American Revolution: Brigadier General George Rogers Clark

George Rogers Clark
Brigadier General George Rogers Clark. Photograph Source: Public Domain

George Rogers Clark - Early Life:

George Rogers Clark was born November 19, 1752, at Charlottesville, VA. The son of John and Ann Clark, he was the second of ten children. His youngest brother, William, would later gain fame as the co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Around 1756, with the intensification of the French & Indian War, the family left the frontier for Caroline County, VA. Though largely educated at home, Clark did briefly attend Donald Robertson's school along with James Madison.

Trained as a surveyor by his grandfather, he first traveled into western Virginia in 1771. A year later, Clark pressed further west and made his first trip to Kentucky.

Arriving via the Ohio River, he spent the next two years surveying the area around Kanawha River and educating himself on the region's Native American population and its customs. During his time in Kentucky, Clark saw the area changing as the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix had opened it to settlement. This influx of settlers led to increasing tensions with the Native Americans as many tribes from north of the Ohio River used Kentucky as a hunting ground. Made a captain in the Virginia militia in 1774, Clark was preparing for an expedition to Kentucky when fighting erupted between the Shawnee and settlers on the Kanawha. These hostilities ultimately evolved into Lord Dunmore's War.  Taking part, Clark was present at the Battle of Point Pleasant on October 10, 1774, which ended the conflict in the colonists' favor.

With the end of the fighting, Clark resumed his surveying activities.

George Rogers Clark - Becoming a Leader:

As the American Revolution began in the east, Kentucky faced a crisis of its own. In 1775, land speculator Richard Henderson concluded the illegal Treaty of Watauga by which he purchased much of western Kentucky from the Native Americans.

In doing so, he hoped to form a separate colony known as Transylvania. This was opposed by many of the settlers in the area and in June 1776, Clark and John G. Jones were dispatched to Williamsburg, VA to seek aid from the Virginia legislature. The two men hoped to convince Virginia to formally extend its boundaries west to include the settlements in Kentucky. Meeting with Governor Patrick Henry, they convinced him to create Kentucky County, VA and received military supplies to defend the settlements. Before departing, Clark was appointed a major in the Virginia militia.

George Rogers Clark - The American Revolution Moves West:

Returning home, Clark saw fighting intensify between the settlers and Native Americans. The latter were encouraged in their efforts by the Lieutenant Governor of Canada, Henry Hamilton, who provided arms and supplies. As the Continental Army lacked the resources to protect the region or mount an invasion of the Northwest, defense of Kentucky was left to the settlers. Believing that the only way to halt Native American raids into Kentucky was to attack British forts north of the Ohio River, specifically Kaskaskia, Vincennes, and Cahokia,  Clark requested permission from Henry to lead an expedition against enemy posts in the Illinois Country.

This was granted and Clark was promoted to lieutenant colonel and directed to raise troops for the mission.

George Rogers Clark - Kaskaskia

Authorized to recruit a force of 350 men, Clark and his officers sought to pull men from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina. These efforts provided difficult due to competing manpower needs and a larger debate regarding whether Kentucky should be defended or evacuated. Gathering men at Redstone Old Fort on the Monongahela River, Clark ultimately embarked with 175 men in mid-1778. Moving down the Ohio River, they captured Fort Massac at the mouth of the Tennessee River before moving overland to Kaskaskia (Illinois). Taking the residents by surprise, Kaskaskia fell without a shot fired on July 4. Cahokia was captured five days later by a detachment led by Captain Joseph Bowman as Clark moved back east and a force was sent ahead to occupy Vincennes on the Wabash River.

Concerned by Clark's progress, Hamilton departed Fort Detroit with 500 men to defeat the Americans. Moving down the Wabash, he easily retook Vincennes which was renamed Fort Sackville.

