George Rogers Clark National Historical Park (and the Lincoln memorial)

The George Rogers Clark National Historical Park lies adjacent to the Wabash River in downtown Vincennes, Indiana. The park is located where the original fort in Vincennes that George Rogers Clark captured stood (Fort Sackville). The grounds are open from dust to dawn and make for a wonderful peaceful evening stroll by the river.

The historical park includes a memorial, a statue of Francis Vigo (who alerted Clark to the British recapture of Vincennes and who financed Clark’s expeditions), and a visitor center.

The memorial is reminiscent of memorials in Washington DC—a round structure akin to the Jefferson Memorial—with a large expanse of lawn leading up to it. The memorial was completed in 1933, long before any thought to accessibility—other visitors when I was there complained of the numerous steps and small entryway.

You can climb the stairs and walk around the memorial, taking in the images of settlers and Native Americans in the metal lattice over the entryway. Entry to the memorial is manned by the park system and tied to the visitor center hours. (Entry is free.)

Definitely go to the visitor center before entering the memorial. The visitor center runs a 30-minute film that provides a good background about George Rogers Clark, his actions in the western frontier during the Revolutionary War, and the significance of his actions. This movie will give you the information necessary to appreciate what you will see inside the memorial.

Inside the memorial stands a statue of George Rogers Clark. Around him on the inside of the rotunda walls are murals depicting important points in Clark’s campaign during the war. The murals done by Ezra Winter depict such scenes as Clark and his men entering Kentucky (which was part of Virginia), Cahokia (site of an important fort in Illinois), the Wabash (which was flooded when Clark and his men crossed it), Vincennes (the gateway to the west), Fort Sackville (the fort in Vincennes that the British surrendered to Clark) Marietta (the first permanent city in the Northwest Territory), and St. Louis (which opened the way to the west with the Louisiana Purchase).

Around the inside top of the memorial is carved “Great Things Have Been Effected By A Few Men Well Conducted. Our Cause is Just. Our Country Will Be Grateful.” The quote comes from Clark’s letter to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry. I found the quote much more meaningful in context:

“I know the case is desperate; but, sir, we must either quit the country or attack Mr. Hamilton [who is in charge at the fort]. No time is to be lost. Were I sure of a [British] reinforcement [at the fort], I should not attempt it. Who knows what fortune will do for us? Great things have been effected [sic] by a few men well conducted. Perhaps we may be fortunate. We have this consolation, that our cause is just, and that our country will be grateful and not condemn our conduct in case we fall through. If we fail, the Illinois as well as Kentucky, I believe, is lost.”

Just north of the memorial grounds a stone bridge spans the Wabash River. On either side of the bridge heading towards Illinois, carved into the stone, are huge images of Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet—both important Native Americans in the area who had dealings with the Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison. (Harrison later became the ninth president.)

The bridge offers a lovely view of the memorial and the Wabash River. A quick ten-minute walk takes you to the Illinois side of the river where a memorial to Abraham Lincoln stands. (Unfortunately, when I visited, the memorial had been defaced with spray paint.) The bridge marks the spot where Abraham Lincoln crossed the river with his family during his twenty-first year. (Illinois may be the land of Lincoln, but Indiana is where Lincoln grew to adulthood—from age six to twenty-one.)

The George Rogers Clark National Historical Park—and Vincennes in general—is definitely a spot that American history buffs would enjoy. The employees of the National Park Service, who man the visitor center and the memorial, are quite knowledgeable and eager to share any and all information.

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.