- Historic Sites
A Sword For George Rogers Clark
Far from the war’s main currents, a resourceful Virginian set off down the swift Ohio to win its strategic valley for the cause ofindependence
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
In pioneer Kentucky the year 1777 was a desperate time. Across the Ohio, tribal drums were throbbing. From Detroit and from the nearer posts of Kaskaskia and Vincennes the British were arming raiding parties. The paymaster at Detroit was ready to pay for American hair. Just before this “year of the bloody sevens” began, the first scalps were taken at McClelland’s Station, a huddle of cabins beside the Royal Spring on Elkhorn Creek. It lay near the Ohio and was most vulnerable. When John McClelland died of a Mingo bullet the settlers crept out of their stockade and hurried through the woods to Harrodstown.
With McClelland’s abandoned there were just three stations left—Harrodstown, Boonesborough, and Logan’s Station. Harrodstown was the oldest built in 1775—and it had the largest enclosure and the heaviest log palisade. It was the county seat (Kentucky being a county of Virginia) and the military capital. One of its jutting blockhouses was the frontier Pentagon.
Here George Rogers Clark, aged twenty-four, commanded the defenses. His arsenal was a dozen kegs of powder and some bullet molds. He had a lew score woodsmen and hunters, and he had his own boldness.
Clark was a single and a single-minded man. His comrades in Lord Dunmore’s War had married, but Clark would never have a wife. He was all for action. He had lived alone in a lean-to on the upper Ohio. He had explored wild land and located future town-sites. Xow he was the defender of the western country.
On a spring day in 1777 he called lour woodsmen in—Samuel Moore, Ben Linn, Si Harland, and Simon Kenton. Clark wanted information about the British posts at Kaskaskia and Vincennes. It was agreed that two spies would be less suspect than (bur. They drew lots. That night Linn and Moore slipped out of the fort and headed for enemy country.
Two months later they were back, with a gratifying report: there were no British troops in Kaskaskia; the fort was loosely held; the French inhabitants could be won over easily. That fall Clark traveled to Virginia. In Williamsburg he asked for authority, men, and arms to attack the British posts north of the Ohio. After long debate he was commissioned lieutenant colonel, cmpowered to recruit 350 men, and allowed $6,000 for ammunition and supplies.
At Redstone on the Monongahela he embarked 150 men in five flatboats, loaded some tons of rotting buffalo meat, and headed west. It was fine weather, mid-May, 1778, with a steady river current. On Corn Island, near the future site of Louisville, he organized his companies and told them of their destination. Some uneasy men deserted, but a file of Kentuckians arrived from Harrodstown. He had about 175 men, but among them were his old comrades Simon Kenton, Joseph Bowman, and Leonard Helm. At daybreak on June 24 they pushed offfor Illinois.
The river ran swift and loud below Corn Island. While Clark’s four boats were swirling through the “Falls,” the day grew dim. Men stared up at a hazy half-disk in the sky. The half-coin shrank to a crescent and a star came out. In a ghostly gloaming the boats swept into deep water. Then the roar of rapids faded and the sun grew bright.
Clark knew enough astronomy to understand that they had witnessed a solar eclipse, but he said nothing to his wondering men. Let it be a solemn moment. They were four small companies invading a vast country. Let them wonder at an omen in the sky.
The site of old Kaskaskia now lies under the wide slow waters of the shifting Mississippi, but in 1778 that French town was the chief settlement in Illinois. French missionaries had established a college there, French traders had built warehouses on the river, French troops had raised stone blockhouses above their timbered fort. Kaskaskia remained French after the British took control in 1765. The habitants kept on in the same way, working their ribbon fields, grazing their cattle on the prairie commons, peacefully coexisting with the Indians. The savages went regularly to the mission chapel, crossing themselves at mass, chanting alternately with the villagers at vespers—a couplet of a psalm in Latin followed by the gutteral couplet in Piankeshaw. Periodically they daubed themselves with paint and whooped offfor Kentucky.
On that June day in 1778 when the solar eclipse darkened the morning sun, old men in the startled Indian camp thumped ceremonial drums and raised a wailing chant to Mishemenctoc. Then the shadow passed from the prairie, and the sun blazed down. Good Father Pierre Gibault quieted the fears of French and Indians—it was a natural thing and no disaster. A week later, however, as suddenly and silently as the eclipse, the Revolution came to drowsing Kaskaskia.
The British government in that remote place was represented by a Frenchman, Philippe François de Rastel, Sieur de Rocheblave, who had chosen to stay in the West after the French surrender in 1763. He had served in the French Army, helping to defeat Braddock’s expedition in Pennsylvania, and had commanded a French post, Fort Massac, on the Ohio. But now he had taken a British command, under appointment of the English king. His small pay was in arrears, and the stingy British government in Canada had disregarded his request for military goods. He had asked to be relieved of his command, but no successor came.