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Clark, George Rogersfree

(19 November 1752–13 February 1818)
  • Norman K. Risjord

Clark, George Rogers (19 November 1752–13 February 1818), revolutionary war general and "conqueror of the Northwest", revolutionary war general and “conqueror of the Northwest,” was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of John Clark and Ann Rogers, planters. The Clarks were descended from Scottish immigrants who came to Virginia early in the eighteenth century; George Rogers Clark’s flaming red hair was a mark of his Celtic ancestry. Four of his brothers were officers in the revolutionary army, and his youngest brother, William Clark, forged a trail across the continent with his Albemarle friend and neighbor, Meriwether Lewis.

In 1772, at the age of twenty, George Rogers Clark left home, having borrowed money from his father to purchase surveying instruments and a geometry book. He journeyed to Pittsburgh and from there took a flatboat down the Ohio River. He staked a claim to some fine bottomland “about forty miles below Wheeling” (in present-day West Virginia) and began clearing land for a farm. He almost immediately got caught up in the Indian fighting known as Dunmore’s War. In the spring of 1775 he packed his rifle and surveying kit and ventured to the new settlements in Kentucky in order to, as he told the first Kentuckian he encountered, “lend you a helping hand if necessary.” Clark knew it was only a matter of time before the Kentucky settlements attracted the attention of the Ohio tribes. When news of the outbreak of the Revolution reached Kentucky, a popular meeting, styling itself “a Respectable Body of Prime Riflemen,” declared its loyalty to the American cause and sent Clark east to Williamsburg to obtain political recognition and gunpowder. He got both from Governor Patrick Henry, a champion of the frontier, though he himself had never strayed west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Transporting the gunpowder to Pittsburgh and then through hostile Indian country down the Ohio River took Clark the better part of a year, but when the Indian assault came in 1777 Kentucky was armed.

Tribes north of the Ohio—Shawnee, Wyandot, and Miami—objected to the settlement of Kentucky because it was their favorite hunting ground. Supplied by British officials in Detroit, they laid siege to Kentucky’s palisaded villages throughout the summer and fall of 1777. By then Governor Henry had made Clark a major of militia and put him in charge of Kentucky’s defense. Although he lacked military training, Clark instinctively knew that offense was sometimes the best defense. A raid on British outposts in the West might interrupt the flow of supplies and discourage the volatile Indians. There were two such outposts south of Detroit, both of them former French fur-trading settlements—Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River south of St. Louis and Vincennes on the Wabash River. Clark’s scouts informed him that Kaskaskia was without British defenders. His plan to divide his meager resources and lead an expedition across 450 miles of wilderness with no supply posts, bases, or allies bordered on the absurd, but therein lay its chance of success. No one, neither the British, the French, nor the Indians, expected a foray from beleaguered Kentucky; surprise was Clark’s main weapon.

In the autumn of 1777 he journeyed back to Williamsburg and sold his scheme to Governor Henry, who promoted him to lieutenant colonel and gave him £1200 for expenses. In Pittsburgh he recruited 150 riflemen without telling them their mission and camped them on an island at the falls of the Ohio so they could not desert.

On 26 June 1778 Clark started down the Ohio River with about 175 men. Leaving their flatboats at the ruins of Fort Massac, an old French outpost at the mouth of the Tennessee River, Clark and his men plunged into the wilderness. To continue by river, especially on the much-traveled Mississippi, was to invite discovery. Hiking single file, Indian fashion, the company made the 125 miles across southern Illinois in six days. The surprise was complete; the French commandant was asleep in bed when Clark tapped him on the shoulder to inform him that he had been taken prisoner. Clark quickly won over the French inhabitants of the town when he informed them that he had come as a friend, not an enemy, and promised to respect their property and religion. Learning from French traders that there were no British in Vincennes, he sent Captain Leonard Helm with a platoon to occupy that outpost on the Wabash. The Indians were still a potential problem, but British power south of Detroit had been eliminated.

At Detroit, Henry Hamilton, the lieutenant governor of Canada, had plans of his own that summer. Satisfied that his Indian allies could continue to harass Kentucky, he planned to send his regular troops against Pittsburgh. When he learned of Clark’s exploit, he simply changed targets. With a handful of regulars, some Canadian militia, and Indians, he swept down the Wabash in the fall of 1778 and seized Vincennes, taking Helm prisoner. Hamilton then sent his regulars back to Detroit, discharged the Indians, and settled in for the winter in the company of the genial Kentuckian, Captain Helm.

