Maintaining A Legacy
An Administrative History of George Rogers Clark National Historical Park
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George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Fort Sackville

George Rogers Clark National Historical Park was established to commemorate the endeavors of George Rogers Clark and his Big Knives, who marched approximately 175 miles through difficult conditions to launch a surprise attack on the British post of Fort Sackville in the town of Vincennes. The capture of the fort secured the Trans-Appalachian region for the fledgling United States, establishing a presence that gave the new nation broad horizons. Clark's victory had a direct impact on the shape of the American nation. From the territory indirectly secured by actions of Clark's men later came the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the eastern portion of Minnesota.

A Virginian by birth, Clark determined that his future lay in the Ohio Valley. By the time he turned nineteen, he began studying surveying, a skill of great value on the frontier. Others, such as George Washington, had measured boundaries for land companies in the Ohio Country, simultaneously acquiring title to valuable lands for themselves. Of entrepreneurial bent, Clark headed west first to survey such lands and later to settle on them. [1]

By the time he settled in Kentucky in 1773, Clark was perceived as a leader. A tall man with reddish hair, he had the ability to captivate an audience with his speeches and was renowned for his military prowess. Seen as forthright and talented by his peers, he was an exemplum of a Virginia man of the 1770s. His selection as one of two Kentuckians to take a petition from its people to the Virginia Assembly in 1776 reflected his stature. The following year, when he was chosen as the major in command of the Kentucky militia at the young age of twenty-four, no one expressed surprise. [2]

The Revolutionary War in the Old Northwest preceded George Rogers Clark's involvement, but he galvanized the Americans and elevated their quest from a contest between different kinds of villagers into an imperial expedition. Before Clark, the aims of American settlers in the West were singularly local in ambition. After Clark received carte blanche from the governor of Virginia to pursue the British in the Old Northwest, he sought to implement a plan that would open an immense territory and detach an extremely large area, the Illinois Country, from the British empire. Success would open an American route to the garrison at Detroit, the most important British outpost in the region. In a contest of shifting alliances and minute ambitions, Clark sought to enact a grand scheme. [3]

In this plan, Vincennes played a pivotal role. To secure the region, Clark needed to conquer the settlements on the Mississippi River, Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Prairie du Rocher, as well as Vincennes, on the Wabash River. After the capture of the Mississippi River settlements on July 4-6, 1778, Clark dispatched one of his captains, Leonard Helm, and a platoon of men to take Vincennes. They captured the town, and Helm wrapped the British flag around a rock and threw it into the Wabash River. Seemingly Clark and the Americans had attained their objectives. [4]

Plans for a British counterattack on Vincennes followed the reception of the news of the capture. While planning a venture against Fort Pitt from his base at Detroit, Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton, the "hair buyer" who rewarded Indians for the delivery of American scalps, heard of the capture of the Illinois settlements. He changed objectives, and on October 7, 1778, his force departed for Vincennes. On December 17, he arrived at Vincennes and found the French militia had vanished and the French civilians in the town unprepared to resist. Captain Helm had only three men to defend Fort Sackville, the remainder of his platoon having gone home. Helm surrendered after a promise of good treatment, and Hamilton prepared to wait out the winter and attack the Mississippi River settlements in the spring. [5] He fully expected that the destruction of Clark's force would serve as a prelude to the elimination of the American presence in the Old Northwest.

Clark was informed of these developments by Francis Vigo, a merchant he previously sent to Vincennes to supply Helm, and fashioned a bold response. Most of his options were distasteful; only a winter attack on Vincennes before Hamilton could amass his Indian allies in the spring offered the possibility of saving the West for the Americans. On February 5, 1779, one week after Vigo's arrival in Kaskaskia, Clark and 170 men departed in the freezing cold for Vincennes [6]

For nearly two weeks, the attack force marched across the flooded bottomlands of Illinois toward Vincennes. On February 18, they reached the Wabash River about eleven miles below Vincennes and made camp. Two days later, guards captured five Frenchmen who gave them information and agreed to guide them to Vincennes. Clark realized that his men would have to cross an area of neck-high water to reach their next camp. To inspire them, he blackened his face with moistened gunpowder, gave a war whoop, and headed into the water. Stunned by this display of commitment and leadership, his men followed. Clark ordered singing, all joined in, and the men went, as Clark wrote, "chearfully." [7]

As they reached the immediate vicinity of Vincennes, Clark faced difficult issues. He needed to know whether the French who lived in Vincennes would side with the Americans; he already had been heartened to find out that Tobacco's Son, a chief of the nearby Piankashaw tribe, recently told British officers that his Piankashaw and their allies, the Kickapoo, would side with the Americans. With this knowledge and the expectation that the French in Vincennes would be lukewarm if not hostile to the British, Clark resolved to have a captured French duck hunter carry a letter back to the citizens of Vincennes. [8]

A battle was imminent. The letter created a stir in town, augmented by the hunter's report that 1,000 Americans were camped outside of town and more would soon arrive. As Clark expected, the local French sided with the Americans. Clark's army approached the town, and on February 23, the battle began. Clark's men occupied the heights southwest of the fort, placed sharpshooters there, and firing ensued. Tobacco's Son arrived to support Clark with nearly 100 warriors. Throughout the night the shooting continued, and at 9 A.M. on February 24, Clark called for a truce and sent a message to Hamilton demanding the surrender of the fort. Hamilton refused, and the firing resumed. [9]

