George Rogers Clarke: Famous Leader Of The Borderland Of Kentucky

One of the foremost of the pioneers: one of the noblest of men: one of the most daring of fighters: such was George Rogers Clarke of Virginia. Like Daniel Boone of Kentucky, Clarke was not only a brave warrior in the rough and ready armies of the Middle West, but was also a potent factor in the destinies of the American people.

Born in Albemarle County, Virginia, he early made his way to Kentucky. At twenty-three we find him engaged as a surveyor in this virgin land, and as he was a large and powerful man like George Washington, he could easily contend with the difficulties of his profession. So inspiring, in fact, was his appearance, that he was entrusted with the command of the militia upon his first visit to the border. He had a soldierly bearing and a grave and thoughtful mien.

After remaining for a time in Kentucky, this noble borderer returned to Virginia in order to settle up his affairs. He saw that a conflict would soon take place for the possession of the Middle West between the Americans, the French, the English—who had a chain of forts extending down the Mississippi from Detroit, Michigan, to Vincennes, Indiana—and the redskins. Which party would win? That remained to be yet settled. Clarke, of course, sided with the American pioneers who were pressing westward from Virginia and Tennessee.

“The Indians,” said he, “are incited to burning, scalping, and murdering our peaceful settlers upon the border, by the tongues of the British soldiers, who, supplying them with food from their forts, are continually egging them on to rapine and murder. Our only salvation, as settlers, lies in organization and military training. We must equip ourselves with arms and ammunition and must press against them before they grow so strong that they can crush us.”

He suggested that the Kentuckians assemble in convention, and that there they should discuss the affairs most dear to the hearts of all. To this the people readily assented, and at this meeting chose Clarke, himself, and a man named Jones, as delegates to the Virginia Assembly. They were to go to the older state and were to ask for five hundred pounds of gunpowder for purposes of defense against the redskins.

When they expressed their wants they were met with a cold reception.

“We will lend you this important supply,” they were told by those in authority. “But you must guarantee its repayment and must defray all expenses connected with its carriage across the mountains.”

Clarke was indignant at these terms.

“This is not the treatment that brave borderers deserve,” he said. “This should be a free offering to the men who stand as a breastwork between you yourselves and the redskins. If you allow your outlying posts to be swept away by the British and Indians, then the tide of warfare will roll over your own settlements, and you will realize—too late—the folly of your refusal.”

To this remonstrance the council replied that they could not better their offer.

But Clarke was a fighter.

“You do not realize the dangers of your position,” he again stated to them. “We apply to you for aid because you are nearest and dearest to us. But—if you refuse us—we can go to New York and there obtain our supplies. We have pushed into this country. We have settled it. We are of your own blood. We claim it. A country which is not worth defending is not worth claiming.”

This was the way to talk to the hard-headed Virginians. After an earnest debate it was decided to recall Clarke and to comply with his request. An order for five hundred pounds of powder was given to him. It was to be delivered at Pittsburgh, subject to his demand, and for use by the borderers of Kentucky.

“I am deeply grateful to you, my brothers,” said Clarke. “This gift will be well used and my people will be very thankful to you for it. God bless the noble settlers of Virginia!”

With a small force of seven men, the daring pioneer now went to Fort Pitt for the powder, and carrying it in canoes, safely transported it to a place called Limestone, Kentucky. Indians were thick in this country, and all were hostile. But he came safely through the wild places and carefully secreted the powder at various points, where it could be found by the borderers when needed.

Daniel Boone was now an old man and was so modest that he refused to thrust himself forward and become a leader around whom the settlers could rally. All eyes, therefore, turned to Clarke, whose merits were now recognized as a gallant fighter and able commander. The borderers saw that they here had an unselfish fellow who had their own interests in view, and who had obtained well-needed assistance for them. They knew that, without powder, they must be swept back before the storm of Indian invasion. The time for a leader had now come, and destiny had sent to the Kentuckians George Rogers Clarke—the brave and the noble.

This soldier now addressed the settlers upon several occasions and in several different places. He told them that they must assume an aggressive attitude and must attack the Indian villages, destroy their crops, burn their habitations, and teach them the horrors of invasion.

“We must not wait to be attacked ourselves,” said he. “We must do the attacking. We must strike before we are struck, and must hit hard.”

The Kentuckians were stirred by these speeches of Clarke and swore to follow him to the death.

“Lead on! Lead on!” cried they. “We will follow and will do our best to clear the land of our red enemies.”

