George Rogers Clark And The Conquest Of The Northwest

Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the


We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O Pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world;

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the


Pioneers! O Pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,

Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing, as we go the unknown


Pioneers! O Pioneers!

* * * * * * *

The sachem blowing the smoke first towards the sun and then

towards the earth,

The drama of the scalp dance enacted with painted faces and

guttural exclamations,

The setting out of the war-party, the long and stealthy march,

The single file, the swinging hatchets, the surprise and

slaughter of enemies.


In 1776, when independence was declared, the United States included only

the thirteen original States on the seaboard. With the exception of a

few hunters there were no white men west of the Alleghany Mountains, and

there was not even an American hunter in the great country out of which

we have since made the States of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and

Wisconsin. All this region north of the Ohio River then formed apart

of the Province of Quebec. It was a wilderness of forests and prairies,

teeming with game, and inhabited by many warlike tribes of Indians.

Here and there through it were dotted quaint little towns of French

Creoles, the most important being Detroit, Vincennes on the Wabash, and

Kaskaskia and Kahokia on the Illinois. These French villages were ruled

by British officers commanding small bodies of regular soldiers or Tory

rangers and Creole partizans. The towns were completely in the power

of the British government; none of the American States had actual

possession of a foot of property in the Northwestern Territory.

The Northwest was acquired in the midst of the Revolution only by armed

conquest, and if it had not been so acquired, it would have remained a

part of the British Dominion of Canada.

The man to whom this conquest was clue was a famous backwoods leader,

a mighty hunter, a noted Indian-fighter, George Rogers Clark. He was a

very strong man, with light hair and blue eyes. He was of good Virginian

family. Early in his youth, he embarked on the adventurous career of

a backwoods surveyor, exactly as Washington and so many other young

Virginians of spirit did at that period. He traveled out to Kentucky

soon after it was founded by Boone, and lived there for a year, either

at the stations or camping by him self in the woods, surveying, hunting,

and making war against the Indians like any other settler; but all the

time his mind was bent on vaster schemes than were dreamed of by the

men around him. He had his spies out in the Northwestern Territory, and

became convinced that with a small force of resolute backwoodsmen he

could conquer it for the United States. When he went back to Virginia,

Governor Patrick Henry entered heartily into Clark's schemes and gave

him authority to fit out a force for his purpose.

In 1778, after encountering endless difficulties and delays, he finally

raised a hundred and fifty backwoods riflemen. In May they started down

the Ohio in flatboats to undertake the allotted task. They drifted and

rowed downstream to the Falls of the Ohio, where Clark founded a log

hamlet, which has since become the great city of Louisville.

Here he halted for some days and was joined by fifty or sixty

volunteers; but a number of the men deserted, and when, after an eclipse

of the sun, Clark again pushed off to go down with the current, his

force was but about one hundred and sixty riflemen. All, however, were

men on whom he could depend--men well used to frontier warfare. They

were tall, stalwart backwoodsmen, clad in the hunting-shirt and leggings

that formed the national dress of their kind, and armed with the

distinctive weapon of the backwoods, the long-barreled, small-bore


Before reaching the Mississippi the little flotilla landed, and Clark

led his men northward against the Illinois towns. In one of them,

Kaskaskia, dwelt the British commander of the entire district up to

Detroit. The small garrison and the Creole militia taken together

outnumbered Clark's force, and they were in close alliance with the

Indians roundabout. Clark was anxious to take the town by surprise and

avoid bloodshed, as he believed he could win over the Creoles to the

American side. Marching cautiously by night and generally hiding by day,

he came to the outskirts of the little village on the evening of July 4,

and lay in the woods near by until after nightfall.

Fortune favored him. That evening the officers of the garrison had

given a great ball to the mirth-loving Creoles, and almost the entire

population of the village had gathered in the fort, where the dance

was held. While the revelry was at its height, Clark and his tall

backwoodsmen, treading silently through the darkness, came into the

town, surprised the sentries, and surrounded the fort without causing

any alarm.

All the British and French capable of bearing arms were gathered in the

fort to take part in or look on at the merrymaking. When his men were

posted Clark walked boldly forward through the open door, and, leaning

against the wall, looked at the dancers as they whirled around in the

light of the flaring torches. For some moments no one noticed him.

Then an Indian who had been lying with his chin on his hand, looking

carefully over the gaunt figure of the stranger, sprang to his feet, and

uttered the wild war-whoop. Immediately the dancing ceased and the men

ran to and fro in confusion; but Clark, stepping forward, bade them be

at their ease, but to remember that henceforth they danced under the

flag of the United States, and not under that of Great Britain.