George Rogers Clark - Vincennes:

With winter approaching, Hamilton released many of his men and settled in with a garrison of 90. Learning that Vincennes had fallen from Francis Vigo, an Italian fur trader, Clark decided that urgent action was required lest the British be in a position to reclaim the Illinois Country in the spring. Clark embarked on a daring winter campaign to retake the outpost. Marching with around 170 men, they endured severe rains and flooding during the 180-mile march. As an added precaution, Clark also dispatched a force of 40 men in a row galley to prevent a British escape down the Wabash River.

Arriving at Fort Sackville on February 23, 1780, Clark divided his force in two giving command of the other column to Bowman. Using terrain and maneuver to trick the British into believing their force numbered around 1,000 men, the two Americans secured the town and built an entrenchment in front of the fort's gates. Opening fire on the fort, they compelled Hamilton to surrender the next day. Clark's victory was celebrated throughout the colonies and he was hailed as the conqueror of the Northwest. Capitalizing on Clark's success, Virginia immediately laid claim to the entire region dubbing it Illinois County, VA.

Understanding that the threat to Kentucky could only be eliminated by the capture of Fort Detroit, Clark lobbied for an attack on the post. His efforts failed when he was unable to raise enough men for the mission. Seeking to regain the ground lost to Clark, a mixed British-Native American force led by Captain Henry Bird raided south in June 1780. This was followed in August by a retaliatory raid north by Clark which struck Shawnee villages in Ohio. Promoted to brigadier general in 1781, Clark again attempted to mount an attack on Detroit, but reinforcements sent to him for the mission were defeated en route.

George Rogers Clark - Later Service:

In one of the final actions of the war, Kentucky militia was badly beaten at the Battle of Blue Licks in August 1782. As the senior military officer in the region, Clark was criticized for the defeat despite the fact he had not been present at the battle. Again retaliating, Clark attacked the Shawnee along the Great Miami River and won the Battle of Piqua. With the end of the war, Clark was appointed superintendent-surveyor and charged with surveying land grants given to Virginian veterans. He also worked to help negotiate the Treaties of Fort McIntosh (1785) and Finney (1786) with the tribes north of the Ohio River.

Despite these diplomatic efforts, tensions between the settlers and Native Americans in the region continued to escalate leading to the Northwest Indian War. Tasked with leading an force of 1,200 men against the Native Americans in 1786, Clark had to abandon the effort due to a shortage of supplies and the mutiny of 300 men. In the wake of this failed effort, rumors circulated that Clark had been drinking heavily during the campaign. Incensed, he demanded that an official inquiry be made to repudiate these rumors. This request was declined by the Virginia government and he was instead rebuked for his actions.

George Rogers Clark - Final Years:

Departing Kentucky, Clark settled in Indiana near present-day Clarksville. Following his move, he was plagued by financial difficulties as he had financed many of his military campaigns with loans. Though he sought reimbursement from Virginia and the federal government, his claims were declined because insufficient records existed to substantiate his claims. For his wartime services Clark had been awarded large land grants, many of which he was ultimately forced to transfer to family and friends to prevent seizure by his creditors.

With few remaining options, Clark offered his services to Edmond-Charles Genêt, the ambassador of revolutionary France, in February 1793. Appointed a major general by Genêt, he was ordered to form an expedition for drive the Spanish from the Mississippi Valley. After personally financing the expedition's supplies, Clark was forced to abandon the effort in 1794 when President George Washington forbade American citizens from violating the nation's neutrality. Aware of Clark's plans, he threatened to dispatch US troops under Major General Anthony Wayne to block it. With little choice but to abandon the mission, Clark returned to Indiana where his creditors deprived him of all but a small plot of land.

For remainder of his life, Clark spent much of his time operating a gristmill. Suffering a severe stroke in 1809, he fell into a fire and badly burned his leg necessitating its amputation. Unable to care for himself, he moved in with his brother-in-law, Major William Croghan, who was a planter near Louisville, KY. In 1812, Virginia finally recognized Clark's services during the war and granted him a pension and ceremonial sword. On February 13, 1818, Clark suffered another stroke and died. Initially buried at Locus Grove Cemetery, Clark's body and those of his family were moved to Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville in 1869.

Selected Sources