Archive for the ‘Kentucky’ Category

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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The fall of 1807 marked one year since Meriwether Lewis returned from the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Appointed by Jefferson to the post of Governor of Upper Louisiana, Lewis had yet to leave for St. Louis to take up his duties. He lingered in the east, romance among the many things crowding his mind. Although he had been entranced by several “bewitching gypsies” in that city, Lewis had yet to find that special someone.

Portrait of a Young Woman, by Jean-Marc Nattier

Portrait of a Young Woman, by Jean-Marc Nattier

“I am now a perfect widower with rispect to love,” Lewis complained to his friend Mahlon Dickerson of Philadelphia. “I feel all that restlessness, that inquietude, that certain indiscribable something common to old bachelors, which I cannot avoid thinking my dear fellow, proceeds, from that void in our hearts, which might, or ought to be better filled. Whence it comes I know not, but certain it is, that I never felt less like a heroe than at the present moment. What may be my next adventure god knows, but on this I am determined, to get a wife.”

That November, Lewis thought he had found the ideal candidate. While visiting the Fincastle, Virginia home of George Hancock (the father of William Clark’s intended, Julia Hancock), Lewis made the acquaintance of lovely 16 year-old Letitia Breckinridge and her sister, Elizabeth. Letitia and Elizabeth were the daughters of prominent Fincastle lawyer and Revolutionary War veteran James Breckenridge, a member of the Virginia legislature and a future Congressman and brigadier general.

Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was smitten with Letitia. His brother Reuben Lewis wrote home that the “accomplished and beautiful” girl was “one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, both as to form and features … I should like to have her as a sister.”

James Breckinridge

James Breckinridge, Letitia's father

Hoping to win the young lady’s affections, Lewis expressed his intention of making a formal call on Letitia with the object of courting her. Unfortunately for Lewis, the girl reacted negatively. She was not interested and seemed to want to flee from Lewis’s “challenge.” Shortly after her meeting with Lewis, Letitia decamped to Richmond with her father. Reuben wrote glumly, “unfortunately for his Excellency [Lewis], she left the neighborhood 2 days after our arrival so that he was disappointed in his design of addressing her.”

Of all Lewis’s abortive affairs of the heart, this one seems particularly to have stung. It is not known why Letitia fled from Lewis’s affections. Undaunted Courage author Stephen Ambrose suggests that perhaps Lewis simply came on too strong, or maybe Letitia was put off by his heavy drinking – though Lewis would hardly have been unique among Virginia gentry in that respect. It may have been all too obvious that Lewis was still struggling with the problems of re-entry into “normal” life following the high adventure and independent command of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Or perhaps Letitia simply had someone else already in mind.

Following his attendance at his co-captain William Clark’s wedding in January 1808, Lewis left for St. Louis to take up his governor’s post. That summer, he heard from another friend, William Preston, that Letitia had married a rich young fellow named Robert Gamble of Richmond. “So be it,” Lewis replied, resigned. “May God be with her and her’s, and the favored angels of heaven guard her bliss both here and hereafter, is the sincere prayer of her very sincere friend, to whom she has left the noble concentration of scratching his head and biting his nails, with ample leasure to reuminate on the chapter of accidents in matters of love and the folly of castle-building.”

Lewis tried to be generous to the winning suitor, Robert Gamble. “Gamble is a good tempered, easy honest fellow,” Lewis conceded wistfully. “I have known him from a boy; both his means and his disposition well fit him for sluming away life with his fair one in the fassionable rounds of a large City. Such is the life she has celected and in it’s pursuit I wish she may meet all the pleasures of which it is susceptable.”

There is no further real mention of romance or courting in Lewis’s letters and papers. The press of business and increasing financial woes may have made courting impractical. Or maybe Lewis simply never found the right person. He was destined to die in 1809, aged 35, a “musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor” to the end.

As for Letitia, her marriage to Robert Gamble appears to have been a successful one. She bore Gamble nine children. Eventually they moved to Tallahassee, Florida. During the Civil War, several of Letitia and Robert Gamble’s sons served as officers in the Confederate Army. Letitia survived the war, dying in Tallahassee in March 1866, aged 75.

John C. Breckinridge in Confederate uniform

John C. Breckinridge in Confederate uniform

If Letitia’s maiden name, Breckinridge, rings a bell, it should. Letitia’s uncle, John Breckinridge, was the progenitor of the famous Breckinridge dynasty of Kentucky, which produced generations of illustrious politicians, military officers, social activists, and diplomats. The most famous member of the Breckinridge clan was John C. Breckinridge, who served as Vice President under James Buchanan and ran unsuccessfully for President in 1860, coming in third to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Although Kentucky decided to remain with the Union upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Breckinridge broke ranks with his state and sided with the Confederacy, serving as a general in many of the major battles in both the western and the eastern theater.

