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Archive for the ‘American Revolution’ Category

Indian Attack on the Village of St. Louis, by Oscar Berninghaus (1924). From a mural at the Missouri State Capitol.

The Spanish role in the American Revolution, especially in the war in the West, is little remembered today. But along with France, Spain had suffered a bruising defeat at the hands of the British just a generation earlier, in the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War in America). There was no love lost between Spain and Great Britain, and the Spanish were only too glad to give aid and comfort to the Americans trying to throw the British off this continent. 

Fernando de Leyba was the highest-ranking Spanish official in the American West. Based in the village of “San Luis des Ylinueses” (St. Louis of the Illinois), he held the rank of lieutenant governor, but was responsible for the vast territory of Upper Louisiana, also known as the Illinois Country. This territory was still almost unknown to most Europeans, but was believed to hold incredible riches in furs. The Spanish had done almost nothing to defend the territory above St. Louis, and the British were starting to move into present-day Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin when the war began. 

De Leyba and his family trekked to this remote outpost of the Spanish Empire in 1778 with orders to keep tabs on the dust-up between the Americans and the British and try to exploit it for Spain’s benefit. If all went well, Spain could hope to regain the Floridas, lost to Britain in the earlier war. With even better luck, Spain might seize the entire Mississippi Valley. 

George Rogers Clark

George Rogers Clark

De Leyba couldn’t have arrived at a better time. George Rogers Clark was fresh from raising hell in Kaskaskia, then a thriving Creole settlement that was a key supplier of wheat and corn to New Orleans. Clark and his Virginia militia had seized the town in a bloodless raid that nonetheless spread “shock and awe” through the remote frontier settlements. It appeared that far from conceding the West to the British, the Americans were ready to make a stand for it. 

De Leyba invited Clark to cross the river and meet with him, a prospect that filled Clark with uncharacteristic apprehension, “as I was never before in Compy of any Spanish gent.” For his part, de Leyba had undoubtedly heard of Clark’s startling, savage appearance in Kaskaskia, which he and his men seized barefooted and wearing only hunting shirts and breechclouts. Fortunately, Clark turned out to have a servicable Virginia officer’s uniform, and de Leyba was friendly and ready to help. At de Leyba’s urging, many local merchants extended Clark credit and invested heavily in his cause, provisioning Clark’s troops with guns, powder, and knives; linen, cotton, and buttons for clothing; and brandy. 

According to legend, the Spanish governor also encouraged a romance and possible marriage between his teenage sister Terese and George Rogers (who was only 26 years old at the time). Despite the difference in religion, it’s more than plausible that de Leyba would have thought Colonel Clark was a pretty good catch for his little sister. Not only were he and Clark friends and allies, but Clark was the scion of a prominent Virginia family, and likely to win large land grants as a result of his exploits in the West. 

Portrait of a Noblewoman, by Parmigianino

Disappointingly, the story of the love affair is based on fairly flimsy historical evidence. Some letters from Clark’s friends hint that he was engaged in an intense and passionate romance with someone in St. Louis. However, no direct evidence, such as letters between George and Terese, has ever come to light. In fact, Terese left behind so little documentary evidence of her life that some historians have suggested that she was too young to have been a love interest for Clark, that she never lived in the New World, or that she didn’t exist at all. 

In any case, de Leyba became deeply involved in Clark’s campaign, especially after Spanish troops attacked the British on the lower Mississippi. Clark warned that the British were likely to launch a counterstrike at the strategic post of St. Louis, and de Leyba wrote off for aid to his superiors, who basically told him “do the best you can.” The governor threw himself into the construction of trenches around the village, even spending his own money on construction of a towering 19-foot stone structure he named Fort San Carlos after the Spanish king. (It was located near today’s Fourth and Walnut, near the Stadium East parking garage.) 