As Hamilton maneuvered for time, Clark performed an act that precipitated the surrender of the fort. Hamilton requested a three-day truce, a proposition Clark countered with a repeat of his demand for immediate capitulation. About the same time, a party of fifteen to twenty Delaware and Ottawa warriors led by a Frenchman returned to the fort. Sent out earlier by Hamilton to find deserters, the group captured two and brought them back to Vincennes. Clark's Kickapoo allies alerted him to the arrival of the party, and Capt. John Williams of Clark's force was sent to greet and capture the incoming men. A lull in the fighting deceived the French and Indians in the search party. They believed Williams' men had come from the fort to give them a customary greeting. As the two parties approached each other, an Indian leading the group became suspicious, and Williams seized him. The rest fled with the Americans in pursuit. Williams' men captured six (two of them proving to be the Indians' two white prisoners), killed two others, and wounded three. [10]

Clark intended to use his captives to make an impression on the British and Indians within the fort. He wanted the Indians to see that Hamilton was powerless to protect them and so gave the order to have the four prisoners tomahawked in front of the surrounded garrison. Paraded into a circle opposite the front of the main gate to the fort, their hands and feet bound, the Indians were killed one by one, singing their death songs. The white partisan leader who had been captured was also to be executed, but his father, Lieutenant La Croix, a volunteer from Cahokia serving with the Americans, begged for his son's life. Clark granted the request. [11]

The executions had more than the desired effect. Hamilton was so shaken that at 2 P.M., he and his subordinate, Major Jehu Hay, emerged from the fort in full dress uniform to offer a list of conditions for surrender. Clark rejected the terms and again demanded unconditional surrender. After negotiations, the British commander finally capitulated. On the morning of February 25, 1779, Hamilton and his men marched out of the fort to find only Clark's small and ragged band of men. Stunned, the vanquished officer reportedly asked: "Colonel Clark, where is your army?" Clark indicated that what Hamilton saw was all that had come with him, and Hamilton became a prisoner with the full knowledge that he could have continued the fight and probably won. [12]

The battle for the fort came to serve as a metaphor for the spread of the Americans into the Old Northwest. The new frontier embodied much less of the negotiation that characterized the pre-1760s world of British and French alliances and much more of the nature of the expansionist American republic. Although removal of the remaining Indian people from the Old Northwest took almost fifty years to complete, after Fort Sackville, the structure of its conclusion was only occasionally in doubt.

The spread of settlers was incremental, as was the move westward of many Indians, but it became an inexorable process. Despite great Indian victories over the Americans in instances such as the defeats of armies led by Josiah Harmar in 1790 and Arthur St. Clair in 1791, the balance of power shifted away from Indians and to the incoming Americans. [13] The economic and political relationships that so mattered before the battle at Vincennes lost importance as an American hegemony developed.

For more than thirty years after the capture of Fort Sackville, Indians tried numerous strategies to save their homes and lands. Some strategies sought accommodation; treaties that purported to draw a line between whites and Indians and cede in perpetuity all land west of a certain point to Indians were common. In other circumstances, Indians tried to reach mutually agreed upon terms of existence, but the flood of settlers made such agreements impossible to enforce. The only other strategy was war.

Between the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, when Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne crushed the Shawnee and Miamis in Ohio, and the War of 1812, the organizational structure of many Indian tribal groups became fragmented. This mirrored the experience of other Indians in the face of earlier European and American encroachment and caused major problems for Indians who sought to resist incoming settlers. Social arrangements were damaged by the collapse of traditional community and tribal frameworks, and individual groups ceased to be sufficiently numerous and powerful to resist alone. But only in specific circumstances did Indians come together for sustained mutual defense, for their identities as kinship groups, tribes, and bands superseded any sense of obligation towards people who had been their historic enemies.

In the background were the British in Canada, a potent force prepared to assist the Indians in their efforts to dislodge American settlers from the Old Northwest. But British support was limited; the Indian experience at the battle of Fallen Timbers, where the British shut the gates of their fort to retreating Indians, proved as much. During the War of 1812, the British started out as supporters of an Indian confederacy that sought to remove the Americans, but redirected their objectives to defend Canada from the threat of American attack. In the battle of Fort Malden in 1815, the Indian leader Tecumseh was killed, and with him, died military resistance and his dream of Indian unity. [14] His death cemented the changes that the actions of George Rogers Clark at Fort Sackville in 1779 so clearly foreshadowed.

Despite his seeming aptitude for commercial culture and speculation, Clark fared poorly in the aftermath of his military exploit at Fort Sackville. An expedition he led in 1786 ended in his humiliation. His role as an Indian commissioner ended about the same time. Clark tried to receive reimbursement for expenses of nearly £5,000 incurred in the 1778-1779 Vincennes campaign, but the Commonwealth of Virginia and the federal government refused to pay his claim. Merchants held Clark personally responsible, lawsuits mounted, and Clark was financially ruined. After most of his lands in Kentucky were confiscated, he moved to a crude two-story log house on his remaining parcel of property, across the Ohio River from Louisville and near the point from which his expedition departed in 1778. In 1808, he became partially paralyzed and suffered the amputation of one leg after a fall. The Virginia legislature gave him a $400 annual pension after these calamities. Clark died in 1818. [15]

By the time of statehood for Indiana in 1816, Clark had become a legend. He had become a mythological figure to a world he never successfully inhabited, a world that could revere but not accommodate him. This was the world that became the cities and farms of Indiana, with its capitol moved from Vincennes to Corydon and finally to Indianapolis, a city of factories and warehouses that reflected the values of an industrial society. It was this city and this society that could and would build a memorial to George Rogers Clark.

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Last Updated: 28-Jul-2006