- 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
On July 4, 1778, Rocheblave crossed the Mississippi to dine with the Spanish commander at New Madrid. Hc returned to Kaskaskia that evening, passing through the warm village streets—fiddle music and the sounds of dancing came from an open door—and into his quarters in the riverside stockade. He wrote a letter to Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton in Canada before he and Madame de Rocheblave retired.
A few hours later, awakened from sound sleep, he stared at two half-savage figures, a flickering lantern throwing their huge shadows on the wall. George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton took the commander downstairs in his night dress and informed him that his town was now under the control of Virginia. Outside, one of Clark’s captains gave the signal and an uproar began. Through the streets roamed i 75 invaders, whooping, roaring, shouting. When lights showed in the windows, Clark’s sentries proclaimed the capture of Kaskaskia and warned the citizens to stay within doors until daybreak. Kaskaskia had fallen to the Americans without a gunshot.
For two days, while marching overland from the Ohio River, Clark’s men had subsisted on wild berries. That morning, in fear and curiosity, the French housewives provided pork, mush, hominy, beans, potatoes, and the soldiers feasted. Clark then marched his force to the edge of town and posted them there. Back in the village Clark and his captains walked through streets as silent as a ghost town, with the banner of Virginia floating over the fort and the frightened habitants peering from their windows. Clark intended no violence to these people, but he was in hostile country and greatly outnumbered. He must keep the villagers frightened and guessing. Evicting a family in the center of town, he made their cottage his headquarters.
As the fearful citizens stepped into the streets they saw their settlement encircled by men with long rifles on their shoulders and hunting blades in their belts; Mitchi Malsa—Big Knives—the Indians called them. It was a forbidding name. (With the Indian vocabulary printed in his Travels , the eighteenth-century French writer Constantin Volney noted that most words implying beauty and goodness began with p , and most m words were fearsome.) The Kaskaskians knew that British-armed Indians had harried the Kentucky settlements. Was this a retaliation?
To Father Gibault the villagers looked for guidance. Hc had told of the uprising of the colonies and their war with the British. Now, leading a committee of six nervous citizens, the priest went to the door of Clark’s headquarters. So began Pierre Gibault’s familiar role in frontier history.
Inside the room Clark and his captains sat around a bare table. In the warm summer morning they had stripped off their buckskin shirts. Dirty, sweating, scratched by brambles in the river thickets, they looked up at the priest and his delegation. When Father Gibault asked for the commander, a powerful, half-naked man with sandy red hair and a stubble of smoke-stained beard offered a chair. Facing the red-haired colonel, Father Gibault made his request: the citizens of Kaskaskia, British subjects as they were, expected to be separated and carried off as captives, perhaps never to meet again. Might they, before their exile, gather in the church to seek God’s blessing?
Clark answered brusquely. They could go to their church if they wanted. He had no objection. But no person was to leave the town. With no other word he dismissed them.
In the chapel the whole village gathered, while certain older citizens recalled how the Acadian French had been driven from their homes in Nova Scotia. The priest tried to quiet these fears; he offered God’s blessing, but he could not predict the will of the Big Knives. After an hour they emerged into the silent, sunlit streets. Father Gibault went again to the commander. He found a more civil-looking man; Clark was freshly bathed and in a clean hunting shirt. This time the priest expressed a hope that the French families might not be broken up and that the women and children could be allowed to take with them some clothing and provisions. The citizens, he added, knew little about the American Revolution, and they had never felt like British partisans.
Clark was trying a strategy, and this was the moment he had waited for. After filling the town with fear he could fill it with rejoicing, and so win the gratitude of the French citizens. His manner changed. His mission, he said, was not to cause suffering but to end it. He had come to Illinois not to plunder but to prevent violence. The citizens could remain in their village, in peace and harmony, without fear of danger. Then he added that France had come to the aid of the American colonies; at this moment French ships were bringing men and materials to support the Revolution.
As his words went through the town, joy replaced desolation. Men laughed in the streets, and women carried fresh food to the Virginia troops. When Clark proposed that they take an oath of allegiance, the citizens cheered and sang. In the chapel Father Gibault gave thanks for deliverance and mercy. After less than a day of captivity these British subjects were American citizens. A new future had come to Kaskaskia, which in time would become the capital of the state of Illinois.