Named Confederate Secretary of War in early 1865, Breckinridge did his best to broker an honorable peace for the Confederacy. Historians owe him a debt, as he was instrumental in saving the Confederate government archives from destruction during the fall of Richmond in April 1865. Fearing he would be put on trial, Breckinridge fled the country after the Confederate surrender, but was granted amnesty and returned to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1869. He died there of cirrhosis in 1875.

John "Bunny" Breckinridge in Plan 9 from Outer Space

John "Bunny" Breckinridge in Plan 9 from Outer Space

If John C. Breckinridge was the most famous member of the Breckinridge clan, the  most infamous member was his great grandson, John Cabell “Bunny” Breckinridge, who appeared as the alien leader  in Ed Wood’s notorious cult film Plan 9 from Outer Space. A flamboyant homosexual and sometime drag queen, Bunny Breckinridge worked as a burlesque performer and actor in Europe before settling in San Francisco in the 1920’s. Openly gay in an era when it was unheard of, Breckinridge later attracted the attention of pulp movie director Ed Wood, who cast him in Plan 9, which would affectionately come to be called “the worst movie ever made.”

Although Breckinridge was convicted of “sex perversion” and briefly committed to a criminal hospital following the release of the movie in 1959, he continued to live his life openly and unrepentantly, becoming a favorite of other celebrities and young hippies for his unique lifestyle and flamboyant ways. He lived long enough to see Plan 9 become a cult favorite and to see himself portrayed in Tim Burton’s 1994 movie, Ed Wood.  When he passed away in 1996 at age 93, the following quote in his obituary summed up his life: “I was a little bit wild when I was young, darling, but I lived my life grandly.”

More great reading: The Two Wives of William Clark

Postscript: My frequent commenter Shannon Kelly found this portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble in the inventory files of the Smithsonian. It was painted by Cephas Thompson (1775-1856).  Excellent sleuthing, Shannon! Thanks!

Portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble, by Cephas Thompson

Portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble, by Cephas Thompson

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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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Meriwether Lewis was not the first famous explorer and journalist in his family. That honor belongs to Dr. Thomas Walker, one of the first white men to see Kentucky and the first to provide a written account of his trip through the Cumberland Gap.

1764 home "Castle Hill," bullt by Thomas Walker

1764 home "Castle Hill," bullt by Thomas Walker

Originally from Staffordshire, England, Thomas Walker’s ancestors arrived in America in 1650 and soon took a prominent place in colonial Virginia. Born in 1715 in King and Queen County, Virginia, Thomas’s early life reads like a resume for a successful Tidewater gentleman. Educated at the College of William and Mary, he studied medicine in Williamsburg under his brother-in-law, Dr. George Gilmer. In 1741, Thomas married the widow of a very rich, prominent Virginia gentleman, Nicholas Meriwether  (the great uncle of our own Meriwether Lewis). Thomas and Mildred built a home, Castle Hill, on her 15,000-acre estate in Albemarle County, east of Charlottesville, where they raised a whopping 12 children.

Managing Mildred’s lands was almost a full-time job, and Walker soon learned the art of land management and surveying. He met others interested in the same thing, most notably his neighbor Peter Jefferson, a successful planter. Thomas Walker served as Peter Jefferson’s personal physician and the two men became trusted friends. (Walker was appointed guardian of Peter’s son, fourteen year-old Thomas Jefferson, after Peter’s death in 1757.)

Walker loved the wilderness, and the exploration bug bit him hard. He began making a name for himself as an explorer and surveyor. As early as 1743, Walker led an expedition to the virgin lands to the west, getting as far as present-day Kingsport, Tennessee. In 1749, Walker joined a number of other prominent Virginia men in establishing the Loyal Land Company, which petitioned the colonial government of Virginia for a huge grant of land west of the Allegheny Mountains. In addition to Walker, charter members of the company included Peter Jefferson, Joshua Fry, James Maury, and Thomas Meriwether (Meriwether Lewis’s grandfather).

