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The Hero Of Vincennes






Early in 1775 Daniel Boone, the famous hunter and Indian fighter,
with thirty other backwoodsmen, set out from the Holston settlements
to clear the first trail, or bridle path, to what is now Kentucky. In
the spring of the same year, George Rogers Clark, although a young
fellow of only twenty-three years, tramped through the wilderness
alone. When he reached the frontier settlements, he at once became
the leader of the little band of pioneers.

One evening in the autumn of 1775, Clark and his companions were
sitting round their camp fire in the wilderness. They had just drawn
the lines for a fort, and were busy talking about it, when a
messenger came with tidings of the bloodshed at Lexington, in
far-away Massachusetts. With wild cheers these hunters listened to
the story of the minutemen, and, in honor of the event, named their
log fort "Lexington."



{2} At the close of this eventful year, three hundred resolute men
had gained a foothold in Kentucky. In the trackless wilderness,
hemmed in by savage foes, these pioneers with their wives and their
children began their struggle for a home. In one short year, this
handful of men along the western border were drawn into the midst of
the war of the Revolution. From now on, the East and the West had
each its own work to do. While Washington and his "ragged
Continentals" fought for our independence, "the rear guard of the
Revolution," as the frontiersmen were called, were not less busy.

Under their brave leaders, Boone, Clark, and Harrod, in half a dozen
little blockhouses and settlements, they were laying the foundations
of a great commonwealth, while between them and the nearest eastern
settlements were two hundred miles of wilderness. The struggle became
so desperate in the fall of 1776 that Clark tramped back to Virginia,
to ask the governor for help and to trade for powder.

Virginia was at this time straining every nerve to do her part in the
fight against Great Britain, and could not spare men to defend her
distant county of Kentucky; {3} but, won by Clark's earnest appeal,
the governor lent him, on his own personal security, five hundred
pounds of powder. After many thrilling adventures and sharp fighting
with the Indians, Clark got the powder down the Ohio River, and
distributed it among the settlers. The war with their savage foes was
now carried on with greater vigor than ever.

Now we must remember that the vast region north of the Ohio was at
this time a part of Canada. In this wilderness of forests and
prairies lived many tribes of warlike Indians. Here and there were
clusters of French Creole villages, and forts occupied by British
soldiers; for with the conquest of Canada these French settlements
had passed to the English crown. When the war of the American
Revolution broke out, the British government tried to unite all the
tribes of Indians against its rebellious subjects in America. In this
way the people were to be kept from going west to settle.



{4} Colonel Henry Hamilton was the lieutenant governor of Canada,
with headquarters at Detroit. It was his task to let loose the
redskins that they might burn the cabins of the settlers on the
border, and kill their women and children, or carry them into
captivity. The British commander supplied the savages with rum,
rifles, and powder; and he paid gold for the scalps which they
brought him. The pioneers named Hamilton the "hair buyer."

For the next two years Kentucky well deserved the name of "the dark
and bloody ground." It was one long, dismal story of desperate
fighting, in which heroic women, with tender hearts but iron muscles,
fought side by side with their husbands and their lovers.

Meanwhile, Clark was busy planning deeds never dreamed of by those
round him. He saw that the Kentucky settlers were losing ground, and
were doing little harm to their enemies. The French villages, guarded
by British forts, were the headquarters for stirring up, arming, and
guiding the savages. It seemed to Clark that the way to defend
Kentucky was to carry the war across the Ohio, and to take these
outposts from the British. He made up his mind that the whole region
could be won for the United States by a bold and sudden march.

In 1777, he sent two hunters as spies through the Illinois country.
They brought back word that the French took little interest in the
war between England {5} and her colonies; that they did not care for
the British, and were much afraid of the pioneers. Clark was a keen
and far-sighted soldier. He knew that it took all the wisdom and
courage of his fellow settlers to defend their own homes. He must
bring the main part of his force from Virginia.

Two weeks before Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga, he tramped through
the woods for the third time, to lay his cause before Patrick Henry,
who was then governor of Virginia. Henry was a fiery patriot, and he
was deeply moved by the faith and the eloquence of the gallant young
soldier.

