George Rogers Clark Memorial
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Congress Acts and a Clark Memorial is Assured

A. Establishment of the Indiana George Rogers Clark Sesquicentennial Commission

1. The Organization of a Clark Sesquicentennial Committee

Several citizens of Vincennes, Indiana, in the mid-1920s became interested in commemorating the sesquicentennial of the capture of Fort Sackville by George Rogers Clark and his "big knives." One of these was D. Frank Culbertson. During the 1925 session of the Indiana General Assembly, Culbertson called on Dr. Christopher B. Coleman, director of the State Historical Bureau. He told Coleman of the proposal to construct a new Wabash River bridge at the foot of Vigo Street, and suggested that the Indiana Historical Society erect a statue of Clark near the Indiana approach to the bridge.

At this time the site of Fort Sackville, which was the key to Clark's winning of the Old Northwest, was covered by a warehouse, an old grain elevator, a feed mill, and a number of second- and third-rate boarding houses, interspersed with weed patches. The only indication that this was a site of great historic importance was the little marker erected in 1905 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. [1]

Dr. Coleman had recently read of plans to re-enact in Massachusetts on April 19, 1925, the rides of Paul Revere and William Dawes to commemorate the sesquicentennial of that event. This suggested to Coleman the possibility of using the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Fort Sackville for the "rescue of its site and of Clark and his associates from the . . . oblivion into which they had fallen."

Mason Niblack of Vincennes now joined Coleman and Culbertson in formulating a plan of action. The Vincennes Historical Society petitioned the Indiana Historical Society to initiate a drive for the commemoration of the capture of Fort Sackville and for the erection of a suitable memorial on its site. The Vincennes group on August 25, 1925, passed a strongly worded resolution endorsing the petition, and the Indiana Historical Society at Indianapolis on December 11, 1925, established a General Clark Sesquicentennial Committee to formulate and initiate plans. [2]

A plan was matured whereby Knox County and the city of Vincennes would be asked to acquire and donate part of the necessary land, and the State to purchase the remainder of the necessary acreage. The United States Government was to be asked for an appropriation for construction of the memorial. Local newspapers gave the project favorable publicity, and the Vincennes Chamber of Commerce budgeted $23,000 to fund the committee's lobbying activities in Indianapolis and Washington. [3]

2. The Republican State Convention Endorses the Proposal

Ewing Emison, a Vincennes lawyer and history buff, had long been interested in the Clark story and the history of the Old Northwest. Fortunately for those pushing the Clark project, Emison was a power in the Indiana Republican Party. When his party held its nominating convention at Indianapolis in the fourth week of May 1926, Emison drafted and succeeded in having adopted a plank in the platform calling for Indiana to "appropriately memorialize and commemorate" the 150th anniversary of the capture of Vincennes by Colonel Clark and his men. The fall of Fort Sackville on February 25, 1779, had "resulted in the addition of seven great states to the Union and made possible its extension across the continent." [4]

3. The Committee Proposes a Program

Meanwhile, the General Clark Sesquicentennial Committee had met at the Grand Hotel in Vincennes to hammer out a plan of action. At noon on Monday, May 24, about 500 persons attended a luncheon in the gymnasium of the Gibault High School. At a business meeting, it was decided that the committee would: (a) seek the acquisition and dedication to the public as a memorial of all land on which Fort Sackville had been located; (b) push the construction of a boulevard along the bank of the Wabash connecting the Fort Sackville site with Grouseland; (c) reconstruct Fort Sackville; (d) provide for the erection of a George Rogers Clark historical museum near the site of Fort Sackville, "in a style of architecture suitable to the period, the neighboring historical monuments and to the church"; (e) hold a public meeting at Vincennes on February 23-25, 1929, to be addressed by the President of the United States; (f) sponsor a pageant, to be professionally directed, and staged in Vincennes in the summer of 1929; (g) secure photographic coverage of the pageant; (h) secure the minting of a George Rogers Clark commemorative half dollar; (i) secure the issuance of a commemorative postage stamp; (j) support the construction of a plaza in front of the old cathedral and "the completion of the church by a portico in keeping with its architecture and the neighboring historical monuments"; and (k) see that suitable recognition was given to those associates of Clark--Col. Francis Vigo and Father Gibault--who were "most prominently associated in the establishment of the authority of the United States at Vincennes." [5]

