Archive for the ‘Clark family’ Category

James Monroe

James Monroe: No pushover, he

Early America wasn’t for sissies. In the 18th century, even the most distinguished gentlemen who moved in the highest of circles had to be ready to rumble. I recently read that President James Monroe, who carried a bullet in his shoulder throughout his life from the Battle of Trenton, once got into a heated argument with his Secretary of the Treasury, William Crawford, over the issue of government patronage. Crawford—who had once killed a man in a duel—called Monroe “a damned infernal old scoundrel.” Monroe responded by grabbing up a pair of fireplace tongs and brandishing them at Crawford’s head. Fortunately tempers cooled before actual blood was shed.

President's House, Philadelphia

President's House, Philadelphia

One of my favorite anecdotes about George Washington comes from the book Historic Philadelphia, published by the American Philosophical Society. George Washington was at home in the President’s House on Market Street one morning when he heard a scream from downstairs. Charging down half-dressed and half-shaved, he found a tradesman molesting one of his maids. Washington promptly grabbed the man, spun him around, and booted him out the door. With a big, bare, presidential foot.

General George Rogers Clark is a major character in our book The Fairest Portion of the Globe, and his military exploits during the American Revolution are the stuff of legend. Clark was also about as close as a real person can be to a character in a romantic novel. In descriptions of Clark written by his contemporaries, I am always struck by two things. The writer never fails to mention Clark’s intelligence. And, he was evidently an attractive “hunk” of a man.

George Rogers Clark Defending the Stockade, by F.C. Yohn

George Rogers Clark Defending the Stockade, by F.C. Yohn

One of the earliest contemporaneous descriptions of George Rogers Clark comes from the journal of Englishman Nicholas Creswell, who encountered the 22-year old Clark on a journey down the Ohio River in 1775. “We took into our company Captain George Clark,” Creswell wrote. “This morning Captn Clark (who I find is an intelligent man) showed me a root that the Indians call pocoon, good for the bite of a rattle snake.” Creswell didn’t get along with some of the Americans, whom he called “red-hot liberty men,” but he noted, “Clark always behaved well while he stayed with us.”

Clark’s dignified, self-controlled conduct seemed to be a striking feature of his personality. Governor John Reynolds of Illinois in particular seems to have had a man-crush on Clark.

Col. Clark himself was nature’s favorite, in his person as well as his mind. He was large and athletic, capable of enduring much—yet formed with such noble symmetry and manly beauty, that he combined much grace and elegance together with great firmness of character. He was grave and dignified in deportment, agreeable and affable with his soldiers when relaxed from duty, but in a crisis, when the fate of a campaign was at stake or the lives of his brave warriors were in danger he became stern and severe. His appearance in these perils indicated without language to his men that every soldier must do his duty.

Father Pierre Gibault

Father Pierre Gibault of Kaskaskia

A six-foot redhead with rugged good looks, Clark personified an early American type made famous by Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: the tough, resourceful frontier gentleman. That sometimes meant a little bit of backwoods flash. A Kentucky contemporary said of Clark, “His appearance, well calculated to attract attention, was rendered particularly agreeable by the manliness of his deportment and the intelligence of his conversation.” Clark’s own accounts of his Illinois campaign reveal a frank, dignified, unpretentious character. However, he also knew how to use shock and awe. When Clark and his men captured Kaskaskia in June of 1778, a delegation of terrified townspeople, led by the village priest Father Pierre Gibault, came to learn how Clark intended to deal with them. Clark left this account in his memoir:

After some time the priest got permission to wait on me. He came, with five or six elderly gentlemen with him. However shocked they already were from their situation, the addition was obvious and great when they entered the room where I was sitting with other officers [all making] a dirty, savage appearance. As we had left our clothes at the river, we were almost naked, and torn by the bushes and briars. They were shocked, and it was some time before they could venture to take seats, and longer before they would speak.

The townspeople begged for permission to gather at the church, which Clark permitted. The next day, with everyone still terrified and expecting to be imprisoned or executed at any moment, a cleaned-up Clark was at pains to assure them that no one was going to be hurt and that the Virginians were “not savages and plunderers as they conceived.” Henry Hamilton disagreed, calling Clark and his men “unprincipled motley Banditti” after Clark forced him to surrender Fort Sackville.