Many of de Leyba’s subjects, who were almost all French Creoles, soon began to wonder if their Spanish governor had backed the wrong horse. After all, his fighting force consisted of only 16 regular troops and a citizen militia of about 176 men (the total population was a mere 700). Moreover, Clark’s credit was only as good as the soundness of the Continental currency and the State of Virginia’s willingness to reimburse his expenses — which turned out to be not very, and not at all. Before long, as one trader lamented, a Continental dollar “wouldn’t buy a cat” in St. Louis. Merchants who had backed Clark soon began besieging de Leyba  to make good on the American’s bad credit. 

Defenses of Spanish St. Louis. Fort San Carlos is in the background.

Like most of the early Spanish governors, de Leyba found himself unloved, more or less abandoned by Spanish officialdom, and sick with frontier disease (probably malaria). In the summer of 1779, de Leyba’s wife died, and he suffered an illness that permanently affected his health. 

In the spring of 1780, the British launched a major offensive intended to roll back Clark’s victories, seize control of the entire trans-Mississippi West, and eventually launch an attack on the American colonies from the rear. Most of the troops, some 1300 strong, were Indians under the loose command of British officers. 

The attack on St. Louis came on May 26, 1780. The Creole population, which mostly regarded both de Leyba and Clark as nuisances, had paid little heed to the warnings of war. Most of the townsfolk, both free and slave, were outside of de Leyba’s makeshift walls gathering spring strawberries, when, as de Leyba wrote, a force of 500 Indians burst upon the town “like madmen, with an unbelievable boldness and fury, making terrible cries and a terrible firing.” Within minutes 40 civilians had been killed. 

De Leyba’s fort saved the day. The governor and his men rushed to their posts and unleashed a bombardment of grapeshot from five small cannon he had deployed in the tower. At the same time, George Rogers Clark’s tiny force repulsed a similar assault on the French village of Cahokia across the river. Incredibly, British intelligence had failed to discover that the town had been fortified, and Indian troops were never big on sieges, much less suicidal charges. The attack collapsed and the Indians turned their attention to raiding and burning nearby farms, slaughtering farm animals, and taking captives. In all, the death toll around St. Louis was over 100 — a heartbreaking 15% of the area’s population. 

Fort San Carlos, by Clarence Hoblitzelle (1897)

De Leyba died just a month after the battle of San Carlos. Though posthumously promoted by his superiors for saving St. Louis, he died hated by the grieving inhabitants, who blamed him for the massacre. As for Fort San Carlos itself, the Spanish under the leadership of Manuel Gayoso strengthened the tower in the 1790s and surrounded it with a new stockade, a ditch, and several structures that could be used in the event of a siege, including a kitchen, well, barracks, powder magazine, and even a dungeon. By the end of the decade Gayoso had seen to the building of four new stone towers and a blockhouse. 

After the American takeover in 1804 and the construction of Fort Bellefontaine, all of the structures were used for other purposes. De Leyba’s stone tower was the town jail for some years. Eventually all of the Spanish buildings were torn down so that the stone and wood could be used in other projects. The Fort San Carlos tower went in 1818. 

Though de Leyba and the stunned inhabitants could never have known it at the time, the consequences of the Battle of San Carlos were anything but minor. Because of the Spanish and American victory at San Carlos, the entire British campaign in the Mississippi Valley dissolved in finger-pointing and disarray, and Indian troops headed for home. The Spanish could add the result to other victories they had won in Natchez, Mobile, and Pensacola. In short, the United States and Spain retained control of the West, and the Spanish retained possession of the Mississippi. If this small battle had gone the other way, the effect on American history could have been incalculable. 

Mulatto Woman, 19th century portrait. Courtesy Historic New Orleans Collection.

And what of George and Terese? Clark, along with many of his creditors, was ruined by the debts he incurred in the service to his country. He was in no position to marry anyone, let alone a Spanish noblewoman. Indirect evidence suggests that Terese waited for some time, living in New Orleans and hoping that George’s fortunes would somehow turn around. Romantically, she is supposed to have entered a convent rather than marry another man. 

James Alexander Thom’s book Long Knife centers around the ill-starred love affair. In our book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe, we have a different take. In 2006, we had the privilege of meeting Clark historian Jim Holmberg, who told us the intriguing tale of a possible latter-day romance in Clark’s life. It is this later love on which we have chosen to expand in our book. 