Thomas Walker's 1750 route

Thomas Walker's 1750 route through the Cumberland Gap

The Loyal Land Company received a patent for 800,000 acres located along the southern border of Virginia (now southeastern Kentucky). The grant contained a provision that required settlement of the land within four years. Thomas Walker took the lead in exploring the company’s new territory, heading off on a four-month expedition to find a route and document what the land was like for potential settlers. On April 13, 1750, Walker wrote the following entry in his diary:

“We went four miles to large Creek, which we called Cedar (Indian) Creek, being a branch of Bear Grass (Powell’s), and from thence six miles to Cave Gap (Cumberland Gap), the land being levil [sic]. On the north side of the gap is a large Spring, which falls very fast, and just above the Spring is a small entrance to a large Cave (Cudjo Cavern), which   the Spring runs through, and there is a constant Stream of cool air issuing out. The Spring is sufficient to turn Mill. Just at the foot of the Hill is a Laurel Thicket, and the Spring Water runs through it. On the South side is a plain Indian Road… This Gap may be seen at a considerable distance, and there is no other, that I know of, except one about two miles to the North of it, which does not appear to be so low as the other.”

This was the famous Cumberland Gap, which would form a key passageway on the Wilderness Road through the Appalachian Mountains, the primary route used by western-traveling settlers for the next fifty years.

The Cumberland Gap (Civil War era illustration from Harpers Weekly)

The Cumberland Gap (Civil War era illustration from Harpers Weekly)

For the remainder of his life, Walker continued to act as surveyor and land agent and served as an Indian treaty commissioner, member of the House of Burgesses and General Assembly, delegate to the Revolutionary Convention and a member of the Committee of Public Safety. He was the kind of man people trusted. His son said of him, “(He) possesses all that life and good humor which we were all kept alive by in the woods.”

Walker died at his home in Albemarle in November 9, 1794. By that time, the Loyal Land Company had sold more than 200,000 acres, and the land that would be known as Kentucky was home to 38,000 settlers, most of whom had traveled there through Walker’s discovery, the Cumberland Gap.

Walker is immortalized in the great Appalachian folk song “Cumberland Gap,” which in some versions contains the lyric, “The first white man in the Cumberland Gap was Old Doc Walker, an English Chap.” Here’s a fun version by the great British skiffle king Lonnie Donegan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby Pie

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

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

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Location: Louisville, Kentucky

The Clark family's Mulberry Hill, around 1890

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mulberry Hill in 1911

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

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

The Clark family cemetery at Mulberry Hill

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

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

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Consciously or not, most American history we learn in school promotes the idea of “Manifest Destiny”—the belief that the United States was destined to expand from sea to shining sea across the North American continent. Unfortunately, this idea obscures what a very tenuous thing it was that the United States was able to obtain—and hold—the Louisiana Territory. Powerful European rulers stood in the way, scheming to gain control of the land Meriwether Lewis memorably called “the fairest portion of the globe.” A case in point was the scheme known as the Spanish conspiracy.

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson, traitor extraordinaire

In July 1787, our favorite traitor James Wilkinson arrived in New Orleans to visit with Louisiana Governor General Esteban Miró, the Spanish king’s highest ranking officer in North America. A former brigadier general turned Kentucky merchant, Wilkinson offered Miró an extraordinary proposition. To circumvent the difficulties Kentucky had getting its goods to market, Kentucky would forge a vast (and exclusive) trade empire with Spain. Secretly, however, Wilkinson had bigger plans: to promote Kentucky’s separation from the United States and set it up as a “buffer state”—with himself at its head—between the United States and Spain.

Esteban Rodríguez Miró

Esteban Rodríguez Miró, Governor-General of Louisiana

Intrigued, Miró extended Wilkinson several thousand dollars in credit and the privilege of bringing his goods to New Orleans, duty-free. But except for Wilkinson’s exclusive privileges, Wilkinson asked Miró to keep the Mississippi River closed to Kentucky trade. In the meantime, Wilkinson would raise hell in the Kentucky assembly, demanding that the United States intervene to demand the opening of the river—something he knew George Washington could not do. This would make Kentuckians all too eager to drop their ties to America and accept any terms Spain proposed to bring their goods through New Orleans.

Our friend Manuel Gayoso, the newly appointed Governor of the Natchez District, was to play a critical role in the scheme. In 1789, Gayoso arrived in New Orleans and discussed plans for the Natchez District with Miró. He made tentative plans to visit the Cumberland, Kentucky, and other western settlements to promote the scheme. However, his illness and the death of his wife after their grueling journey from Havana caused a delay, and too many Westerners heard about the new Spanish governor for him to make the trip without arousing American suspicion. But Miró was undaunted. He recommended to the Spanish king that Gayoso conduct undercover work with Wilkinson and the Western settlers who were threatening to break away from the United States.

Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín

Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, Governor of Natchez

If they could pull it off, a Spanish-supported Kentucky would be a barrier to American expansion across the Mississippi River. Gayoso, who had seen world-class diplomatic maneuvering in the courts of Europe, quickly grasped the significance of Wilkinson’s proposals. Gayoso became the principal go-between in the conspiracy, meeting with Wilkinson at Natchez in fall of 1789. Correspondence between the two illustrates how readily Wilkinson was willing to sell out the United States, Kentucky, his friends, and anything else that stood in the way of his goal to become “the George Washington of the West.” Gayoso recognized him for what he was, writing, “I consider his ambition as a favorable circumstance which we may make use of for our own part.”

Wilkinson eagerly betrayed other Americans who had similar ambitions in the West in the name of protecting Spanish security. He also supplied the names of VIPs in Kentucky and Tennessee who could be corrupted by Spanish gold. Wilkinson himself enjoyed a Spanish pension of $2000 yearly beginning in January 1789, with the payments disguised as profits on tobacco sales in New Orleans.

Port of New Orleans, engraved by D.G. Thompson

Port of New Orleans, engraved by D.G. Thompson after a painting by Alfred Waud

Wilkinson’s plans received a rude jolt when the Spanish Council of the Indies authorized the opening of the Mississippi in 1789 for those Westerners willing to pay a duty on the goods they brought to New Orleans. In addition, the Spanish king decided to end tobacco purchases by the government, dashing the hopes of many Kentuckians who had planned to emigrate to Natchez and make a fat profit. Chagrined—at this rate he would never become the “George Washington of the West”—Wilkinson urged Miró to close the Mississippi and end all commerce between Kentucky and New Orleans, to force the Westerners to secede from the United States and seek an independent alliance.

Miró had no intention of agreeing to his proposals. Temporarily stymied, Wilkinson continued to draw his pension and continued to seek out opportunities to betray those Americans who placed their confidence in him, sometimes to the advantage of Spanish defenses in Louisiana.

Miró left the governorship of Louisiana in 1791 and returned to Spain. Francisco Luis Hector de Carondelet, a former governor of El Salvador, was appointed in his place. Carondelet and Gayoso saw eye to eye on the threat to Spain’s holdings in the New World. Together, the two men embarked on a plan to prepare for eventual war with the Americans. They beefed up the Spanish defenses in the Louisiana Territory, outfitting ships, building forts, and raising a militia.

Citizen Genet

Citizen Edmond Charles Genet

Enter Citizen Genet, the Minister Plenipotentiary of France, who arrived in America in 1793 with an implausible—and wholly serious—plan to forge an alliance with Kentucky, wrest Louisiana away from Spain, and return it to French control. At Carondelet’s desperate urging, Gayoso sent over 300 Natchez militiamen to New Orleans to help defend the port against “the Jacobin menace.” The movement of U.S. troops to the frontier in 1794 to counter Indian attacks increased the anxiety of the Spanish governors. Could not these same troops be used to force the opening of the Mississippi that Westerners continually demanded?

Frightened, Carondelet spent almost $300,000 in excess of the funds the king had granted for defenses. When he got wind of Citizen Genet’s plot, Carondelet issued numerous proclamations warning inhabitants of Lower Louisiana to avoid any contact with French agents. From Natchez, Gayoso issued a similar warning and beefed up Spanish defenses along the river. Ultimately, Genet’s plot fizzled, but Gayoso and Carondelet’s anxiety about the intentions of the Americans made them want to revive the idea of a Spanish-friendly buffer state between the U.S. and  Louisiana.

Chickasaw Bluff #1

Chickasaw Bluff #1, along the Mississippi River

Following his establishment of Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas at Chickasaw Bluffs, Gayoso sailed up the Mississippi to visit the Spanish settlements in Missouri. Ostensibly his mission was to inspect Spanish defenses there. In fact, Gayoso had highly secret instructions to rendezvous in Kentucky with certain prominent men who, according to Wilkinson, were known to favor the cause of separation. Inspired by reports of the Whiskey Rebellion and the general dissatisfaction with the federal government in the west, Carondelet gave Wilkinson a cash bonus and the promise of a raise, should the intrigue in Kentucky develop along favorable lines. But conditions “on the ground” proved to be disappointing. Gayoso found little support among the big bugs in Kentucky for separation from the United States.