The surprise was complete, and no resistance was attempted. For

twenty-four hours the Creoles were in abject terror. Then Clark summoned

their chief men together and explained that he came as their ally, and

not as their foe, and that if they would join with him they should be

citizens of the American republic, and treated in all respects on

an equality with their comrades. The Creoles, caring little for the

British, and rather fickle of nature, accepted the proposition with joy,

and with the most enthusiastic loyalty toward Clark. Not only that, but

sending messengers to their kinsmen on the Wabash, they persuaded the

people of Vincennes likewise to cast off their allegiance to the British

king, and to hoist the American flag.

So far, Clark had conquered with greater ease than he had dared to hope.

But when the news reached the British governor, Hamilton, at Detroit,

he at once prepared to reconquer the land. He had much greater forces at

his command than Clark had; and in the fall of that year he came down to

Vincennes by stream and portage, in a great fleet of canoes bearing five

hundred fighting men-British regulars, French partizans, and Indians.

The Vincennes Creoles refused to fight against the British, and the

American officer who had been sent thither by Clark had no alternative

but to surrender.

If Hamilton had then pushed on and struck Clark in Illinois, having

more than treble Clark's force, he could hardly have failed to win the

victory; but the season was late and the journey so difficult that he

did not believe it could be taken. Accordingly he disbanded the Indians

and sent some of his troops back to Detroit, announcing that when spring

came he would march against Clark in Illinois.

If Clark in turn had awaited the blow he would have surely met defeat;

but he was a greater man than his antagonist, and he did what the other

deemed impossible.

Finding that Hamilton had sent home some of his troops and dispersed

all his Indians, Clark realized that his chance was to strike before

Hamilton's soldiers assembled again in the spring. Accordingly he

gathered together the pick of his men, together with a few Creoles, one

hundred and seventy all told, and set out for Vincennes. At first the

journey was easy enough, for they passed across the snowy Illinois

prairies, broken by great reaches of lofty woods. They killed elk,

buffalo, and deer for food, there being no difficulty in getting all

they wanted to eat; and at night they built huge fires by which to

sleep, and feasted "like Indian war-dancers," as Clark said in his


But when, in the middle of February, they reached the drowned lands of

the Wabash, where the ice had just broken up and everything was flooded,

the difficulties seemed almost insuperable, and the march became painful

and laborious to a degree. All day long the troops waded in the icy

water, and at night they could with difficulty find some little hillock

on which to sleep. Only Clark's indomitable courage and cheerfulness

kept the party in heart and enabled them to persevere. However,

persevere they did, and at last, on February 23, they came in sight

of the town of Vincennes. They captured a Creole who was out shooting

ducks, and from him learned that their approach was utterly unsuspected,

and that there were many Indians in town.

Clark was now in some doubt as to how to make his fight. The British

regulars dwelt in a small fort at one end of the town, where they had

two light guns; but Clark feared lest, if he made a sudden night attack,

the townspeople and Indians would from sheer fright turn against him. He

accordingly arranged, just before he himself marched in, to send in the

captured duck-hunter, conveying a warning to the Indians and the Creoles

that he was about to attack the town, but that his only quarrel was with

the British, and that if the other inhabitants would stay in their own

homes they would not be molested. Sending the duck-hunter ahead, Clark

took up his march and entered the town just after nightfall. The news

conveyed by the released hunter astounded the townspeople, and they

talked it over eagerly, and were in doubt what to do. The Indians, not

knowing how great might be the force that would assail the town, at once

took refuge in the neighboring woods, while the Creoles retired to their

own houses. The British knew nothing of what had happened until the

Americans had actually entered the streets of the little village.

Rushing forward, Clark's men soon penned the regulars within their

fort, where they kept them surrounded all night. The next day a party

of Indian warriors, who in the British interest had been ravaging the

settlements of Kentucky, arrived and entered the town, ignorant that

the Americans had captured it. Marching boldly forward to the fort,

they suddenly found it beleaguered, and before they could flee they were

seized by the backwoodsmen. In their belts they carried the scalps of

the slain settlers. The savages were taken redhanded, and the American

frontiersmen were in no mood to show mercy. All the Indians were

tomahawked in sight of the fort.

For some time the British defended themselves well; but at length their

guns were disabled, all of the gunners being picked off by the backwoods

marksmen, and finally the garrison dared not so much as appear at a

port-hole, so deadly was the fire from the long rifles. Under such

circumstances Hamilton was forced to surrender.

No attempt was afterward made to molest the Americans in the land they

had won, and upon the conclusion of peace the Northwest, which had been

conquered by Clark, became part of the United States.

General Grant And The Vicksburg Campaign Gouverneur Morris facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail