The Image of an American Hero:
Diplomatic and Military Success in
George Rogers Clark's Memoir
of the Illinois Campaign(1)
James E. Savage
The American War for Independence had been raging for two years when
the twenty-five year-old George Rogers Clark set out on his expedition
to seize the two British-dominated settlements of traders and Indians on
the Mississippi River. These two settlements, Kaskaskia and Cahokia, along
with that of Vincennes on the Wabash River, comprised the southernmost
tier of British settlements to the north of the Ohio River. Because of
the growing trade between Indians and European settlers and the status
of the river settlements as regional trading centers, control of these
settlements laid the foundation for a coordinated approach to negotiating
with the many bands of Indians that populated the region. The American
interest in controlling policy toward the Indians in the area was to stop
the British practice of hiring them as mercenaries to be used in attacks
on Virginian settlements immediately south of the Ohio River in Kentucky.
It was George Rogers Clark himself who had initially proposed an expedition
to the Governor of Virginia. Clark wrote that by 1777, after repeated trips
west, he began to argue that Virginia must "view Kentucky in the most
favorable point of view, as a place of the greatest consequence, which
ought to meet with every encouragement," and "that nothing [he]
could engage in would be of more general utility than its defense."(2)
In January of 1778, Governor Patrick Henry, aware of Virginia's interests in the West, issued the orders that sent Clark on his secret expedition to break British power over the frontier settlements.(3) Clark's execution of these orders during his Illinois campaign has perhaps been best remembered for its remarkable military successes, particularly the recapture of Vincennes in early 1779. But George Rogers Clark himself told a different story. In his public memoir, The Conquest of the Illinois, Clark portrayed himself not only as a successful military commander, but also as a prudent diplomat. In fact, the two campaigns of Kaskaskia and Cahokia, which were completed without the use of military force, make up the major portion of Clark's memoir. In Clark's depiction of the Illinois campaign, it was his diplomatic skill that produced ultimate success.
When George Rogers Clark arrived on the frontier in 1778, he entered a land of confusion. Most of the European settlements in the American west were a hodgepodge of French, British, and American traders and farmers and had come under the control of the British military at the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763. The outbreak of war between the British and the Americans had challenged the settlers' allegiances once again. Soon after his arrival in Kaskaskia in 1778 Clark found the townspeople in a mood of uncertainty and resignation, leading Clark to believe that the British officers that had garrisoned the settlement poisoned the minds of its inhabitants against the Americans. Clark wrote:
they were reconciled to the loss of their property; but they hoped that I would not part them from their families, and that the women and children might keep some of their clothes and a small quantity of provisions, that they might support themselves by their industry.(4)
Clark portrayed himself as a keen judge of human nature and an adept politician, skillfully manipulating the anxieties and hopes of the settlers.
Clark's first act was to refuse negotiation until the settlers had spent time together in the village church. He found that when spokesmen for the settlers returned from the church to negotiate, they demonstrated a greater fear than they had at his first arrival. Clark wrote, "This was the point to which I had wished to bring them. I now asked them very abruptly whether they thought they were addressing savages."(5) Then Clark set out to prove to the settlers that the Americans were in fact civilized and, in the process, secure their allegiance without a military struggle.
George Rogers Clark acted to diminish the American reputation for savagery. He "issued an order prohibiting the soldiers from entering the houses."(6) Further, Clark allowed all business in the settlements to continue as before he arrived. And Clark sought to treat the frontier settlers as fellow citizens in every way, constructing political institutions that he hoped the settlers would compare favorably with British rule.
