Archive for the ‘George Rogers Clark’ Category

The Lewis & Clark journals provide a fascinating snapshot of the U.S. frontier on the cusp of the 19th century, when the explorers were navigating through a roiling melting pot of attitudes, cultures and nationalities.  This rapidly changing world is perfectly illustrated in Lewis’s journal entry of November 23, 1803. The Corps of Discovery was still en route from Louisville to St. Louis. Clark was under the weather with stomach problems, and Lewis took a break from navigating the difficult and rapid currents of the Mississippi River to pay a visit to a settlement he called “Cape Jeradeau” (more commonly known today as Cape Girardeau, Missouri).

There Lewis encountered the commandant, a striking figure named Louis Lorimier. Born near Montreal in 1748, Lorimier and his father had established an Indian trading post known as “Laramie’s Station” on a branch of the Great Miami River in Ohio. Lorimier was loyal to the British during the Revolution, and even led raiding parties of Indians into Kentucky. Awkwardly, William Clark’s brother George Rogers Clark had burned Laramie’s Station to the ground in 1782, ruining his business and destroying $20,000 worth of goods.

War Council at Lorimier's Store, by Hal Sherman

War Council at Lorimier’s Store, by Hal Sherman

So it was perhaps just as well that Lewis went alone to visit Louis Lorimier. A few years after George Rogers Clark burned him out, Lorimier had moved to Spanish Louisiana in the 1780’s and obtained a large land grant from the Spanish to establish a settlement for Indians, partly as a defensive buffer against possible American invasion. Lorimier’s district was huge, extending, in Lewis’s words, ” the distance of sixty miles W. from the river as far as the river St. Francis.” Under the Spanish crown, Lorimier was authorized to administer land grants, hold court, take the census, and maintain the militia for Cape Girardeau. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, in spite of being no great friend to the United States, Lorimier continued in much the same role and served as U.S. Indian agent.

Having entirely recovered his losses from the George Rogers Clark incident, Lorimier was now “a man of very considerable property.” Lewis witnessed this firsthand in a wild scene that was going on just as he arrived. He found Commandant Lorimier in the middle of a horse race, in which the prizes were the horses themselves. Lorimier lost four horses valued at $200 but “seemed to bear his loss with much cheerfulness.” But not everyone followed his example.

The Comdt. was busied for some time in settling the disputes which had arrisen in consequence of odds being given among the by betters; this seane reminded me very much of their small raises in Kentucky among the uncivilized backwoodsmen, nor did the subsequent disorder which took place in consequence of the descision of the judges of the rase at all lessen the resembleance; one fellow contrary to the descision of the judges swore he had won & was carrying off not only his own horse but that also of his competitor; but the other being the stoutest of the two dismounted him and took both horses in turn; it is not extrawdinary that these people should be disorderly    they are almost entirely emegrant from the fronteers of Kentuckey & Tennessee, and are the most dessolute and abandoned even among these people; they are men of desperate fortunes, but little to loose either character or property—

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1867

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1867

Once all disputes were settled, Lewis was able to present his credentials and found himself warmly received by Lorimier. He describe the commandant in vivid terms:

he is a man about 5 F 8 I high, dark skin hair and [e]yes; he is remarkable for having once had a remarkable suit of hair; he was very cheerfull & I took occasion to mention this to him    he informed me that it was on[c]e so long that it touched the grond when he stood errect—nor was it much less remarkable for it’s thickness; this I could readily believe from it’s present appearance, he is about 60 years of age, and yet scarcely a grey hair in his head; which reaches now when cewed (the manner in which he dresses it) nearly as low as his knees, and it is proportionally thick; he appears yet quite active—    this uncommon cue falls dow his back to which it is kept close by means of a leather gerdle confined around his waist—

Like many Canadian traders, Lorimier had taken metis wife, a French-Shawnee woman named Charlotte Bougainville. Lewis was invited home to meet Charlotte and the rest of Lorimier’s family. He found them to be remarkably “decent,” using the adjective three times in the course of one journal entry. “She is a very desent woman and if we may judge from her present appearance has been very handsome when young,” Lewis wrote of Lorimier’s wife. “She dresses after the Shawnee manner with a stroud leggings and mockinsons, differing however from them in her linin which seemed to be drawn beneath her girdle of her stroud, as also a short Jacket with long sleeves over her linin with long sleeves more in the stile of the French Canadian women.”