Still, the outlook wasn’t all bad for Spain’s interests in North America. By the close of 1795, the Louisiana defenses were stronger than they had ever been. Spain’s friendly relations with the Indians gave them an advantage over the Americans. The Spanish empire in the New World was sitting pretty. Or so Carondelet and Gayoso thought…

Jay's Treaty (1795)

Jay's Treaty (ratified 1795)

As usual, they had underestimated the pinheads back home. Diplomatic intrigue proved their undoing. The signing of Jay’s Treaty in 1794 had sparked fear in Spain of an alliance between Britain and the United States. Fearing ultimate war with the United States, and not believing they could win, the Spanish king’s agents decided to open the Mississippi and surrender control to the United States of all Spain’s military posts in disputed territory north of the 31st parallel.

With the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo (also known as Pinckney’s Treaty) at the Spanish Court on October 27, 1795, all of the time, money, planning, and sacrifice of the Spanish frontier governors was undone with the stroke of a pen. The Treaty of San Lorenzo effectively destroyed Spain’s control over the Mississippi River, and with it, its power in the west. It also ended the Spanish Conspiracy, dashing Wilkinson’s hopes to be the “George Washington of the West.”

Gayoso was violently opposed to the treaty and attempted to do everything in his power to get it reversed. Despite his opposition, Carondelet went ahead. On March 16, 1797, the Spanish fort San Fernando de las Barrancas at Chickasaw Bluffs—that Gayoso had worked so hard to build—was evacuated and turned over to the Americans. In one of the great twists of history, the new commander was a young American officer named Meriwether Lewis. A new era in the west had begun.

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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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Though we’ve made several trips to Kentucky to research Lewis & Clark matters, we haven’t yet had the chance to visit Big Bone Lick. Meriwether Lewis makes his first visit there in our upcoming novel, The Fairest Portion of the Globe.

Mastodon re-creation at Big Bone Lick State Park

Mastodon re-creation at Big Bone Lick State Park, courtesy of Kentucky Department of Parks

Big Bone Lick is the site of an ancient salt lick and sulphur spring that, back in Pleistocene times, attracted animals to come partake of the salt. Many of these Ice Age creatures, notably mammoths, masotodons, and sloths, became mired in the swamp and died. The unique conditions at the lick preserved the bones. It’s unknown what the Indians thought about this site other than as a good place to find buffalo hanging around the salt licks. But we do know that the first white explorers of Kentucky, coming along in the 1730s and ’40s, were enthralled. They recognized the value of the site for science and sent small collections of bones to leading American scientists, including Benjamin Franklin.

The remoteness of the site and bloody wars with England and the Indians prevented much early excavation at Big Bone Lick. Nonetheless, the lick became the subject of an in-depth correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and George Rogers Clark. Clark was more than the “Hannibal of the West” who saved Kentucky and the Northwest for the Americans. He was also a talented self-educated natural scientist–and William Clark’s revered big brother.

The first systematic attempt to dig at Big Bone came in 1796, at the end of the Indian wars for the Ohio territory. A young Army captain named William Henry Harrison was sent to Big Bone Lick and gathered some 31 hogsheads of fossils for shipment back to the East. Unfortunately, the riverboat on which Harrison dispatched the bones to Pittsburgh sank.

By 1803, Jefferson was president, and he asked Meriwether Lewis to stop and explore Big Bone Lick on his way down the Ohio River to begin the westward Expedition. Though much of the documentation has been lost, it is known that Lewis undertook a dig and sent bones back East. Once again, though, they were lost when the boat sank near Natchez, Mississippi.

Mammoth tooth

Mammoth tooth from Jefferson's fossil collection

It fell to William Clark to conduct the first really successful dig at Big Bone Lick in 1807, shortly after the return of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. President Jefferson funded the dig out of his own pocket, allowing Clark and Cincinnati physician Willliam Goforth to hire at least eight men and spend some weeks at the site. We know from Clark’s letters that George Rogers Clark came along (“Bro. George got drunk,” Clark notes wearily at one point), and it seems certain that Clark’s slave York was also on hand. Clark assembled a wonderful collection of over 300 bones and teeth. It’s known that Jefferson spread them out on a floor in one room of the Executive Mansion to study. Jefferson’s fossil collection resides today at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA.

From what I gather, Big Bone Lick remains understudied even today. Besides Clark’s dig, the only other major digs came in the 1860s and a century later in the 1960s. I’d love to go see the birthplace of American paleontology, another milestone of learning and achievement in which Lewis and Clark had a hand.

Exhumation of a Mastodon  by Charles Willson Peale, 1801

Exhumation of a Mastodon by Charles Willson Peale (1801)

More great reading:

Lewis and Clark in Boone County

More info about Lewis & Clark at Big Bone Lick

More about Lewis and Clark and early paleontology

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