He has been lauded by some historians as â€œthe man who won the West,â€� clearing the way for American diplomats to secure the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the United States in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. However, that was not totally true.
The early years
George Rogers Clark was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in November 1752, not far from the home of young Thomas Jefferson. He attended school with James Madison and John Taylor of Carolina, a cousin of Madison and a Jeffersonian Democrat. Eventually, Clark, Williamâ€™s brother, became a farmer and surveyor.
In 1772, Clark made his first surveying trip on behalf of the Ohio Company, into what would become Kentucky. He was one of thousands of settlers, including one Daniel Boone, that entered the area as a result of the 1786 Treaty of Fort Stanwix.
Natives living in the area, mostly the Shawnee and Ottawa tribes, had not been a part of that treaty. That document had ceded their Kentucky hunting grounds, resulting in violence that eventually culminated in Lord Dunmore's War along the Ohio River, not far from present-day Wheeling, West Virginia. Clark was on the periphery of that conflict.
1776 and beyond
During the War of Independence, Clark was on the western front, battling Indians as well as the British.
Clark was commissioned as a major by Virginia to defend the area as best he could with his ragtag, undersupplied group of volunteers. He managed to capture British vantage points along the Ohio at Kaskaskia and Cahokia in the Illinois country in 1778, and Vincennes (Indiana) on the Wabash River in 1779. He was unable, however, to capture the plum of the region, Detroit, owing to the lack of support and materiel.
Although the war was over in the East when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the war in the West continued. In 1782, Clark, now a brigadier general, led an expedition against the Shawnee to protect white settlements, and keep the British off guard in their defense of Detroit.
The high point of Clarkâ€™s western military campaigns came in the winter of 1779, when, in a daring 210-mile, 18-day march with 170 men, he retook Fort Sackville near Vincennes, from Henry Hamilton, Lieutenant Governor of Canada.
Clark ordered his men to display any and all American flags in their possession, creating the illusion that his troops numbered nearly a thousand. Hamilton handed over the fort after an American surprise attack, which caused a great deal of confusion in the British ranks.
After the war
The 1783 Treaty of Paris officially ended the War for Independence from Britain and ceded most of the territory west of the Appalachians and north of New Orleans to the United States.
Clarkâ€™s role in securing the victory, however, has been steadily discounted by historians as time has separated fact from fiction. Following the war, he resumed his surveying career, becoming the chief surveyor in the Northwest Territory. He also helped to govern the area for a time.
Clark kept his hand in Indian affairs and negotiated the Treaty of Fort McIntosh in 1785. However, thanks to heavy indebtedness from the war, he lived out his days in poverty. He subsisted in a small cabin on a large piece of property (in excess of 8,000 acres) where Clarksville, Indiana, now stands, across the Ohio from Louisville, Kentucky.
President Calvin Coolidge did his part in helping Clark to a bit of immortality. He authorized the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park on the site of old Fort Sackville, in 1928, the 150th anniversary of the historic surrender.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by George Rogers Clark.
Regarding History of Detroit, Michigan
Never was a person more mortified than I was at this time, to see so fair an opportunity to push a victory; Detroit lost for want of a few men.
Regarding Northwest Territory
I have given the United States half the territory they possess, and for them to suffer me to remain in poverty, in consequence of it, will not redound much to their honor hereafter.
Letter to his older brother in 1792