Lewis meets Lorimier - Mississippi River mural, Cape Girardeau

Lewis meets Lorimier – Mississippi River mural, Cape Girardeau

Lorimier and his wife had seven children. His eldest daughter caught Lewis’s eye: “The daughter is remarkably handsome & dresses in a plain yet fashionable stile or such as is now Common in the Atlantic States among the respectable people of the middle class.    she is an agreeable affible girl, & much the most descent looking feemale I hae seen since I left the settlement in Kentuckey a little below Louisville.”

Invited to stay for supper, Lewis wrote with approval, “The lady of the family presided, and with much circumspection performed the honours of the table: supper being over which was really a comfortable and desent onen I bid the family an afectionate adieu.”   It may have been the last decent meal the Captain would have for a while, at least until he reached St. Louis.

Plaque at Lorimier Cemetery, Cape Girardeau

Plaque at Lorimier Cemetery, Cape Girardeau

In 1806, Lorimier laid out the lots and streets for Cape Girardeau along the wide, flat riverfront. In 1808, the settlement was incorporated as the town of Cape Girardeau. Louis Lorimier, the Father of Cape Girardeau, died in 1812 and is buried in Lorimier Cemetery, on land that he donated to the community he founded. His wife preceded him in death in 1808 and is buried by his side.


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Location: Vincennes, Indiana (midway between Louisville, Kentucky and St. Louis, Missouri)

George Rogers Clark Memorial, Vincennes, Indiana

In the spring a young woman’s fancy turns to George Rogers Clark. Or at least mine does, remembering a couple of great trips we made to Vincennes, Indiana, to visit the site of Clark’s amazing victory over the British at Fort Sackville in 1779. Ultimately, Clark’s triumph had incalculable consequences: it secured for the United States the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and a portion of Minnesota. It is impossible to imagine the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion without Clark’s triumph.

I’ve approached Vincennes from both Louisville and St. Louis. From Louisville, most of the driving is on a winding highway through the woods, which unfortunately must be shared with innumerable trucks. The St. Louis route is more interesting and educational. Taking tiny backroads will enable you to closely follow the trail that George Rogers Clark and his band of 172 intrepid volunteers followed in 1779, when they set off for a surprise winter attack against British forces who controlled Fort Sackville on the Wabash River near the French village of Vincennes.

Acting on the time-honored underdog principle that the best defense is a good offense, Clark aimed to destroy the forces of British General Henry Hamilton (despised on the American frontier as the “Hair Buyer” for his practice of encouraging Indian scalping raids) before Hamilton could bring his superior forces out in the spring and destroy Clark’s. Today’s route lets you skip the frozen swamps they encountered and instead takes you past cultivated fields,big farmhouses and barns (some in full operation and some abandoned), and many little Illinois towns.

And fortunately, you can cross ravines on old railroad bridges with names like Wabash Cannonball and Baby Bear. Clark and his men weren’t so lucky. They encountered a completely flooded landscape. The account of their courageous approach to Vincennes is the centerpiece of James Alexander Thom’s Long Knife (highly recommended). Clark and many of his men would never be the same after the physical suffering they underwent here.

Inside the George Rogers Clark Memorial

It’s one of the great mysteries of my entire Lewis & Clark existence that the incredible contributions of George Rogers Clark to his nation’s history are now considered “local history” and rarely taught outside of the Ohio River Valley. That certainly wasn’t the case in the 1920s, during the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution. The state of Indiana laid plans to build a memorial to Clark, a project that was taken over in the 1930s by the federal government. Completed in 1936 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Clark memorial is the largest federal monument outside of Washington, D.C. and, along with the Jefferson Memorial and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial in New York, the last of the great classical federal monuments.

The Clark memorial is situated in a lovely park along the Wabash on the one-time site of Fort Sackville. It appears all the more gigantic in scale with the town of Vincennes, a slightly seedy old railroad town awaiting history’s next call. At the visitors’ center adjacent to the memorial, we saw some small but interesting exhibits, received instructions form a guide in period dress who made darn sure we didn’t go away ignorant of the relationship between George Rogers Clark and his younger brother William, and took in a good film about George and the Vincennes campaign.