Hamilton surrenders Fort Sackville, 1779

Clark and his "unprincipled motley Banditti" take Ft. Sackville, 1779

My all-time favorite description of George Rogers Clark comes from a brief but incredibly descriptive memoir on a fascinating genealogical site, written by a woman named Lucy Clark Moorman. What a writer she was! In a 1786 letter to Thomas Moorman of Albemarle County, Virginia, she gives us this indelible picture of the immortal “Hannibal of the West.”

We have seen Rogers Clark but once in 10 years, he migrated from about Lynch’s Crossing, I think about 1775 to Fincastle on the Ohio River, but he was back to see us a year afterwards when he came to see the Governor of Virginia about defense of that part of the state. Rogers made several trips back into the state since then and it is not always to see how the Indians were doing.

He always came unexpectedly and since he needed no daylight to see where he was going, he always moved at night. Sister Mary says George often visits them, but since he is an owl and disdains even moonlight, he travels on dark nights. When he comes home he stretches his long legs on the settee and entertains the boys with his histories of savagery in the country.

Rogers has sifted the ways and doings of most folk in this part of the dominion and knows every oaf who favors the King’s party. We were always afraid that no good would come of his talking before the boys. Zachariah and Bolling always had a spell of tinkering with old saw blades to make a cutlass after he was gone.

We often kept a dip burning in the window and some soup on the stove to cheer the poor fellows that were prowling about at night. I am glad to help them but when our boys go with them on some desperate foray, I am always afraid of trouble. …


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Meriwether Lewis Clark Sr., about 1850 (age 40). A West Point graduate and prominent architect, Clark at this time was serving as the Federal surveyor general for Missouri and Illinois.

Everyone knows that the Kentucky Derby is “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” This year’s Derby is fast approaching on Saturday, May 1. So if you have any business to transact with people in Louisville, better do it now — I’ve never been there during Derby Week but I understand the whole city unofficially shuts down. What you might not know is that that the Kentucky Derby has a Lewis & Clark connection. Churchill Downs, the famous Louisville racetrack that hosts the Derby, was founded in 1875 by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark. 

I am going to try to learn more about William Clark’s children. For one thing, several of them will be characters in my next book, and I would like to understand them better. William Clark had seven children in all: five children with his first wife, Julia Hancock and two with his second wife, Harriet Kennerly Radford. Three of the children died as youngsters. From reading between the lines of Clark biographies like William Clark and the Shaping of the American West and Dear Brother, I gather that his four surviving sons — Meriwether Lewis Clark, William Preston Clark, George Rogers Hancock Clark, and Jefferson Kennerly Clark — all struggled in various ways, though few details are given. 

Clark’s oldest son, who went by M. Lewis Clark, was born in 1809 not long before the death of his namesake, his father’s best friend and partner in discovery. M. Lewis was said to greatly resemble his father physically, but not in personality. Unfortunately, William Clark spoiled all his children, and M. Lewis grew up to be a high-tempered, shallow, and rather selfish man. He attended West Point, where he became good friends with a classmate by the name of Robert E. Lee. But unlike Lee, M. Lewis didn’t take to the military life (though he would later volunteer to serve in both the Mexican War and the Civil War). As soon as he could, he resigned his commission and returned to St. Louis, where he became a successful architect. 

M. Lewis married a Louisville heiress named Abigail Prather Churchill. Unfortunately, like his father, it was Lewis’s fate to be bereaved. Abby died at the age of 35 a few days after giving birth to her seventh child. The oldest child was only 13, and in his bereavement Lewis turned for help in raising them, sending the children to live with Abby’s relatives in Louisville. 

We turn our attention now to the third son, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., known in the family as “Lutie.” Lutie was only six when his mother died, and he was raised by two bachelor uncles who raced thoroughbreds. Two family traditions about Lutie hold the key to his role in history and his eventual fate. One is that during his Kentucky boyhood and his extended trips to Europe as a young man, he came to share his uncles’ passion for horse racing. The other is that he was spoiled rotten. 