Of equal importance, to setting goals, was the decision by the committee to make it a national commemoration, and to seek Federal support [6]

4. The Indiana General Assembly Acts

Nineteen twenty-six was a Republican year in Indiana. When the General Assembly convened in January 1927, legislation was introduced to create a George Rogers Clark Memorial Commission of 15 members, empowered to make and implement plans for commemorating the capture of Fort Sackville. Activities of the commission were to be financed by a State tax levy of one-half a cent on each $100 of taxable property in 1928 and 1929. The commission would be named by the governor and empowered to select an executive secretary. Proceeds from the tax would be earmarked for a "special George Rogers Clark memorial fund."

The commission would be authorized to acquire suitable land in Knox County, to include the site of Fort Sackville, and to erect thereon in accordance with the procedure of the federal government . . . a structure or structures which will appropriately, adequately, fittingly and permanently commemorate the historic expedition of George Rogers Clark, culminating in the capture of Fort Sackville.

The commission would be authorized to purchase land by eminent domain, and to erect on it buildings to commemorate fittingly the Clark expedition. Provision was made in the legislation for a contest to select an architect for the memorial, in which no fewer than five architects would compete for a $25,000 prize to be judged by a three-man jury of award. [7]

On January 27 the house ways and means committee approved the legislation unanimously and reported it to the floor, where it was passed. When sent to the senate, the levy, as approved by the house, was reduced from five to four mills. Supporters of the project calculated that this would bring in about $450,000, a sum sufficient for the purpose to which State-raised funds were to be applied. There was no debate when the bill was reported to the senate floor, but Senator Curtis G. Shake of Knox County availed himself of the opportunity to make "a patriotic speech" urging passage of the measure. Cheers interrupted his speech, as he told the senators: "The historical significance of this memorial and the feats and record of General George Rogers Clark are second to none in America, even east of the Alleghenies." Compared to Clark's march with "his handful of patriots . . . Napoleon's march on Moscow was nothing. George Washington at Valley Forge is its only parallel in American history." [8]

After Senator Shake's speech, there was little doubt of what the senate would do. Senator James J. Nejdl, president protem, called for a vote, and the Clark bill passed with a big majority. Persons familiar with legislative processes in Indiana, however, credited the big vote for the measure in the house and senate to vigorous lobbying activities of former State Senator Culbertson of Knox County. Culbertson, a political opponent of Emison, had pressured the proposed memorial with influential men around the state house. [9]

Meanwhile, Culbertson and other members of the Clark committee had met three times with Governor Edward Jackson. The question of real estate values in the area was threshed out. The Governor assured the men that if the general assembly enacted the legislation, he would give it his approval. [10]

Governor Jackson made good his promise and signed the bill on February 23, 1927. On March 14 he announced the membership of the George Rogers Clark Memorial Commission. The commission, as specified in the legislation, consisted of 15 members: three ex officio, two named by the governor, four by the State Historical Society, three by the Society of Indiana Pioneers, and three by the Indiana Library and Historical Board. [11]

At its organizational meeting, the Indiana Commission elected William Fortune president and determined to continue William H. Book in his capacity as executive-secretary. To rally support for the venture in other states with ties to Clark's campaign, the commission in April sent the distinguished Hoosier historian and author, Ross Lockridge, to Virginia. On the 5th he addressed the William & Mary student body in Williamsburg and visited the jail in which Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton and Maj. Jehu Hay had been "confined in durance vile." At the request of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, he traveled to Richmond on the 7th and gave a talk in support of the sesquicentennial over radio station WRVA. At Charlottesville, Virginia, Lockridge spoke before the student body and visited the site of Clark's birth. [12]