A pleasant walk takes you to the magnificent Beaux-Arts monument itself, designed by Frederic Charles Hirons, whose portfolio included numerous public buildings. Inside the rotunda, a beautiful statue of George by Hermon Atkins MacNeil stands in the center. MacNeil is best known for designing the famous “Standing Liberty” U.S. quarter, as well as sculpting the figure of “Justice” for the U.S. Supreme Court building. Some of Clark’s famous quotations are displayed on the floor and walls, including:

“If a country is not worth protecting, it is not worth claiming.”


“Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted.”

On all sides are large and thoughtful murals done by Ezra Winter depicting the scenes of George’s heroism, including leading settlers into Kentucky, taking Kaskaskia, and leading the march to Vincennes. It was fun to talk to the guard and learn some about the structural issues that constantly plague the monument, mostly due to the challenges of maintaining it in the extremely harsh conditions that prevail in winter.

Liz at the statue of Francis Vigo, Vincennes, Indiana

Afterwards, I highly recommend that you stroll the grounds to take a look at the Wabash and particularly to visit the Johns Angel statue of George’s friend, the great patriot Francis Vigo. Vigo was an Italian immigrant and fur trader who helped the patiot cause with money and intelligence. For his trouble, he was financially ruined when the U.S. government refused to reimburse Clark for his expenses (essentially destroying Clark’s life). Vigo died in poverty, though his heirs pursued his case, finally winning restitution for Vigo’s services in 1875 — a century after the war! Also, don’t miss the nearby historic church with its statue of another of Clark’s benefactors, Father Pierre Gibault, who persuaded the French inhabitants of Vincennes and the rest of the Illinois territory to aid the Americans.

Vincennes is a great place to visit for anyone who deeply cares about the founding of this country. Here, Clark pulled off one of the great bloodless victories of all time, a colossal, audacious bluff in which he convinced Hamilton that he was camped on his doorstep with five times the forces he actually had. The befuddled general surrendered to Clark without firing a shot. Imagine Hamilton’s surprise when Clark’s array of starving frontiersmen trooped into Fort Sackville to take possession, and he realized he’d been had by a 26-year-old Virginian who just happened to be a military genius.

For more reading:

George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part I
George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part II
Great George Rogers Clark site from the Indiana Historical Bureau

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Indian of the Nation of the Shawanoes, by Victor Collot (1796)

How many of us remember what we learned in school about the early Federal period in American history? Probably not much — because little is actually taught about this fascinating period in which the United States was struggling to be born. In many ways, the emerging nation was just a pawn in a wicked game between European powers for control of the North American continent — and manifest destiny was anything but.

Our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (on sale now, click the Buy Our Books tab at the top) centers around one such conspiracy in which both the Spanish and French were using (and being used by) some of the most famous Americans in the West in an attempt to break Kentucky loose from the United States and push the Americans back across the Alleghenies. George Rogers Clark, the brilliant, erratic, embittered hero of the American Revolution and beloved older brother of William Clark, was heavily involved in the French portion of the scheme. Its failure further blasted his reputation and led some in the United States to consider him something of a traitor.

Though the plot of Fairest has as many twists and turns as a John Le Carré novel (or at least it seemed that way when we were working on it and trying to to control the plot), I have to admit it is simplified from the real McCoy. In reality, Clark’s restless spirit could not be contained. Just two years after the failure of the plot described in our novel, he was involved in yet another French conspiracy, this one spearheaded by a military and political officer by the name of Georges Henri Victor Collot.

Tall, dark-haired, and intensely patriotic, Collot was in his 40s when he was recruited to undertake an intelligence mission for France to understand the political climate of the American West. If conditions were right, the French hoped they might learn enough to take possession, by either political or military means, of two key North American cities. Pittsburgh, under American control, and St. Louis, under Spanish control, were the keys to the interior of the continent. Eventually, the French hoped to drive the Spanish out of New Orleans and control the entire continent west of the Atlantic seaboard.

