- 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
That evening Clark sent a troop of men, mounted on French ponies, over the old Fort Chartres Road to Cahokia, sixty miles to the north. Some young citizens of Kaskaskia galloped with them into the sunset. All night they traveled under the summer stars. At dawn the villagers of Cahokia heard a clatter of hooves and looked out at a line of dusty horsemen. The Kaskaskians explained the invasion and urged their neighbors to join the American future. Cahokia, like Kaskaskia, was won without a bullet.
With the American Bottom —the bottom lands at the confluence of the Kaskaskia and the Mississippi—in his control, Clark turned his thoughts across the prairie to Vinccnnes on the Wabash. From that base the British had armed scores of Indian war parties for raids on the Kentucky settlements. The Illinois country would not be won until he had control of Post Vincennes.
The day after the capture of Kaskaskia Clark sent three scouts, Kenton, Shadrach Bond, and Elisha Batty, to explore the military strength of Vincennes. The three men traveled warily over two hundred miles of prairie. Near Vinccnnes they hid in a thicket, waiting for darkness. By starlight they crept over the wide grazing common, leaving their rifles and their wide-brimmed Kentucky hats in the rank grass. Wrapped in blankets they strode like Indians through the town. They saw a peaceful place, with no British garrison and no alarm of American invasion north of the Ohio. One visit was probably enough, but spying was an exhilarating mission. The scouts hid outside of town and came back a second night, and a third. Then they turned back to Kaskaskia with their reassuring intelligence.
There, waiting for the spies’ report, Clark was employing a strategy based on psychology. He let the citizens know that he was thinking of ordering an army from Kentucky to attack Vincennes. That town was in Father Gibault’s parish, and the priest came to Clark with the suggestion that force would not be required. He knew that the British governor was absent, on business in Detroit. He felt that the citizens of Vincenncs could be won over to the American side peaceably. He offered to go there to explain the American cause.
The priest set out with a small party of horsemen, including Dr. Jean Laffont, a native of the French West Indies who carried on his medical practice over the huge country of Father Gibault’s ministry. Like the priest, the physician had the confidence of the French people. Clark could be assured that it was a persuasive delegation that loped over the prairie.
In two weeks they were back, with good news. The habitants of Vincennes were ready to pledge allegiance to America; even the Indian chiefs on the Wabash wanted to smoke the calumet with the Big Knife commander. Clark promptly sent Captain Leonard Helm to treat with the Indians and command the fort at Vincenncs. As the summer ended and the prairies withered to autumn, Clark was in control of all the Illinois country.
But the Indians were an uncertain quantity; they feared the advance of the Americans, and they had British encouragement and support. With his single regiment Clark could not fight a dozen tribes, though perhaps he could lure them away from the British. He knew the Indian curiosity and love of council, and he waited for the chiefs to approach him. The overture came at the end of summer; an Indian messenger rode into Kaskaskia telling of a gathering of tribesmen at Cahokia. They wanted to see the chief of the Big Knives and to receive American presents. Clark was ready.
When he reached Cahokia, an impressive sight greeted him. For miles around, the town was encircled by Indian camps. Here were warriors of many nations—Chippewas from the northern forests, blanketed Ottawas from the shores of Lake Huron, Sauk and Foxes from Wisconsin, Miami and Wryandots from beyond the Wabash, and all the prairie tribes of the Illinois people. At night the horizon was ringed with campfires.
Now the young commander drew upon all he knew of Indian diplomacy. He listened to the speeches and smoked the feathered pipes. For three days he waited, silent; during that time a party of Puan warriors tried to take his life but were driven off at midnight by Clark’s sentries. When their chiefs came to make amends, the Colonel stood at full height outside the doorway of his cottage. “I am a man and a warrior,” he said. “I do not care who are my friends or foes.” In a later time Clark recalled with wry satisfaction that he “gave Harsh language to supply the want of Men.”