Archive for the ‘Indiana’ Category

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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Meriwether Lewis by John Lanzalotti (2000). This bust was placed in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond in 2008.

You might think that after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from the West to great acclaim as national heroes, that every city and town associated with the Expedition would have wanted to erect a monument to their achievement. But in fact, outdoor public sculpture was unheard of in the United States until about the 1830s, many years after the Corps of Discovery had faded from memory. The real golden age of public monuments began in America after the Civil War, when almost every community wished to build a memorial to the dead.

The pace of building monuments reached its zenith around the turn of the 20th century. Since then, a number of very interesting Lewis & Clark monuments have been erected all along the trail, with a fresh wave coming recently for the Bicentennial commemoration.

In this series, we’ll take a look at some of the Lewis & Clark sculptures. Today I’ll begin with several monuments in the “Eastern Legacy” states where Captain Lewis prepared for the Expedition and William Clark recruited early members of the Corps, as  well as the way the Expedition is remembered along the first segment of the Lewis & Clark Trail in Missouri.

As many historians like to say, the Lewis & Clark Expedition actually began in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, so what better place to begin our sculptural journey than Charlottesville, Virginia, the home town of Jefferson and of Lewis himself.

Statue in Charlottesville, Virginia of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea (kneeling), by Charles Keck (1919)

The Charlottesville monument seems to have been the first permanent memorial to Lewis & Clark in the United States. Here, Charles Keck captured the manly beauty and virility of Lewis and Clark in this statue that shows them very much as frontier soldiers, perhaps not so different from the American doughboys who had recently returned from World War I. From the awkward pose, it is difficult not to think that Sacagawea was a last-minute addition to Keck’s commission, and indeed her posture has been interpreted as subservient or cowering, drawing student protests in recent years. In 2009, a plaque was added to the statue recognizing Sacagawea’s contribution to the Expedition’s success.

"When They Shook Hands," by Carol Grende (2003). Statue located at the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Indiana.

This bronze was commissioned by the Southern Indiana Visitors’ Bureau and several local boosters to commemorate Clarksville’s role as the home of William Clark in 1803 and the place where the two captains met that fall and began the planning of the Expedition and recruitment of members of the Corps of Discovery. Interestingly enough, sculptor Carol Grende of Montana accepted the commission in spite of an extremely tight seven-month deadline to complete the project before the bicentennial event in Clarksville, and the statue arrived in town just 30 hours before the ceremony began.

"Captain's Return," by Harry Weber (2006). This St. Louis statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their dog Seaman stands in the waters of the Mississippi near the Gateway Arch.

This bronze by St. Louis sculptor Harry Weber was commissioned for the final “signature event” of the Bicentennial, which commemorated the September day in 1806 when the Corps of Discovery returned, about a year later than expected and after most people had given them up for dead. It has become iconic as a gauge of how high the river’s waters flow every spring and summer in flood stage:

The Lewis & Clark statue on the St. Louis riverfront in flood stage. I have seen photos in which only Clark's hat is still visible.

Lewis and Clark monument on the waterfront in St. Charles, Missouri, by Pat Kennedy (2003)

Lewis, Clark, and Seaman were a common trio in Bicentennial commemorations. It is interesting to compare how bulked-up Lewis and Clark are here compared with their 1919 portrayal in the Charlottesville statue.

This grouping on the grounds of the Missouri state capitol in Jefferson City includes York, Lewis, Seaman, Clark, and George Drouillard. Bronze by Sabra Tull Meyer, 2008.

A day in the life early in the Lewis & Clark Expedition is depicted in this grouping. The artist who made this arrangement, Sabra Tull Meyer, has a fascinating website that tells the story of the monument’s creation along with great photographs of how the statues were created. Check out The Making of a Monument.

The Corps of Discovery by Eugene Daub (2000). This statue stands in Case Park on the Kansas City waterfront, and depicts Lewis, Clark, York, and Sacagawea with her baby Jean-Baptiste on her back.

The Kansas City monument was the centerpiece of the renovation of Case Park, a showpiece of urban renewal in downtown Kansas City. The monument is 18 feet high and is believed to be the largest Lewis & Clark memorial in existence.

Are there any outdoor sculptures of Lewis and Clark in the eastern states or in Missouri that I have missed? If so, let me know. In the next installment of this series, we’ll trek onward and see how Lewis and Clark are remembered on the Great Plains.