To that end Collot recruited an expert mapmaker, Joseph Warin, and several Canadian voyageurs and American boatmen. He set off down the Ohio River in March 1796 and made extensive notes on the topography, frontier settlements, Indians, and wildlife. Collot professed that geography was his true interest, but in reality he paid special attention to the placement and situation of American and Spanish forts throughout the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. He also stopped in for a chat with George Rogers Clark, to find out if the aging general might still be interested in leading a mercenary mission to storm down the Mississippi and seize New Orleans, as Clark had attempted to do earlier (read all about it in Fairest).

George Rogers Clark on his way to Kaskaskia, by Howard Pyle

What Collot found when he arrived in Clark’s hometown of Louisville resulted in perhaps the most wrenching yet compassionate account of Clark ever written. Later printed in Collot’s book Journey in North America, it is worth relating in full:

We cannot leave Louisville without relating a circumstance which does honor to the American character, and which would not disgrace the annals of the finest days of Rome.

A person of great military talents, and who had acquired considerable reputation in the war which procured independence to America; who had also gained from the natives almost the whole of the immense country which forms now the Western States; the rival, in short, of General Washington; had retired to Louisville after the peace, either from caprice or discontent against the government at that time, in the hope of ending his days tranquilly in the middle of his family, and on the spot which had been the scene of his achievements.

But unhappily, idleness and listlessness, inseparable companions, followed him in his retreat. He who is conversant only with military affairs, who knows nothing of agriculture or commerce, and has no taste for the charms of nature, is soon wearied of still life. Drinking and intoxication became the sole resource of this officer, and he carried this degrading passion to such an excess, that he was often found lying in a state of stupified drunkness in the streets.

We were the witnesses of a scene the most humiliating for a man who once inspired sentiments of high veneration, but now excited only those of pity. We returned about seven in the evening from taking a walk in the environs of Louisville, when we perceived, in the midst of the square, a number of persons who were crowding around something that lay extended on the ground, on which a blanket had been thrown, and which a man was about to take up and carry off.

Drawing near to satisfy our curiosity, I asked the man, who appeared to me to be a shoemaker, what was the matter. He turned towards me with a look expressive of sorrow, and said, “Do you not see, sir, that it is that hero, that great man; he has forgotten at the moment the important services which he has rendered us; but it is our duty to remember them; I cover him thus, to preserve him from the contempt of the people.” He had, indeed, as soon as he saw him fall, run out of his shop with a woolen blanket, which he threw over him, and carried him into his house, where we were witnesses of the affectionate care with which he treated him.


Map of St. Lewis (St. Louis) by Victor Collot and Joseph Warin (1796)

By this time, Collot had begun to attract attention as a potential spy, with “Mad Anthony” Wayne, commanding general of the United States Army (and a major character in Fairest) issuing orders that he be detained and arrested. Collot was stopped at Fort Massac by Zebulon Pike (father of the explorer) and searched, but managed to talk his way out of the jam, especially since his papers were all written in French which no one at the fort was able to read. He proceeded down river, compiling what was then the most accurate and detailed description and maps of the river systems of the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi. Along the way, Collot had adventures to rival his successors Lewis and Clark, including digging up fossils, being caught in titanic thunderstorms, being chased by bears, and enduring an Indian attack which gravely injured mapmaker Joseph Warin.

For his troubles, Collot was arrested again upon his arrival in New Orleans, this time by the Spanish governor. Warin was also arrested and died of his wounds while awaiting release. Eventually, Collot was allowed to leave. By the time he got back to France, the government had lost interest in his work. He died in 1805, but eventually the importance of his maps and manuscript were recognized. His Journey in North America was published in 1826. Collot’s writing is fascinating and delightfully acerbic. The book may be read in its entirety online thanks to the Wisconsin History Society and is available at their American Journeys site.

For more reading:

The Spanish Conspiracy
The André Michaux Story – Part 1
The Citizen Genet Affair – Part 1

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George Rogers Clark and the Defense of Fort Harrod in 1777, by Frederick Yohn

The first obligation of the historical novelist is to create a believable alternate universe, a world of the past that people can enter and explore from the perspective of our own times. When we think about entering the world of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, we may think of technology (no electricity, no telegraph, no railroads, no steamboats). We may think of politics (the U.S. was not a world power, the Indians still hunted the buffalo unmolested by white expansion). Or we may think of glaring social differences, such as the existence of slavery or the role of women.