In Kaskaskia Clark was facing one of the wettest winters on record. He learned of the fall of Vincennes on 29 January 1779. Within five days he recruited French militia to supplement his band of Kentuckians and set out across Illinois with a force of 170 men. The terrain they had to cross—hardwood forests and thick bluestem prairie broken by marshy wetlands—was forbidding even in the summer. The heavy winter rains, which filled marshes and turned creeks into torrents, made it all but impossible. There was not even a trail to follow, since normal traffic went by river, and at the end of the line the swollen Wabash surrounded Vincennes like a gigantic moat. The sight of this inland sea, Clark later wrote, “would have been enough to have stopped any set of men that was not in the same temper that we was.”

Undaunted, Clark set his men to building rafts, which ferried the company across to the east side of the river. A few hundred yards from Vincennes they captured a French villager who was hunting ducks in the marshes. From him they learned that the village and its British garrison were in wintry somnolence. Clark sent the villager to alert the other French residents to stay in their houses lest they be treated as enemies. (He was aided by Kentuckians’ reputation among the French as ferocious barbarians.) On the night of 25 February he posted his men at the peepholes of the fort, turning the stockade into a prison for the British. When the shooting started, British soldiers came running out of the blockhouse in the middle of the fort, only to be cut down by Kentucky rifles. After a short fight Hamilton was induced to surrender, and the Northwest was once again in American hands. Clark sent Hamilton, known among Kentuckians as “the hair buyer” because of the bounty he placed on scalps, east to Virginia to stand trial for war crimes.

Clark’s recapture of Vincennes disrupted British plans and confused the Indians. It also boosted western morale and unleashed a new flood of immigrants down the Ohio. When a new British-Indian assault was launched on Kentucky in 1780, Virginia’s western province was better prepared than ever. The Indians conducted sporadic raids throughout the rest of the war, but Kentucky’s survival was assured. Equally important, because of the American presence in Kaskaskia and Vincennes at the end of the war, Benjamin Franklin, in peace negotiations with the British, could claim boundaries for the new republic that stretched west to the Mississippi River and north to the Great Lakes.

In the spring of 1781 Clark journeyed east to Richmond (Virginia’s new capital) to secure authorization for an attack on Detroit. Governor Thomas Jefferson was very interested, but their discussions were interrupted when a British amphibious force commanded by the traitor Benedict Arnold suddenly appeared in the Chesapeake. Arnold raided Richmond, sending the governor scampering ignominiously to safety, and burned some of the public buildings. Among the items put to the torch were the financial vouchers for Clark’s Illinois campaigns. Clark was already in financial difficulties as a result of his public service; Arnold’s action unwittingly condemned him to a lifetime of poverty.

Virginia had financed Clark’s Illinois campaigns by allowing him to borrow money from a New Orleans merchant, who Virginia planned to repay with flour, which the merchant could sell for Spanish gold. However, Virginia never shipped the flour, in part because the Kentucky settlements could barely feed themselves, and Clark’s source of money dried up. To complete the Vincennes campaign, he borrowed money from merchants in Kaskaskia and St. Louis, pledging as security his property in Kentucky. He expected to be reimbursed by the state, but the vouchers for his expenses were burned in the Richmond fire. In 1787 the U.S. Congress, having been given the Northwest, offered to reimburse Virginia for its expenses in conquering the territory. At the governor’s request Clark prepared new records of his expenses, but they mysteriously disappeared in Richmond (they were discovered in the attic of the state capitol in 1913).

Hounded by his creditors, Clark turned his Kentucky property over to his brothers and moved across the river to Clarksville, where he built a small house on the only parcel of land that he could call his own. He never married. His only companions were a few books and the whiskey bottle. In 1812 a stroke left him partially paralyzed, and six years later another one killed him.


John Bakeless, who has written biographies of a number of revolutionary heroes, has the most detailed and colorful account of Clark: Background to Glory: The Life of George Rogers Clark (1957). Lowell H. Harrison, George Rogers Clark and the War in the West (1976), is more recent, somewhat more scholarly in tone, and less detailed. A delightfully written account of Clark’s Illinois campaigns can be found in Dale Van Every, A Company of Heroes: The American Frontier, 1775–1783 (1962), the second in a splendidly written trilogy on the early frontier.