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George Rogers Clark and the Falls of the Ohio

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General George Rogers Clark, the second son of John and Ann Rogers Clark, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia on November 19, 1752 near the home of Thomas Jefferson, with whom he sustained a lifelong friendship and mutual interests in Native American tribes, archaeology, science, and the flora and fauna of America.

The Clark family, middle class planters, later moved to Caroline County to a farm they had inherited from John Clark’s uncle. They raised ten children there:  Jonathan Clark, born 1750; George Rogers; Ann, born 1755; John, born 1757; Richard, born 1760; Edmund, born 1762; Lucy, born 1765; Elizabeth, born 1768; William, born 1770; and Frances, born 1773. 

Five Clark sons were officers in the Revolutionary War and all would eventually move to Kentucky.  Two of the brothers, George Rogers and William, became famous for their exploits on behalf of the United States in acquiring and exploring the western two thirds of the country.  Two of the brothers, John and Richard, died in the war.

George Rogers Clark attended his Uncle Donald Robertson’s school in Virginia with classmates James Madison and John Taylor. At age nineteen, he became a surveyor, taught by his grandfather Rogers, and left home to explore and survey  frontier Kentucky, where he was employed by The Ohio Company in 1772.  In Lord Dunmore’s War, he served as a Captain of the Virginia militia.  Clark was a natural-born leader.  He was over six feet two inches tall with a fine physique, red hair, and the temper to go with it.  His parents, particularly his mother, Ann, brought him up to be an honorable man and one incident, recalled by Clark, was that he once traded some thing of lesser value to another boy for a pocket knife.  Victorious, George came home to dinner, bragging about the trade.  Ann Clark told her son he would get no dinner until he returned the knife, which he did.  George also recalled that he was a teenager that last time his mother thrashed him.

As pre-war hostilities increased between the settlers of Kentucky and the British and Indians, Clark realized that the British plan of attack was to be carried out in Kentucky, the back door to the thirteen original colonies, and that the American forces would be sandwiched between the British Regulars on the east coast and the Indians at their backs. As the Kentucky settlements were not formally a part of Virginia at the time, Clark realized that they would not be adequately protected unless Virginia formalized its claim to Kentucky.  As he put it to the House of Burgesses, “A country that is not worth protecting is not worth claiming.”  At that point, Kentucky became an official county of Virginia. Clark went to Patrick Henry, his father’s lawyer and the Governor of Virginia, with a daring plan to capture the British-held forts at Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and Vincennes and cut the line of supply coming from British-held Detroit.   Governor Henry approved and made Clark a Lieutenant Colonel of the Virginia Militia, empowering him to recruit soldiers and to build forts along the Ohio River for the protection of the settlements in Kentucky.  Clark’s secret plans were to attack the British posts north of the Ohio.

Recruiting men was a more difficult task than Clark expected.  He was only able to enlist about 200 men into the Illinois Regiment who came down the Ohio with him and built a fort on Corn Island at the head of the Rapids of the Ohio near the Kentucky shore.  Clark chose the island to keep men from deserting.  That was the founding of Louisville, Kentucky in 1778.  From that fort, Clark launched his bold raid into British country, with about 175 men in February, the dead of winter.  It speaks to Clark’s ability as a leader and his mastery of psychology that his small army, nearly two weeks without food or fire, wading in ice water up to their necks, were able to bluff the enemy into surrendering all three forts – two of them without firing a shot!  Henry Hamilton, known as “The Hair Buyer” because he bought the scalps of settlers from the Indians, surrendered the fort at Vincennes.  He was arrested, marched back to Virginia and imprisoned.  Even he said, “The difficulties and dangers of Col. Clark’s march from Illinois were such as required great courage to encounter, and great perseverance to overcome.”

In 1781, Clark was commissioned a Brigadier-General by Thomas Jefferson in recognition of his accomplishment.  Had it not been for General Clark and his men, the Northwest Territory might have remained in British hands.  Clark’s victories doubled the size of the United States, but his goal was to take Detroit.  It was a goal he would never realize. Clark was in financial trouble because he was forced to sign promissory notes to get supplies for his army.  Inflation rates as high as 50,000% ran up costs and, when he submitted his receipts, the government of Virginia didn’t believe the amount Clark spent was true.  Then they claimed they had lost his receipts and so couldn’t verify what he told them he had spent. General James Wilkinson and others sabotaged Clark’s military career by gossip and falsehood, claiming Clark was a drunk and unfit to command and that he inflated the actual costs of his supplies and kept the money for himself.

