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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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Location: Harrodsburg, Kentucky, about 30 miles southwest of Lexington

Old Fort Harrod in Kentucky

Old Fort Harrod State Park is a reconstruction of the first settlement in Kentucky. The fight to win and keep Kentucky is an essential part of understanding the westward exploration which Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would carry all the way to the Pacific Ocean; it’s also an essential part of Clark family history.

Harrodsburg was founded in 1774 by James Harrod, a youthful hunter and frontiersman who was commissioned by Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, to survey western land that had been promised as bounty to American soldiers who had fought in the French and Indian War. The territory had been added to the Virginia colony in 1763, when the French had given up all claims to the land south of the Ohio River, and and encompassed Kentucky (often spelled Cane-tuck-ee in those early days) and modern-day West Virginia.

Liz at the heroic scale Pioneer Monument, built in the 1930s

Legally, settlers were supposed to wait for advance teams like Harrod’s to blaze the way for new settlements in “Kentucky County.” But hundreds had already decided to take the risk. The result was disastrous. The powerful Shawnee and their allies refused to recognize the British claim on Kentucky as legitimate, and as soon as settlers began to put up log cabins and clear the land, a series of terrible atrocities began. There was nothing “Dances with Wolves” about this war. Instead, the Shawnee showed no mercy. In attack after relentless attack, settlers were slaughtered, their crops and cabins burned, the surviving men tortured to death in wildly imaginative ways, the women and children kidnapped and taken away to live as Indians.

Just as Harrod and and his band of 37 men were staking out “Harrod’s Town,” a message arrived with another one of Dunmore’s rugged explorers, Daniel Boone. Boone (whose own teenage son James was among those who had been taken and tortured to death by the Indians), explained that things had gone from bad to worse. First, several other officially-sanctioned groups bringing down settlers–including one led by 22-year-old George Rogers Clark–had banded together and attempted a retaliatory strike against the Shawnee. Second, and virtually simultaneously, another group had attacked a peaceful hunting party of Mingo Indians and massacred many of the relatives of the Mingo chief, including a pregnant woman.

The pioneer cemetery at Fort Harrod. A nearby centograph reads, "To the Wilderness Dead. Those without graves ... unknell'd ... uncoffin'd and unknown"

The outraged Mingos were not prepared to hear distinctions between official and unofficial killing of Indians, and an all-out bloodbath ensued. Dunmore temporarily pulled out attempts at settlement and sent 1100 Virginia militia troops to drive the Indians back across the Ohio River. The operation known as “Lord Dunmore’s War” was successful, and by 1775 Harrod returned with about 50 surveyors and frontiersmen, including two young men who would emerge as leaders along with Harrod, George Rogers Clark and Gabriel Jones. This time, they succeeded in building a fort, laying out a town, and planting a corn crop.

It was Clark who was the driving force behind the construction of Fort Harrod. Everyone knew that the peace won by Dunmore’s War could only be temporary, and that the settlers would need a fort to which to run in case of Indian attack. Clark supervised the design and construction of this palisaded fort, which included space for the settlement’s schoolhouse, weaver, basketmaker, and blacksmith. Once inside the fort, settlers could hold out for an indefinite siege.

Due to their leadership, Clark and Jones, though both only 23 years old, were elected by the settlers to represent them at the Virginia colonial assembly in Williamsburg. By the time they got there in October 1776, the American Revolution was underway. Some Virginia leaders were prepared to abandon the “backcountry,” but Clark stirringly argued otherwise, declaring that “If a country is not worth protecting, it is not worth claiming.” Clark and Jones persuaded the new revolutionary governor, Patrick Henry, to give them 500 pounds of gunpowder in the defense of Kentucky. Young Jones would be killed in an Indian ambush trying to bring the gunpowder to Harrodsburg.

As 1777 got underway, there were about 80 fighting men in Harrodsburg, along with two dozen women, over fifty children, and a number of black slaves. The British were keenly aware of the Americans’ weakness on the frontier. Their frontier commander at Fort Detroit, Governor Henry Hamilton, was working tirelessly to forge alliances with the Indians to destroy the settlements and drive the Americans back over the mountains. Hamilton’s willingness to pay the Indians for their services (if not directly for American scalps), earned him the unremitting hatred of the frontier settlers, who called him “the Hairbuyer.”