More reading: William Clark’s grave

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William Henry Harrison at age 27, by Charles St. Memin

Sorry it’s been longer than usual since my last post! It’s been a busy month. Whew!

When last we checked in with William Henry Harrison, the witty, dramatic young officer was poised to go far in the early Army. But just as suddenly, Harrison’s fate changed. His mentor, General Mad Anthony Wayne, died suddenly under what some believe to be suspicious circumstances. In any case, without Wayne, Harrison found himself stuck in in an unfulfilling command in Cincinnati, with his main challenges trying to feed and equip his men in a rapidly downsizing peacetime army. With little possibility of promotion, Harrison decided it was time to seek greener pastures and resign his commission.

He also needed to make some money, for he was now a married man. While still serving in the Army, Harrison had met Nancy Symmes, by all accounts a delightful and sweet young woman who was noted as a fearless rider who liked to gallop through the still-virgin forests around her home near Cincinnati. Nancy was the daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes, one of the most successful land speculators in the Ohio country.

Harrison, the scion of Berkeley and the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, must have been flabbergasted when Judge Symmes turned him down flat as a suitor for Nancy’s hand in marriage. But from Symmes’ point of view, Harrison was nothing but a penniless junior officer. After all, as a younger son, William Henry wasn’t inheriting any of that fancy real estate back in Virginia. When Harrison pledged his “sword and his strong right arm” to the marriage, Symmes showed him the door with the words: “You cannot plead, bleed, or preach!”

Nancy Symmes Harrison as an older woman

But while Daddy may have been holding out for a lawyer, doctor, or minister, Nancy wasn’t. The couple simply waited for Judge Symmes to leave town and then eloped with the help of a sympathetic local justice of the peace.

Though still young by any measure, Harrison had already laid the groundwork for what would be a spectacular rise to power. From Anthony Wayne, he had learned how to to organize a military campaign, and how to use threats, bribes, spies, and presents to negotiate Indian treaties. And he had met many of the men, both white and Indian, who would play crucial roles in his future career.

For the rest of his life, Harrison would shift gears between the military and politics, but one goal remained constant. Quite simply, Harrison took care of Harrison. But his ambition extended far beyond mere financial wealth. He aspired to the property and social standing he had left behind in Virginia, but his personal code would not allow him to sully his hands by grubbing in a trade. He embraced the fiction that he was a cultivated gentleman farmer, but in reality he would spend his entire life as a public servant.

He had no doubt whatsoever his own ability and right to lead — nor of his right to blend his personal interests with his taxpayer-supported jobs. In this attitude, Harrison’s thinking was in accordance with our buddies Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who also used, or attempted to use, their public offices to do themselves a little good. Indeed, none other than George Washington, the ultimate Virginia gentleman, was notorious for doing well at the public expense. As early as his 20s, Harrison had already begun to live beyond his means, and the rest of his life would be a scramble to keep up with his own expensive tastes.

Mr. Jefferson's Hammer, by Robert A. Owens (2007)

Harrison was not out of a job for long. He was appointed secretary of the Northwest Territory by President Adams, a post similar to that of lieutenant governor, and in 1799, he was elected the first congressman from the territory. The following year, Adams appointed Harrison governor of the newly-created Indiana Territory, with sweeping civil and military power over a country that included the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. He was still only 27 years old. By that time, he and Nancy had three children; eventually they would have ten.

Harrison’s role as governor of the territory has been reassessed recently in a new biography by Robert A. Owens, Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer. As the intriguing title suggests, Harrison quickly shifted gears after Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801. With Jefferson’s wholehearted endorsement, Harrison embarked on an aggressive and ruthlessly pragmatic Indian policy that would put the Indiana Territory in the vanguard for the century to come. In short, Harrison would break the cycle of tribal warfare, push the Indians into dependence on American handouts, and continually pare away their lands.

Even Harrison’s detractors couldn’t argue with the results he achieved when he brought the Indians to the bargaining table. The 1809 Fort Wayne Treaty with the Potawatomis, Delawares, and Miamis provides a case in point. Harrison coerced tribal chiefs into attending the meeting by threatening to withhold their annual annuities, upon which the tribes had become dependent. Once the conference began, Harrison masterfully used “divide and conquer” tactics of both bribery and exploitation of jealousies and resentments among the Indians to strip the Indians of almost 2.9 million acres of land in this single treaty.

