Day 26, Friday, August 10, 2018
George Rogers Clark was born in 1752 in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was the second of ten children, the youngest of whom gained greater fame than he did; William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
George Rogers Clark went to live with his grandfather as a child, and received very little formal education, but he was trained as a surveyor. He left home for the frontier at age 19, surveying the wilderness and learning about the natural history and the lives and customs of the various Native American tribes. So why does he have a whole National Historical Park dedicated to him?
Well, Clark joined the Virginia militia at the age of 22, and set about making a name for himself. He presented a plan to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry to capture British forts and outposts north of the Ohio River, in an attempt to destroy the influence of the British among the tribes there. Without their alliances with the tribes the British would have less control over the frontier area, therefore giving the Americans a better chance at success. Henry went for the plan, and in the spring of 1778, Clark’s party of men set out to begin their secret mission.
Clark met with little resistance along the way, capturing Kaskaskia in present day Illinois in July 1778, Cahokia the next day, and Vincennes in August. Hamilton, the British Lieutenant Governor who commanded the British forces in the area, recaptured the garrison in Vincennes in December 1778 and renamed it Fort Sackville.
Clark didn’t like being bested, so he planned a daring overland march and assault on the fort to recapture it. The only problem was that in February of 1779, much of the winter ice had melted due to an unusual warm thaw, and flooding meant that the troops were not really marching, but wading through cold floodwaters up to their necks. Add to that that the floodwaters meant that their supplies were delayed, so this unpleasant march was done without much in the way of food and dry provisions. Crazy!
Clark and his men left Kaskaskia on February 6, 1779 and arrived at Fort Sackville in Vincennes on February 23, a trip of just under 200 miles. Their siege on Fort Sackville didn’t take long and the British surrendered on February 25, and they captured Hamilton! Clark was considered a hero for his daring feat of bravery, even more so because his exploits were without formally supported with supplies and funds from the regular Army.
Unfortunately for Clark, he had borrowed money on his own to finance the campaign, and ultimately, neither Virginia nor the federal government would reimburse him for his expenses. He received a large tract of frontier land in present-day Indiana, but had to give much of it to friends and family to protect it from creditors, and ultimately ended up penniless because what was seized by those same creditors wasn’t enough to pay off his debts.
A stroke in 1809 finally did him in; he fell into a fire in his cabin and the injuries to his leg required amputation. He survived the amputation, but was unable to live independently any longer. He moved in with his sister and her family near Louisville, Kentucky. The United States finally granted him a pension in 1812; he received $400 per year for his service. He suffered another stroke and died in 1818. He is buried at the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.
The George Rogers Clark Memorial Rotunda was built on what is believed to be the site of what was once Fort Sackville between 1931 and 1933; the interior features a more than life-size statue of Clark on an impressive pedestal, and seven murals depicting his campaign in the wilderness, his capture of Fort Sackville, and the history after the territory became part of the United States.
It is beautifully painted and very detailed. You can read more about the murals and the history here.
The Visitor’s Center is small, and contains a few artifacts from the time period. It also has a movie of the events. The real draw is the Memorial Rotunda and its murals. The Visitor’s Center is open until 5, but the memorial closes at 4:45pm, so be sure to factor that in. 145,596 people visited in 2011, so it isn’t a heavily traveled historical park, but it is interesting to see.
Just down the street is the St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, the first Catholic Cathedral in Indiana. It was built in 1826 and is the third Catholic church on the site; the previous two were log cabin, frontier style churches.
The cathedral was closed when I visited, but there is a cemetery with graves of early settlers and a grotto with the Virgin Mary. The Old Cathedral “French and Indian” Cemetery, active between 1750 and 1846, contains the graves of some 4,000 souls, including some of the men that Clark led during his assaults on the British forts, as well as other Revolutionary War soldiers and settlers. The graves are mostly unmarked, but a few of the remaining stones have been moved along a short walkway that leads to a large Crucifix. It is quite peaceful there.
This was a portion of our history that I knew nothing about, and although the National Park Service leaves out the parts about Clark’s later troubles, it is an informative look at his important military exploits. It was certainly worth the time!