Virginia was at this time nearly worn out by the struggle against
King George. A few of the leading patriots, such as Jefferson and
Madison, listened favorably to Clark's plan of conquest, and helped
him as much as they could. At last the governor made Clark a colonel,
and gave him power to raise three hundred and fifty men from the
frontier counties west of the Blue Ridge. He also gave orders on the
state officers at Fort Pitt for boats, supplies, and powder. All this
did not mean much except to show good will and to give the legal
right to relieve Kentucky. {6} Everything now depended on Clark's own
energy and influence.



During the winter he succeeded in raising one hundred and fifty
riflemen. In the spring he took his little army, and, with a few
settlers and their families, drifted down the Ohio in flatboats to
the place where stands to-day the city of Louisville.

The young leader now weeded out of his army all who seemed to him
unable to stand hardship and fatigue. Four companies of less than
fifty men each, under four trusty captains, were chosen. All of these
were familiar with frontier warfare.

On the 24th of June, the little fleet shot the Falls of the Ohio amid
the darkness of a total eclipse of the sun. Clark planned to land at
a deserted French fort opposite the mouth of the Tennessee River, and
from there to march across the country against Kaskaskia, the nearest
Illinois town. He did not dare to go up the Mississippi, the usual
way of the fur traders, for fear of discovery.

At the landing place, the army was joined by a band of American
hunters who had just come from the French settlements. These hunters
said that the fort at Kaskaskia was in good order; and that the
Creole militia not only were well drilled, but greatly outnumbered
the invading force. They also said that the only chance of success
was to surprise the town; and they offered to guide the frontier
leader by the shortest route.

{7} With these hunters as guides, Clark began his march of a hundred
miles through the wilderness. The first fifty miles led through a
tangled and pathless forest. On the prairies the marching was less
difficult. Once the chief guide lost his course, and all were in
dismay. Clark, fearing treachery, coolly told the man that he should
shoot him in two hours if he did not find the trail. The guide was,
however, loyal; and, marching by night and hiding by day, the party
reached the river Kaskaskia, within three miles of the town that lay
on the farther side.



The chances were greatly against our young leader. Only the speed and
the silence of his march gave him hope of success. Under the cover of
darkness, and in silence, Clark ferried his men across the river, and
spread his little army as if to surround the town.

Fortune favored him at every move. It was a hot July night; and
through the open windows of the fort came the sound of music and
dancing. The officers were giving a ball to the light-hearted
Creoles. All the men of the village were there; even the sentinels
had left their posts.

{8} Leaving a few men at the entrance, Clark walked boldly into the
great hall, and, leaning silently against the doorpost, watched the
gay dancers as they whirled round in the light of the flaring
torches. Suddenly an Indian lying on the floor spied the tall
stranger, sprang to his feet, and gave a whoop. The dancing stopped.
The young ladies screamed, and their partners rushed toward the
doors.

"Go on with your dance," said Clark, "but remember that henceforth
you dance under the American flag, and not under that of Great
Britain."



The surprise was complete. Nobody had a chance to resist. The town
and the fort were in the hands of the riflemen.

Clark now began to make friends with the Creoles. He formed them into
companies, and drilled them every day. A priest known as Father
Gibault, a man of ability and influence, became a devoted friend to
the Americans. He persuaded the people at Cahokia and at other Creole
villages, and even at Vincennes, about one hundred and {9} forty
miles away on the Wabash, to turn from the British and to raise the
American flag. Thus, without the loss of a drop of blood, all the
posts in the Wabash valley passed into the hands of the Americans,
and the boundary of the rising republic was extended to the
Mississippi.

Clark soon had another chance to show what kind of man he was. With
less than two hundred riflemen and a few Creoles, he was hemmed in by
tribes of faithless savages, with no hope of getting help or advice
for months; but he acted as few other men in the country would have
dared to act. He had just conquered a territory as large as almost
any European kingdom. If he could hold it, it would become a part of
the new nation. Could he do it?

From the Great Lakes to the Mississippi came the chiefs and the
warriors to Cahokia to hear what the great chief of the "Long Knives"
had to say for himself. The sullen and hideously painted warriors
strutted to and fro in the village. At times there were enough of
them to scalp every white man at one blow, if they had only dared.
Clark knew exactly how to treat them.