One difference we may not always consider is the difference in psychology that existed on Lewis and Clark’s frontier. Quite simply, a huge percentage of the population spent years living under the constant threat of Indian raids, and many people had witnessed atrocities and even engaged in mortal combat with the Indians. Today we might expect people who experienced such helplessness and horror to be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is best understood as a persistent anxiety disorder that is caused by severe trauma that threatens you with serious injury or death. People may suffer from PTSD after a natural disaster or being the victim of a crime, but it is most commonly associated with combat veterans.To some degree the affliction is still quite poorly understood, especially why some people suffer from PTSD and others who endured the same events do not. The answer may lie in biochemistry, differences in the brain, or even genetics. The National Institutes of Health estimates 8% of people involved in a traumatic event will develop the disorder, though some experts believe it is significantly higher.

PTSD has been observed in combat veterans going back to the Civil War, though it was called by other names such as combat fatigue, shell shock, and soldier’s heart. So what about the frontier of Lewis & Clark’s time?

The defense of Boonesborough, 1777

Of the two explorers, the most likely to have been intimately familiar with frontier trauma was William Clark. From the time he was 14, Clark grew up on the Kentucky frontier. During the American Revolution, Kentucky was by far the most violent place in America; in fact, some historians believe that from 1776-1794, Kentucky was the most violent place in the world. In a great article (published in the Australian academic journal ERAS, November 2008) called “Soldiers of Settlement: Violence and Psychological Warfare on the Kentucky Frontier, 1775-1783,” Darren Reid writes about the relentless everyday warfare suffered by Kentuckians during the Revolution and early Federal period. Deaths by combat were seven times higher than in any of the 13 rebelling colonies, and many of them came among civilians.

Meriwether Lewis spent several years of his boyhood on the Georgia frontier, and family lore holds that the family had a tense wait for an Indian raid on one occasion, though fortunately no violence actually occurred. Kentucky was different and far worse. Essentially, almost every adult Clark knew had been a part of extreme traumatic violence, either as a victim, perpetrator, witness, or all three. Certainly Clark’s legendary older brother, the great frontier soldier George Rogers Clark, was deeply involved in the relentless warfare, having formulated and carried out numerous daring plans to combat the British and their allies among the Shawnee, Cherokee, Wyandot, and numerous other tribes.

Clark’s own family suffered severe losses during the frontier war. Clark’s brother Dick, age 24, was serving as an assistant to George Rogers when he disappeared while carrying a message near present-day Vincennes, Indiana. His body was never found but he was presumed killed by Indians. Clark’s cousin Joe Rogers was among the many frontiersmen kidnapped by the Shawnee. As memorably recounted in Long Knife by James Alexander Thom, Rogers lived as a captive for several years before troops engaged with the Shawnee at the Battle of Piqua near present-day Cincinnati in 1782. Unrecognizable as his former self, he was gunned down by American forces under the command of George Rogers Clark while trying to run to the American lines. One can only imagine the anguish of Clark recovering the body of his dead cousin.

The Shawnee and their allies were highly organized and militarily savvy, and they were backed by the full power of the British in supplying both arms and advisers to drive the Americans out of Kentucky. Atrocities included torture, mutilation, and kidnapping of children, which resulted in a spiraling war of retaliation and revenge. Even after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution in 1783, the British did not vacate their frontier forts (though required to do so by the treaty) and continue to arm and back the Indians.

Kentucky militia reenactor. Courtesy Sumac Enterprises (Ohio-based storytellers and reenactors Fred and Ross Shaw)

William Clark may have begun to go out on engagements to fight the Indians with George when he was as young as 16. It is certain that he enlisted in the Kentucky militia at the age of 19 and took part in several search-and-destroy missions against the Indians, including burning villages and crops. In at least one of these skirmishes, Indians attempting to flee in canoes were massacred.

At the age of 21, Clark served as a militiaman under our old friend General James Wilkinson, burning Indian villages but being extremely fortunate to miss the battle known as St. Clair’s Defeat. The losses suffered by the U.S. Army and Kentucky militia in the battle were staggering and have been compared by historians to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Clark would almost certainly have been killed.