B. The Establishment of a National Commission

1. Legislation is Introduced and Hearings Held

Indiana sponsors of a Clark Memorial had always planned to seek and receive Federal support, as well as the creation and participation by other State commissions. Concurrent with legislative action in the Indiana General Assembly, Senator James E. Watson and Representative Will R. Wood, both of Indiana, introduced companion resolutions in the short session of the 69th Congress. They called for establishment of a George Rogers Clark Sesquicentennial Commission and expenditure of Federal funds for a memorial at Vincennes. The legislation was referred to the respective Library Committees of the Senate and House and hearings scheduled. [13]

The Joint Committee of the Library, with Senator Simeon Fess of Ohio presiding, held several meetings to consider the resolutions. At a public hearing, a number of prominent people appeared before Fess' Committee to urge passage of the concurrent Joint Resolutions. Among those appearing were: Senators James E. Watson and Arthur R. Robinson of Indiana; Representative Will Wood; Chairman Fortune of the George Rogers Clark Commission; Historians Ross Lockridge, J. Franklin Jameson, Elbert J. Benton, Christopher B. Coleman, and Milo M. Quaife; Msgr. Francis H. Gavisk; John C. Doolan, chairman of the Kentucky Historical Society on the George Rogers Clark Memorial; Logan Hay, President of the Lincoln Centennial Association; former Governor A. O. Eberhart of Minnesota; and Joseph B. Kealing, Republican National Committeeman from Indiana. [14]

Senator Fess, a powerful member of the Senate hierarchy and former president of Antioch College, opposed the proposal, but he was impressed by the presentation made by Dr. Jameson and others as to the significance of George Rogers Clark's contributions in the winning of the Old Northwest. He became an enthusiastic advocate of the proposal [15]

Letters from numerous influential people and newspaper editorials endorsing the project were submitted to Chairman Fess, and made a part of the report. Letters came from well-known people such as: Booth Tarkington, Arthur C. Cole, Elmer Davis, Harry S. New, Maj. Gen. Omar Bundy, James J. Davis, Charles A. Beard, Kennesaw M. Landis, Governor Ed Jackson of Indiana, Logan Esarey, and George Ade, along with many others. Such newspapers as the New York Times and Indianapolis News had editorially endorsed the project. [16]

H. Van Buren Magonigle, a New York architect, had made a study of the projected memorial for the Clark Committee. When he appeared before Fess' committee, he exhibited a map of Vincennes and a site plan, and advocated the erection of a Hall of History on the site of Fort Sackville and the construction of a Lincoln Memorial bridge across the Wabash. In the Hall of History would be "represented the entire history of the Northwest from its exploration down to the present day." Magonigle told the committee that the cost of a development such as he proposed would be $1,376,858. [17]

2. Ewing Emison Calls on President Coolidge

Despite the favorable testimony, no action was taken on the Clark resolutions at the short session of the 69th Congress. Consequently, it was determined by the Indiana Commission to send Ewing Emison to Washington to press the issue with President Calvin Coolidge. Following Coolidge's election in 1924, Emison had discussed Clark's conquest of the Old Northwest with the President. After the establishment of the Indiana Commission, Emison had approached the President about the possibility of securing Federal participation. Coolidge acknowledged that it was a meritorious cause, and should be appropriately commemorated.

Emison and J. B. E. LaPlante, accompanied by their wives, traveled to the nation's capital at the end of October. On November 1, 1927, Emison visited the President, and discussed with him the proposed Clark Memorial and the question of Federal participation in the sesquicentennial of the capture of Fort Sackville. President Coolidge promised to mention the undertaking favorably in his message to the 70th Congress. [18]

Emison's trip to Washington was vital, and on December 5, 1927, President Coolidge's message to the 1st Session of the 70th Congress contained the following paragraph:

