George Rogers Clark

George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) was an American Revolutionary War soldier. His capture of British posts on the far frontier was of considerable importance, though the idea that Clark "won the Northwest" is an oft-repeated exaggeration.

Standing 6 feet tall, topped by flaming red hair, George Rogers Clark was a true frontiersman. He talked the language of his men and shared in all their hardships. With a flair for the dramatic, he was known to the Native Americans as "Long Knife" and was skilled in the high-flown, metaphorical oratory that they appreciated.

Born on a small plantation near Charlottesville, Va., Clark had only a rudimentary education before becoming a surveyor. By the age of 20, he had staked out his own land claims on the Ohio River and obtained "a good deal of cash by surveying." Commissioned a captain in the Virginia militia, Clark saw extensive campaigning in Lord Dunmore's War against the Shawnee Indians in 1774. The next year the Ohio Land Company engaged him to lay out its tracts on the Kentucky River. Clark made his home in Harrodsburg, the first settlement in Kentucky. Quickly emerging as a dominant figure, he led the Kentuckians in their successful efforts to be formally annexed as a county of Virginia.


Revolutionary Career

Kentucky's survival against the Native Americans—who looked upon "the dark and bloody ground" as their own and who were mainly pro-British during the Revolution—was Clark's great concern. Consequently, he went to Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, to sell the state leaders on a plan for the capture of the British-held villages north of the Ohio and eventually Detroit as well. In January 1778 the Virginia Legislature commissioned Clark a lieutenant colonel, granted him £1,200, and authorized him to take as much of the interior as possible. It was no easy task to get men to leave their thinly populated settlements exposed, but at length, with 175 recruits, he floated down the Ohio and, before its juncture with the Mississippi, set off on foot across southern Illinois. Early in July 1778, Clark took the hamlets of Kaskaskia and Cahokia without bloodshed, and Vincennes a little later. Soon the entire region became known as the county of Illinois in the state of Virginia.

But Clark had to defend his conquests, for Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton and a mixed force—Indians, French Canadians, and regulars—swept down from Detroit to restore royal control. Initially, the advantage belonged to Hamilton, who easily wrested Vincennes from the Americans and with superior numbers threatened Clark at Kaskaskia. But Hamilton decided to sit out the winter at Vincennes before attacking and soon saw many of his Frenchmen and Native Americans return to their northern homes.

Clark, in contrast, would not let adversity bar the door. Believing that "great things have been affected by a few men well conducted," he and his "boys" marched 180 miles through torrential rains and other discomforts to recapture Vincennes on Feb. 5, 1779. He also bagged Hamilton himself, who was hated by the Americans for his allegedly indiscriminate use of Indians—"the Famous Hair-Buyer General," boasted Clark of his prize prisoner.


Clark's Significance

Clark's conquest of the Illinois country stood as a dramatic feat accomplished under tremendous physical and material handicaps by a bold and resourceful leader. Unfortunately, he failed to receive the reinforcements that would have enabled him to move against Detroit. Therefore it seems dubious to accept such extreme statements as that Clark "added three—perhaps five—states to the Union;" or that his "rearguard operations" on the frontier "saved the American Revolution from collapse." Moreover, the diplomats who negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783 were only very dimly aware of the military events in the back country. In fact, Clark was on the defensive along the Ohio during the last 2 years of the war as the Indians continued to devastate the frontier. In his last important action Clark launched a counteroffensive against the Shawnee tribe, driving it back into central Ohio.

When Clark retired from the Virginia service as a brigadier general, he became chief surveyor of the military lands granted to his soldiers north of the Ohio. In 1784 Congress appointed Clark one of several commissioners to settle outstanding differences, such as land claims, with the Indians of the Old Northwest. His efforts failed, and 2 years later Clark was again in the field with the Kentucky militia. At Vincennes he impressed much-needed supplies owned by Spanish merchants. James Wilkinson, a former Continental general and a paid secret agent of the Madrid government, used the episode to try to destroy Clark's character. Clark also had trouble with Virginia authorities attempting to settle the accounts of his campaign against Henry Hamilton. In the absence of records that had disappeared (they were discovered in the attic of the Virginia Capitol in 1913), Clark was never compensated for heavy personal losses in the public service. Financially ruined and filled with bitterness, he turned increasingly to liquor as an escape.

Visions of glory prompted Clark to join a French-sponsored expedition aimed at taking Spanish Louisiana in 1793, but President Washington prevented its departure and the scheme collapsed. When still another military venture in behalf of France failed in 1798, Clark returned to Louisville. Later, following the loss of one leg and a stroke, he made his home with a nearby sister. Impoverished, partially paralyzed, and plagued by alcoholism and creditors, he was once heard to say on learning of a friend's passing, "Everybody can die but me." For Clark the end came on Feb. 13, 1818.


Further Reading on George Rogers Clark

The two standard biographies of Clark are James A. James, The Life of George Rogers Clark (1928), and John Bakeless, Background to Glory: The Life of George Rogers Clark (1957; 1992). Both are factually reliable, and Bakeless is especially interesting. Both, however, tend to exaggerate the importance of Clark's conquests in the Northwest. Recommended for general historical background are Milo M. Quaife, ed., The Capture of Old Vincennes: The Original Narratives of George Rogers Clark and of His Opponent Gov. Henry Hamilton (1927); Randolph C. Downes, Council Fires on the Upper Ohio (1940); and Francis S. Philbrick, The Rise of the West, 1754-1830 (1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Bakeless, John Edwin, Background to glory: the life of George Rogers Clark, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Harrison, Lowell Hayes, George Rogers Clark and the war in the West, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976.

Rankin, Hugh F., George Rogers Clark and the winning of the West, Richmond: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1976.

Schrodt, Philip A., George Rogers Clark, frontier revolutionary, Bloomington, Ind.: Buffalo Wallow Press, 1976.