Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

How Colonel Clark Won the Northwest

On the evening of the 4th of July, 1778, a merry dance was taking place at the small settlement of Kaskaskia, in that far western region afterward known as Illinois. It must not be imagined that this was a celebration of the American Independence day, for the people of Kaskaskia knew little and cared less about American independence. It was only by chance that this day was chosen for the dance, but it had its significance for all that, for the first step was to be taken there that day in adding the great Northwest to the United States. The man: by whom this was to be done was a brave Kentuckian named George Rogers Clark. He came of a daring family, for he was a brother of Captain William Clark, who, years afterward, was engaged with Captain Lewis in the famous Lewis and Clark expedition across the vast unknown wilderness between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.

Kaskaskia was one of the settlements made by the French between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. After the loss of Canada this country passed to England, and there were English garrisons placed in some of the forts. But Kaskaskia was thought so far away and so safe that it was left in charge of a French officer and French soldiers. A gay and light-hearted people they were, as the French are apt to be; and, as they found time hang heavy on their hands at that frontier stronghold, they had invited the people of the place, on this evening in question, to a ball at the fort.

All this is by way of introduction; now let us see what took place at the fort on that pleasant summer night. All the girls of the village were there and many of the men, and most of the soldiers were on the floor as well. They were dancing away at a jovial rate to the lively music of a fiddle, played by a man who sat on a chair at the side. Near him on the floor lay an Indian, looking on with lazy eyes at the dancers. The room was lighted by torches thrust into the cracks of the wall, and the whole party were in the best of spirits.

The Indian was not the only looker-on. In the midst of the fun a tall young man stepped into the room and stood leaning against the side of the door, with his eyes fixed on the dancers. He was dressed in the garb of the backwoods, but it was easy to be seen that he was not a Frenchman,—if any of the gay throng had taken the trouble to look at him.

All at once there was a startling interruption. The Indian sprang to his feet and his shrill war-whoop rang loudly through the room. His keen eyes had rested on the stranger and seen at a glance that there was something wrong. The new-comer was evidently an American, and that meant something there.

His yell of alarm broke up the dance in an instant. The women, who had just been laughing and talking, screamed with fright. All, men and women alike, huddled together in alarm. Some of the men ran for their guns, but the stranger did not move. From his place by the door he simply said, in a quiet way, "Don't be scared. Go on with your dance. But remember that you are dancing under Virginia and not under England."

As he was speaking, a crowd of men dressed like himself slipped into the room. They were all armed, and in a minute they spread through the fort, laying hands on the guns of the soldiers. The fort had been taken without a blow or a shot.

View in the Virginia mountains


Rocheblave, the French commandant, was in bed while these events were taking place, not dreaming that an American was within five hundred miles. He learned better when the new-comers took him prisoner and began to search for his papers. The reason they did not find many of these was on account of their American respect for ladies. The papers were in Madame Rocheblave's room, which the Americans were too polite to enter, not knowing that she was shoving them as fast as she could into the fire, so that there was soon only a heap of ashes. A few were found outside, enough to show what the Americans wanted to make sure of,—that the English were doing their best to stir up the Indians against the settlers. To end this part of our story, we may say that the Americans got possession of Kaskaskia and its fort, and Rocheblave was sent off, with his papers, to Virginia. Probably his wide-awake wife went with him.

Now let us go back a bit and see how all this came to pass. Colonel Clark was a native of Virginia, but he had gone to Kentucky in his early manhood, being very fond of life in the woods. Here he became a friend of Daniel Boone, and no doubt often joined him in hunting excursions; but his business was that of a surveyor, at which he found plenty to do in this new country.

Meanwhile, the war for independence came on, and as it proceeded Clark saw plainly that the English at the forts in the West were stirring up the Indians to attack the American settlements and kill the settlers. It is believed that they paid them for this dreadful work and supplied them with arms and ammunition. All this Clark was sure of and he determined to try and stop it. So he made his way back to the East and had a talk with Patrick Henry, who was then governor of Virginia. He asked the governor to let him have a force to attack the English forts in the West. He thought he could capture them, and in this way put an end to the Indian raids.

Patrick Henry was highly pleased with Clark's plan. He gave him orders to "proceed to the defence of Kentucky," which was done to keep his real purpose a secret. He was also supplied with a large stun of money and told to enlist four com panics of men, of whom he was to be the colonel. These he recruited among the hunters and pioneers of the frontier, who were the kind of men he wanted, and in the spring of 1778 he set out on his daring expedition.

