George Rogers Clark: Riches To Rags

Every war has its share of forgotten heroes. Every single person who served as a representative of the United States in any conflict is a hero, and some of those who are forgotten are those who were survivors and did heroic deeds of leadership and sacrifice, and yet time and generations fade those memories.

George Rogers Clark is one of those unfortunately forgotten warriors. He is most known these days as the father of explorer William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame), but there is more to him that has been revealed in recent years. He is actually one of the more important role players in the Revolutionary War, but was lost in a “wilderness” of the new country and thus perhaps didn’t get the due he deserved.

Clark was born in 1752 in what was known as Virginia, though he grew up and became a member of the militia in the area currently called Kentucky (not Nashville), and he wound up leading a small militia detachment in securing what was called “northwest territory” of the fledgling nation.

Clark became the highest ranking military officer in the “northwest territory,” which was basically the area known today as Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. He served with great valour, leading his ragtag band into his greatest accomplishment of capturing Fort Sackville from the British near Vincennes, Indiana, in the dead of winter 1779.

His work in the area contributed to that land being awarded to the United States upon the British surrender in the Treaty of Paris which was signed in 1783. Not only were the colonies free, but Clark’s military work and leadership gave the United States even more territory that would contribute to the further expansion and essentially took the British out of the United States as it’s known, leaving only French and Spanish territory.

Shortly after that, Clark was removed from his leadership position in the northwest militia because of accusations of being drunk on duty. He fought by demanding a formal investigation into the charges, but no inquiry ever came and he was forced to resign in disgrace. He returned to private life in Kentucky after the Revolutionary War ended, and he was part of a commission that allotted land parcels to those in his militia and fought for him in the 1778 and 1779 campaigns, settling the area across the Ohio River from Louisville.

This was something that Clark took seriously, as he and his man fought for the colonies with no pay, and ultimately they never got paid for their military work and sacrifice on behalf of the Revolutionaries.

After that, Clark was helpful in reaching treaties with regional tribes as part of a commission that negotiated peaceful living along the Wabash River. However, he eventually returned to military life when the treaties weren’t being honored, and he led a detachment in Kentucky on a retaliation march through several Indian villages to protect the settlers in the region.

However, several of the militia members questioned his authority and ended up pulling off a mutiny. He then had to abort the mission and he went back to Vincennes to protect the area with a garrison before heading back to Kentucky.

At this point, Clark fell into rags as a campaign was undertaken to destroy his reputation as a leader and as a military man, which did succeed to a certain extent. He wrote a memoir about his Fort Sackville campaign to buttress his image, but ultimately he fell into disgrace and wound up trying to regain his fortune by working with Spaniards to help settle areas in Louisiana and elsewhere. He then had several attempts to settle Americans in Spanish territory, but he was rebuffed each time by President George Washington, starting in 1793.

He was finally given his due for his service to Virginia with a sword and half-pay annually, but it was in 1812, 25 years after his service and three years after a debilitating stroke and amputation of a leg that left him as an invalid. He died of a stroke in February 1818 at the age of 65. But his legacy was the establishment of American territory outside the 13 original colonies, which helped lay the groundwork for Manifest Destiny.