General Clark was stung by the accusations and resigned from the military.  He was replaced as Indian Agent in the west by Wilkinson and his cronies (their goal all along).  Angry and deeply hurt, he retired to his parents’ Mulberry Hill estate in Louisville.  He spent his time out of the public eye, hunting, fishing, and fowling. Destined to live his remaining life in poverty, in his self-imposed isolation he began to drink heavily.   In 1783, he was asked by Thomas Jefferson how he might like to lead an expedition to the west, long a desire in Jefferson’s mind.  Clark replied that he had no money to undertake such a thing and that his health was not good.  The nerves in Clark’s legs had been severely damaged by his trek through ice water to capture Vincennes and he walked with a cane thereafter.

Clark’s interest turned to the north shore of the Ohio to the 150,000 acres given to him in 1779 by the Piankeshaw.  The general was forced by Virginia law to cede this land and Virginia, strapped for cash to pay the Illinois Regiment for their service, created the Illinois Grant/Clark’s Grant, to pay her soldiers.  George Rogers Clark was appointed to oversee the distribution of land to his men according to their rank. Clark got about 8,000 acres, most of which was sold to pay his debt which amounted to about $30,000.

Desperate to make money, he built a mill in 1785 at Clarksville, Indiana Territory, a town laid out by and named for himself.  But the town didn’t prosper.  In 1790, Clark invented a self-propelled oar boat which he sought to patent.  A patent would guarantee him the rights to shipping on the river and earn him money to pay on the debt but, someone else patented a boat and they got the rights.

Ever interested in natural history, Clark made archaeological excavations at Clarksville.  He became an expert on the wooly mammoth, sending many of their bones to Thomas Jefferson.  His interest in Native Americans continued.  No matter where Clark lived, there was always an encampment of Indians nearby.  Tribes would bring their young braves to meet the great Long Knife, as they called him.  Clark greatly enjoyed these visits which inevitably became drinking and bragging contests.  Buckongahelas, the Delaware war chief, was particularly fond of General Clark and they enjoyed insulting each other.

In 1802, Clark wrote to President Jefferson requesting that Jefferson consider his brother, William, living at Clarksville, for any service to the country for which he might be needed.  Jefferson was already planning his expedition to the westward and educating his young secretary, Merriwether Lewis, for this task.  Lewis knew William Clark, having served under him at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1792 with Gen. “Mad”Anthony Wayne.  In the summer of 1803, William Clark received a letter from Lewis, asking him to join what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition. When Captain Lewis arrived at Clarksville in October of 1803, the men Clark had already recruited were sworn into the army and they set off on the greatest exploration in American history.

In 1805, it was revealed that General James Wilkinson, Clark’s old foe, was part of the Aaron Burr Conspiracy. That revelation came too late to help General Clark, embittered, sick and frail; now living in a small log house at Clark’s Point on the bluff overlooking the river, he was alone except for Kitt and Daphne, Old Henry, and Ben and Venus McGee, his servants. Clark whiled away his time riding a favorite horse, hunting and fishing, and reading from his library.  According to his nieces, the general mourned his lost love when he was drinking, telling them they might have had a very elegant aunt, had his life turned out differently.  No name has come down to us, although there are references to her in correspondence from the general’s friends.

One December day in 1809, Clark was by the fireplace when he had a stroke and fell with his right knee near the fire.  It was badly burned, became infected, and was amputated the following March at his sister Frances’ home in Louisville.  His family determined that Clark would quit Indiana and he spent the last nine years of his life at his sister Lucy Croghan’s home, Locust Grove, near Louisville. He died suddenly on February 13, 1818.

He was buried at Locust Grove until the 1860’s when he was re-interred in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.  Judge John Rowan said of him: “The mighty oak of the forest is fallen, and the scrub oaks will now sprout all around.”

In 1913, at Richmond, Virginia, someone found in a storeroom seventy bundles wrapped in crumbling paper.  When they were opened, they were found to be the receipts of General George Rogers Clark, the hero of the old Northwest.

Cabin and Home Site Photo Gallery

Re-enactors at the George Rogers Clark Cabin Site
Re-enactors at the George Rogers Clark Cabin Site


Updated April 24, 2012