Recreation of the cabin and desk where George Rogers Clark planned his brilliant strike at the British in 1777

Within months, tiny Fort Harrod was under a desperate siege by Indians with a limitless supply of British backing and support. The conventional wisdom back home held that the West was lost to the fledgling United States. It was clear as British forces entered the continent in force, and the Continental Congress was fleeing from occupied Philadelphia, that no one was coming to the rescue.

In an extraordinary act of confidence for someone so young, George Rogers Clark decided to take the responsibility for saving Kentucky upon himself. He knew some military history. He thought he could do it. From one of the corner blockhouses at Fort Harrod, Clark coordinated a network of spies to go throughout the western country (then called “the Illinois”) to gather intelligence on British activities and plans. He then devised a plan by which he believed he could checkmate the British and secure the west for the United States.

In a few months, Clark would hit the trail back to Virginia to sell Governor Henry and fellow revolutionary leaders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on the plan. It all began at Fort Harrod, a great stop for anyone interested in frontier history and how the West was really won.

More great pictures of Fort Harrod at Tyler’s Travels.

And by the way, here’s a footnote: The Indian Wars in Kentucky lasted until the 1790s, when Anthony Wayne and his Legion of the United States defeated a confederacy of tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. By that time, George Rogers Clark had hit the skids, but his kid brother William Clark was a junior officer in the fighting. As for James Harrod, he became a wealthy man, but increasingly prone to long, solitary journeys into the wilderness. One day in 1792, at the age of 46, he simply walked away on a hunting trip, never to be seen again. Historians still speculate on whether he was killed by the Indians, got hurt or ill and died without being able to reach help, was murdered by a fellow settler, or simply obtained a “wilderness divorce.”

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No portraits of John and Ann Clark exist. I love thinking of them as "The Waltons."

One of our publicity fliers for The Fairest Portion of the Globe (due out in five weeks!) is headlined “Some men are born to be heroes.” If so, the nursery at John and Ann Clark’s home was mighty crowded with heroic babies. All six of their sons grew up to be heroes, and two of them, George Rogers and William, became legends. And the girls were no slouches either.

John Clark, the father of William Clark, was born in 1725 in King and Queen County, Virginia. As discussed in last week’s post about Lewis’s parents, John grew up in a world in which the unit of family was not the nuclear family of today, but a vast and strongly interwoven cousin network so loyal and powerful that in the Clarks’ case, their detractors called it a clan, something the Clarks seldom bothered to deny. By the time John came along, the family’s roots in American soil were already deep; John’s ancestors had arrived in the James River area sometime in the 1500s, in the earliest days of British settlement.

Over the generations, the Clark family had earned a reputation for being honest, sincere, hardworking small planters. But they were no fancy aristocrats. John Clark’s dad, Jonathan, couldn’t even write his own name, and John himself had only a few years of primary education (often called “blab school” for its emphasis on recitation) under his belt. But old Jonathan had done well enough that when he died, he could leave land to each of his two sons.

If only the Clarks had stayed in Albemarle, Lewis & Clark might have played together as children

John got a 400-acre farm in the frontier county of Albemarle. In fact, John’s near neighbor was a man named Peter Jefferson, who was developing a 1400-acre farm named Shadwell. Unlike Jefferson, John wasn’t too interested in public affairs, and he wasn’t yet of the social stature to give his farm a name. He was more interested in starting a family. Now age 24, he married 15-year-old Ann Rogers. The two were closely related through their cousin network; they had probably known each other all their lives. Within a year, they welcomed their first child, a big healthy boy, named Jonathan to honor John’s father. The Clarks’ brood grew fast: by the time Ann was 21, she had added a son George Rogers, named after her brother, a daughter named Ann, and another son named John (originality in naming was not something the Clarks put a lot of stock in).