With a force of about one hundred and fifty men Colonel Clark floated down the Ohio River in boats, landing at length about fifty miles above the river's mouth and setting off through the woods towards Kaskaskia. It was a difficult journey, and they had many hardships. Their food ran out on the way and they had to live on roots to keep from starvation. But at length one night they came near enough to hear the fiddle and the dancing. How they stopped the dance you have read.

Thus ends the first part of our story. It was easy enough to end, as has been seen. But there was a second part which was not so easy. You must know that the British had other strongholds in that country. One of them was Detroit, on the Detroit River, near Lake Erie. This was their starting-point. Far to the south, on the Wabash River, in what is now the State of Indiana, was another fort called Vincennes, which lay about one hundred and fifty miles to the east of Fort Kaskaskia. This was an old French fort also, and it was held by the French for the British as Kaskaskia had been. Colonel Clark wanted this fort too, and got it without much trouble. He had not men enough to take it by force, so he sent a French priest there, who told the people that their best friends were the Americans, not the British. It was not hard to make them believe this, for the French people had never liked the British. So they hauled down the British ensign and hauled up the Stars and Stripes, and Vincennes became an American fort.

After that Colonel Clark went back to Kentucky, proud to think that he had won the great Northwest Territory for the United States with so little trouble. But he might have known that the British would not let themselves be driven out of the country in this easy manner, and before the winter was over he heard news that was not much to his liking. Colonel Hamilton, the English commander at Detroit, had marched down to Vincennes and taken the fort back again. It was also said that he intended to capture Kaskaskia, and then march south and try and win Kentucky for the English. This Hamilton was the man who was said to have hired the Indians to murder the American settlers, and Clark was much disturbed by the news. He must be quick to act, or all that he had won would be lost.

He had a terrible task before him. The winter was near its end and the Wabash had risen and overflowed its banks on all sides. For hundreds of square miles the country was under water, and Vincennes was in the centre of a great shallow lake. It was freezing water, too, for this was no longer the warm spring time, as it had been in the march to Kaskaskia, but dull and drear February. Yet the brave colonel knew that he must act quickly if he was to act at all. Hamilton had only eighty men; he could raise twice that many. He had no money to pay them, but a merchant in St. Louis offered to lend him all he needed. There was the water to cress, but the hardy Kentucky hunters were used to wet and cold. So Colonel Clark hastily collected his men and set out for Vincennes.

A sturdy set of men they were who followed him, dressed in hunting-shirts and carrying their long and tried rifles. On their heads were fur caps, ornamented with deer or raccoon tails. They believed in Colonel Clark, and that is a great deal in warlike affairs. As they trudged onward there came days of cold, hard rain, so that every night they had to build great fires to warm themselves and dry their clothes. Thus they went on, day after day, through the woods and prairies, carrying their packs of provisions and supplies on their backs, and shooting game to add to their food supply.

This was holiday work to what lay before them. After a week of this kind of travel they came to a new kind. The "drowned lands" of the Wabash lay before them. Everywhere nothing but water was to be seen. The winter rains had so flooded the streams that a great part of the country was over-flowed. And there was no way to reach the fort except by crossing those waters, for they spread round it on all sides. They must plunge in and wade through or give up and go back.

We may be sure that there were faint hearts among them when they felt the cold water and knew that there were miles of it to cross, here ankle- or knee-deep, there waist-deep. But they had known this when they started, and they were not the men to turn back. At Colonel Clark's cheery word of command they plunged in and began their long and shivering journey.

For nearly a week this terrible journey went on. It was a frightful experience. Now and then one of them would stumble and fall, and come up dripping. All day long they tramped dismally on through that endless waste of icy water. Here and there were islands of dry land over which they were glad enough to trudge, but at night they often had trouble to find a dry spot to build their fires and cook their food, and to sleep on beside the welcome blaze. It was hard enough to find game in that dreary waste, and their food ran out, so that for two whole days they had to go hungry. Thus they went on till they came to the point where White River runs into the Wabash.

Here they found some friends who had come by a much easier way. On setting out Colonel Clark had sent Captain Rogers and forty men, with two small cannon, in a boat up Wabash River, telling them to stop at the White River fork, about fifteen or twenty miles below Vincennes. Here their trudging friends found them, and from this point they resumed their march in company. It was easy enough now to transport the cannon by dragging or rowing the boat through the deep water which they had to traverse.

The worst of their difficult journey lay before them, for surrounding the fort was a sheet of water four miles wide which was deeper than any they had yet gone through. They had waded to their knees, and at times to their waists, but now they might have to wade to their necks. Some of them thrust their hands into the water and shivered at the touch, saying that it was freezing cold. There were men among them who held back, exclaiming that it was folly to think of crossing that icy lake.

