The other Clark

Several times during my visit to Vincennes, Indiana, people pointed out that the Clark of the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park was not the Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. (That Clark was his younger brother William.)

So who was George Rogers Clark and why was he important? (And why does everyone seem to know of his younger brother but not him?) George Rogers Clark was born in Virginia in 1752. At the age of 20, he made a surveying trip to the area known as Kentucky and two years later led an expedition down the Ohio River. (Technically Kentucky was part of and governed by Virginia.)

Interesting side note: the British Proclamation Line of 1763 forbade Americans from settling west of the Alleghenies as a gesture of reconciliation to the Native Americans following the French and Indian war. Not sure how the British thought that could be enforced. Clearly with Clark doing surveying work in Kentucky in 1772, the proclamation wasn’t enforced (or enforceable).

Battles between settlers and Native Americans in Kentucky flared and then intensified as the British used the Native Americans as proxies during the Revolutionary War. (The year 1777 is referred to as the bloody sevens.) Clark recognized that the best way to neutralize British influence in the western frontier was to control three key forts: Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes. Clark approached Virginia Governor Patrick Henry with his secret plan, which he set in motion in 1778 with the governor’s blessing.

In 1778, Clark and his hardy band of men captured Vincennes and then moved on to capture other outposts. The British then recaptured Vincennes. Clark’s plan to recapture the recaptured Vincennes was quite audacious; he planned a winter attack. In February, he left Kaskaskia, Illinois with 170 men, marched 180 miles through flooded land, and crossed a Wabash River swollen to four miles across. On February 23, after a two-day battle (and no loss of life on either side), Lt. Governor Henry Hamilton surrendered the fort to Clark.

Why was Clark’s capture of area forts so important? The captures not only helped neutralize British influence in the area, but they also opened up waterways important to the expansion of the nation-to-be. Vincennes on the Wabash River gave America access to Europe (out to the Atlantic via the Great Lakes) and the south and west (through the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers).

You could argue that his younger brother’s famous adventures (as Lewis and Clark) could never have happened without Clark’s capture of Vincennes and the removal of the British from the area. The 1783 Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War and moved the border of British control from the Ohio River north to the Great Lakes, which led to the formation of the Northwest Territory. (Interestingly, disputes over the Northwest Territory led to the War of 1812.)

Alas, Clark ended up in poverty in his later life. Clark had taken out personal loans to conduct his western campaigns during the Revolutionary War, all with the expectation that the government would pay him back. That never materialized.

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