February 25, 1929, is the 150th Anniversary of the capture of Fort Sackville at Vincennes, in the State of Indiana. This eventually brought into the Union what was known as the Northwest Territory, embracing the region north of the Ohio River between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River. This expedition was led by George Rogers Clark. His heroic character and the importance of his victory are too little known and understood. They gave us not only the Northwest Territory but by means of that a prospect of reaching the Pacific. The State of Indiana is proposing to dedicate the site of Fort Sackville as a National Shrine. The Federal Government may well make some provision for the erection, under its own management, of a fitting memorial at that point. [19]

3. The 70th Congress Acts

Senator Watson of Indiana, taking his cue from the President, in the second week of December reintroduced into the Senate Joint Resolution No. 23. Simultaneously, Representative Wood dropped into the House hopper a similar resolution authorizing the appropriation of $1,750,000 for a national memorial at Vincennes to George Rogers Clark and the winning of the Old Northwest. With slight modifications these resolutions were similar to those introduced and pigeonholed in the short session of the 69th Congress. [20]

Dr. Coleman, Culbertson, and Richards of the Indiana Commission went to Washington and told the Joint Committee of the Library of plans for "a great sesquicentennial celebration in Vincennes" in 1929. Steps already taken by Indiana, Knox County, and the City of Vincennes were detailed.

Although there was difference of opinion among Committee members as to the amount of Federal funding necessary, the Senate Committee on the Library on February 9 recommended the passage of the Watson-Wood resolution. In its final form, the resolution authorized an appropriation of $1,750,000, all except $250,000, to be expended on a Clark Memorial. The rest was to be spent on a historical and educational pageant depicting Clark's achievements and other phases of the history of the Old Northwest. [21]

When the resolution was brought before the Senate, its sponsors, were prepared for the opposition of Senator William H. King of Utah. Under the rule which applied to the Watson-Wood resolution, one objection would cause action to be deferred. When the bill was called up by the clerk, Senator Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, the minority leader, waited until Senator King had made his objection. He then took the floor and made "a very earnest speech regarding the greatness of Clark's accomplishments and urged King to withdraw his objection."

King replied that he had voted against "the appropriation for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and all others since." Senator William C. Bruce of Maryland, a classmate of former President Woodrow Wilson, rallied to support of the resolution. As a man well-versed in the history of our country, Bruce spoke of Clark's great accomplishments and service to the nation. This brought King back to his feet, and he explained that he was not opposed to money for the memorial, but was inclined to oppose funding the projected commemoration, as he doubted whether "large appropriations for celebrations were wisely and properly expended."

Senator Claude Swanson of Virginia now addressed the Senate. Like Bruce, he was familiar with the history of the Old Northwest and Clark's role. He was followed by Senator Pat Harrison of Mississippi, who pleaded for immediate action. Senator Watson then spoke of the action taken by the Indiana General Assembly, and told his colleagues "this is a national project." Senator King, seeing that he was bucking a powerful tide, announced, "I withdraw my objection." Senator King having yielded, the Senate on February 24, 1928, passed by unanimous vote the George Rogers Clark Memorial proposal. [22] News of the Senate's action reached Vincennes at 1:45 p.m. Factory whistles were blown and church bells tolled. Giant firecrackers exploded on Main Street, and more than 100 telephone calls were received by the Vincennes Sun. It was the most excitement the city had seen since word of the Armistice on November 11, 1918. The news was appropriate as the Senate had acted on the 149th anniversary of Clark's meeting with Lieut. Gov. Henry Hamilton, which preceded and set the stage for the surrender of Fort Sackville. [23]

When the House took up the resolution, it reduced the Federal appropriation for construction of the memorial and participation in the George Rogers Clark Sesquicentennial to $1,000,000. On May 7 the measure passed the House by unanimous vote. Because of the differences in the amounts authorized in the Senate and House versions of the Watson-Wood resolution, the measure was sent to conference. Culbertson and floor managers of the legislation were confident that, at the conference, a compromise of the differences might see the appropriation raised to $1,500,000. [24]

The House conferees, however, refused to yield, and the resolution providing for a $1,000,000 appropriation was sent to the President. On May 23, 1928, President Coolidge signed into law the public resolution establishing the George Rogers Clark Sesquicentennial Commission, to be composed of 15 members. The appropriation was to be expended by

the commission in cooperation with the George Rogers Clark Memorial Commission of Indiana . . . for the purpose of designing and constructing at or near the site of Fort Sackville . . . a permanent memorial, commemorating the winning of the Old Northwest and the achievements of George Rogers Clark and his associates.

