- 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.
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.
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.”
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.
Before daybreak he set fire to houses adjoining the fort; he would leave no cover for attackers. Aroused citizens roamed the streets while soldiers crouched beside cannon at the portholes. Dawn broke over the silent, snowpatched prairie. Then Clark’s spies came in with word that ended the alarm. What had been mistaken for Hamilton’s army was merely a scouting force; it had lost its way and was now returning to Vincennes.
Day and night Clark kept sentries patrolling the approaches to Kaskaskia. Late in January they accosted a single horseman who wanted to see the American commander. The visitor was Colonel Francis Vigo, a rich merchant who traded throughout the Illinois country. He had come from Vincennes, and he gave Clark a report of the situation there. General Hamilton was making himself comfortable in the fort with a well-provisioned commissary and a strong garrison. He had sent Indian parties on raids to Kentucky, and some of his regulars had gone back to Detroit. In the spring he would gather his forces and march on Kaskaskia.
In the spring … Clark had a bold mind, made restless now by the false alarm of Hamilton’s attack. Hc looked at a map, studying the curve of the Wabash and the lowland approaches to Vincennes. At this moment, he wrote later, he would have bound himself to seven years’ imprisonment or slavery to have five hundred troops for a fortnight’s service. In fact, even with the Kaskaskia volunteers, he had barely 150 men. Still, he had won the Illinois town not by strength or logic but by audacity. A desperate situation, he thought, needs a desperate resolution. The season being so hostile, no enemy would suppose an attack could come over impassable country. Surprise can outweigh numbers. … That night he called in his captains and told them.
Clark’s resolve went through the town like a contagion. New French volunteers joined his depleted regiment. Citizens lugged bundles of food and clothing to the fort. With merchant Vigo’s backing, Clark bought a Mississippi flatboat and ordered his men to mount six cannon on its deck. The improvised gunboat, in charge of Captain John Rogers, the commander’s cousin, pushed off into the gray current of the Kaskaskia. It would go down the Mississippi, up the Ohio, and up the Wabash to hide in the thickets around Vincennes until the arrival of Clark’s regiment. Then it would bombard the fort while the troops attacked. The night before Rogers left, Clark had written a letter to Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia. “—I know that the case is desperate; but, Sir, we must either quit the country or attack. … Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted. Perhaps we may be fortunate.”
On the next day, February 5, 1779, the regiment drew into formation inside the stockade. When the drums were silent Father Gibault raised his hand in blessing. Clark’s men marched out of the gate in a thin, chill rain. The watching townspeople called farewell. In five minutes the little army was on the sodden prairie. It was a smaller force than Clark had counted on—some of his troops had been assigned to the gunboat. There were just 130 men facing an exhausting march and a superior enemy in a timbered fort.
A week out of Kaskaskia they reached the Little Wabash. That minor stream was now a mile-wide flood. Beyond it lay the drowned bottoms of the Embarrass River and then the swollen Wabash itself. They were sixty miles from Vincennes, and over all the desolation a cold rain was falling.
Their march seems incredible now. A third of the men were sick with chills and fever. All were wet, pinched, cold, and wretched. They had no sense of history to nerve them. Not even Clark with his dramatics dreamed that this campaign would be ranked with the great military feats, that his gaunt regiment would be immortal. They were merely miserable men slogging through mud and water, wading waist-deep rivers, building rafts to ferry their sick and their baggage, making cold camps in enemy country.
When they reached the Wabash, nine miles below Vincennes, their rations were exhausted. Here they were to meet the gunboat from Kaskaskia, but the swollen gray river, pitted with rain, was empty.∗ They made “Camp Hunger,” and in the gray daybreak they heard the boom of cannon—the morning gun from Fort Sackville at Vinccnncs. Chewing the bark of slippery elm to quiet their stomach pangs, the men chopped logs and laced them together with vines. Next day they ferried the Wabash and floundered toward Vinccnncs. Through mud and misery they struggled on, arms around each other’s shoulders. Late in the day the rain ceased, and thin sunlight slanted through bare trees. From a ridge they saw the houses of Vincennes, the timbered church, the heavy-walled fort with five souare blockhouses pierced with portholes.
∗ Rogers and his men had fallen into an Indian ambush and Rogers himself had been scalped. Clark later found the body.
They captured a stray duck-hunter, a Frenchman from the town. Clark opened his baggage, rubbed his stiffened fingers and wrote a letter: To the Inhabitants &c of Vinccnnes, Gen”: Being now within Two Miles of Your Village with my Army, … I take this step to Request of such of you as are true citizens and willing to Injoy the Liberty I bring you, to remain Still in your Houses, and those (If any there be) that arc friends to the King of England, will Instantly repair to the Fort andjoin his Troops and Fight like men. … Those that are True friends to Liberty may Expect to be well Treated as such. I onee more Request that they shall keep out of the streets, (or every person I find in arms on my arrival I shall treat him as an enemy. G. R. Clark
While the Frenchman returned to town with that message, Clark had his men chop twenty saplings and raise flags sewed by the women of Kaskaskia. With every seventh man a flagbearer, he started a zig-zag march that gave the appearance of twenty companies. In the winter dusk they entered the town. At the log church they broke lines and crept under the bastion towers of the fort; the British cannon swivcled but could not tilt. When Clark gave the order his men fired through gaping palisades.
