About George Rogers Clark (1752-1818)

At 26, George Rogers Clark was a confident frontiersman with a vision that would nearly double the size of his country in one stroke. A red-haired six-footer, Clark was a knowledgeable frontiersman, an outstanding field commander, and extremely confident of his abilities to move and persuade anyone to do what was necessary to succeed against formidable odds of time, money, and manpower.

Kentucky was a rich wilderness before the American Revolution. The abundant game, meadows and virgin forests attracted both Native Americans from the North and frontiersmen from the East. George Rogers Clark was one such frontiersman who described Kentucky as a "fair land". By 1776, a few isolated settlements had sprung up, as settlers refused to heed England’s proclamation of 1763 that forbade such westward settlement.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, the settlers found themselves caught without protection from Indian raids that were backed and encouraged by the British army. Ever concerned about the safety of settlers, Clark persuaded Virginia to declare Kentucky a county of Virginia, which entitled it to an identity, a government and supplies. Clark then convinced Virginia’s governor, Patrick Henry, to send him with a small army to the areas north of the Ohio River to capture British outposts there, thus reducing the Indian threat for Kentuckians.

After the war, George Rogers Clark settled in the rapidly growing town he had founded, Louisville. He built a cabin on land in Indiana given to him and his men by the government, he participated in Louisville’s civic affairs and helped resolve problems of land grants for his former troops. He also served on Indian commissions because of his expert ability to negotiate with the Native Americans.

Later in his life, ill health resulting from the dreadful exposures during his long march to Vincennes began to limit his activities. Clark went to live at Locust Grove with his sister Lucy Croghan and her family in 1809 after undergoing an amputation of his leg as a result of a serious burn. Clark continued to receive visits and give advice towards the community at large while under the care of his sister’s family. He stayed at Locust Grove until his death on February 13, 1818. He was buried in the family plot behind the house and later reinterred at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.

Clark’s contributions to Kentucky and to the nation are numerous. As a military commander he was unmatched. Locust Grove stands today as a memorial to George Rogers Clark.

Above, portrait of George Rogers Clark by Matthew Jouett courtesy of The Filson Historical Society

In the words of George Rogers Clark (1752-1818)

Fall, 1775, to the Virginia Council requesting support for Kentucky:
"I am sorry to find that we should have to seek protection elsewhere . . . if a country were not worth protecting, it was not worth claiming."
Clark was requesting that Kentucky be recognized as part of Virginia.

March 6-26, 1777, Diary excerpts at Harrodsburg:
"Thomas Shores and William Ray killed near Shawnee Spring. . . A small party of indians killed and scalped Hugh Wilson. . .Archibald McNeil died of wounds. . .A large party of indians. . .killed and scalped Garret Pendergreet; killed or took prisoner Peter Flin."
That's 6 heads of families in three weeks. There were only about 200 people in Harrodsburg at this time.

June 24, 1778, Memoir of the outset of the campaign:
"We left our little island and run about a mile up the river in order to gain the main channel, and shot the falls at the very moment of the sun being in a great eclipse, which caused various conjectures among the superstitious. . .The whole of our force consisted only of four companies."

Summer, 1778, Speech to the Indian Chiefs at Cahokia:
"Men and warriors, pay attention. . .I carry in my right hand war, and peace in my left. . .Here is a bloody belt and a white one. Take which you please. Behave like men. . .if you take the bloody path you shall leave town in safety. . . and we will try like warriors to keep our clothes stained with blood. . .If, on the other hand, you should take the path of peace and. . . listen to the bad birds that may be flying through the land, you will no longer deserve to be counted as men but as persons with two tongues who ought to be destroyed."
He spoke to the Indians from a position of the power that he didn't have in a voice they were unaccustomed to hearing. The British gave them presents, Clark had none to give.

February 3, 1779, To Gov. Patrick Henry of Virginia:
"I know the case is desperate, sir. . . no time is to be lost. Was I shoer of enforcement, I should not attempt it. Who knows what fortune will do for us? Great things have been affected by a few men well conducted. Perhaps we may be fortunate."
This was to explain his subsequent winter march on Vincennes with only approximately 180 men.

February 23, 1779, Ultimatum to Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton at Vincennes:
"I expect you shall immediately surrender yourself with your garrison prisoners at discretion. If any of the stores be destroyed or any letters or papers burned, you may expect no mercy, for by heavens you shall be treated as a murtherer."
This from a commander with less than 175 effective men to a commander well fortified until spring when many Indian reinforcements were due.

George Rogers Clark and the Illinois Campaign (1778-1779)

In 1778, Clark traveled down the Ohio River to the Falls of the Ohio with soldiers and many families who joined the military convoy for security and protection from American Indian attacks. For his camp, Clark chose an island at the Falls of the Ohio River. He named the place Corn Island. This event, which took place on May 27, 1778, marks the founding of the settlement later to be named Louisville.

Clark trained his troops at Corn Island and launched a successful campaign into the lands to the north, capturing British posts at Kaskaskia and Cahokia on the Mississippi River and Vincennes on the Wabash River. However, British Lieutenant Governor Hamilton marched from Detroit and recaptured Vincennes from the Americans. Settling in for the winter of 1778-79, Hamilton planned to reclaim the two Mississippi posts in the spring. Clark never gave him that opportunity.

In a daring concept, considered one of the boldest in American military history, Clark took fewer than 200 men on foot across 175 miles of flooded, frozen plains to recapture the British fort at Vincennes. This dangerous mission took almost three weeks, but British spies never sighted Clark’s men. When Clark ordered his men to begin firing on the fort, the British did not know how many Americans were surrounding them. Clark’s frontiersmen were deadly shots, convincing the British that they were outnumbered. Hamilton surrendered and Clark ensured American control of the Northwest Territory—a region that included the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan.

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George Rogers Clark facts
At the age of nineteen, George Rogers Clark had a land claim on Fish Creek in what is now West Virginia.
In 1783 Thomas Jefferson asked Clark if he would lead an expedition to explore the western part of the continent. This endeavor was not undertaken, but Clark later would bring younger brother William to Jefferson’s attention.
George Rogers Clark accepted a commission in the French Army in 1793 with the expectation that he would lead Kentuckians against the Spanish. President George Washington ordered Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby to have Clark arrested. Shelby refused.
In 1812 George Rogers Clark was awarded a $400 disability pension from the Commonwealth of Virginia. An honorary sword also was awarded at that time and is on exhibit at Locust Grove.