The Fairest Portion of the Globe finds George a middle-aged man, still fighting his demons and trying to recapture his faded glory. His romance with Terese is almost 20 years in the past. Unable to marry a belle, Clark has entered into a long-term relationship with Marianne, a mulatto woman his own age who lives across the river from Louisville: 

Even whiskey couldn’t burn the cold out of him. Lord knew he’d given it a fair try. The third time they met, he was sprawled on the floor in a corner at closing time, watching Marianne’s strong ankles as she grabbed the chairs and turned them upside-down on the tables so she could mop the beer and puke off the floor and sweep up the peanut shells. 

She had touched his hair with the broom. “General Clark,” she said. “Ain’t you got no home?” 

He had pushed himself up on his hands and knees and said No and began to weep. Floyd, counting his proceeds at the bar, hissed in disgust and said something about one of the finest farms in Louisville

It ain’t mine. George dug his fingers into the rough planks of the floor, unable to push up to his feet, his stiff knees screaming in protest. I ain’t got nothing that’s really mine. No home—no lady— 

For Christ’s sake don’t embarrass yourself, Floyd said. Go outside and wait by the ferry, I’ll take you back across tonight. 

Marianne had reached down and grabbed his hand, her skin as warm and smooth as melted Spanish chocolate, her fingers dark against his long knobby hand with its freckles and bristling red-blond hair. She hauled him up, set him on his feet, and flicked dirt off his fringed buckskin jacket. She handed him his hat and said, very quietly, “Mr. Floyd says go outside and wait by the ferry.” 

She had come to him before Floyd ever showed up. He hadn’t gone back across the river that night. 

More reading: a good article on the Battle of San Carlos

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Previous:  George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part I

Illustration from The Hero of Vincennes by Lowell Thomas

Illustration from "The Hero of Vincennes" by Lowell Thomas

The hardship George Rogers Clark and his men suffered on the march to Vincennes is almost unimaginable. For seventeen days they marched through snow and ice, sending out hunting parties for food and sleeping on the bare ground. For some stretches, Clark’s small army had to traverse flooded wilderness through ice water shoulder-high, with the shorter men ferried across in canoes and everyone cheered up by the sight of “an antic drummer boy who floated by on his drum.” Clark kept the spirits of the men high, encouraging them to sing and trying hard not to show his doubts. After a while, the shared misery became a bond, strengthening the determination of the army to keep going.

George Rogers Clark, 1779

George Rogers Clark, 1779

On February 23, seventeen days after they had set out from Kaskaskia, Clark’s band of half-starved, half-frozen men finally arrived within sight of Vincennes. Clark wrote in his memoir:

A little after sunrise I lectured the whole. What I said to them I forget, but it may be easily imagined by a person who could possess my affections for them at that time. I concluded by informing them that surmounting the plain, that was then in full view, and reaching the opposite woods, would put an end to their fatigue; that in a few hours they would have a sight of their long wished for object, and immediately stepped into the water without waiting for any reply. A huzza took place. We generally marched through the water in a line, it was much easiest. Before a third entered, I halted, and, further to prove the men, having some suspicion of three or four, I hallooed to Major Bowman, ordering him to fall in the rear with twenty-five men and put to death any man who refused to march, as we wished to have no such person among us. The whole gave a cry of approbation that it was right, and on we went.

With his army in such weakened condition, it was almost too late. Clark wrote, “Getting about the middle of the plain, the water about knee deep, I found myself sensibly failing, and as there were (here) no trees nor bushes for the men to support themselves by, I doubted that many of the most weak would be drowned. I ordered the canoes to make the land, discharge their loading, and play backward and forward, with all diligence, and pick up the men, and to encourage the party; sent some of the strongest men forward with orders when they got to a certain distance to pass the word back that the water was getting shallow, and when getting near the woods to cry out ‘land.’ This stratagem had its desired effect.” Reaching a small spot of dry land called Warriors’ Island, the army captured an Indian canoe containing “half a quarter of a buffalo.” They divided the meat carefully among 170 famished men. As Clark wrote, “we were now in full view of the fort and town, not a shrub between us, at about two miles’ distance.”