All night the fighting flowed and ebbed and flowed again. Clark’s strategy was to spread confusion and bewilderment; he kept his men moving, firing from various quarters, whooping like savages. The French citizens came out with bread, meat, and cheese. With food in their stomachs Clark’s men yelled like demons. But coolly they continued pouring their rifle fire through the gun ports. One by one the British cannon were silenced.
Firing slackened at dawn, and Clark sent a message under a white flag to the bastion gate. It was addressed to General Hamilton. Sir: In order to save yourself from the Impending Storm that now Threatens you, I order you to Immediately surrender yourself, with all your Garrison, Stores, etc., etc., for if I am obliged to storm, you may depend upon such Treatment as is justly due to a Murderer beware of destroying Stores of any kind, or any papers or letters…in your possession, or hurting one house in the Town, for by heavens if you do there shall be no Mercy shewn you. G. R. Clark
When the messenger brought an answer Clark read it with narrowed eyes. Gov r Hamilton bogs leave to acquaint Col. Clark that he and his Garrison are not disposed to be awed into any action unworthy of British subjects. H. Hamilton
Clark gave the word, and firing was resumed. Crouching in ditches and under makeshift barricades, the men fired through gaping timbers. The sun broke through at noon, and a British messenger came out. A curt exchange led to a meeting in the log church: General Hamilton agreed to surrender at ten o’clock the next morning.
That day, February 25, was clear. At mid-morning a company of Clark’s mud-stained men drew up at the timbered gate. The British ranks marched out, and Clark’s gaunt regiment moved in. They fired the cannon thirteen times, for the thirteen colonies that had become the American nation which now was master of the entire Ohio Valley.
Colonel George Rogers Clark, twenty-five years old, was at the peak of his career.
Three years after the capture of Vincennes the West was quiet, and the Revolution was over. When Clark returned to Kentucky from a campaign against the Ohio tribes, peace talks had begun in Paris. To Kentucky came an official commission, sent from Richmond to settle Clark’s accounts. Clark had received no pay for five years; neither had the men in his command. The commissioners had a bewildering task, checking piecemeal ledgers and sorting chits and promises signed by one officer or another. They worked through this maze of papers and made their report. But nothing was paid: Virginia passed the debt to the federal government, where it rested. In the end Clark got a grant of land, which was promptly claimed by his creditors—holders of vouchers he had signed for military stores. The claimants held Clark responsible, and the law sustained them. There went his land.
The commission had officially approved Clark’s own claim for five years’ pay and for reimbursement of funds advanced to buy flour for his troops—a total claim of about $15,000. But the state of Virginia declined to make payment without the required vouchers. Clark had delivered his papers to the commission, which sent them on to Richmond. There they were lost.∗
∗ They stayed lost for 130 years. In 1913 a pile of documents was found in an attic of the Virginia statehouse. They were the Clark papers thousands of them. Some were official sheets and ledgers; more wenjottings on scraps of paper, even on sandpaper and old playing cards. The past smoulders like an old campfire in those makeshift records: “for four pair handcuffs… for a colt lost when his mare was in public service… ½ gal. rum for a fatigue party landing boats… 6 days board for an Indian interpreter … for rum at a treaty … for shirts and shoes for Indians … 2 lbs. of nails … tallow for candles … flags for Indians … for subsistence for wounded soldiers.” Now they are historic treasures, protected from dust, damp, and daylight in the Virginia State Library.
For thirty years Clark had no home of his own, though he conquered territory that gave homes to multitudes. At last, in the autumn of his life, he built a log house on the north side of the Falls of the Ohio. So he became a citizen of the Northwest Territory which he had won for his country.
The house stood on a hill looking down at Corn Island, where the commander had drilled his little army for the great campaign. In his first season there a white pirogue steered in to Clark’s landing, and two young men climbed the hill. They were William Clark, his youngest brother, and Meriwcther Lewis, on their way to St. Louis to recruit men for an exploration to the Pacific. Three years and one month later, in November, 1806, they climbed the hill again, browned and hardened, back from their discovery. They talked of the great plains and the shining mountains, while Clark stared into the fire. He had crossed one wilderness; his tall young brother had completed the journey that led from Virginia to Oregon.
On a winter day six years later a messenger from Virginia brought word of an annual pension of $400 in appreciation of Clark’s services. Then across the arms of Clark’s roll chair he laid a sword of honor. Its blade was engraved: “Presented by the State of Virginia to her beloved son, General George Rogers Clark, who by the conquest of Illinois and St. Vincennes extended her empire and aided in the defense of her liberties.” This was in 1812, and Clark was half paralyzed. His sword hand was dead.
He died in 1818, the year Illinois became a state, still paralyzed and sunk in poverty. But one of his land claims remained—a large tract at the junction of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers; it still belonged to the Indians and could not be seized by Clark’s creditors. When the westernmost part of Kentucky came into U.S. possession, the Clark claim proved valid. The old commander was dead, but on that land William Clark founded the town of Paducah.
From this hill above the river George Rogers Clark had watched the great migration. He saw the future taking possession of the valley. But he could not have pictured a construction of the 1950’s. On a vanished cancbrake in his Paducah land rose a plant more massive than a fortress and more intricate than a battleship. Today its gaseous diffusion process, monitored by thousands of instruments, produces enriched uranium for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.