John and Ann Clark were more fortunate than most frontier families. Eventually their family would grow to ten children (William, born in 1770, was the next-to-last). All of the kids lived to healthy adulthood, and Ann retained glorious good health. A grandson would recall her as “a tall stout woman with red hair,” while another contemporary said simply, “She was a majestic woman.” Ann was never accused of being a shrinking violet. George Rogers would recall that as a teenager, he once swindled a neighbor boy out of a good knife, and was foolish enough to boast about it. He learned to his sorrow that Ann did not consider a sixteen-year-old too big to thrash.

In 1757, John inherited another farm, this time from a bachelor uncle in Caroline County, near Spotsylvania. The unexpected windfall prompted the Clarks to do something that Clarks hardly ever did: move east, away from the frontier. John was a successful farmer, but he knew that with such a large family, his boys would have to make their own wealth, not inherit it. For that, they would need a good education. A relation of Ann’s ran a respected boy’s school just six miles from the new farm: that settled the matter. The farm in Caroline County would become the Clark’s true “homeplace.” There John and Ann raised wheat, oats, corn, tobacco, and children.

By all accounts, John Clark was a friendly, methodical, salt-of-the-earth kind of a guy. As a nephew wrote, he was “a man of amiable excellent character, of sedate thoughtful appearance and not apt to say much in company.” He and Ann seem to have been amazing parents, working in turn to set each son up with a profession and each daughter with a good marriage. They had high standards, but there was also plenty of time for food, fun, and laughter. William Clark would recall a boyhood of hunting and fishing, climbing the beautiful big trees on the Clark farm, uproarious Christmases and May Days, singing and dancing at the parties his parents hosted, and the social whirl of fox hunts, election barbeques, and church suppers that wove the Clarks tightly to their neighbors and relatives.

The Battle of Monmouth, 1778

Revolution and war would change John and Ann’s world forever. Their ties with England had faded long ago; they were Americans and patriots. All their sons except for little William, and all their sons-in-law, enlisted in the patriot cause. The elder Clarks could only wait and worry as word reached them of battles in places like Brandywine, Monmouth, Paulus Hook, and Germantown. Three of the boys–Jonathan, John, and Edmund–were taken prisoner of war and held under hellish conditions. (See our earlier post The Clark Brothers as Prisoners of War.)

The surrender of Fort Sackville to George Rogers Clark, 1779

George Rogers, their wild son, had left home at age 19 to go adventuring on the raw frontier of Kentucky. Once, John Clark had even gone out to visit him, returning amazed by the vast tracts of rich land there for the taking but terrified of the anger and violence of the Indians who were not about to give it up without a fight. Now that war had begun, 24-year-old George Rogers emerged as one of the most charismatic and daring leaders of the American cause. Commissioned as a colonel in the Virginia militia but usually acting on his own authority, he assumed responsibility for nothing less than the salvation of Kentucky. John and Ann could only marvel along with everyone else at what George could do with fewer than 200 men–including another son, Richard–against the might of the British frontier forces and their Indian allies.

Abraham Lincoln famously wrote to a woman who lost five sons in the Civil War of “the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” Similarly, John and Ann must have emerged from the searing trial of the Revolution stunned with pride and grief. Jonathan and George were known to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Because of George’s derring-do, the United States had ended the war in possession of not only Kentucky, but 260,000 square miles of frontier, the territory that would one day become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

But the price was high. Their son, young John, one of the few survivors of the British hell ship Jersey, made it home to Virginia only to die of tuberculosis contracted as a prisoner. Dick’s death, if possible, was even more painful. He disappeared on a scouting run for George along the Wabash river. Not a trace of him was ever found. And then there was George. The hero had not been paid in four years. The state of Virginia refused to honor the $20,000 in expenses he had incurred on his own credit to feed and clothe his army in the west. It appeared that unless the new national government agreed to pay George, their son might be in very deep trouble indeed.