Fort Sackville on the Wabash

Fort Sackville on the Wabash

“Our situation was now truly critical,” Clark continued. “No possibility of retreating in case of defeat—and in full view of a town that had, at this time, upward of six hundred men in it, troops, inhabitants and Indians.” Never one to think small, Clark prepared the following letter for the citizens of the town and the British soldiers in Fort Sackville :

To the Inhabitants of Post Vincennes:

GENTLEMEN-Being now within two miles of your village with my army, determined to take your fort this night, and not being willing to surprise you, I take this method to request such of you as are true citizens and willing to enjoy the liberty I bring you, to remain still in your houses; and that those, if any there be, that are friends to the king of England, will instantly repair to the fort and join his troops and fight like men. And if any such as do not go to the fort should hereafter be discovered that did not repair to the garrison, they may depend on severe punishment. On the contrary, those who are true friends to liberty may expect to be well treated as such, and I once more request that they may keep out of the streets, for every person found under arms, on my arrival, will be treated as an enemy.
(Signed)

G. R. CLARK.

Henry Hamilton was flabbergasted. He had been caught by total surprise, and had no idea the nature or strength of the force that was facing him. Clark ordered that all of the company’s flags be marched back and forth behind a slight rise to convince the British that he had 600 men rather than 170. Clark’s frontiersmen, masters of the long rifle, opened fire on the fort with such accuracy that the British were prevented from opening their gunports. After a harrowing night under siege, Hamilton sent a message proposing a three-day truce. Clark refused, sending the following reply:

Colonel Clark’s compliments to Governor Hamilton, and begs leave to inform him that he will not agree to any other terms than that of Mr. Hamilton surrendering himself and garrison prisoners at discretion.

G. R. CLARK.

Meanwhile, Clark began tunneling under the fort with the intent of exploding the gunpowder stores within it. When an Indian raiding party Hamilton had sent out attempted to return to the fort, Clark’s men killed or captured all of them. They tomahawked several Indian prisoners in full view of the fort and flung their bodies in the river, adding to the terror and uncertainty of the men within.

On the morning of the third day, February 25, Henry Hamilton surrendered the British garrison and  all its stores and ammunition. As they marched out of Fort Sackville, Hamilton stared in disbelief at Clark’s band of exhausted, ragged, hungry frontiersmen. He asked, “Colonel Clark, where is your army?” Clark replied proudly, “This, sir, is them.”

1929 stamp commemorating Hamilton's surrender to Clark

1929 stamp commemorating Hamilton's surrender to Clark

Henry Hamilton was sent to Williamsburg as a prisoner. The British never regained control of the Illinois 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 after the War of 1812, and the Great Lakes became the northern boundary of the United States.

As for George Rogers Clark, he was never to reap the glory of what he had achieved. Clark had assumed personal responsibility for many expenses incurred in his campaigns. Clark sent his vouchers to Virginia for repayment, but the vouchers were supposedly lost (though they were eventually rediscovered in an attic in a state building in 1913). Clark was never able to obtain repayment from either Virginia or the United States Congress. Crushed by insurmountable debt, he was hounded by creditors for the rest of his life. Instead of monetary reward, the Virginia General Assembly voted Clark “an elegant sword.” Apparently, Clark didn’t think much of the gesture. According to his nephews, he “took the fine sword, walked out on the bank of the river with none present but his servant, thrust the blade deep in the ground, & gave the hilt a kick with his foot, broke it off and sent it into the river.”

George Rogers Clark memorial, Vincennes Indiana

George Rogers Clark Memorial, Vincennes, Indiana

Treated shabbily in his own time, George Rogers Clark’s contribution and reputation enjoyed something of a rehabilitation in the early 20th century. In the early 1920’s, as the 150th anniversary of the taking of Fort Sackville neared, the citizens of Vincennes, Indiana proposed a monument be erected at Fort Sackville to commemorate Clark’s role in securing the Illinois Country for the United States. The Clark Memorial was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in June, 1936. In keeping with the magnitude of Clark’s achievements, it is the largest national memorial outside of Washington, D.C.