Early view of Churchill Downs. This first grandstand was on the east side of the track, and the afternoon sun shone in spectators' eyes. It was replaced in 1895 with a grandstand on the west side. (Two Hundred Years at the Falls of the Ohio, by George Yater)

By 1873, Lutie had grown into a great big bear of a man. At age 27, he was newly married and fired up to start making his own mark on the world. During a stay in Paris, he had seen pari-mutual betting machines in use on French racetracks. The machines eliminated bookmaking and other unsavory aspects of the horse racing trade. Lutie proposed to his uncles and other Churchill relatives that they back him in establishing a race track that would showcase their championship racing stock and use the innovative French system of betting. The family loved the idea, and Churchill Downs was built on family land and opened on May 17, 1875. A three-year-old race, known as the Kentucky Derby, was held that day, though it would not become the premier attraction at Churchill Downs until the early 20th century. 

Churchill Downs became Lutie’s life and obsession. As track manager, he pioneered racing rules and standards that are still in use today and was a leader in creating the stakes system, on which the Breeder’s Cup is based. Unfortunately, Lutie Clark’s talents were obscured by his personality. There seemed to be nothing of his brave and lovable grandfather in him. Instead, he was bad-tempered, verbally abusive to those he considered his inferiors (which was just about everyone), and arrogant. 

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. "Lutie" later became known as "Colonel Clark."

Lutie was even known to pull a gun to frighten people who did not show him the proper deference. In 1879, someone took him up on it and shot him instead. The story was that Lutie accused a prominent horse breeder of failing to pay his entry fees for the track. The breeder took it as a matter of honor and went to Lutie’s Galt House office to demand an apology or satisfaction (a duel). The two men got into a brawl and the breeder shot Lutie in the chest. Lutie recovered and no charges were ever filed. 

 Not long after, his wife moved out, taking their three children with her. (She would eventually move all the way to Paris — France, not Kentucky.) Lutie continued to manage the track in the 1880s, but in spite of his success, he managed to alienate his Churchill relatives one by one. In 1891, the family moved against him and fired Lutie from most of his duties at the track, though he did remain as presiding judge. Two years later, cruel fate caught up with Lutie in a big way, and he was wiped out financially in the stock market meltdown of 1893. 

He turned to the only thing he knew: racing. Lutie managed to find work as a presiding judge at racetracks across the country. But his troubles had not humbled him. He got into an argument with a bartender in Chicago who took umbrage when Lutie branded Chicagoans “thieves and liars.” Lutie drew a gun on the bartender and forced the man to apologize to him at gunpoint, an incident that made the papers in both Chicago and Louisville. 

Derby Pie

In 1899, Lutie would again pull out his pistol. This time, it was to die by his own hand, apparently unable to face fears of getting older and the isolation he had brought upon himself. He was 53 years old. 

On the lighter side, or maybe the heavier one, Lutie Clark wasn’t exactly a skinny man. Maybe he partook too liberally of one of the best aspects of a visit to Louisville, Derby Pie. The recipe for Derby Pie is a secret, but it’s really easy to make a similar pie at home. So when you settle in for this year’s Run  for the Roses, raise a mint julep or a pie fork to William Clark’s grandson Lutie Clark , a great figure in the history of sports, if not exactly a nice guy.

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Location: Louisville, Kentucky

The Clark family's Mulberry Hill, around 1890

Mulberry Hill was the name of the Clark family homestead in Louisville, Kentucky. Quite a few scenes take place at Mulberry Hill in The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Our first glimpse, through the eyes of French botanist and reluctant conspirator André Michaux, goes like this:

The place General Clark called Mulberry Hill turned out to be a rambling plantation along a clear, bubbling creek. A large, two-story log cabin stood in the center of the estate, smoke curling from stone chimneys on either end. Beyond the house, Michaux saw fields of wheat and corn and a new gristmill, its wheel churning as creek water flowed over it. Beyond was a well-maintained orchard of apple, pear, and nut trees. Michaux allowed himself a small sigh of relief. Apparently General Clark wasn’t always bourré.