In 1792, Clark was commissioned an infantry lieutenant in the regular army, then being rebuilt almost from scratch by General Anthony Wayne. By 1794, he was highly experienced at scouting and escorting supply convoys and had become a skilled leader, woodsman, and riverman. In March of that year, a large pack train under his command was attacked by Indians. Clark built a breastwork of baggage and fought the Indians off. In August, he commanded a group of Chickasaw allies in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, one of the most decisive battles in American history. This excerpt from our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe gives something of the flavor of that day:

The forest exploded. Hidden in the weeds and the trees, the Indians fired. Balls thudded into flesh. Trees splintered and became projectiles, jagged shards of wood spiraling into faces and eyes.

The forest screamed. Soldiers bellowed, officers roared, horses shrieked. Clark bawled so many orders at the Chickasaws he lost his voice, and now couldn’t remember anything he’d said. Guns blasted everywhere.

In his article, Reid explicitly compares the frontier period in Kentucky with the “woodland warfare” experienced by troops in Vietnam, including the factors of guerrilla war, atrocities committed against civilians, and a constant sense that danger was lurking everywhere and could strike at any moment. Added to that was the witnessing of the suffering of women and children when their men were killed in the war — a circumstance that, in the words of one settler, left the families “poor, distressed, & naked, & starved.”

For decades to come, frontiersmen were often characterized as hard-drinking, violent, and anti-social, as well as restless and always ready to move on to the next frontier. It would be interesting to know to what degree PTSD played a role in these aspects of life in the early American West. In any case, dealing with traumatized people would have simply been part of life for William Clark (and later, during his many years on the frontier, Meriwether Lewis). Who knows — it’s even possible PTSD may have played a role in the alcoholism and lack of focus that characterized the post-war years of George Rogers Clark.

Recent studies of the effects of PTSD on the civilian populaces of places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan show that the populations have much higher levels of mental illness than similar countries where death and horror are not everyday realities. Combat survivors, who generally have no access to mental health care, suffer from violent flashbacks and unexpected rages. There is even a new word in the language of Rwanda: ihahamuka, which means “breathless with frequent fear.”

Without any mental health care records whatsoever, it’s hard to know how one would go about researching the prevalence of PTSD on the frontier. What is certain is that Clark, Lewis, and anyone else navigating the social scene on the frontier would have to be aware that a huge percentage of the soldiers and civilians they encountered had been involved in the carnage — a reality so gruesome that, thankfully, few of us can imagine it today.

For more reading:

The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 1
The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 2
Young William Clark
Lewis and Clark road trip: Old Fort Harrod

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Location: One mile east of Metropolis, Illinois (also the home of Superman)

Fort Massac. Foundations of original fort in foreground; reconstruction in back.

Fort Massac State Park is a reconstruction of a fort that was a major control point on the Ohio River for decades. The first historically documented fort here was constructed by the French in 1757 and called Fort Ascension or Fort Massiac; some historians believe the Spanish may have fortified this spot even before that date. In any case, the fort was turned over to British control in the aftermath of the French and Indian War in the 1760s. The Chickasaw Indians burned the fort to the ground before it was ever occupied by British troops.

In July 1778, George Rogers Clark chose this spot to begin his memorable march across southern Illinois to seize control of the occupied British frontier forts. In my opinion, Clark is easily the most underrated figure of the American Revolution, and the Illinois campaign illustrates why. At the beginning of the Revolution, Kentucky was extremely sparsely populated and under siege by Native Americans backed by the British. Most people thought the territory would have to be evacuated. In retrospect, the alternate history that might have unfolded from this retreat is almost unfathomable. If the United States had ended the American Revolution without possession of the territory west of the Alleghenies, westward expansion might never have happened.

A young officer named George Rogers Clark volunteered to defend the Kentucky territory and much more. With authorization from Virginia’s governor Patrick Henry (Kentucky was part of Virginia at the time), Clark raised a regiment of 150 men. Not one to adopt a purely defensive posture, Clark then went on the offensive to seize the British-occupied forts in the remote west.

George Rogers Clark overlooking the Ohio, by Leon Hermant

Clark’s first target was the village of Kaskaskia, near modern-day Centralia, Illinois. Ordinarily, frontier Kaskaskia was reached by paddling up the Mississippi River, but Clark obviously wanted the element of surprise. He staged a 120-mile march across southern Illinois. The starting point of that historic march was the ruins of old Fort “Massac.”

