mill Run nearby. In those days, the area was littered with larger fossils that have long since been carried off by relic hunters. Traveler and diarist Joseph Espy, who visited the site in 1805, offers this tantalizing description:
The beach and whole bed of the river for two or three miles here is one continued body of limestone and petrifactions. The infinite variety of the latter are equally elegant and astonishing. All kinds of roots, flowers, shells, bones, buffalo horns, buffalo dung, yellow-jacket’s nests, etc., are promiscuously seen in every direction on the extensive beach at low water, in perfect form. I discovered and brought to my lodgings a completely-formed petrified wasp’s nest, with the young in it, as natural as when alive. The entire comb is preserved.
Fascinated by natural history, Clark conducted archaeological excavations around Clarksville. Clark was an expert on the wooly mammoth and sent many specimens of bones and teeth east to Thomas Jefferson, who included them in his private natural history museum at Monticello. The area was also the site of many Indian mounds; earthworks of unknown age and origin dotted the area around the falls. Clark’s careful study and powers of observation led him to conclude that the mounds were made by ancestors of living Native American tribes—a conclusion supported by archaeologists and paleontologists today.
William Clark was living with George at Point of Rocks when he received his famous letter from Meriwether Lewis, inviting him along on the western expedition. A number of members of the Corps of Discovery—the “nine young men from Kentucky”—were recruited from the surrounding area. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark departed from Point of Rocks at Clarksville on their historic journey on October 26, 1803.
Josiah Espy left us this description of George Rogers Clark at Clarksville in 1805:
At the lower end of the falls is the deserted village of Clarksburgh (Clarksville) in which General Clark himself resides. I had the pleasure of seeing this celebrated warrior, at his lonely cottage seated on Clark’s Point. This point is situated at the upper end of the village and opposite the lower rapid, commanding a full and delightful view of the falls, particularly the zigzag channel which is only navigated at low water. The General has not taken much pains to improve this commanding and beautiful spot, having only raised a small cabin, but it is capable of being made one of the handsomest seats in the world.
General Clark has now become frail and rather helpless, but there are the remains of great dignity and manliness in his countenance, person and deportment, and I was struck with (perhaps) a fancied likeness to the great and immortal Washington.
George Rogers Clark lived at his cabin at Point of Rocks until December 1809, when he fell in the fire, whether due to a stroke or drunkenness no one can say. His leg was badly burned, became infected, and was amputated the following March at his sister’s home in Louisville. Clark spent the last nine years of his life at his sister Lucy Croghan’s home, Locust Grove, near Louisville.