For more great reading on George Rogers Clark, please visit the Indiana Historical Bureau, which provided much of the information for this post.

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George Rogers Clark

George Rogers Clark

William Clark’s older brother George Rogers Clark is perhaps one of the most underrated figures in American history. Snubbed by his country during his lifetime, George Rogers Clark is left out of many historical accounts of the American Revolution today—an almost unpardonable omission, considering that Clark was personally responsible for securing the Illinois Country for the United States. Acre for acre, it could be argued that the Illinois Country—now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and part of Michigan—was at least as important to American expansion as the Louisiana Purchase.

Last week, we stopped by Old Fort Harrod, where young George Rogers Clark rallied the settlers and planned the defense of the American settlements west of the Allegheny mountains against British-backed Indian attacks. In 1776, twenty-four year old Clark was elected by the settlers of Kentucky to petition Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia for aid, support, and official recognition. A rugged, likable, and charismatic redhead, Clark convinced the Virginia General Assembly to make Kentucky a county of Virginia and returned with 500 pounds of gunpowder for the defense of Kentucky.

Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton

Lt. Governor Henry Hamilton - the hated "hair buyer"

During the “year of the Bloody ’77s” that followed, Clark came up with a bold plan to gain control of the Illinois Country. The “hair buyer” Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton in Detroit was paying the Indians for American prisoners and scalps and supplying them from posts in Illinois, and the situation for Kentucky settlers was becoming increasingly desperate. Again Clark traveled to Virginia, and again he persuaded the General Assembly to take action for the defense of Kentucky. Clark was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel and was given permission to raise a force of seven companies with 50 men each. Secretly, Patrick Henry also gave him written orders to attack French settlements and posts in the Illinois Country and bring them under American control, the better to launch attacks against the British and the Indians.

Clark may have had a silver tongue with the Assembly, but persuading eastern men to go to war in the western wilderness was a tough sell. By the time he finally set out from the East, Clark had enlisted only 150 frontiersmen and some 20 settlers and their families. Reaching the Falls of Ohio, Clark established a supply base on Corn Island and boosted his small force with a handful of reinforcements from the Holston River settlements. When Clark revealed his plan to attack Kaskaskia, the task seemed so hopeless that it took all his persuasive powers to prevent his men from deserting.

On June 26, 1778, Clark left for Kaskaskia with 175 men. In a scene straight out of a movie, just as Clark’s small force “shot the falls” in their canoes, the sun went into a total eclipse. Realizing that superstition could sink his hopes, Clark somehow convinced the men this was a good omen rather than a bad one for their upcoming campaign. 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. Clark had his men dress in Indian fashion and marched them single-file, in order to leave less evidence of their presence.

Clark meets Father Gibault in Kaskaskia, 1778

Clark meets Father Gibault in Kaskaskia, 1778

Clark’s force 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, proved critical to his success. Kaskaskia’s priest, Father Gibault, went to Vincennes (now in Indiana) and persuaded the French inhabitants there to ally themselves with Clark. Clark sent Captain Leonard Helm to Vincennes take command of Fort Sackville.

Meanwhile, at Kaskaskia, Clark gathered unaffiliated Indian tribes from as far as 500 miles away, trying to persuade them to maintain their neutrality. In a memorable speech, Clark explained to the gathered Indians the Americans’ grievances and reasons for warring against the British and their Indian allies. Then, holding up a red and a white wampum belt, he made the following appeal:

You can now judge who is in the right. I have already told you who I am. Here is a bloody belt and a white one, take which you please. Behave like men, and don’t let your being surrounded by the big knives cause you to take up the one belt with your hands, while your hearts take up the other. If you take the bloody path, you shall leave the town in safety and may go and join your friends, the English. We will then try, like warriors, who can put the most stumbling-blocks in each other’s way, and keep our clothes long stained with blood. If, on the other hand, you should take the path of peace, and be received as brothers to the big knives, with their friends, the French, should you then listen to bad birds that may be flying through the land, you will no longer deserve to be counted as men, but as creatures with two tongues, that ought to be destroyed without listening to anything you might say.