Ultimately the heroism of Clark and his tiny band would lead to the possession of modern-day Illinois and Indiana by the state of Virginia. The vast territory needed to be defended, as the British, Spanish, and French continued to plot to wrest the western territories from the struggling new nation (this international intrigue is quite thrilling and forms the background for our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and isn’t today the day to click that “Buy Now” tab for some exciting summer reading? Thanks.). As a result, the Americans rebuilt Fort Massac. At the height of the Indian Wars of the 1790s, the fort had the largest garrison of any United States fort. It served as the port of entry into the United States for goods coming up river from the Mississippi (under Spanish control).

By November 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (George’s little brother) stopped at Fort Massac, under the command of Daniel Bissell. Probably to his dismay, Bissell had orders from President Jefferson to allow Lewis and Clark to recruit as desired from his garrison. He could not have been pleased about allowing the Expedition leaders to cherry-pick his best men. John Newman and Joseph Whitehouse would become the first two active-duty military personnel to enlist in the Corps of Discovery. In addition, Lewis recruited the indispensable George Drouilliard at Fort Massac. The half-Shawnee hunter and interpreter possessed frontier skills and knowledge that would make him one of the most valuable members of the Corps.

Recruitment at Fort Massac, 1803, by Michael Haynes

In June 1805, about the time Lewis and Clark were struggling to make their epic portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri, Fort Massac was the site of an intriguing meeting between disgraced former vice-president Aaron Burr and none other than our old friend, General James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson outfitted Burr with a barge and letters of introduction to his wide circle of international acquaintances in New Orleans. It is believed that Burr and Wilkinson drew up plans to launch a treasonous expedition of conquest into the American Southwest; Wilkinson would later betray Burr’s plan and order his arrest.

Fort Massac was heavily damaged in the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. It was, however, used as a training center during the War of 1812 before being closed at the end of the war in 1814. By 1833 it was described as a “ruin.” The fort’s site was purchased by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1903, and became an Illinois state park in 1908. Interesting archaeological research has been taking place at the fort site since the 1930s.

The current replica fort lies just beside the archaeological site and provides an accurate model of the fort as it existed in 1802. Visiting the fort is a total blast for buffs of the period. It consists of a four-sided wooden fort surrounded by trenches and palisades. Inside are wooden buildings and barracks. The design and construction of Fort Massac would have been typical of other frontier forts such as Fort Washington, the Cincinnati-area fort where Lewis and Clark first met in the 1790s. Lewis & Clark’s smaller Expedition forts, Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop, would have followed the same model.

There’s a good introductory film at the visitor’s center. We especially enjoyed the quaint 1930s statue of George Rogers Clark and spending lots of time exploring the outline of the original fort.

More great reading:

George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part I

Lewis & Clark road trip: Old Fort Harrod


The Four Sergeants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

George Drouillard: Wanted for Murder


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Location: Louisville, Kentucky

Locust Grove. George Rogers Clark was sheltered here by his sister in the last years of his life.

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.

Lucy Clark Croghan

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 of Locust Grove

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.

George Rogers Clark and Locust Grove, by Gwynne Tuell Potts and Samuel W. Thomas (2006)

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.

They Came to Locust Grove, by Melzie Wilson (2004)

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!

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Location: Louisville, Kentucky

Graves of the Clark brothers: George, Edmund, and Jonathan, at Cave Hill Cemetery

In recent road trip posts we’ve taken a visit to Meriwether Lewis’s lonely grave along the Natchez Trace, and William Clark’s warm circle of family at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis. But in the spirit of “collect ’em all,” especially for Clark fans, you can pay tribute to an entire generation of Clark men with a visit to the beautiful and historic Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.

Cave Hill is a wonderful example of the concept of “rural cemetery” as it emerged in the middle of the 19th century. In early America, the dead were generally buried in churchyards. These can be creepy places to our modern sensibilities. I remember years ago visiting the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, where the graves are tumbled together and the headstones bear the images of skulls and have dark, dire inscriptions warning you to prepare to meet your Maker.