The appropriation was made contingent on the State of Indiana providing a site for the memorial, and perpetual care and maintenance of the site for the memorial, and the memorial constructed thereon. Before any of the Federal funds authorized could be expended, plans and designs of the memorial would have to be approved by the national Commission of Fine Arts. [25]

Speaking for the Indiana Commission, Chairman Fortune hailed the President's action, as assuring that "a memorial tribute to Clark and the acquisition of the old northwest will arise on the site of Ft. Sackville." Efforts commenced two years before had achieved great success, but much yet remained to be done. Fortune was satisfied that the projected "memorial will be one of the greatest and most beautiful historic shrines west of the Alleghenies." Indianians would be justified for their expenditures toward the memorial by this congressional action. [26]

4. A Palace Revolution

Lobbyist Culbertson was hailed as a hero on his return to Vincennes by 3,500 of his fellow citizens. While the crowd was assembling in the local coliseum on Sunday afternoon, May 27, the high school band gave a concert and the American Legion drum and bugle corps paraded the streets. After being introduced Culbertson explained that nothing definite, in regard to the sesquicentennial commemoration, would be decided until after the appointment of the Federal Commission. He suggested the Commission might restore the Grouseland grounds; construct a portico in front of St. Xavier Cathedral; span the Wabash with an Abraham Lincoln Memorial Bridge; and lay out a Gibault Plaza, with statues of General Clark and Col. Francis Vigo. The key to this development would be a boulevard connecting the memorials.

Carried away by the occasion and crowd, Culbertson forecast that Vincennes because of the attraction of the sesquicentennial would have a spectacular growth, and should triple its population. Manufacturers would seek Vincennes instead of the city seeking them. He urged the citizens to support the Chamber of Commerce in sponsoring the construction of a first class hotel.

Other speakers followed Culbertson, paying tribute to his efforts on Capitol Hill and extolling the economic advantages they expected to shower on Vincennes because of the sesquicentennial. [27]

President Coolidge on June 9 filled the three vacancies on the 15-man Federal Commission that were his prerogative. His appointees were Ewing Emison of Vincennes, Mrs. Alvin T. Hert of Kentucky, and Luther E. Smith of Missouri. Earlier, Vice President Charles G. Dawes had appointed three members of the Senate (James E. Watson of Indiana, Kenneth I. McKellar of Tennessee, and Simeon D. Fess of Ohio) and Speaker Nicholas Longworth three members of the House (Will R. Wood and Albert H. Vestal of Indiana, and Ralph Gilbert of Kentucky). At its June meeting, the Indiana George Rogers Clark Memorial Commission appointed the other six members: Clem J. Richards, Thomas Taggart, D. Frank Culbertson, Lee Burns, Mrs. Studebaker Carlisle, and Lew O'Bannon. [28]

The June 4, 1928, meeting of the Indiana Commission had turned into a bitter power struggle between Emison and Culbertson and their factions. In a close 6 to 5 vote, Culbertson and his partisans were victors, and Clem Richards of Terre Haute was elected chairman over Fortune. When he turned over the chairmanship to Richards, Fortune observed that there had been forced into the "affairs of the commission . . . the aggressive antipathies and prejudice of one member against another in Vincennes." [29]

Culbertson thus emerged as the strongman on the Indiana Commission, a position he would soon obtain on the Federal Commission. For the next ten years, he would dominate the activities of the National Commission. Although a beautiful memorial and grounds would be built, a number of Commission decisions championed by Culbertson, as we shall see, soured. In retrospect, the decision by the Indiana Commission to dump Fortune was probably a blunder.

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Last Updated: 17-Sep-2001