When opportunity knocks at the door, one should recognize it and take full advantage of it. Opening the door and embracing the opportunity presented can have monumental consequences not only for the individual but also for the group he or she represents. During the American Revolution, there was one American officer who used the war as an opening to greatly enlarge the western frontier. The officer was committed to liberty and desired to see the western lands freed from British rule. Many Americans considered his campaign to be a sideshow, but his actions had profound consequences for the United States. His name was George Rogers Clark. This is the story of his military campaign to liberate the Old Northwestern territory from British occupation.
As a young man, George Rogers Clark was always fascinated with the wild and unsettled western frontier. He was born near present-day Charlottesville, Virginia, not far from the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, who would be a friend to Clark all of his life. Growing into adulthood, he left home to explore the western wilderness of Kentucky, at the time a part of the Virginia colony. Warfare soon erupted between the frontier settlers and the Indians in “Lord Dunmore’s War,” named after Virginia’s royal governor. Clark served in the Virginia militia and aggressively fought against the Indians. After the fighting ended, he returned to Kentucky with plans to settle there, but news of Lexington and Concord altered his plans. He examined the military situation and became convinced that the war provided a chance to expand the western limits of the country.
An ardent patriot, George Rogers Clark was determined to lead the region in resisting the British. In June 1776, he was elected as Kentucky’s first representative to Virginia’s new state government. Arriving in the state capital of Williamsburg, Clark presented two petitions. One requested military supplies like gunpowder and another requested that Kentucky join the state as an independent county. Both petitions were approved. Clark returned to Kentucky and was commissioned an officer in the territory’s first organized militia regiment. In charge of the region’s defense, Clark retaliated against the Indians for attacks made against the settlers. He wanted to do more than just fight Indians though. He proposed to Virginia’s government that he organize and lead an expedition to invade the Ohio River country.
George Rogers Clark understood that the presence of the British along the northwestern border prevented the country’s future expansion. By launching a campaign to claim the territory, he could eliminate the threat of a British invasion from that direction and secure that new land for the United States. Virginia’s leaders agreed and appointed him an officer in the Virginia militia with the responsibility of overseeing the campaign. Returning to Kentucky, Lt. Colonel Clark gathered men and supplies for the expedition. On May 12, 1778, accompanied by less than two hundred men, he set off to capture the Illinois territory.
Travelling down the Ohio River, the expedition’s first objective was Kaskaskia, situated on the banks of the Mississippi River. Clark decided it would be too dangerous to approach the town by water, so he led his men overland. They arrived outside the town on the evening of July 4, 1778. In a surprise attack, Clark captured the town, its fort and the town’s governor. After securing the town, he sent a delegation of townspeople to nearby Cahokia and Vincennes. Like Kaskaskia, both towns swore allegiance to the Americans, which gave Clark complete control of the Illinois territory. Clark also negotiated with the local Indian tribes and with the Spanish governor of Spanish-controlled Saint Louis. In December 1778, however, he was apprised that the British had captured Vincennes. Clark immediately set out to reclaim the city.
In early 1779, Clark gathered his forces and marched on the British garrison. The British soldiers were commanded by Lt. Colonel Henry Hamilton, known as the “Hair-buyer” for his practice of paying Indians for the American scalps they collected. To Hamilton’s complete shock, Clark’s army made a daring winter march over freezing rivers and arrived outside the town by mid-February. Clark ordered his men to attack and liberate the town first before they advanced on the British fort. The Americans soon had the fort surrounded and commenced firing on it. As the battle raged, the Americans succeeded in capturing a number of Indians, who were outside the fort. Clark finally ordered the Americans to cease firing and sent a messenger to advise Hamilton to surrender. When Hamilton refused, Clark ordered his men to kill their captives in sight of the fort’s defenders. Horrified by Clark’s actions, Hamilton surrendered. He and twenty-six others would ultimately be imprisoned in Virginia. On February 25, 1779, Clark watched as the Stars and Stripes were raised over the British fort. Word of the triumph rushed back east, and George Rogers Clark was heralded as a national hero.
Vincennes had reverted to the Americans, but fighting still raged throughout the Ohio River valley. British soldiers and Indians continued to attack frontier settlements. Clark and his soldiers repelled these attacks, however. At the same time Clark, soon to be a brigadier general, built new forts and towns, including Louisville, Kentucky, to solidify American control. He even contemplated striking the British bastion of Detroit, but lack of resources and manpower prevented the assault. Failing to be discouraged, however, he monitored the frontier as British and American diplomats negotiated terms for peace. On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed by the United States and Great Britain. Among its provisions, the treaty specified that the United States would extend from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to the Mississippi River in the west and the Great Lakes in the north. The Old Northwest, as it was called, was finally part of the new United States of America.
With the American Revolution finally over, George Rogers Clark sought out new opportunities for himself. In December 1783, only three months after the war’s official end, he was asked to explore the territory beyond the Mississippi River. He refused the offer, choosing to remain in the Ohio River valley instead. Over the next few years, Clark engaged in efforts to further open up the western frontier. Some of his appeals though were not well received. Specifically, when he agreed to join the French in expelling the Spanish from territories west of the Mississippi River, some considered his actions as tantamount to treason, and his reputation was ruined. He spent his last years trying to restore his name and was finally vindicated when he was extolled by his native Virginia for his military services. His hard life resulted in many physical ailments in his last years, exacerbated by his prolific alcoholism. On February 13, 1818, at age sixty-five, George Rogers Clark died. By the time of his death, another Clark had overshadowed this celebrated hero. Younger brother William Clark, along with Meriwether Lewis, in 1804 had helped lead the famed Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean — an expedition to open the West initially offered to George Rogers Clark by President Thomas Jefferson.
George Rogers Clark was a man who could see beyond the present and was willing to seize an opportunity. Without his vision and his actions, it is quite possible that the United States of today would look very different. The western frontier of his day is the valued present day states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. He fought the British for control of those lands. He opened the area up to settlement by Americans. He helped contain the Indian threat posed to the settlers headed toward those distant lands. He stands as one of the key players in the exploding growth of the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Most modern Americans know the name Clark only in association with the famous expedition across the American West; however, absent the older brother’s foresight, the younger brother’s quest might never have happened. George Rogers Clark should be gratefully remembered today. He saw a grand opportunity to increase America’s fortunes, and he took it.