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October 21, 2013

NEAL: George Rogers Clark: Indiana’s Hero

If not for George Rogers Clark, we Hoosiers might snack on scones with jam and clotted cream and speak with cockney accents. An exaggeration perhaps, but as Kelley Morgan points out, “George Rogers Clark was almost singlehandedly responsible for the U.S. gaining the Old Northwest Territory.”

Morgan is interpretive manager at Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, where a representation of Clark’s retirement home overlooks the falls with stunning views of the Ohio River.

A native of Tennessee, Morgan was unfamiliar with Clark until coming to Indiana, and she laments that so few Americans know his story. “I think George ended up being overshadowed by his younger brother William” of Lewis and Clark fame. 

George Clark was born in 1752 in Virginia and was a lifelong friend of President Thomas Jefferson, with whom he shared passions for science, zoology and the culture of Native Americans.

At age 20, Clark went west on a surveying trip and claimed land for himself and friends in what would become Kentucky. Life was tense there due to constant warfare with Native Americans and British laws against westward settlement. In June 1776, his fellow citizens asked Clark to lobby the state of Virginia for military assistance and stronger political ties.

The charismatic redhead proved persuasive. Virginia, though preoccupied with the coming war for independence, granted Kentucky status as a county and supplied 500 pounds of gunpowder.

By 1777, Clark realized that the British were inciting Native American harassment of settlers, including paying bounties for prisoners and scalps. The Virginia legislature granted Clark a commission as lieutenant colonel and permission to gather troops.

Clark set his sights on capturing British forts in the Old Northwest, the territory that would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. 

Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry authorized Clark to attack the British fort of Kaskaskia (Illinois) in French-occupied territory on the Mississippi River. Clark set up a supply base at the Falls of the Ohio. Clark and his men surprised Kaskaskia on July 4, 1778, taking the fort and town without firing a shot. In coming months, Clark rallied support from the French while planning another bold move against the British at Fort Sackville in Vincennes.

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