This pleased the leader of the borderers, for he saw that his own spirit animated his men. He therefore wrote to the Governor of Virginia, telling him of his plans for border warfare, and requesting aid. Men and ammunition were sent him. An expedition was speedily organized at Louisville—then called the Falls of the Ohio—and the border soldiers started down the stream in boats. At the mouth of the Tennessee River a party of hunters were met with. From them Clarke learned that the garrisons at Kaskaskia and Kahokia were fully aware of his coming and were quite ready to give his men a hot reception.

“The greater portion of the French,” said the guides, “prefer American to English rule. You will find no difficulty in winning them over to your cause.”

These men were taken along as scouts, and, creeping quietly through the wilderness, they surrounded and captured Kaskaskia without shedding a drop of blood. So kind were Clarke’s followers to the inhabitants that many accompanied them on the march to Kahokia,—a town just opposite St. Louis, Missouri. Both places were populated mainly by people of French extraction who adhered to the cause of France in America.

Clarke was a diplomat. Some one has said that “he eked out the courage of a lion with the cunning of a fox.” At any rate, he knew enough to make a firm friend of the parish priest, Monsieur Gerbault, who consented to go to Vincennes—in the absence of the British commander, who had gone to Detroit—and induce the garrison there to embrace the cause of the Kentuckians. He was successful. After a lengthy harangue the fort went over to the Americans and its command was given to a Captain Helm, one of Clarke’s Lieutenants.

Clarke had accomplished what was thought to be the impossible. Without any difficulty whatsoever he had captured three forts and had persuaded all the inhabitants to join his standard. But these were the French. There were still the redskinned devils who would soon be burning, plundering, and massacring upon the borders. Clarke needed more men. So he promptly organized the French into militia companies with which to garrison the captured fort, appointed French officers to command them, and was thus able to use all of his Kentucky backwoodsmen in dealing with the redskins.

The French and Spaniards never asked for peace from the Indians but always harshly demanded whatever they might desire. Clarke determined to adopt their course. This kind of diplomacy is that which usually wins with the American Indian, for the red man could never comprehend why the whites would offer peace if they felt at all certain that they could accomplish their purpose by means of war. The Indians never made treaties unless they had met with a reverse and were in the presence of a superior enemy. When Clarke demanded like a warrior it suited their ideas much better than if he had asked like a squaw.

We now come to the most extraordinary event in his career: an event which marks him as a man of courage and capacity. When things were going against him he managed to turn the tide in his own favor with remarkable ability.

Braving great dangers and privations, he met the redskins in their own villages and conferred with them. Two attempts were made upon his life, but he escaped all harm and managed to secure a treaty of peace upon terms which the red men had first spurned. The treaty was signed and Clarke’s eyes looked hungrily at Detroit—the great stronghold of the British. He had not sufficient men to take it.

Two detachments from his small army captured a British post on the upper Wabash, garrisoned by forty men. This aroused the British to greater activity. The Kentuckians and French were coming too near for either pleasure or safety. Besides this, the savages had begun to waver in their allegiance to the British flag as they saw the success of the pioneers from across the Ohio River.

Vincennes, as you know, had gone over to the Americans, and there was but a small force there of French militia. Two Americans were in charge: a Captain Helm and a Mr. Henry. On the fifteenth day of December, 1778, the English Governor of Detroit appeared before the town with a large body of rangers and demanded its surrender. The French militiamen immediately ran up a white flag.

Hamilton approached the fort, and as he neared it, was surprised to find himself confronted by a cannon, behind which stood Captain Helm with a lighted match in his hand.

“Halt!” cried Hamilton. “My foolish fellow, I demand your instant surrender!”

“I’ll never surrender,” answered Helm, “until you settle upon the terms with me.”

“You’ll be allowed to march out with all the honors of war,” said the British Governor. “And you will be held a prisoner until exchanged. The militia will be disarmed and paroled.”

“All right,” answered Captain Helm. “These terms suit me exactly.”

Imagine the feelings of the good, old Governor. Instead of seeing a great body of men debouch from the fort, preceded by a brilliant staff, out marched a few ragged militiamen headed by Captain Helm, with one solitary private. It is said that the noble soldier could not help laughing. At any rate, he felt so well over the affair that he did not attempt the reduction of Kaskaskia and Kahokia—as he should have done—but was content to send parties of his men on forays against the settlements along the Ohio River. News was soon brought to Clarke of the capture of Vincennes. The old war-dog was much disconcerted. Hamilton in possession of Vincennes! It was almost past belief, yet runners soon came to him from the frontier, who confirmed the ill tidings. What was he to do? He had only two hundred men. Hamilton had three or four times that number. It was the middle of winter and he was short of all manner of supplies. The entire country was flooded. He had a single flat-bottomed batteau. Should he wait to be attacked, or should he attempt the seemingly impossible and endeavor to re-take Vincennes? He answered the question by turning, one day, to his compatriots, and saying:

“Whether I stay here or march against Hamilton—if I don’t take him, he will take me. By Heaven, I’ll take him!”

