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American Revolution: Brigadier General George Rogers Clark

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American Revolution: Brigadier General 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 one 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, he first traveled into western Virginia in 1771.

A year later, Clark pressed further west and made his first trip to Kentucky. In the wake of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, settlers were moving to the region in large numbers. Over the next few years, tensions increased between the settlers and the Native Americans north of the Ohio River who used Kentucky as a hunting ground. This culminated in the outbreak of Lord Dunmore's War in 1774. During the brief conflict, Clark served as a captain in the Virginia militia. As the American Revolution began in the east, Kentucky faced a crisis of its own.

Clark Becomes a Leader:

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. 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.

The American Revolution:

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. Believing that the only way to halt Native American raids into Kentucky was to attack British forts north of the Ohio River, 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.

Gathering men at Redstone Old Fort on the Monongahela River, Clark 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 take Kaskaskia (Illinois) on July 4. Cahokia was captured five days later as Clark moved back east and a detachment was sent 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.

With winter approaching, Hamilton released many of his men and settled in with a garrison of 90. Feeling that urgent action was needed, Clark embarked on a daring winter campaign to retake the outpost. Marching with 127 men, they endured a tough march before attacking Fort Sackville on February 23, 1780. Hamilton was forced 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.

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.

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

  • George Roger Clark National Historical Park
  • NNDB: George Rogers Clark
  • Ohio History: George Rogers Clark
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