In reality, Clark’s bluster was mostly bluff—he knew his small force had no hope of overcoming the unaffiliated Indians and the British combined. But such was his credibility and personal charisma that many of the tribes elected to maintain their neutrality.

Spanish trader Francis Vigo

Statue of Francis Vigo, Vincennes, Indiana

Meanwhile, Henry Hamilton was incensed to learn that Clark had occupied Kaskaskia. Gathering his forces, he rushed to Vincennes and forced Captain Helm to surrender it back to the British on December 17, 1778. With his troops shivering in the brutal Midwestern winter, Hamilton elected to postpone taking Kaskaskia until spring and instead spend the winter reinforcing Fort Sackville. That was his first great mistake. His second mistake was to allow a Spanish trader named Francis Vigo to leave Vincennes. Sympathetic to the American cause, Vigo promptly sought out George Rogers Clark and reported the fall of Fort Sackville and Hamilton’s plans.

Realizing that his ragtag force of frontiersmen could not hope to retake Fort Sackville and hold the Illinois posts if Hamilton was given sufficient time to gather his army, Clark made the decision that (should have) enshrined him forever in the annals of American history. He decided to mount a surprise attack on Vincennes in the dead of winter. He did not underestimate the high-stakes game he was playing with the lives of his men, not to mention the future of the Illinois country. Clark wrote to Patrick Henry that if he failed, “this country and also Kentucky is lost.”

On February 6, 1779, with 172 men, nearly half of which were French volunteers, Clark marched from Kaskaskia. The 240 miles between Kaskaskia and Vincennes could normally be traversed in about five or six days. Now, however, it was a flooded, frozen swamp, with swollen Wabash River standing between Clark and his goal.

Tomorrow: Clark crosses the Wabash

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In terms of triumph and tragedy, the Clark family could be called the “Kennedys of Early America.” Of the six sons born to John and Ann Rogers Clark between 1750 and 1770, five fought in the service of Virginia during the Revolution (William Clark, the youngest son, was too young). Two of the brothers died as a result of the conflict. Three of them ended up as prisoners of war.

Revolutionary POWs

Revolutionary prisoners of war

Lieutenant John Clark, age 19, was captured at the Battle of Germantown in August 1777 and spent almost five years as a prisoner of war. He was held first in the “New Jail” in Philadelphia, which was then under British occupation. In the summer of 1778 he was removed to Long Island. In 1780, John Clark became one of the unfortunate prisoners who were part of a new experiment in the way that the British dealt with their burgeoning number of captives. The British anchored 12 old ships in Brooklyn Harbor and crowded the American POWs aboard.

HMS Jersey

The notorious hell ship, the HMS Jersey

Conditions on all the prison ships were ghastly, but the worst of all these “hell ships” was the notorious HMS Jersey. The prisoners would later recall that they had nothing to wear but rags, and that the ship was teeming with vermin and filth. Each day they were issued “moldy biscuit filled with worms, damaged peas, condemned beef and pork, sour flour and meal, rancid butter, sometimes a little filthy suet, but never any vegetables.” Prisoners were allowed to go above deck during the day, but at night, their British captors ordered them below, yelling “Down, rebels, down!” In the morning they were let out with the order, “Rebels, turn out your dead!”

Under such circumstances, the death toll mounted quickly. The prisoners testified later that a dozen men died every night from a variety of causes: dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, yellow fever, food poisoning, starvation, and torture. In the end, 10,000-12,000 American prisoners died on the hell ships, and only 1400 survived the ordeal. Years later, when the Brooklyn Navy Yard was built on the spot where the prison ships were anchored, thousands of remains were found at the bottom of the bay.