And to this his men cried:

“Lead on! Where you go we will follow!”

Now was such a march as the world had seldom seen before. The brave and valiant Arnold, who took his rangers through the depths of the Maine forest to the attack on Quebec at the outbreak of the American Revolution, was such a one as this lion-hearted pioneer. Arnold lost a great many men: Clarke did not lose any; but the difficulties of the journey were severe. Through the cold of winter, the chilling rain, the mud and icy water,—the latter often three feet deep,—marched the Kentucky rangers. They reached a miserable country called “the drowned lands,” and for miles were waist-deep in the water. The way was full of crevasses and mud-holes into which some of the men sank up to their necks. Clarke was always in the front, sharing the hardships of his followers, and outdoing them in the contempt for peril and suffering. An occasional spot of dry ground—a few yards in extent—was a welcome sight to the half-drowned rangers. Still they pressed onward upon their mission.

“On, boys!” said George Rogers Clarke. “We will take this post or die in the attempt!”

Splashing forward, the scouts and rangers soon reached the two branches of the Wabash River. Ordinarily three miles of solid ground lay between the two streams. Now there was a continuous sheet of water before their eyes. The command stopped, amazed. They had come to an apparently unsurmountable obstacle. But there were no obstacles to George Rogers Clarke.

Striding to the front, and holding his rifle aloft in order to keep the priming dry, he dashed into the stream. The rest followed with songs and with cheers. But the chilling water soon made these cease, for it became an irksome task to breathe. They staggered with fatigue, but their leader never faltered, and there was not a man who would have deserted him. On the seventeenth day of February they reached the eastern shore of the Wabash and came to the lowlands of the Embarrass River. It was nine miles to their goal: the fortress of Vincennes. Every foot of the way was covered with deep water.

The situation seemed to be desperate. Clarke, however, was not the one to despair. Taking a canoe, he made soundings to see if some path might not be discovered through this inland sea. There seemed to be none—the water everywhere reached to his neck. The men were alarmed. Their faces looked blanched and pale. Was their march of untold hardships to end in death by cold and starvation?

A surprising thing now took place. Whispering to those nearest to him to follow his example, Clarke poured some powder into his hand, wet it with water and blackened his face as a sign that he would succeed, or die in the attempt. Then—uttering a loud whoop—he dashed into the water. The frontiersmen gazed wonderingly at him. Then they broke into song, rushed after him, and made for a ridge of high ground, which was followed until an island was reached. Here they camped, but next morning the ice had formed to the thickness of three-quarters of an inch. You can well imagine what were their prospects!

But Clarke was never daunted or dismayed. Making a speech to his half-starved and half-frozen command, he again plunged into the water.

“We must do or die!” said he. “On to Vincennes!”

With a rousing cheer his followers dashed in after him—pushed through the broken ice—and waded ahead. The water became more and more deep. Clarke feared, therefore, that the weaker members of the party would be drowned. Luckily he had a few canoeists with him, and these picked up the fainting ones and carried them to hillocks of dry land. The strongest were sent forward with instructions to pass the word back that the water was getting shallow, and they were told to cry “Land! Land!” when they got near the woods.

This cheered the drooping spirits of the faint-hearted. The water never did get shallow. Woodland was certainly ahead, but when the men reached it water was up to their shoulders and they had to hang to the trees, bushes and logs, until rescued by the canoes. Some gained the shore in safety, some were so exhausted when they reached a small island that they could not climb up the bank and lay half in and half out of the water. Luck was with them, for a canoe came down the river in which were some Indian squaws and their children. They were captured, and with them was some buffalo meat, tallow, corn, and cooking utensils. Oh, lucky find! The weak were now rejuvenated by a hearty meal.

They were upon an island of ten acres. It was truly an Eden for these half-drowned frontiersmen. A long rest soon strengthened the weakest, and by means of the Indian canoe, and a few batteaus which had been brought with them, they ferried over to Warrior’s Island, within two miles of Vincennes, and within plain view of it. Every man feasted his eyes upon the log fortress and forgot that he had suffered.

