A Sword For George Rogers Clark

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The next day he stood above a symbolic fire, holding up two belts of wampum. “I carry in my right hand war”—a blood-red belt—“and peace in my left”—a belt of white. It was for the chiefs to choose. Then, still holding up the belts, he gave a compact history of America, drawing a parallel between the colonists and the native tribes. They don’t know well how to make blankets, powder, and cloth. They live chiefly by making corn, hunting and trade, as you and the French your neighbors do. But the “Big Knives” are daily growing more numerous, like the trees in the woods, so that the land got poor and hunting scarce … Then the men learned to make guns and powder so that they did not have to buy so much from the English. They [the English] got mad and put a strong garrison through all our country (as you see they have done among you, on the lakes, and among the French) and would not let our women spin, nor the men make powder, nor let us trade with anybody else, but said that we should buy all from them and since we had got saucy, they would make us give them two bucks for a blanket that we used to get for one and that we should do as they please, and killed some of us to make the rest fear. This is the truth and the cause of the war between us.

Scornfully he told how the English “got weak and hired you red people to fight for them.” His eyes moved over the tribesmen. “You can now judge who is in the right. Here is a bloody belt and a white one. Take which one you please.”

All night there was dancing round the tribal fires while the chiefs counseled together about the words of the Big Knife. Next day they formed a ring and lighted the fire. A feathered chief advanced, holding the white belt of peace. Another approached with a calumet of white pipcstone from the Minnesota quarries. A third brought fire to kindle the pipe. The calumet of peace went to Clark and his captains around the circle of sachems.

That night campfires winked far out on the prairie; the tribes were going home. It was October, Indian summer, and Clark rode back to Kaskaskia through the golden haze of the American Bottom.

Meanwhile word of the capture of the Illinois towns had reached General Hamilton in Detroit. He called warriors from the scattered camps and sent his British captains to dance with them around the war post. On October 7 he embarked a force of 175 British troops and 350 Indians for Vincennes. They paddled down the Detroit River and crossed the western end of Lake Erie in a curtain of snow. They ascended the Maumce, passed the site of present-day Toledo, and at the end of October, reached the nine-mile portage to the Wabash. With a hundred thousand pounds of stores and ammunition they staggered over the muddyportage. On the way they were joined by two hundred additional warriors. It was a strong frontier army that moved on to Vincennes.

 

In the Vincennes fort Captain Helm commanded some twenty French militiamen who had come over to the American side. As the British force approached he wheeled cannon into the gate, but there was no alternative to surrender. With Helm as his prisoner, Hamilton took over the fort and quartered his men in the town. As winter came his scouts brought word that Clark had but eighty soldiers in Kaskaskia. It would be easy to crush him, when the weather was right.

Meanwhile Major Bowman, in command at Cahokia, uncovered a British spy whose papers revealed that General Hamilton planned an offensive in Illinois. At this information, Clark stared across the winter prairie. Half his troops had gone back to Kentucky as their terms of enlistment expired. He had no money to pay the men who remained; he could feed them only through the generosity of Kaskaskia merchants who accepted his doubtful Virginia scrip and the faith of Father Gibault, who borrowed from the church tithes to supply the Americans. When Clark thought of Hamilton’s army approaching, the American cause seemed as desolate as the winter sky. He could not resist that army, but he did instruct the FrenchAmericans how to act if they were captured. Then he set out for Cahokia, to instruct the citizens there. His party, rocking over a frozen road in two-wheeled carts, stopped for the night at the half-way settlement of Prairie du Rocher. There the hospitable villagers entertained with a ball. Clark could not have felt like dancing, but he talked with French farmers around a smoking punch bowl. Then the door burst open, and a wind-bitten horseman brought a stunning message: General Hamilton was nearing Kaskaskia with eight hundred troops and warriors.

Clark ordered horses with a blanket roll behind each saddle. He might have thought of flight to Spanish ground across the Mississippi, but he was thinking only of Kaskaskia. While the men waited he coached them in a border stratagem; if they found the fort under attack they would blanket themselves like Indians and infiltrate the enemy. At the gate of the fort they would make themselves known to the defenders and join the battle.

While they galloped over the iron road Clark listened for sounds of battle. There was only the clatter of hoofs and the creak of saddle leather. When they reached Kaskaskia the town was sleeping. The timbered gate swung open; the fort was secure. Clark had got there ahead of the enemy.