But what George did have was land–huge holdings of that amazing Ohio Valley land–and in 1784, with the ink barely dry on the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, John and Ann Clark turned their backs on Virginia forever, packed up their belongings and their four youngest children, and headed west. John was 59; Ann was 50. They were something more than the proud but ordinary parents they had been a few years earlier: sadder but stronger, and ennobled in the eyes of the settlers pouring into Kentucky by their own sacrifices and their exploits of their son.

Mulberry Hill shortly before its demolition during World War I

Their new farm had a name–Mulberry Hill–and John and Ann had the help of all their children and a growing brood of grandchildren to make it work. They grew corn, tobacco, hemp, oats, rye, and vegetables. Before long, the farm was ringing with the same loud activity and laughter as the old place in Caroline County. And now the Clarks had a unique social status–their son was “the sword of Kentucky.” They had vaulted from respected small planters to frontier elite.

One thing that set the Clarks apart in early Kentucky was their holdings in human property. The success of the Clarks’ farm and lifestyle had always depended not only on their own hard work but that of their slaves. In Virginia, the Clarks were relatively small-time, never owning more than two dozen slaves, a fair percentage of whom were children or elderly at any given time. The Clarks did not believe in breaking up families, and virtually never sold their slaves (nor did they ever free any of them). By Kentucky standards, they were large slaveholders.

The Clarks knew many joys in their later years. Jonathan, Ann, Elizabeth, and Lucy were all married to steady spouses whom the Clarks loved, and grandchildren began to arrive in astounding numbers. Edmund never married but endeared himself to everyone with his business savvy and dedication to the family.

They also knew many sorrows. Elizabeth was not as fortunate as her mother had been: she died in childbirth in 1795 at age 26. Youngest daughter Fanny, who got all the beauty in a family of tall rangy redheads, married James O’Fallon, a flamboyant land promoter who was a close friend of George’s. The abuse Fanny suffered at O’Fallon’s hands and her wrenching struggle to break free of him form a major storyline in The Fairest Portion of the Globe.

As for George, his parents’s fears had been realized. George was never paid for his services in the Revolutionary War. In those days before bankruptcy laws, that made him personally liable for all the debts incurred in fighting the war in the west. George’s inability to pay his creditors wiped out patriots across the frontier who had extended credit in the cause. George himself was financially ruined. No woman of his station would consent to marry him, and he could not sell his land or accumulate any property, for any proceeds would be seized by the courts to pay his debts.

Being a soldier was all he knew how to do. George lived with John and Ann, an increasingly desperate and troubled man who swung wildly between epic drunken binges and audacious, breathtaking schemes to recoup all his losses by taking up arms again. At the same time, the frontier was being destabilized by foreign governments–France, Spain, and England–who sensed the weakness of the new nation and sought to tear away the frontier from the United States. It was the perfect recipe for international intrigue and forms the main storyline of The Fairest Portion of the Globe.

Young William Clark. (By the way, do you like Antique Roadshow? The Missouri Historical Society is trying to locate the original of this portrait. Contact them if you know where it is.)

Eventually, George’s brothers and sisters realized that his problems had become too severe for their now-elderly parents to cope with. George’s brothers mounted a rescue plan. Jonathan, a lawyer, would lobby the Virginia legislature and the federal government for fair payment for George’s claims. Edmund would bolster George’s cause with cash from his own mercantile and gristmill businesses. And William–now 25 years old–would resign his commission as a junior officer in the frontier army and come home to settle the lawsuits, a job that required traveling hundreds of miles through the wilderness to survey George’s claims and sell off land in exchange for extinguishment of debt. William later estimated that he traveled 3000 miles in the course of three years on George’s behalf.

William also personally took on the task of taking the Clarks’ tobacco crop to New Orleans for sale, wrangling canoes and flatboats and riotous hired hands down the roiling current, driving rains, and unmapped sandbars and snags of the lower Mississippi, then making a return journey that took him through adventures such as playing billards in a low groggery in Natchez, deep sea fishing in the Caribbean, theater going in Baltimore, and visiting his relatives on Virginia.