Let me here quote from Clarke himself. He says:

“Every man forgot his troubles. It was now that we had to display our abilities. The plain between us and the town was perfectly level. The sunken ground was covered with water full of ducks. We observed several men out on horseback, shooting them, and sent out many of our active, young Frenchmen to decoy and take one prisoner,—which they did.

“We learned that the British had that evening completed the wall of the fort, and that there were a good many Indians in town. Our situation was now truly critical. There was no possibility of retreat in case of defeat, and we were in full view of a town with six hundred men in it,—troops, Indians and inhabitants.

“We were now in the very situation that I had labored to get ourselves in. The idea of being taken prisoner was foreign to almost every man, as they expected nothing but torture. We knew that success could be secured only by the most daring conduct. I knew that a number of the inhabitants wished us well: that the Grand Chief—Tobacco’s son—had openly declared himself a friend of the Big Knives (Americans). I therefore wrote and sent the following Placard.


“Gentlemen:—Being now within two miles of your village with my army, determined to take the fort this night, and not being willing to surprise you, I take this method to request such as are true citizens to remain still in your houses. Those, if any there be, that are friends to the King, will instantly repair to the fort, join the ‘Hair buyer’ general, and fight like men. If any such do not go, and are found afterwards, they may depend on severe punishment. On the contrary, those who are true friends to liberty may depend on being well treated, and I once more request them to keep out of the streets. Every one I find in arms on my arrival, I shall treat as an enemy.

“G. R. Clarke.”

This was written by a pioneer general with two hundred half-starved, half-frozen, and undrilled troops. Behind the walls of the fort were twice this number of well-drilled, well-fed, well-clad men. We can but admire his audacity and impudence. But did he fulfil his promises to his people at home. And did he take Hamilton?

The frontiersmen were soon in motion and marched upon the town. A hill intervened, and when he reached it, Clarke deployed his men across it several times. When they would get over, Clarke would run them around the base to the rear of the knoll—where they would be out of sight of the people in the fort—and then would march them across again. In this way he made the inmates of the fortress of Vincennes believe that he had a much larger force than was really his. The borderers soon seized all the positions which commanded the fort and waited until dusk before beginning the assault. “I fear that they will know my numbers, if I attack during daylight,” said the Kentuckian, “and this I do not want them to know.”

As night began to draw near, the crashing of rifles awoke the echoes of the forest and the fort was hotly assailed from every point of vantage. The Kentuckians were able marksmen and soon silenced the cannon of the redoubt. No sooner would a porthole be thrown open than the gunners would be shot down as they stood. After an hour of such work the firing ceased, and the garrison was summoned to surrender.

Hamilton was dumbfounded at the audacity of the Kentuckians. He was also much disconcerted by the actions of one hundred of his redskin allies, who, seeing the boldness of the frontiersmen, immediately transferred their allegiance to them and were anxious to join in the assault upon the post. In spite of this he refused to surrender.

A far heavier rifle fire was now opened upon the fort, so that no defender could look out of a porthole or expose himself in any manner whatsoever, without being shot down. An assault was determined upon.

At this juncture a couple of figures emerged from the principal gateway of Vincennes, bearing a flag of truce. When the emissaries arrived before Clarke, they brought word that Hamilton proposed a three days’ truce and an immediate conference. Clarke did not wish the British to know his real numbers, so he declined the truce. But he assented to have a talk with the English commander, some distance from the fort, at a place where the Englishman’s eyes could not see the small numbers of the Kentuckians.

After a long interview nothing came of the pow-wow. Hamilton asked to march out with all the honors of war and to be allowed to depart to Detroit, after giving the assurance that neither he nor his men would ever again bear arms against the Americans. Clarke was afraid that the soldiers would not keep their word and demanded a greater amount of money and stores than the Britisher was willing to allow him.

“I have sufficient force to take the fort by storm at any time I choose,” said Clarke. “Furthermore, I propose to capture all the detached parties that are now in the woods and are headed for Vincennes. Having put them out of the way, I intend to take the fort at my leisure. I will thus—at one stroke—put an end to all of those people that have been harassing the American frontier. In case I take you by storm, I intend to shut my eyes and let my men do their own pleasure, for such is the treatment that has been accorded to our own people by the officers of the Crown.”

The conference broke up, and so terrified was a Major Hay, who represented the English commander, that he could scarcely make his way back to Vincennes. As he wobbled along, a party of redskins—led by a white man painted as an Indian—was seen to approach the town. The newcomers apparently had no knowledge that the Kentuckians were foes, for they walked up as if they were nearing their own people.