Young John Clark spent two years on the Jersey. Released in an exchange in 1782, he was never a well man again. He died just two years later, at age 27, from the tuberculosis he contracted as a prisoner.

Siege of Charleston

The siege of Charleston, 1780

Hulk ships were also used in Savannah and Charleston, where two more of the Clark brothers, Jonathan and Edmund Clark, were taken prisoner in May 1780 when the city surrendered after an awful and dispiriting siege. Jonathan, a 29-year-old colonel, was held prisoner for a year. Edmund, only 17 years old, was held for two. Many men broke under the misery and hardship of captivity on the hulks. Of the 1900 prisoners held in Charleston, more than 500, “maddened by torture and almost heart-broken on account of the sufferings of their families,” enrolled in the royal militia to get off the ships and were sent to do service in Jamaica. About 700 prisoners were eventually exchanged, including Jonathan and Edmund.

Andrew Jackson

Young Andrew Jackson

Touched by the plight of the prisoners, many Charleston women made it a point to visit the prison ships and bring the men food and comfort. One such woman was Elizabeth Jackson, a tough and outspoken Irish immigrant. Mrs. Jackson was a widow and mother of three sons, two of whom had already died in the war. Two of her nephews were among the prisoners, and she became known as an angel of mercy for her repeated visits to nurse the men and bring them food and medicine. In a cruel twist of fate, Mrs. Jackson herself became a victim when the scourge of cholera swept through the prison ships. She was buried in an unmarked grave. Her youngest and only surviving son, the future president Andrew Jackson, vowed to find her bones and rebury her alongside his father and brothers, but was never able to find her grave.

Further reading: an excellent article about Revolutionary War POWs from American Heritage.

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On Monday, March 26, 1804, William Clark made a remarkable journal entry:

a verry Smokey day    I had Corn parched to make parched meal, workmen all at work prepareing the Boat, I visit the Indian Camps, In one Camp found 3 Squars & 3 young ones, another 1 girl & a boy    in a 3rd Simon Girtey & two other familey—    Girtey has the Rhumertism verry bad    those Indians visit me in their turn, & as usial ask for Something    I give them flour &c.

Clark’s attitude about encountering Simon Girty is remarkably nonchalant. A 21st century equivalent would be: “You’ll never guess who I saw at Starbucks. Osama bin Laden! He was reading the paper and drinking a vanilla latte.” For in the early 19th century, Simon Girty was one of the most vilified, feared, and hated men in America.

Simon Girty

Simon Girty

Born in 1741 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Girty personified the era of frontier violence. His father, an Irish drover and trader, was killed during a drunken frolic by an Indian named The Fish, who was in turn killed by a man named John Turner, who later married Simon’s mother. During the French and Indian War in 1756, the family was captured at Fort Granville by a band of Delaware, Shawnee and Seneca Indians.  They burned the stockade and marched the captives away to a nearby Indian village. Girty’s stepfather was tortured, scalped, and burned at the stake, while his wife and her five sons watched in horror. Simon was adopted by the Seneca Indians and readily learned their language, though he could neither read nor write English.

Released as part of a peace agreement in 1759, Girty found work as an interpreter and scout. He was involved in translating the famous speech of Logan, chief of the Mingoes, during the conflict known as Lord Dunmore’s War. At one point, Lord Dunmore asked Girty and his brother to dance in the Indian fashion, which they did, to the astonishment of an observer: “They interspersed the performance with Indian songs and yells that made the welkin ring.”

When the revolution broke out, Girty wavered in his loyalties. He joined the American army, but in the spring of 1778, he deserted Fort Pitt and struck out for Indian country, determined to help the British and Indians fight the Americans. Hired as an interpreter by the “Hair-Buyer” General Henry Hamilton at Detroit, Girty took up the hatchet and participated enthusiastically in marauding and raiding parties against settlers on the Kentucky frontier.