In August 1810, a confrontation between William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh came dangerously close to violence.

As Harrison himself put it, some men may have performed greater service to their country, but none could match his “zeal and fidelity.” By any measure, Harrison was extraordinarily successful in fulfilling the objectives of the presidents he served, acquiring an astonishing 50 million acres of western land at a cost of under two cents per acre. For comparison’s sake, tthe Louisiana Purchase explored by Lewis and Clark was ten times larger, but came at a cost of four cents an acre. It could also be argued that Harrison’s territory proved the more valuable of the two to the eventual rise of the United States as a world power.

Panther in the Sky, by James Alexander Thom (1991)

But Harrison’s success came so rapidly, and at such a cost to the Indians, that it served to drive them back into the arms of the British and led to the rise of the brilliant Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee Prophet, events brilliantly chronicled by James Alexander Thom in his historical novel, Panther in the Sky. Harrison could not help but admire the ability of Tecumseh and his potential to unite his people, calling him an “uncommon genius.” For that reason, when Harrison got word that Tecumseh had traveled south in an attempt to recruit more tribes into his Indian confederacy, he decided to round up the militia and a flock of volunteers to smash Tecumseh’s home base at Prophet’s Town (near present-day Lafayette, Indiana).

On October 28, 1811, Harrison, dressed for frontier command in a fringed calico shirt and a beaver hat complete with flamboyant ostrich feather, moved out at the head of 1000 men from a fort near present-day Terre Haute. About a week’s march brough the troops deep into the heart of Indian Territory, to a hill near Prophetstown. It was situated at the confluence of the Wabash River and a smaller tributary, the Tippecanoe.

The Battle of Tippecanoe, by Alonzo Chappel

It was the Indians who struck first. Sometime in the early morning hours of November 7, Harrison’s sentries began to fire at something moving in the gloom. Within a couple of minutes, the entire camp was aroused and involved in a hand-to-hand melee. The Indians were remarkably disciplined for once, and almost total darkness, the combat was fierce and terrifying. Finally at daybreak, Harrison was able to rally his mounted troops into a savage charge that broke the Indian line. Anxious to avoid needless loss of life, the Indians fled into the marshes, and the Americans turned to counting their dead.

Quite simply, the battle of Tippecanoe was a fiasco. American losses totaled 62 dead and 125 wounded. 36 Indian corpses were counted (and scalped). After burning Prophet’s Town, Harrison and his men retreated to the territorial capital in Vincennes, Indiana, where Harrison immediately found himself under outraged questioning from the families of the dead. Worse yet, Indian raiding on the frontier skyrocketed to its worst level in two decades; several families of pioneers were massacred, and farms and cabins burned in revenge for the sack of Prophet’s Town. Tecumseh and his brother were stronger than ever.

However, Tippecanoe served its purpose, for Harrison and for other western politicians who believed war was inevitable. Now it really was. Of such unlikely victories are presidents made.

Next time: A long road to the White House

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Location: On the banks of the Ohio River in Clarksville, Indiana, just across the river from Louisville, Kentucky.

Falls of the Ohio State Park, Clarksville, Indiana

Falls of the Ohio State Park, Clarksville, Indiana

Clarksville is the oldest American town in the old Northwest Territory, which included present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. Founded in 1783, Clarksville was part of a 150-acre tract of land known as “Clark’s Grant.” This huge land grant was awarded to George Rogers Clark and the men of his army by the state of Virginia, in recognition of their “reduction of the British posts in the Illinois” during the American Revolution. Clark and his men had taken British outposts at Kaskaskia and Cahokia, then improbably forced the British to surrender Fort Sackville at Vincennes. Clark’s military genius and audacity—as well as the incredible hardship he and his men endured—are the stuff of legend.

"Wasp nest" coral at the Falls of the Ohio

"Wasp nest" coral at the Falls of the Ohio

Clarksville is also the site of an amazing natural history treasure. The limestone at the Falls of the Ohio is composed of skeletal remains from countless numbers of corals, sponges, echinoderms, brachiopods, mollusks, arthropods, and microscopic organisms. 390 million years ago, the geography and climate of the Ohio Valley was completely different, and the Falls of the Ohio area was inundated by a warm, tropical, shallow sea. The ancient fossil beds formed by that sea are among the largest, naturally exposed, Devonian fossil beds in the world.