One day when it seemed as if there would be trouble at any moment,
the fearless commander did not even shift his lodging to the fort. To
show his contempt of the peril, he held a grand dance, and "the
ladies and gentlemen danced nearly the whole night," while the sullen
warriors spent the time in secret council. Clark appeared not to
care, but at the same time he had a large {10} room near by filled
with trusty riflemen. It was hard work, but the young Virginian did
not give up. He won the friendship and the respect of the different
tribes, and secured from them pledges of peace. It was little trouble
to gain the good will of the Creoles.

Let me tell you of an incident which showed Clark's boldness in
dealing with Indians. Years after the Illinois campaign, three
hundred Shawnee warriors came in full war paint to Fort Washington,
the present site of Cincinnati, to meet the great "Long Knife" chief
in council. Clark had only seventy men in the stockade. The savages
strode into the council room with a war belt and a peace belt. Full
of fight and ugliness, they threw the belts on the table, and told
the great pioneer leader to take his choice.

Quick as a flash, Clark rose to his feet, swept both the belts to the
floor with his cane, stamped upon them, and thrust the savages out of
the hall, telling them to make peace at once, or he would drive them
off the {11} face of the earth. The Shawnees held a council which
lasted all night, but in the morning they humbly agreed to bury the
hatchet.

Great was the wrath of Hamilton, the "hair buyer general," when he
heard what the young Virginian had done. He at once sent out runners
to stir up the savages; and, in the first week of October, he set out
in person from Detroit with five hundred British regulars, French,
and Indians. He recaptured Vincennes without any trouble. Clark had
been able to leave only a few of the men he had sent there, and some
of them deserted the moment they caught sight of the redcoats.

If Hamilton had pushed on through the Illinois country, he could
easily have crushed the little American force; but it was no easy
thing to march one hundred and forty miles over snow-covered
prairies, and so the British commander decided to wait until spring.

When Clark heard of the capture of Vincennes, he knew that he had not
enough men to meet Hamilton in open fight. What was he to do? Fortune
again came to his aid.

The last of January, he heard that Hamilton had sent most of his men
back to Detroit; that the Indians had scattered among the villages;
and that the British commander himself was now wintering at Vincennes
with about a hundred men. Clark at once decided to do what Hamilton
had failed to do. Having selected the best of his riflemen, together
with a few Creoles, {12} one hundred and seventy men in all, he set
out on February 7 for Vincennes.

All went well for the first week. They marched rapidly. Their rifles
supplied them with food. At night, as an old journal says, they
"broiled their meat over the huge camp fires, and feasted like Indian
war dancers." After a week the ice had broken up, and the thaw
flooded everything. The branches of the Little Wabash now made one
great river five miles wide, the water even in the shallow places
being three feet deep.

It took three days of the hardest work to ferry the little force
across the flooded plain. All day long the men waded in the icy
waters, and at night they slept as well as they could on some muddy
hillock that rose above the flood. By this time they had come so near
Vincennes that they dared not fire a gun for fear of being
discovered.

Marching at the head of his chilled and foot-sore army, Clark was the
first to test every danger.

"Come on, boys!" he would shout, as he plunged into the flood.

Were the men short of food? "I am not hungry," he would say, "help
yourself." Was some poor fellow chilled to the bone? "Take my
blanket," said Clark, "I am glad to get rid of it."

In fact, as peril and suffering increased, the courage and the
cheerfulness of the young leader seemed to grow stronger.

{13} On February 17, the tired army heard Hamilton's sunrise gun on
the fort at Vincennes, nine miles away, boom across the muddy flood.

Their food had now given out. The bravest began to lose heart, and
wished to go back. In hastily made dugouts the men were ferried, in a
driving rain, to the eastern bank of the Wabash; but they found no
dry land for miles round. With Clark leading the way, the men waded
for three miles with the water often up to their chins, and camped on
a hillock for the night. The records tell us that a little drummer
boy, whom some of the tallest men carried on their shoulders, made a
deal of fun for the weary men by his pranks and jokes.

