George Rogers Clark (1752–1818) enjoyed a brief burst of fame between 1778 and 1782, due to his exploits in Illinois and Ohio during the Revolutionary War. By 1782, however, his fragile reputation was on the wane, and ten years later he was in full disgrace.
The second son of John and Ann Rogers Clark—his younger brother, William, accompanied Meriwether Lewis on the Lewis and Clark Expedition—George Rogers grew up in Virginia, where his parents first owned a small farm near Charlottesville, before inheriting a four-hundred-acre plantation in Caroline County. Despite this seeming prosperity, the family was neither elevated nor educated. With only a minimal period at a private school at age eleven, Clark remained essentially illiterate his entire life, causing him problems in later military positions that required frequent and comprehensible paperwork.
The way up the economic ladder in Clark's Virginia led through Indian Country: Up-and-comers surveyed, inevitably Native American land, for the purpose of speculation. In 1772, at age twenty, George left on his first surveying mission. After involving himself in 1774 in Lord Dunmore's War—a blatantly illegal attempt to seize Ohio—Clark formally took up surveying in 1775 as a deputy surveyor of Kentucky, a "colony" of Virginia already carved out of Native lands. Clark earned a small wage but garnered a living through land speculation (Indian Historical Bureau, 2; James, 1: 9, 28).
In 1776, as war heated up with England along the seacoast—and with Native America in "the west" for control of land—Clark led a delegation to Virginia, securing 500 pounds of gunpowder for Kentucky "defense." Thereby called to the attention of Patrick Henry, then governor of Virginia, Clark was secretly commissioned to seize, if he could, western territories in Illinois from the purported control of the British before Virginia's rival, Pennsylvania, could manage the same feat. The resultant and daring Illinois campaigns of 1777–1779 are, today, the lynchpins of Clark's fame, although his murderous depredations against the Shawnees of Ohio in 1780 and 1782 were at least as famous among his contemporaries.
Avoiding Vincennes at first, because the British Fort Sackville was garrisoned there, Clark sneaked up at night on Kaskaskia, Illinois, a French settlement that was not expecting trouble, taking it on July 4, 1778, deeply frightening the inhabitants. The next day, Clark hiked over to Cahokia, demanding and receiving it as well. That October, Clark likewise seized Vincennes with ease, although he promptly lost it with equal ease in December to British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton. After a cold February march back to Vincennes, Clark reseized the town and its fort in March 1779. These "victories" look more impressive on paper than they did on the ground, for, in truth, the French inhabitants of Illinois rolled quickly with the punches, placating whichever commander held the upper hand at the moment. Furthermore, neither Clark nor Hamilton was in any position to raise the armies for a real contest. Clark had, at most, 175 men, and Hamilton, but thirty-nine, after his seventy-five French militiamen defected ("Account . . . , " 1908, 492, 502; Barnhart, 1951, 149, 181; Clark, 1966, 518, 528).
Throughout his time in Illinois, Clark deliberately terrorized the French settlers, the Illinois Native Americans, and the British, boasting later of his policy of terror (Clark, 1966, 475, 479, 481). In retaking Fort Sackville in 1779, he staged horrifying tortures, including the live, slow scalping of a party of Natives taken prisoner as its members entered Vincennes without knowing of recent events. These atrocities were performed in full view of the besieged small garrison of Fort Sackville, specifically to effect its immediate surrender. A horrified Hamilton (reviled by the Americans as "the famous Hair Buyer General") left a vivid description of a blood-covered Clark sluicing off the gore while boasting of his escapade to the now captive British officer ("Account . . .," 1908, 501; Barnhart, 1951, 182–183; Clark, 1966, 534, 541; Mann, 2005, 114–116).
Establishing Fort Jefferson on a flood plain at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers (only to abandon it in 1780) Clark headed back to Kentucky to raise an August attack on the Shawnees in Ohio, then clearly Native American territory. Clark was frankly racist in his attitudes, admitting that he awaited but a "sufficient excuse to put all the Indians & partisans to death" (ISHL, 1903, 144) and viewed their "extirpation" (Barn-hart, 1951, 189) as his "divine" mission (Clark, 1996, 539). Taking 1,000 men (against 300 Native defenders), Clark ploughed into Shawnee lands, destroying around 1,000 acres of crops and all the housing he could find, including Old (also called Little) Chillicothe and three Piqua clan towns on the Big Miami River, his men plundering towns, murdering and mutilating straggling Natives, and pulling bodies out of graves to scalp for state bounties. As a quickly combined "Union" force (a pan-Native alliance in Ohio) bore down on him, Clark beat a hasty retreat home (Mann, 2005, 124–127).
By the end of 1780, Clark was so acclaimed in the back settlements that George Washington handed him the all-important campaign to roust the British from their western headquarters in Detroit. Due to a fraught rivalry that erupted into a recruiting and supplying competition with Colonel Daniel Brodhead, commander of the Western Department headquartered at Fort Pitt, Clark was unable to raise enough men for the effort or to keep those he had raised from deserting. Setting out in a scattered way from Fort Henry (Wheeling, West Virginia) on July 20, 1781, by the end of August, Clark's troops had been entirely defeated by the Ohio Union (Mann, 2005, 143–146).
Clark was placed in the military command of Kentucky in 1781, where he failed not only to support outlying posts but also to report back to Virginia, whose governor, Benjamin Harrison, blamed the problem on Clark's raging alcoholism (ISHL, 1926, 132), but which was equally the fault of Clark's illiteracy. Consequent of his failures, the massive August 19, 1782, defeat of the Kentucky militia by the Ohio Union at Blue Licks was blamed on Clark. Partially to regain his prestige and partially to make one last grab at Ohio before a signed Treaty of Paris prohibited continued invasion, Clark led a second, unauthorized invasion of Shawnee lands in November 1782, attacking and looting an evacuated Chillicothe (modern-day Piqua), along with Willistown, Pigeon Town, two Piqua clan towns, and a British trading post. He destroyed 10,000 bushels of corn, the Shawnees' entire winter supply (Mann, 2005, 174–179).
After the Revolution, in recognition of his military services, Clark was "paid" 8,059 acres of Native land in Ohio and 73,962 acres of Chickasaw land farther west (Lutz, 1969, 250, 251–252). He also was tapped as an Indian agent during the U.S. attempt to seize Ohio by treaty (thus to remit all congressional land warrants issued as soldiers' pay during the Revolution). In 1786, Clark negotiated a strong-armed treaty with the Shawnees, which was immediately repudiated, and then led an attack on the Wabash Miami nations.
Clark's star was, however, decidedly declining; Virginia held him personally liable for paying war supply debts it claimed he had incorrectly managed. (In fact, Clark had properly submitted receipts, as he had always claimed.) As Clark struggled with these woes, James Wilkinson, a Spanish double agent, conspired to depose him from his position as Indian agent, subsequently taking over Clark's post. Now in serious trouble, Clark tried some skullduggery of his own, in a scheme to create a Spanish colony in Mississippi. Continuing his new career as a foreign agent, Clark attempted in 1793 to drag the United States into Franco-Anglo hostilities. He died in Louisville in 1799, his reputation in tatters.
Barbara Alice Mann
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