As the Revolution dragged on in the west, Girty returned to live with the Wyandot Indians. He participated in raids and supported the Wyandot chief, known as the Half-King, in his efforts to harass, persecute, and drive out Moravian missionaries in the area who were trying to Christianize the Indians. In May 1782, a force of about 500 mounted men under Colonel William Crawford marched against the Wyandots.  With the help of British agents, the Indians along the Sandusky River quickly mobilized and defeated the Americans on June 5, 1782. Colonel Crawford ended up a prisoner. When Crawford learned that Girty was at the Half-King’s town, he asked to be taken there, somehow hoping that Girty would persuade the Indians to spare his life.

Colonel William Crawford

Colonel William Crawford

Crawford’s fate was related later by the only surviving witness, Dr. John Knight, who did more than anyone to seal the reputation of Simon Girty in the American mind. According to Knight’s account, when he and Colonel Crawford reached the Half-King’s town on the Upper Sandusky, they were stripped naked and forced to sit on the ground, while a crowd of sixty or seventy Indians beat them with sticks and fists. Crawford was tied by his wrists to a post. The Indians took up their guns and shot powder into his naked body. The mob then cut off his ears. They built a fire six or seven yards from the post to which he was tied, and the men took turns picking up burning hickory poles and touching them to Crawford’s body, surrounding him. They also threw hot coals at him, so soon he had nothing to walk on but burning coals and ashes. In the midst of this torture, Crawford called to Girty and begged him to shoot him. Girty replied, laughing, that he had no gun.

Crawford lasted about two hours before he gave out and lay down on his stomach, at which point the Indians fell upon him and scalped him. They threw the scalp in Knight’s face. As Knight was dragged away from the dreadful scene to be taken to the Shawnees, Crawford was roasting alive in the slow fire. After he died, it was said the Indians heaped sticks upon his body and danced around his charred remains for hours. According to Knight, Girty made no effort at all to end Crawford’s suffering.

When the Revolution ended, Girty returned to Detroit, still in the pay of the British. He played a prominent role in agitating among the frontier Indians for the next ten years. Girty led a force of 300 warriors against the Ohio River settlement of Dunlap’s Station in January 1791. Girty’s party killed several soldiers outside the fort, captured another, and fiercely but unsuccessfully laid siege to the fort. The captured prisoner was tortured within earshot of the fort, so the soldiers within could hear his agonized screams as flaming brands were “applied to his naked bowels” and the Indians kindled a fire on his belly.

After Anthony Wayne defeated the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794, Girty tried to dissuade as many chiefs as possible from going to the treaty negotiations at Greenville, but most of the chiefs were tired of fighting and wanted to bury the hatchet. In November 1794, John Jay negotiated a treaty with Britain, which stipulated that the Western posts should be vacated by British soldiers.

Simon Girty Memorial

Simon Girty memorial stone, Detroit Riverfront, Malden, Ontario

When the Americans arrived to take possession of the fort at Detroit, they found that “the wells had been filled with stones, the windows broken, the gates locked, and the keys deposited with an aged Negro, in whose possession they were afterward found.” There were no British officers on hand to transfer possession of the fort, but Simon Girty was in the town, drunk and raving, declaring that he would not stir one inch unless driven out. However, at the sight of American troop boats coming up river, Girty became so alarmed that he plunged his horse into the stream without waiting for the ferry-boat, and, at the risk of drowning, made for the Canada shore.

The last known sighting of Girty in America—besides the March 1804 account of William Clark—occurred during the War of 1812, when Detroit was temporarily recaptured by the British. As the redcoats took possession of the town, Girty crossed the river, exclaiming, “Here’s old Simon Girty again on American soil!” He visited the town frequently over the next few  months.

After Commodore Perry’s victory over the British fleet in September 1813, Girty’s friends persuaded him to leave before American troops invaded Canada. Old, nearly blind, and crippled with rheumatism, Girty sought refuge with a band of Mohawks on the Grand River. He returned to his home in Canada in 1816, blind and depressed. In February 1818, he died in the presence of his wife and family, having asked forgiveness for his sins. He was buried on his farm, and British soldiers fired a salute over his grave.

Simon Girty memorial marker

The British see it differently than we do.

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