Death now stared them in the face. The canoes could find no place to
ford. Even the riflemen huddled together in despair. Clark blacked
his face with damp gunpowder, as the Indians did when ready to die,
gave the war whoop, and leaped into the ice-cold river. With a wild
shout the men followed. The whole column took up their line of march,
singing a merry song. They halted six miles from Vincennes. The night
was bitterly cold, and the half-frozen and half-starved men tried to
sleep on a hillock.

The next morning the sun rose bright and beautiful. Clark made a
thrilling speech and told his famished men that they would surely
reach the fort before dark. One of the captains, however, was sent
with twenty-five trusty riflemen to bring up the rear, with orders to
shoot any man that tried to turn back.

{14} The worst of all came when they crossed the Horseshoe Plain,
which the floods had made a shallow lake four miles wide, with dense
woods on the farther side. In the deep water the tall and the strong
helped the short and the weak. The little dugouts picked up the poor
fellows who were clinging to bushes and old logs, and ferried them to
a spot of dry land. When they reached the farther shore, so many of
the men were chilled that the strong ones had to seize those
half-frozen, and run them up and down the bank until they were able
to walk.

One of the dugouts captured an Indian canoe paddled by some squaws.
It proved a rich prize, for in it were buffalo meat and some kettles.
Broth was soon made and served to the weakest. The strong gave up
their share. Then amid much joking and merry songs, the column
marched in single file through a bit of timber. Not two miles away
was Vincennes, the goal of all their hopes.

A Creole who was out shooting ducks was captured. From him it was
learned that nobody suspected the coming of the Americans, and that
two hundred Indians had just come into town.

With the hope that the Creoles would not dare to fight, and that the
Indians would escape, Clark boldly sent the duck hunter back to town
with the news of his arrival. He sent warning to the Creoles to
remain in their houses, for he came only to fight the British.

{15} So great was the terror of Clark's name that the French shut
themselves up in their houses, while most of the Indians took to the
woods. Nobody dared give a word of warning to the British.

Just after dark the riflemen marched into the streets of the village
before the redcoats knew what was going on.

Crack! crack! sharply sounded half a dozen rifles outside the fort.

"That is Clark, and your time is short!" cried Captain Helm, who was
Hamilton's prisoner at this time; "he will have this fort tumbling on
your heads before to-morrow morning."

During the night the Americans threw up an intrenchment within rifle
shot of the fort, and at daybreak opened a hot fire into the
portholes. The men begged their leader to let them storm the fort,
but he dared not risk their lives. A party {16} of Indians that had
been pillaging the Kentucky settlements came marching into the
village, and were caught red-handed with scalps hanging at their
belts.

Clark was not slow to show his power.

"Think, men," he said sternly, "of the cries of the widows and the
fatherless on our frontier. Do your duty."

Six of the savages were tomahawked before the fort, where the
garrison could see them, and their dead bodies were thrown into the
river.

The British defended their fort for a few days, but could not stand
against the fire of the long rifles. It was sure death for a gunner
to try to fire a cannon. Not a man dared show himself at a porthole,
through which the rifle bullets were humming like mad hornets.

Hamilton the "hair buyer" gave up the defense as a bad job, and
surrendered the fort, defended by cannon and occupied by regular
troops, as he says in his journal, "to a set of uncivilized Virginia
backwoodsmen armed with rifles."

Tap! tap! sounded the drums, as Clark gave the signal, and down came
the British colors.

Thirteen cannon boomed the salute over the flooded plains of the
Wabash, and a hundred frontier soldiers shouted themselves hoarse
when the stars and stripes went up at Vincennes, never to come down
again.

The British authority over this region was forever at an end. It only
remained for Clark to defend what he had so gallantly won.

{17} Of all the deeds done west of the Alleghanies during the war of
the Revolution, Clark's campaign, in the region which seemed so
remote and so strange to our forefathers, is the most remarkable. The
vast region north of the Ohio River was wrested from the British
crown. When peace came, a few years later, the boundary lines of the
United States were the Great Lakes on the north, and on the west the
Mississippi River.





Next: A Midwinter Campaign




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