"We have not come so far to turn back now," said Colonel Clark, sternly. "Yonder lies the fort, and a few hours will take us there. Follow me," and he walked boldly into the flood. As he did so he told one of his officers to shoot the first man who refused to follow. That settled the matter; they all plunged in.

It was the most frightful part of their journey. The water at places, as we have said, came at times almost to their necks. Much of it reached their waists. They struggled resolutely on, almost benumbed with the cold, now stumbling and catching themselves again, holding their guns and powder above their heads to keep them from becoming wet, and glad enough when they found the water growing shallower. At length dry land was reached once more, and none too soon, for some of the men were so faint and weak that they fell flat on the ground. Colonel Clark set two of his men to pick up these worn-out ones and run them up and down till they were warm again. In this way they were soon made all right.

It was now the evening of the 18th of February, 1779. They were near enough to the fort to hear the boom of the evening gun. This satisfied the colonel that they were at the end of their journey, and he bade his men to lie down and sleep and get ready for the work before them. There was no more wading to do, but there was likely to be some fighting.

Bright and early the next morning they were up and had got their arms and equipments in order. They were on the wrong side of the river, but a large boat was found, in which they crossed. Vincennes was now near at hand, and one of its people soon appeared, a Frenchman, who looked at them with as much astonishment as if they had dropped down from the sky. Colonel Clark questioned him about matters in the fort, and then gave him a letter to Colonel Hamilton, telling the colonel that they had come across the water to take back the fort, and that he had better surrender and save trouble.

We may be sure that the English colonel was astounded on receiving such a letter at such a time. That any men on earth could have crossed those wintry waters he could hardly believe, and it seemed to him that they must have come on wings. But there they were, asking him to give up the fort, a thing he had no notion of doing without a fight. If Colonel Clark wanted the fort he must come and Colonel Clark did want it. He wanted it badly. And it was not long before the two cannon which he had brought with him were loaded and pouring their shot into the fort, while the riflemen kept them company with their guns. Colonel Hamilton fired back with grape-shot and cannon-balls, and for hour after hour the siege went on, the roar of cannon echoing back from woodland and water. For fourteen hours the cannonade was kept up, all day long and far into the night, the red flashes from cannon and rifle lighting up all around. At length both sides were worn out, and they lay down to sleep, expecting to begin again with the morning light.

But that day's work, and the sure shooting of the Kentucky riflemen, had made such havoc in the fort as to teach Colonel Hamilton that the bold Kentuckians were too much for him. So when, at day dawn, another messenger came with a summons to surrender, he accepted as gracefully as he could. He asked to be given the honors of war, and to be allowed to march back to Detroit, but Colonel Clark wrathfully answered, ';To that I can by no means agree. I will not again leave it in your power to spirit up the Indian nations to scalp men, women, and children."

Soon into the fort marched the victors, with shouts of triumph, their long rifles slanting over their shoulders. And soon the red cross flag of England came down and the star-spangled banner of America waved in its place. Hamilton and his men were prisoners in American hands.

There was proof enough that this English colonel had been busy in stirring the Indians up to their dreadful work. His papers showed that. And even while the fight was going on some of the red demons came up with the scalps of white men and women to receive their pay. The pay they got was in bullets when they fell into the hands of the incensed Kentuckians. Colonel Hamilton and his officers were sent as prisoners to Williamsburg, Virginia, and were there put in fetters for their murderous conduct. It would have served them right to hang them, but the laws of war forbade, and they were soon set free.

We have told this story that you may see what brave men Virginia and Kentucky bred in the old times. In all American history there is no exploit to surpass that of Colonel Clark and his men. And it led to something of the greatest importance to the republic of the United States, as you shall hear.

It was not long after that time that the war ended and the freedom of the colonies was gained. When the treaty of peace was made the question arose, "What territory should belong to the new republic and what should still be held by England?" It was finally decided that the land which each country held at the end of the war should be held still. In that way England held Canada. And it would have held the great country north of the Ohio, too, if it had not been for George Rogers Clark. His capture of Kaskaskia and his splendid two weeks' march through the "drowned lands" of the Wabash had won that country for the United States, and when the treaty was signed all this fine country became part of the territory of the United States. So it is to George Rogers Clark, the Virginian and Kentuckian, that this country owes the region which in time was divided up into the great States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, and perhaps Kentucky also, since only for him the British might have taken the new-settled land of Daniel Boone.