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George Rogers Clark And The Conquest Of The Northwest
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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
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
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
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.
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