In the South, the churchyard tradition fell by the wayside, and many people were buried in family graveyards on their farms or plantations. This was the case for the Clark brothers of Louisville as for so many Southerners. When I visited our family’s farm in Delaware when I was a child, I remember coming across a grave and wondering about it. That was many years ago, and the farm has long since passed out of the family. I still wonder about that grave. I don’t know who it was, or what has happened to it in the years since. And even for men as famous as the Clark brothers, family graveyards can raise similar concerns after the passage of time and generations.

George Rogers Clark by Joseph Henry Bush

George Rogers Clark shortly before his death, painted by Joseph Henry Bush

As readers of this website or our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe are aware, the life of George Rogers Clark was both heroic and tragic. His early conquests in the American Revolution, which earned him the nickname “Hannibal of the West,” gave way to betrayal, bankruptcy, despair, and alcoholism. Once described as an incredibly charismatic and intelligent figure with a build like a Viking God, Clark in old age was a withered man reduced to shouting epithets at unruly neighborhood children. When his brother Jonathan, a hale man of 61, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1811, George is said to have remarked bitterly, “Everyone can die but me.” In 1818, at the age of 66, George finally got his wish. He was laid to rest at Locust Grove, the plantation of his sister Lucy and her husband William Croghan.

During the Victorian era, a wildly romantic concept of death swept both England and the United States, leading to the rise of a third type of burial: that of a garden cemetery filled with beautiful and ostentatious monuments. The new cemeteries were scenic and landscaped, a far cry both from the densely packed churchyards and the homespun family graveyards. Families would build the biggest, best, and most impressive monuments they could afford. The park-like setting was ideal for spending the day visiting departed loved ones,, leaving flowers and even picnicking on the grounds.

Moreover, the new cemeteries offered perpetual care for the graves, something new that reflected the increased worth of the individual in society. It was a way to honor the dead, reconnect with their spirits, and celebrate the promise of hope and joy in the next world. Cave Hill Cemetery became Louisville’s entry in to the cemetery movement. Designed in 1846 on land originally purchased by the city as a quarry, the new cemetery made use of naturally hilly ground to showcase especially prominent monuments. Paths through the graves followed the gently rounded curves of the land, and low-lying areas became ponds or were planted with trees.

The entrance to Cave Hill Cemetery, 1906

By 1869, the Civil War and its aftermath had destroyed the old plantation life at Locust Grove, and the Clark family decided that the remains of George Rogers Clark should be moved from the farm to Cave Hill Cemetery. (Similarly, William Clark’s remains had been moved from his nephew’s St. Louis farm to Bellefontaine Cemetery in the 1850s.) There is a good story about the reburial of Clark’s body. If headstones had ever existed at Locust Grove, they had been lost, and a number of bodies had to be exhumed in the search for Clark.

The workers had to be getting pretty discouraged by the time they dug up the ninth body, but this time they hit pay dirt. Fortunately for them, though not for Clark, the old general had fallen in 1809 and burned his leg in a household fire. The leg had to be amputated. So the appearance of a skeleton dressed in a military uniform, missing a left leg and sporting the remnants of gray and red hair, must have filled everyone with unseemly relief. Clark was reinterred in a gently sloping section of Cave Hill.

Dear Brother, edited by James Holmberg (2002) is a wonderful collection of William Clark's letters to his brother Jonathan

Although less well-known today than George Rogers or William, two other Clark brothers were laid to rest next to George. Jonathan Clark, the steely pater familias and confidant of William, was a well-known Revolutionary War hero in his own right, a veteran of the South Carolina campaign, a former prisoner of war, and a wealthy and successful attorney. His wife Sarah Hite, documented as a kind and motherly woman who was a great cook, rests by his side. Fewer details survive about Captain Edmund Clark, also a veteran of the Revolution. A merchant by trade who was shyer than the other brothers, he nonetheless comes down in letters as a sensible, strong-minded man who was smart about money. Like George Rogers, Edmund never married.

Unlike many of the graves at Cave Hill, the Clarks have only modest headstones, not grand monuments. If you visit, you will want to take the time to explore some of the impressive statues and family plots. (Among others is the impressive memorial for Harlan Sanders, the Colonel of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.) But none are more moving than the well-tended graves of these three heroes and their families, still lying together shoulder-to-shoulder in Clark family solidarity. We placed our Texas flags next to some fading tributes from the DAR and felt grateful for the service (often thankless) rendered by these brothers to America.

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