No visitor to Clarksville should miss the Interpretive Center at Falls of the Ohio State Park, a state of the art facility that gives a fascinating view of the geologic forces that shaped the area. The Interpretive Center overlooks a large dam that now obscures the falls and rapids that dominated the river in George Rogers Clark’s time (and are memorably navigated by Meriwether Lewis and young Charles Floyd in The Fairest Portion of the Globe). The Interpretive Center offers a great film to orient you to the amazing natural history of the area, and you can walk through well-crafted exhibits to learn about the fossil life that once inhabited the shallow sea that covered the Ohio Valley. Want to see the fossil beds up close? Outdoor walking trails will take you down to the river’s edge, where you can see the unique limestone formations made up of thousand of creatures. On the day we went, the wind was stiff, raising small whitecaps on the swift, fierce current of the Ohio.

Falls of the Ohio

Falls of the Ohio, before the dam was built. Note the steamboat being piloted over by an intrepid boatman.

Falls of the Ohio State Park includes the George Rogers Clark homesite. In 1783, land was cheap, and the 8,049 acres George Rogers Clark received as his share of “Clark’s grant” was the only compensation he would ever get for conceiving and commanding the campaign that secured the Northwest Territory for the United States. At the end of the war, neither Virginia nor the United States would honor the debts Clark had incurred arming, feeding, and outfitting his army. Hounded by creditors for the remainder of his life, the land Clark received from Clark’s Grant was the only property he held in his own name.

George Rogers Clark homesite

George Rogers Clark home site in Clarksville. This cabin is not the original, though it is of the same time period.

In 1803, Clark built a sturdy, two-story cabin on a beautiful point of land overlooking the Falls of the Ohio, known as “Clark’s Point” or “Point of Rocks.” Frail and bitter, Clark lived there with two servants, earning a small income operating a grist mill on Mill Run nearby. In those days, the area was littered with larger fossils that have long since been carried off by relic hunters. Traveler and diarist Joseph Espy, who visited the site in 1805, offers this tantalizing description:

The beach and whole bed of the river for two or three miles here is one continued body of limestone and petrifactions. The infinite variety of the latter are equally elegant and astonishing. All kinds of roots, flowers, shells, bones, buffalo horns, buffalo dung, yellow-jacket’s nests, etc., are promiscuously seen in every direction on the extensive beach at low water, in perfect form. I discovered and brought to my lodgings a completely-formed petrified wasp’s nest, with the young in it, as natural as when alive. The entire comb is preserved.

Fascinated by natural history, Clark conducted archaeological excavations around Clarksville. Clark was an expert on the wooly mammoth and sent many specimens of bones and teeth east to Thomas Jefferson, who included them in his private natural history museum at Monticello. The area was also the site of many Indian mounds; earthworks of unknown age and origin dotted the area around the falls. Clark’s careful study and powers of observation led him to conclude that the mounds were made by ancestors of living Native American tribes—a conclusion supported by archaeologists and paleontologists today.

William Clark was living with George at Point of Rocks when he received his famous letter from Meriwether Lewis, inviting him along on the western expedition. A number of members of the Corps of Discovery—the “nine young men from Kentucky”—were recruited from the surrounding area. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark departed from Point of Rocks at Clarksville on their historic journey on October 26, 1803.

George Rogers Clark by Joseph Henry Bush

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

Josiah Espy left us this description of George Rogers Clark at Clarksville in 1805:

At the lower end of the falls is the deserted village of Clarksburgh (Clarksville) in which General Clark himself resides. I had the pleasure of seeing this celebrated warrior, at his lonely cottage seated on Clark’s Point. This point is situated at the upper end of the village and opposite the lower rapid, commanding a full and delightful view of the falls, particularly the zigzag channel which is only navigated at low water. The General has not taken much pains to improve this commanding and beautiful spot, having only raised a small cabin, but it is capable of being made one of the handsomest seats in the world.

General Clark has now become frail and rather helpless, but there are the remains of great dignity and manliness in his countenance, person and deportment, and I was struck with (perhaps) a fancied likeness to the great and immortal Washington.

George Rogers Clark lived at his cabin at Point of Rocks until December 1809, when he fell in the fire, whether due to a stroke or drunkenness no one can say. His leg was badly burned, became infected, and was amputated the following March at his sister’s home in Louisville.  Clark spent the last nine years of his life at his sister Lucy Croghan’s home, Locust Grove, near Louisville.

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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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