When William arrived home at Mulberry Hill on Christmas Eve, 1798, he must have been in anticipation of a joyful reunion with his parents and one of the Clark family’s trademark Christmas revels. Instead he found only unspeakable grief. His unconquerable, majestic mother was on her death bed. Ann Rogers Clark died that day of the sudden onset of erysipelas, a strep infection of the skin. She was 64 years old.

At age 74, John Clark must have thought back to those simple beginnings on the farm in Albemarle County. Back then, there was no problem he and Ann couldn’t solve if they put their heads together. Now it was all so overwhelming. William helped him make a will that would ensure that George Rogers’ creditors couldn’t sweep in and seize the farm, the house, the mill, and everything else John and Ann had ever worked for. It meant he had to disinherit George.

Just six months after Ann’s death, John Clark died of a lung infection. In the summer of 1799, he was laid to rest next to Ann at Mulberry Hill, where you can still visit their graves today at Louisville’s George Rogers Clark Park. They didn’t live to see William become a hero to the whole country. But I suspect they wouldn’t have been too surprised. To them, he already was.

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Location: Louisville, Kentucky

View of the Ohio River, downtown Louisville, and the George Rogers Clark bridge from the Indiana side

There is a word in the Hawaiian language, mana, that I’ve come to find very useful because there is no exact equivalent in the English language. Mana means spiritual power or authority, the mystic and God-given force of a strong, integrated personality or group of people. Just to use a frivolous example that most people can identify with, consider what happens when you don your team gear and gather to cheer on your favorite sports team. Such an activity is meaningless on the face of it; how can you, as a fan, affect the outcome of the game? Yet we feel that we do, by lending our own mana to the cause.

When a person’s mana is strong enough, even their belongings and the places associated with them seem to reverberate with their life force. For those of us who enjoy history tourism, there is nothing better than finding a place strong with the mana of the individuals that we’ve studied and come to know and love. And if you want to take in some Clark family mana, Louisville, Kentucky is your kind of place.

The Belvedere, also called Riverfront Park, is a great place to begin exploring Louisville (usually pronounced Looavull). We stayed at the Galt House, a very nice downtown hotel, which is directly adjacent to the waterfront. The Galt House has gone through many incarnations. In fact, William Clark’s grandson, Meriwether Lewis Clark , was shot in one of them. “Lutie” Clark was the founder of the Churchill Downs race track, the future home of the Kentucky Derby. Known to history as an overbearing bully of a man, he was shot but not killed in an 1879 fight with a horse breeder. The current incarnation of the Galt House dates from 1971 and has a personality unlike any other upscale hotel I have ever stayed in. My private affectionate joke is that, like the city of Louisville itself, it displays the perfect combination of northern charm and southern efficiency. All kidding aside, unless you’re the uptight kind of traveler, you will find it well worth the money — warm and comfortable, laid-back, full of nice people, and entirely Louisville.

Louisville shortly after its founding in 1778

Louisville was founded in the spring of 1778 by George Rogers Clark, the older brother of William Clark. Then just 26 years old, George had recruited about 150 men from Virginia and Pennsylvania into a covert expeditionary force that later became known as the Illinois regiment.  Together with about 80 civilians, Clark and his men came down in May 1778 from Pennsylvania and landed at the Falls of the Ohio, an area of tumultuous rapids that formed a natural barrier to navigation and a natural defense.

The presence of the settlers helped Clark conceal his true purposes, for he carried secret orders from Virginia Governor Patrick Henry to lead a strike deep into British-held territory in the west.  Before beginning operations, the regiment was able to help the settlers get set up on Corn Island in the middle of the Ohio, just opposite the Belvedere (the island is now underwater). This was the founding of the settlement that became known as Louisville, named after King Louis XVI of France, a major supporter of the American Revolution. A stockade on the mainland followed within a few months.

George Roger Clark on the Louisville Belvedere

A few weeks after arriving at Corn Island, Clark and his men disguised themselves as Indians and headed downriver in canoes to begin their legendary exploits. George Rogers Clark is a major character in our book The Fairest Portion of the Globe (due out next month!) and his heroics and their incalculable effects on the future of the American west are slated for some upcoming posts. After the Revolution, George decided to make his home at the town he had founded, and persuaded most of his huge family to move from Virginia to join him. The Clarks and their relations were soon among the leading families of a sprawling, brawling frontier river town.