When they had approached within a few yards of the men under Clarke, they were fired upon and two were killed. Three others were badly wounded. The remainder—six in all—turned in flight, but were soon taken prisoners. They were tomahawked by the red allies of the Kentuckians; their bodies were thrown into the river; and wild war-whoops announced this fact to the red men in the fort. These became enraged and frightened when they discovered that Hamilton was unable to protect them.

Clarke only smiled, for he had hoped that they would bring on a mutiny within the walls of Vincennes, and it is exactly what occurred. Seeing that he was unable to hold the allegiance of his own red adherents, the once bold Hamilton decided upon capitulation. On February twenty-fourth a white flag was displayed over the log walls, and, after a short parley, a truce was decided upon. The Kentuckians secured fifty thousand dollars’ worth of military stores. Besides this they detached the Indians from the English and took away from the Britons the entire northeast territory, which would otherwise have been held by them when peace was concluded. Clarke, with his two hundred raw Kentucky riflemen, had won a notable victory.

Think of it! The long march, the terrible rivers of frozen ice, the lack of proper food, the toilsome journey through deep forests! Then the cheek and gall of that saucy message to Hamilton, safe in a strong fortress with twice the number of men as those half-frozen backwoodsmen outside! Then the daring attack, the wonderful accuracy of the rifle fire, and the final victory! Such men were heroes. Whether your sympathies be with Kentuckian or Britisher, you must admit it, and you must—I own—take off your hat to Clarke: the twenty-seven year old leader of this gallant band.

But what of the subsequent career of this wonderfully successful man? Alas! What we know of his thereafter does not abound to his credit. To the enthusiasm of youth he joined the daring ambition of the born soldier: never satisfied. Always anxious to move forward and on, he asked the Kentucky Assembly for men and agreed to capture Detroit; to destroy the English power for all time; and to prevent further combination of unfriendly tribes of red men. He was promised both soldiers and ammunition, but they never came. It is said that in disgust at his forced inaction he took to drink for relief from his worries. He became dissipated, morbid, and a recluse.

For some time he rested in inactivity near the Falls of the Ohio, and about the year 1780 built Fort Jefferson on the Mississippi. He then journeyed to Richmond, Virginia, in order to appeal in person for the necessary means for taking Detroit. His plans were thought well of and were approved. But the measure never passed the legislature. Before it could be put into effect he was appointed to command a body of troops who were to check the aggressive operations of Benedict Arnold. He was made a Brigadier-General and was authorized to collect a large force, which was to meet at Louisville (the Falls of the Ohio) and was to fall upon Detroit and destroy this strong citadel of British authority.

Misfortune seemed to follow upon his footsteps. The force was never collected and the projected campaign had to be abandoned. He and his men had several brushes with marauding bands of Ohio Indians, and in 1782 took part in the unfortunate battle of Blue Licks, in Kentucky. Rallying a detachment of one thousand men, Clarke invaded the Indian towns, but the savages fled from their villages and scattered, so that there was no one to fight when the borderers entered. Fortune had forsaken George Rogers Clarke, and, although in 1786 he led another expedition of one thousand men against the Indians on the Wabash River, it resulted in an absolute failure. His followers were mutinous. The campaign had to be abandoned. The hero who could inspire a march of two hundred miles through half-frozen forests had lost his former magnetism. He had begun to go down hill.

Dispirited, somewhat broken in health, and faint-hearted, the bold frontiersman sought the seclusion of his hut near the Ohio River. Here, he was offered and accepted a commission in the French armies west of the Mississippi, for this land was then under the lilies of France. An expedition was about to be made against the Spaniards upon the lower reaches of the river, but a revolution in France overturned the party in power and destroyed all the plans of those in America. Clarke was soon no longer Major General, and, forced to a life of inactivity, he returned to an isolated and lonely existence in his log hut. At forty years of age he was a prematurely old man, and in 1817 he died at Louisville, Kentucky: a town which was growing rapidly in size and which had been the scene of many of his early triumphs. Exposure and neglect of the proper laws of living had done their work.

George Rogers Clarke was a remarkable man. As a youngster he was brimful of enthusiasm, of vigor, of magnetism. He carried an expedition through to success in the face of fearful obstacles. Had he shown the white feather for an instant he would have met with ignominious failure. His courage, his cheerfulness, his optimism impelled him on to victory. Had he been able to govern his appetite for liquor he would have been a man of splendid usefulness in his later years. His collapse at the early age of forty [correction: Clarke was 65 when he died] is full witness to the deplorable effects of the inability of a strong man to curb his passions. One can but look upon his career with sadness and regret.


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