Once established at both Kaskaskia and Cahokia, Clark "inquired particularly into the manner the people had been governed [previously] and found, much to [his] satisfaction, that the government had generally been as severe as though under martial law."(7) Clark endeavored to remove negative perceptions of Americans by explaining the American cause and contrasting American principles of government to the martial rule under which the settlers had lived. He set about the establishment of various democratic institutions. He began to hold elections for positions of leadership and created a court of civil judicature at Cahokia. Major Bowman, Clark's commander at Cahokia, was elected judge. Later, similar courts were formed at Kaskaskia and at Vincennes. Clark argued that his treatment of the settlers had successfully won their allegiance. He wrote, "I believe that no people ever had their business done more to their satisfaction than these had for a considerable time by means of this regulation."(8)
Just as Clark emphasized the use of peaceful diplomacy in dealing with the European frontier settlers, so too he employed these methods in dealing with the Indians of the Illinois Country.(9) Large numbers of these Indians had been encouraged, primarily by the gifting of the British under General Hamilton at Detroit, to attack American settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains. Choosing not to engage in direct warfare with these tribes, Clark engaged in negotiations with them to secure at least their neutrality, if not their allegiance to the American cause. Clark wrote, "large numbers of Indians belonging to tribes inhabiting the Illinois country, came to Cahokia to make peace with us."(10) Clark used methods similar to those he had used with the settlers of Kaskaskia and Cahokia when negotiating with the Indians. Using "with the greater propriety such language as suited [his] interest,"(11) Clark described the American cause as peaceful and just, contrasting the Americans and the British as he and his men had done with the other settlers before. Clark believed that his methods, which had proved so successful with the European settlers, were also a great success in dealing with the Indians.
Clark argued that, in the end, his diplomatic approach to the campaign of 1778-1779 was entirely successful. Many European settlers declared allegiance to the State of Virginia. Clark believed that this was the result of his fair treatment and his extension of American civil government to the frontier. Several of the men of Kaskaskia sought to join his troops in the expedition to Cahokia: "the people [of Cahokia] were their friends and relatives and would, they thought, follow their example."(12) The French settlers at Kaskaskia and Cahokia, having also declared their allegiance to Virginia, helped Clark to open a dialog with several of their Indian trading partners. This dialog facilitated Clark's negotiations for peace with several Indian tribes in the area. Thus, Clark was even able to employ the new citizens of Virginia in the attainment of his military objectives.
In his public memoir, George Rogers Clark did much more than simply recall the methods he employed to achieve success. He sought to construct an image of himself for posterity. His writing asserted that his peaceful diplomatic efforts were as much a part, if not a more significant part, of his Illinois campaign as the assault on Vincennes in 1779. Clark believed that he had secured the settlements of the Illinois country through a cleverly crafted scheme which involved ideological warfare on the British, extension of American civil government to the frontier, and treatment of the settlers as fellow citizens. In this way, he thought, he was able to accomplish his military objectives while protecting the rights of inhabitants. He had secured control of the frontier for the Americans in an almost entirely nonmilitary manner. Above all else, his campaign of 1778-1779 influenced fundamentally the development of the territory to the north of the Ohio River.
1. aI thank Professor George M. Curtis III for his valuable assistance in revising this essay and Professor Frank Luttmer for his continued guidance and support.
2. George Rogers Clark, The Conquest of the Illinois (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1920), 22. This text is a transcription of the memoir that George Rogers Clark completed in 1791. The original document is a part of the Draper Collection of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Milo M. Quaife, editor of the 1920 printing, altered Clark's language significantly in transcription. Indeed, the objective of the transcription was to make the text more accessible to a general audience. For Clark's primary contemporary account of his campaign, transcribed with its original style intact, see George Rogers Clark to George Mason, Falls of the Ohio, 19 November 1779, vol. 2 of The Papers of George Mason, ed. Robert A. Rutland (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 555-590.
3. See Patrick Henry to George Rogers Clark, 2 January 1778, The Secret Orders &
". . . great things have been done by a few men. . . ." (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1974).
4. Clark, 47.
5. Ibid., 48. The account of his initial arrival at Kaskaskia in Clark's memoir is also discussed in the letter of 19 November 1779 to George Mason, 559-560.
6. Ibid., 47.
7. Ibid., 54.
8. Ibid., 55.
9. Clark's letter to Mason provides particularly detailed accounts of his negotiations with various Indian tribes. See Clark's letter to Mason, 562-567, and subsequent pages for discussion of Clark's encounters with Indian tribes related to his expedition against Vincennes in early 1779.
10. Clark, 69.
12. Ibid., 50.
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