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GEORGE ROGERS CLARK
|^NE of the most remarkable men of Revolutionary times was George Kogers Clark, and his exploits read more like those of the hero of some novel than like the deeds of a simple soldier and patriot.
In early boyhood and youth he acquired the rather scanty education which was then considered necessary for a child of fairly well-to-do parents, but he never applied himself so closely to his books as to lose his love for the woods and streams of the wild country that surrounded him. He became a surveyor, and among the wonders and trials of the wilderness lost much of the little polish he had acquired. But he learned the woods, the mountain passes and the river courses, and became fully acquainted with the wild human denizens of the forests. His six feet of muscular body, his courage and his fierce passions fitted him to lead men and to overawe his enemies, red or white. He had "red hair and a black penetrating eye," two gifts that marked him among the adventurous men who were finding their way across the Alleghanies. He tried farming, but succeeded better as a fighter in those fierce conflicts with Indians and border desperadoes which gave to Kentucky the name of "Dark and Bloody Ground."
In 1777, after the breaking out of the Revolution, there were several French settlements lying to the north of the Ohio and scattered from Detroit to the Mississippi. Among these were Mackinac, Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, Vincennes, Kaskaskia and Cahokia. The English were in possession of all these and held them usually by a single commanding officer and a very small garrison. The French inhabitants had made friends with the Indians, and in many instances had intermarried with them. Moreover, while they were submissive to the British they were by no means attached to them and were apparently quite likely to submit with equal willingness to the Americans should they succeed in the struggle. This was what Clark understood so thoroughly that he early became possessed of the idea that it would be a comparatively simple matter to secure to the United States all that promising land lying between the Alleghanies, the Ohio and the Mississippi.
The jealousy that existed between Pennsylvania and Virginia over an extension westward made it extremely difficult for Clark to get aid from the Colonies or even from Virginia, his native state. However, he succeeded in interesting Patrick Henry, then governor of Virginia, and preserving the greatest secrecy, he set about recruiting his forces.
It was a desperate undertaking, and the obstacles, naturally great, were made infinitely more trying by the fact that he could tell none of his men the real purpose for which they were enlisting. By May, 1778, however, he had secured one hundred and fifty backwoodsmen from the western reaches of Virginia. With these he started on his venturous undertaking.
Reuben Gold Thwaites, in his How George Rogers Clark Won the Northwest, describes the volunteers as follows:
"There was of course no attempt among them at military uniform, officers in no wise being distinguished from men. The conventional dress of eighteenth-century borderers was an adaptation to local conditions, being in part borrowed from the Indians. Their feet were encased in moccasins. Perhaps the majority of the corps had loose, thin trousers of homespun or buckskin, with a fringe of leather thongs down each outer seam of the legs; but many wore only leggings of leather, and were as bare of knee and thigh as a Highland clansman; indeed, many of the pioneers were Scotch-Irish, some of whom had been accustomed to this airy costume in the mother-land. Common to all were fringed hunting shirts or smocks, generally of buckskin— a picturesque, flowing garment reaching from neck to knees, and girded about the waist by a leathern belt, from which dangled the tomahawk and scalping-knife. On one hip hung the carefully scraped powder horn; on the other, a leather sack, serving both as game-bag and provision-pouch, although often the folds of the shirt, full and ample above the belt, were the depository for food and ammunition. A broad-brimmed felt hat, or a cap of fox-skin or squirrel-skin, with the tail dangling behind, crowned the often tall and always sinewy frontiersman. His constant companion was his home-made flint-lock rifle—a clumsy, heavy weapon, so long that it reached to the chin of the tallest man, but unerring in the hands of an expert marksman, such as was each of these backwoodsmen.
"They were rough in manners and in speech. Among them, we must confess, were men who had fled from the coast settlements because no longer to be tolerated in a law-abiding community. There were not lacking mean, brutal fellows, whose innate badness had on the untrammelled frontier developed into wickedness. Many joined Clark for mere adventure, for plunder and deviltry. The majority, however, were men of good parts, who sought to protect their homes at whatever peril—sincere men, as large of heart as they were of frame, many of them in later years developing into, citizens of a high type of effectiveness in a frontier commonwealth. As a matter of history, most of them proved upon this expedition to be heroes worthy of the fame they won and the leader whom they followed."
Early in June Clark had reached the falls in the Ohio at the present city of Louisville, and here on an island commanding the falls he built a block house and planted some corn. Here he left the weak and dissatisfied members of his company, and having been joined by a few Kentucky volunteers, he resumed his journey down the river. His first goal was Kaskaskia on the Mississippi, and after a long and perilous journey, the latter part across the country, he captured the post by surprise, seizing the French commandant of the English garrison in an upper room of his own house. He had little difficulty in winning the confidence of the French settlers, who then willingly transferred their loyalty to the new Republic that claimed to be their friend.
A different situation developed with the Indians, but after skilful treatment and a long interview with representatives of the many tribes he succeeded in winning their friendship, or at least a quiet neutrality. In the meantime, Father Gibault, an active, friendly French priest, had crossed the country and induced the inhabitants of Vincennes to raise the American flag. Clark sent Captain Helm to take charge of the fort and to lead the French militia.
Clark's ambition was to capture Detroit, but so great were the difficulties besetting him that he was compelled to winter at Kaskaskia with insufficient forces, struggling to keep peace and to hold the country he had so successfully seized. In January, a month after the event happened, Clark heard that Hamilton had recaptured Vincennes for the British and was preparing to advance on Kaskaskia. Had Hamilton been prompt in his actions and proceeded at once against Clark he might easily have driven the latter from Kaskaskia and secured to the British the wonderful Northwest territory. His delays, however, gave Clark time to gather a larger force and to show his wonderful power as a leader and his skill as a military campaigner.
Few men could have accomplished what Clark did, for few have either the ability or the devotion. "I would have bound myself seven years a Slave," he says, "to have had five hundred troops." Nothing, however, deterred him. He built a large barge or galley, mounted small cannon upon it and manned it with a crew of forty men. This was dispatched to patrol the Ohio, and if possible to get within ten leagues of Vincennes on the Wabash. It was Clark's determination not to wait for attack from the British but to surprise Hamilton in his own fort. It required almost superhuman power to gather the men necessary from the motley crowds