Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Looking over recent blog posts, the last couple of weeks have found us in a Meriwether Lewis state of mind. So to make up for it, here’s a big helping of extra-rich Clark-y goodness!
Locust Grove, a finely restored 1790 Georgian manor, was built in 1790 by Lucy Clark and her husband William Croghan (pronounced Crawn). Though her brothers get most of the ink from historians, Lucy was a remarkable woman in her own right. Not only did she make her home the hub of family activity and a veritable hotel for celebrities traveling through Louisville (her guest ranged from Aaron Burr and John James Audubon to presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson), she even threw a week-long house party for Lewis & Clark when they returned from the Expedition — perhaps the least she could do for a little brother made good.
By no standards was Lucy a great beauty. A contemporary wrote that an idea of her appearance could be gained by studying the famous portraits of her brothers, war hero George Rogers Clark and explorer William Clark, who could best be described as rugged rather than pretty. From all accounts, she made up for it in spades with a bubbling intelligence and a huge heart — which from age sixteen belonged to William Croghan, a young Irish-born major who was serving in the Continental Army with Lucy’s beloved older brother Jonathan.
Though an immigrant, Croghan was already well-connected with the frontier elite. His uncle, a man named George Croghan, had emigrated to America decades before and made a fortune trading for furs with the Ohio Valley Indians. His “mansion” at Lake Otsego, New York, might have been made of logs, but it was sheer luxury for the time and place, complete with wall paper, damask tablecloths, glass windows, and six fireplaces.
Young William came in hopes of finding a fortune, but all he found was war. He chose to join the Revolutionary cause, fighting with Washington at Trenton and enduring the terrible winter at Valley Forge. When he came south, he was taken prisoner at the surrender of Charleston, and it may have been as a P.O.W. that he met Jonathan Clark, who ultimately introduced him to Lucy.
William Croghan was both smart and lucky. He emerged from the war with over $7000 in cash (around $90,000 in today’s money), became a surveyor, and headed west to resume his quest for a fortune. It is unclear why he and Lucy waited until 1789 to marry. Some sources indicate that Lucy’s father objected to the match, but it’s difficult to fathom why he would have. In any case, shortly after the marriage, William and Lucy moved to a large property overlooking the Ohio River, where they began construction of the magnificent country estate they named Locust Grove.
The Croghans may have been rich, but they weren’t immune from the same troubles that afflicted everyone else in Kentucky in the early 1790s. One evening when William was away, Lucy and the servants were taking in wash when they saw an Indian near the stables. Lucy hid in the bushes and watched as the Indian strolled into the house and took a look around. Fortunately, she was able to get to the alarm horn and sound it, and as neighbors came running, the Indian made tracks for the woods. Another time Lucy had to hide for several days at a neighboring plantation (and home of future president Zachary Taylor) due to the threat of Indian attacks.
As it turned out, Locust Grove was a spectacularly successful plantation, raising tobacco and fruit as well as hams and dairy products. In addition to helping run the farm and its enterprises, Lucy raised six sons and two daughters. In November 1806, she also hosted one of the biggest parties Louisville had ever seen, welcoming home her baby brother William and his partner Meriwether Lewis from their exploration of the western territory.
The old warhorse George Rogers Clark met the returning heroes first at his place across the river in Clarksville, Indiana, then escorted Lewis and Clark into Louisville, where they were decked out in new clothes at the general store operated by Clark’s brother-in-law Dennis Fitzhugh. The people of the town burned bonfires and shot off cannons as the pair made their way north of town to Lucy’s home.
Locust Grove contained a ballroom on the second floor. But for the four days of the party, it was not used for dancing. Instead, William and Meriwether turned it into a museum, unpacking and displaying “Mandan robes, fleeces of the mountain goat, Clatsop hats, buffalo horns, and Indian baskets, Captain Clark’s ‘tiger-cut coat,’ Indian curios, and skins of grizzly bears — each article suggestive of adventure.” Considering how many of Lewis & Clark’s artifacts have been lost over the years, this description is both exciting and heart-breaking. What I wouldn’t give to see that coat!
Lucy was famous for her hospitality and her family loyalty, and both were put to the test in 1809. George Rogers Clark, who had battled alcoholism most of his life, took a terrible fall in his cabin and burned his leg, which had to be amputated. Clark also suffered a stroke. Unable to stay alone, he came to live at Locust Grove. Today, Locust Grove is restored to the period that General Clark lived there, and it is touching to see his downstairs bedroom, handmade wheelchair, and the porch where he passed his last years. Clark was anything but a good patient; apparently he was bitter, ill-tempered, and unpredictable. At least he was always cherished and protected by the fiercely loving Lucy.
George lived until 1818, long enough to see Lucy’s son George Croghan continue the family tradition by becoming one of the greatest heroes of the War of 1812. The old general’s death after so many miserable years may have come as something of a relief, but four years later, Lucy received the double blow of losing her youngest son and her beloved husband William in a malaria epidemic. Her sister Ann also died, along with her sister Fanny’s husband Dennis. Within the next few years, Fanny herself died. Lucy lost her son Nicholas at the age of 24, and began to face the sorrow that alcoholism was beginning to blight her son George’s life as thoroughly as it had his uncle’s.
To console themselves, Lucy, now 60, and Nicholas’s twin, Charles, decided to travel to Washington, D.C. visit friends and relatives. It was Lucy’s first trip out of Kentucky since arriving 41 years earlier. Lucy was invited to the White House by President Monroe, socialized with Dolley Madison, and was squired around town by Henry Clay. She enjoyed it so much that in 1833, she returned to Washington to attend the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, this time in the company of baby brother William (now 63 years old).
By 1835, at age 70, Lucy’s health had declined, and she could no longer climb stairs. She lived in a small room next to the kitchen in her last years, passing away in April 1838, just four months before her brother William. A “greatest generation” had passed from the scene.
The subject of a spectacular restoration in the 1960s, Locust Grove is probably the best of all the Clark family sites as a visitor experience. We had a nice picnic outside before starting our tour with a short film about George Rogers Clark and the house. The tour itself was one of the best house tours we’ve ever experienced. It was easy to get a sense of the family eating, talking, sleeping, and living in this genteel but informal place. After the tour, we looked at the family cemetery and the small museum, highlighted by a great quilled hunting shirt once owned by George Rogers Clark. Don’t miss the gift shop and book store here — excellent!