The Ohio river is, in fact, the defining feature of Louisville. The first time I ever came to Louisville, I was blown away by the might and sheer size of the river as it muscles its way between Kentucky and Indiana on the other side. Being from Texas, where most rivers are shallow and non-navigable for any distance, this was my first time to realize what a truly great and historic waterway looked like. This powerful river, one of the interstate highways of early America, linked Louisville to the rest of the country and made possible its eventual growth into one of America’s great riverport cities. Even if you only have a few minutes when passing through Louisville, it’s a wonderful treat to stick your car in the parking garage a while and take some time to stroll and gaze upon La Belle Riverie (“the beautiful river”).

Once, river commerce and ferries made the Louisville riverfront a bustling place. In fact, two of the historic ferries had Lewis & Clark connections. One was operated by the Floyd family, which gave Charles Floyd to the Expedition, and another ran from Locust Grove, the Croghan estate and home of Lucy Clark Croghan, George and William’s sister. But by the 1970s, economic changes and suburbanization had caused Louisville’s core to decline. The Belvedere project was one of several urban renewal schemes that helped transformed downtown from warehouses and wharves to a landscaped area with hotels, theaters, eateries, fountains, and walking trails. It’s a really nice place to spend time. Besides enjoying the river, you can soak up more Clark mana at the following attractions:

George Rogers Clark statue, by Felix de Weldon. George Rogers Clark was the author of some of the greatest feats of the American Revolution. Thanks to the young military genius, the United States emerged from the Revolution with possession of the American frontier and the ability to expand far beyond the territory of the original thirteen colonies. So why isn’t he better remembered today? Probably because of the royal screwing he received from the Founding Fathers. George’s thrilling, then tragic story is a major thread in The Fairest Portion of the Globe.

Mary and Liz, in search of York no more

York statue, by Ed Hamilton. York is the now-famous African-American manservant of William Clark, who joined the Lewis & Clark Expedition and became the first person of his race to cross the continent. Lewis and Clark’s journals reveal that the social barriers that defined York’s life in Kentucky quickly broke down in the wilderness, and that York took his place as a full-fledged and equal member of the Corps of Discovery. As a member of the Corps, he was courageous, dependable, and caring. But ultimately, York’s saga was also a tragic one. When the Expedition returned to civilization, York demanded freedom, the chance to live near his wife and family, and the chance to start his own business and rise or fall on his own efforts. William Clark was, quite simply, appalled. The breach between master and slave is a major story line in our first book, To the Ends of the Earth.

The Belle of Louisville. The great era of steamboats may have only lasted a few decades, but retains its hold on the American imagination. Here is your chance to get out on the Ohio River on a real historic steamboat. The Belle of Louisville began life as the passenger ferry Idlewild in 1914 (meaning its centennial celebration is just a few years off!). Her name was later changed to Avalon, and she was just days from the scrap heap in 1962 when Jefferson County officials swooped in to buy the steamer and give her new life as the excursion boat Belle of Louisville. The sound of the steam calliope calling passengers to the waterfront is irresistible! We took a very fun evening ride on the boat and enjoyed the narrative and the chance to see more of the river landscape very much. The Louisville Metro government also operates the Spirit of Jefferson, a replica steamboat that is not as old but looks equally fun!

Mary with the Belle of Louisville

There are a lot of places to eat in downtown Louisville. A fun place before or after your stroll on the Belvedere is Bearno’s Pizza (about a block east of the Galt House). This would have been a good place for Clark to treat the Corps of Discovery — a medium pizza was more than the two of us could eat! Though given that the Corps’s hunters strove to provide some nine pounds of meat a day per man … Clark would probably need to order at least 50 super-large Mama Bearno’s specials for his ravenous crew. Wonder what Bearno’s would do when Lewis tried to pay with Mr. Jefferson’s unlimited letter of credit?

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