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


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


"Go on with your dance," said Clark, "but remember that henceforth

you dance under the American flag, and not under that of Great


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.