As Michaux found out, the prosperity of Mulberry Hill was less due to the efforts of George Rogers Clark, by then a struggling soldier-of-fortune, than of his parents, John and Ann Clark. But because he could not afford a home of his own, George lived here much of his life and, when he could, helped his father direct the farm and mill. You can visit the site of Mulberry Hill today at Louisville’s George Rogers Clark Park.

An ancient tradition: A tapestry called "December" shows a man inflating a hog's bladder for a child, circa 1501-04. Design by Bramantino, woven by Benedetto da Milano.

Built in 1784 by George Rogers Clark, his brother Jonathan, and several family slaves, Mulberry Hill was the center of Clark family life for decades. With ten children of their own and innumerable grandchildren, the Clarks were famous for a lively lifestyle that included lots of visiting, dancing, barbeques, and spectacularly memorable birthdays, May Days, and Christmases. One descendant recalled how the boys would each be allowed to select a hog bladder in the fall, blow it up to its maximum size, and then dry it. Once it was dry, you could paint it with designs and hang it outside your room, then pop it on Christmas morning to signal the beginning of the hilarity of the day. Another recalled that a family specialty was a kind of cruller-cookie called “raggedy britches.”

The Clarks were a family of the highest status on the Kentucky frontier, and from its carriageway (a half-mile drive planted with sheltering locust trees) to its furnishings (fine silver, china, and furniture made by the best Virginia craftsmen), Mulberry Hill bespoke that status in a way that was both impressive and welcoming. This house was a beautiful example of its type, a frontier log home that was never covered with a brick or clapboard facade. Though unusually large, the design was classic — four rooms on each floor divided by a center hall — as well as a separate kitchen, stone and brick slave cabins, a spring house, and a grist mill. 

William Clark inherited Mulberry Hill when his father died in 1799. (John was forced to disinherit George to prevent any money or property he received from being seized by debt collectors.) William and George Rogers spent several years trying to make a go of the plantation, only to be enveloped by a series of semi-comic, semi-tragic disasters. William Clark was many wonderful things, but he was not a farmer. Between floods, fires, and George’s drinking, he was more than ready to sell Mulberry Hill to his other brothers, Jonathan and Edmund, in 1803, just a few months before his old friend Meriwether Lewis offered him a commission to help command the Corps of Discovery.

Mulberry Hill in 1911

When Jonathan died in 1811, he left Mulberry Hill to his oldest son, Isaac Clark. Isaac never married, and in some ways the remnants of the Clarks and their lively home seems to have become something of a museum as he passed into old age. Years later, historian Temple Bodley, Isaac’s great-nephew, remembered the old man treasuring items such as the family bible, Ann Clark’s spectacles, the backgammon board used by the Clark brothers, and even old towels and bedding. Two slaves, named Aunt Rachel and Jake, kept everything in perfect order, and Bodley remembered how Jake had to rub and polish the old mahogany dining table from its shining top right down to the legs.

Apparently, Aunt Rachel and Jake found this life less than compelling, for they seem to have left in 1863 following the emancipation of the slaves by President Lincoln. By then age 76, Isaac could not stay at Mulberry Hill alone. When he moved into town to live with a brother, Mulberry Hill stood empty for the first time in 80 years.

The Clark family cemetery at Mulberry Hill

The lifestyle once lived by the Clarks was dependent on slave labor, and in the devastating aftermath of the Civil War, no one had the means to fix up Mulberry Hill or live there again. At some point, the house and land passed out of the family, and in 1900, Mulberry Hill partially collapsed. By 1907 it was being used as a wagon shed. Ten years later, the city of Louisville razed Mulberry Hill in a fit of patriotism and constructed Camp Zachary Taylor, a World War I training camp, in its place.

It was too late to do anything to preserve the house, but after the war, a number of Clark family descendants banded together to buy back the estate. There they established George Rogers Clark Park. Today there’s a lively park here with tennis courts and a playground. You can visit the family cemetery, and we paid our respects to the kindly John and Ann and several other family members. I’m sorry the house no longer stands, but I couldn’t help but wonder if John and Ann Clark might not have preferred the park full of kids. A loss to history, but perhaps a more fitting tribute after all.

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This month’s Social Justice Challenge asks bloggers to write on the topic of domestic violence. This issue was something that affected William Clark and his family on a very personal level.

No portraits of Fanny Clark are known to exist. We were inspired by this unknown woman by an anonymous artist of the period. From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Frances Eleanor Clark — Fanny to her family — was the youngest sister of the famous Clark family and the closest to William in age. While her brother was rugged and soldierly, Fanny was willowy and sensitive. She grew to be one of frontier Kentucky’s great belles, “the black-eyed beauty of Louisville.” It seemed she could have her pick of any man. But somehow, at age 17, she was persuaded to marry James O’Fallon, a 42-year-old Irish physician and rabble-rouser nicknamed “the divine physical.” It seems that O’Fallon had helped Fanny and William’s beloved older brother, the legendary George Rogers Clark, fight his alcoholism and other demons, and together the two men were hatching schemes that would make them rich and enable George to recover his lost greatness.

Unfortunately for Fanny and George alike, O’Fallon turned out to be a con man and a bully. Following their marriage in 1791, he first isolated Fanny from her family, then beat her every time she “stepped out of line.” Like many battered wives, Fanny concealed the abuse from George, William, and her parents, not wanting to ruin her brother’s chances for a comeback. But as it so often does, the abuse worsened. While pregnant with her second child, Fanny suffered a mental breakdown in which she heard tormenting voices telling her to kill herself. There was no longer any way to conceal the truth from her family.

George Rogers Clark by Charles J. Mulligan, 1909. Riverfront Park, Quincy, Illinois.

There are rumors—perhaps true, perhaps not—of an epic fistfight between George Rogers Clark and his abusive brother-in-law. The next time the historical record speaks of the not-so-good doctor, is the courts settling his estate. O’Fallon’s fate and resting place is unknown, but it is impossible not to wonder if he may have met Fanny’s brothers on a dark night on an isolated country lane.

The Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye Earl

Fanny is the lead female character of The Fairest Portion of the Globe, and in weaving her story into the larger narrative we had to learn quite a  bit about domestic violence. I read widely on the ordeals of victims, their mindsets, and what determined whether or not they ever tried to break free of abuse. I also read about abusers. O’Fallon, at least, fit the general description of a sociopath. I tried to find some accounts by former abusers, to try to learn what made them tick. Disturbingly, I never found a single one, leading me to believe that self-insight and reform are very rare.

The human capacity for brutality and sudden violence would have been much less shocking to Fanny than to most of us today. After all, she grew up during the American Revolution and came of age on the Kentucky frontier. All of her brothers were soldiers, and two of them had died serving their country. Part of being a gentleman who commanded respect, like Fanny’s father and brothers, was the ability to defend one’s family and community against Indians and outlaws. The men she loved were good with guns, knives, and their fists.

The same capacity for violence was intended to extend a shield of protection over women and children. Then as now, men who beat their wives and abused their children were despised by decent people. But that was small consolation during the terror of a beating, with no 9-1-1 and no emergency room to turn to, much less a women’s shelter. If a community had an almshouse (which Louisville did not until the 1830s), a battered woman might take shelter there until her husband cooled off. Like most American cities, Louisville did not even have a police force in the modern sense until the 1850s.

The Jefferson County Poor Farm for Whites, Louisville, Kentucky, 1930. Courtesy University of Louisville.

However, it is a myth that the legal system in early America condoned wife beating. If a woman and her family were willing to press charges and brazen out the resulting scandal, the courts were fairly responsive, imposing fines against a man convicted of “excessive violence” against his wife. Worse, the convicted wife-beater faced a loss of public reputation that was very damaging in the small, close-knit society of the frontier. But the wife was still stuck with her abuser. Divorces were not unheard of, but obtaining one was difficult to say the least. As demonstrated by the famous case of Rachel Donelson, the future Mrs. Andrew Jackson, Kentucky required the passage of a special law by the state legislature for a divorce to be granted.

Charlton Heston and Susan Hayward as Andrew and Rachel Jackson in "The President's Lady" (1953). Rachel, who was not obedient and demure, fled her violent first husband. Her choice was so unusual that the resulting scandal dogged the Jacksons for the rest of their lives.

Other options were even more unpalatable. Few women with children would choose suicide, murder, or running away, especially not into a world where a woman alone had no status and no honest way to make a living.  Most battered women simply had to learn to endure whatever abuse their husbands chose to dish out.

I was interested to learn that this was the situation until well into the middle of the 20th century. To most Americans, a wife beater was a drunken bum, an easily recognizable “Stanley Kowalski” type to be despised and his wife pitied. In the worst cases, abusers were prosecuted for assault, but most of the time, police and the courts looked the other way. The reason was that if an abusive husband were thrown in jail, the wife and children would be left without their primary wage earner. At least Fanny Clark had somewhere to run to and brothers to “take care” of her mean husband. For untold thousands, there was no escape.

In fact, in the 1960s, many jurisdictions essentially decriminalized domestic abuse. At the time, there was a great faith in the emerging disciplines of counseling and conflict mediation. Police were no longer supposed to “bust heads,” but try diffusing disputes without making arrests. Finally, in the 1970s, the feminist movement brought to light the full extent of domestic abuse in America. Books and studies revealed that some two million women a year (and thousands of men, for that matter) suffered severe violence from their spouse, such as punching, kicking, or choking. And as the Clarks could have testified, it happened in the best of families.

The first women’s shelters opened in the 1970s, along with a sterner approach by law enforcement to the problem. Police were empowered for the first time to make arrests for domestic violence they had not personally witnessed, even if the victim refused to swear out a complaint. By the late 1980s, men were being prosecuted for domestic violence as rigorously as they were for assault cases on a non-family member. (Which is not as good as it sounds; as it turns out, only 11% of assault cases result in any jail time.)

Domestic abuse hurts everyone. See the links at the end of this article for how to help someone, or get help.

Domestic violence remains one of society’s most intractable and painful issues. Statistics gathered from the Department of Justice indicate that the rate of domestic assaults is dropping. In the middle of the 20th century, it is estimated that some 16% of women were battered in the course of a year, a figure now estimated at 2-3%. Even so, some 200,000 women and 40,000 men go to the emergency room each year because their spouse beat them up. The heartache and pain of Fanny Clark is not history, but all too often, a terrible part of the present.

Convince a battered woman to seek help
Assist domestic violence shelters
Are you being abused? Get help and get out

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The ancestry of explorer William Clark is difficult to trace, primarily because Clark is such a common surname. The earliest known Clark ancestor in America settled on the James River in 1630, very early in the settlement of the New World. Some traditions hold that he was Scottish.

Roger II of Sicily

King Roger II of Sicily

On his mother’s side, William Clark was a Rogers (a name immortalized in history by Clark’s older brother, the swashbuckling George Rogers Clark). Amazingly enough, the Rogers family can trace its genealogy all the way back to the 12th century to no less than Roger II of Sicily. Roger (1095-1154) was the son of a Norman adventurer who operated in the Mediterranean a few years after his compatriots had conquered England. He inherited his father’s domains in Sicily, then went on to a remarkable career of his own, spending his life fighting wars to conquer and unite the many Norman areas of Italy under his own rule. Roger was truly one of the great kings of his era, and in his last years supported the Crusades and waged war well into Greece. His family continued to rule in the area for about 100 years.

John Rogers

The martyr John Rogers

Some 400 years later, one of Roger’s descendants, the Reverend John Rogers (1505-1555), was one of the early Protestant rebels in England. Rogers abandoned the Roman Catholic priesthood and was one of the conspirators working on a secret English translation of the Bible. Rogers was arrested by the government of Queen Mary and tried for heresy. He was burned at the stake for his crime.

Incidentally, the genealogy of Meriwether Lewis is very well documented. The Lewises hailed from Wales; the Meriwethers from either Wales or England. There was a funny statement written in an 1881 magazine article about the Lewises that stated, “The love of ancient ancestry is said to be laughably displayed by the Lewis family of England who are said to have in their possession a picture of the Ark with Noah emerging from it bearing a large trunk labelled ‘Papers belonging to the Lewis Family.'”

For more Lewis and Clark family genealogy, check out the very good website on Lewis and Clark’s roots, Anchored in the East.

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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.


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.


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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