George Rogers Clark: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Known as George Rogers Clark played a strategic role in the settling of Kentucky and in the Northwest frontier wars during the American Revolution. He is best known for his victory at Fort Sackville in the Battle of Vincennes.

Beginnings and Life on the Farm

George Rogers Clark was born just outside Charlottesville, Virginia in 1752 on a 400-acre farm where he was one of ten children. Fun fact: his youngest brother William Clark, was the future co-leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition!

His family moved to a small homestead in Caroline County, Virginia where he grew up. His rural roots shaped his skills as a woodsman and land surveyor. These skills served him well in his adult life. Clark received very little formal education. At about the age of 11, he attended a private academy run by Donald Robertson, who also taught James Madison at the same time. Though he never went to college, his knack for collecting books suggests his love of reading.

George Rogers Clark
George Rogers Clark

Kentucky Politics and the American Revolution

In 1772 Clark left for Kentucky--which at the time was an extension of the Virginia colony--and as a guide and land surveyor for the Ohio Company. The British tried to contain American colonists from migrating into the Ohio Valley to avoid conflict with Indians tribes. The Ohio Valley included all the land between the Appalachian Mountains to the east and the Mississippi River to the west. Eager for new land, the colonists migrated despite British wishes, and triggered a series of Indian raids. In response, in 1774 the Virginia governor retaliated in what became known as Lord Dunmore's War in which Clark served as captain in the Virginia militia.

The Battle of Kaskaskia and Vincennes

Warfare intensified in the Ohio Valley when the American Revolution broke out. Clark suspected correctly that the British recruited Indians to fight against the American colonists. He was especially incensed to learn that Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton at Fort Detroit in Michigan paid Indian's bounties for killing settlers.

Clark persuaded Virginia Governor Patrick Henry to provide him 500 lbs. of gun-power to distribute to settlers. He was commissioned as a lieutenant-colonel and in July 1777, skillfully captured Fort Kaskaskia in Illinois without a single shot being fired. His most famous battle though was his victory at Fort Sackville in Vincennes, Indiana. Hamilton, angry over Clark's capture of Fort Kaskaskia, correctly predicted Clark's next target and relocated to Fort Sackville.

Clark marched his nearly 200 men over 200 miles to get into position. He ordered his men to march and wave their flags in unison to give the impression that he had much larger force and after a three day siege, Hamilton surrendered. Clark had won so many battles in the western territories, that the British surrendered the Northwest Territory in addition to the thirteen colonies at the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which added invaluable land to the future United States.

Clark once remarked, 'If a country were not worth protecting, it was not worth claiming.'

He was subsequently immortalized as 'Hero of the Old Northwest' for his efforts.

George Rogers Clark Leads his Troops to Fort Sackville at the Battle of Vincennes.
George Rogers Clark at the Battle of Vincennes

Life After the American Revolution

Clark remained popular among the frontier communities and was widely respected for his motivation and leadership skills, though his post-war years were difficult. He retired from the military, relocated to Indiana in 1803 where he operated a grist mill and until 1813 was appointed superintendent-surveyor and Board of Commissioner of public lands. His primary task was to allot land grants to Virginian war veterans who had served under him.

Clark himself was heavy in debt because he paid most of his wartime expenses out of his own pocket. Apart from land though, neither Virginia nor the federal government reimbursed him. Burdened by debt, and harassed by creditors, he gave away much of his land to family members. Embittered, he wrote in a letter to his brother:

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