Location: Louisville, Kentucky
In recent road trip posts we’ve taken a visit to Meriwether Lewis’s lonely grave along the Natchez Trace, and William Clark’s warm circle of family at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis. But in the spirit of “collect ’em all,” especially for Clark fans, you can pay tribute to an entire generation of Clark men with a visit to the beautiful and historic Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.
Cave Hill is a wonderful example of the concept of “rural cemetery” as it emerged in the middle of the 19th century. In early America, the dead were generally buried in churchyards. These can be creepy places to our modern sensibilities. I remember years ago visiting the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, where the graves are tumbled together and the headstones bear the images of skulls and have dark, dire inscriptions warning you to prepare to meet your Maker.
In the South, the churchyard tradition fell by the wayside, and many people were buried in family graveyards on their farms or plantations. This was the case for the Clark brothers of Louisville as for so many Southerners. When I visited our family’s farm in Delaware when I was a child, I remember coming across a grave and wondering about it. That was many years ago, and the farm has long since passed out of the family. I still wonder about that grave. I don’t know who it was, or what has happened to it in the years since. And even for men as famous as the Clark brothers, family graveyards can raise similar concerns after the passage of time and generations.
As readers of this website or our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe are aware, the life of George Rogers Clark was both heroic and tragic. His early conquests in the American Revolution, which earned him the nickname “Hannibal of the West,” gave way to betrayal, bankruptcy, despair, and alcoholism. Once described as an incredibly charismatic and intelligent figure with a build like a Viking God, Clark in old age was a withered man reduced to shouting epithets at unruly neighborhood children. When his brother Jonathan, a hale man of 61, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1811, George is said to have remarked bitterly, “Everyone can die but me.” In 1818, at the age of 66, George finally got his wish. He was laid to rest at Locust Grove, the plantation of his sister Lucy and her husband William Croghan.
During the Victorian era, a wildly romantic concept of death swept both England and the United States, leading to the rise of a third type of burial: that of a garden cemetery filled with beautiful and ostentatious monuments. The new cemeteries were scenic and landscaped, a far cry both from the densely packed churchyards and the homespun family graveyards. Families would build the biggest, best, and most impressive monuments they could afford. The park-like setting was ideal for spending the day visiting departed loved ones,, leaving flowers and even picnicking on the grounds.
Moreover, the new cemeteries offered perpetual care for the graves, something new that reflected the increased worth of the individual in society. It was a way to honor the dead, reconnect with their spirits, and celebrate the promise of hope and joy in the next world. Cave Hill Cemetery became Louisville’s entry in to the cemetery movement. Designed in 1846 on land originally purchased by the city as a quarry, the new cemetery made use of naturally hilly ground to showcase especially prominent monuments. Paths through the graves followed the gently rounded curves of the land, and low-lying areas became ponds or were planted with trees.
By 1869, the Civil War and its aftermath had destroyed the old plantation life at Locust Grove, and the Clark family decided that the remains of George Rogers Clark should be moved from the farm to Cave Hill Cemetery. (Similarly, William Clark’s remains had been moved from his nephew’s St. Louis farm to Bellefontaine Cemetery in the 1850s.) There is a good story about the reburial of Clark’s body. If headstones had ever existed at Locust Grove, they had been lost, and a number of bodies had to be exhumed in the search for Clark.
The workers had to be getting pretty discouraged by the time they dug up the ninth body, but this time they hit pay dirt. Fortunately for them, though not for Clark, the old general had fallen in 1809 and burned his leg in a household fire. The leg had to be amputated. So the appearance of a skeleton dressed in a military uniform, missing a left leg and sporting the remnants of gray and red hair, must have filled everyone with unseemly relief. Clark was reinterred in a gently sloping section of Cave Hill.
Although less well-known today than George Rogers or William, two other Clark brothers were laid to rest next to George. Jonathan Clark, the steely pater familias and confidant of William, was a well-known Revolutionary War hero in his own right, a veteran of the South Carolina campaign, a former prisoner of war, and a wealthy and successful attorney. His wife Sarah Hite, documented as a kind and motherly woman who was a great cook, rests by his side. Fewer details survive about Captain Edmund Clark, also a veteran of the Revolution. A merchant by trade who was shyer than the other brothers, he nonetheless comes down in letters as a sensible, strong-minded man who was smart about money. Like George Rogers, Edmund never married.
Unlike many of the graves at Cave Hill, the Clarks have only modest headstones, not grand monuments. If you visit, you will want to take the time to explore some of the impressive statues and family plots. (Among others is the impressive memorial for Harlan Sanders, the Colonel of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.) But none are more moving than the well-tended graves of these three heroes and their families, still lying together shoulder-to-shoulder in Clark family solidarity. We placed our Texas flags next to some fading tributes from the DAR and felt grateful for the service (often thankless) rendered by these brothers to America.