George Rogers Clark National Historical Park
History & Culture
The British flag would not be raised above Fort Sackville on the morning of February 25, 1779. British Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton and his garrison marched out of the fort at 10 a.m. and surrendered to American Colonel George Rogers Clark.
The British dominated a large portion of the Trans-Appalachian frontier after the French and Indian War. The Proclamation of 1763 forbid the settlement of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. From their posts north of the Ohio River, the British sent Indian war parties against those settlers who ignored the proclamation line, including those in Kentucky.
George Rogers Clark organized the Kentucky militia to defend against these raids. Clark was not content to wait for the attacks. He decided that a major offensive campaign was needed. He took his plan to Patrick Henry, governor of Virginia, and gained approval. Clark's plan was to lead a force of frontiersmen into the Illinois country and strike at the source of the Indian raids.
During the summer of 1778 Clark directed his army down the Ohio River then overland some 120 miles to capture the British posts at Kaskaskia and Cahokia along the Mississippi River, near St. Louis. Although under British rule after the French and Indian War, these posts were populated by French settlers who had no great affection for the British. Clark quickly gained their support. Father Pierre Gibault and Dr. Jean Laffont volunteered to travel to Vincennes on behalf of the Americans and soon that settlement also gave its support to Clark. The French at Detroit and other northern posts, however, maintained the outward support of the British.
By Aug. 6, British Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton received news about the fall of the three outposts. With a mixed force of English soldiers; French volunteers and militia; and Indian warriors, he left Detroit intending to retake Fort Sackville in Vincennes. Capt. Leonard Helm was Clark's subordinate in charge at Vincennes. Having only a few men upon whom he could depend, the American captain had no hopes of defending the fort against the British-Indian army. Hamilton retook the fort on Dec. 17. Faced with this formidable array, the French settlers of Vincennes returned to their British allegiance.
Then Hamilton made a fateful decision. He allowed most of his force to return to their homes for the winter, this was common practice in 18th century warfare. His intended invasion of the Illinois country would be postponed. Hamilton planned to gather his forces in the spring and to attack Clark's Mississippi River posts. Victories there would pave the way for a joint effort with tribes from south of the Ohio River to drive all American settlers from the Trans-Appalachian frontier.
Unaware that the fort was in British hands, Francis Vigo, a merchant and supporter of the American cause, set out from his St. Louis home for Vincennes. As he approached the settlement, he was taken prisoner and was held for several days. His captors failed to realize Vigo's involvement with the Americans and Hamilton allowed him to leave. Vigo agreed to one condition: that on his way back to St. Louis, Vigo would do nothing that would harm the British cause. After reaching St. Louis and keeping his promise, Vigo immediately went to Clark 50 miles south in Kaskaskia. Vigo provided valuable information concerning the military situation in Vincennes while informing Clark of the British intent to attack in the spring.
Determined to capture Hamilton, Clark and his force of approximately 170 Americans and Frenchmen made an epic 18-day trek from Kaskaskia through the freezing floodwaters of the Illinois country. At times in icy water up to their shoulders, it was Clark's determined leadership that brought them through this incredible midwinter journey. They arrived in Vincennes after nightfall on Feb. 23, 1779. The French citizens, eager to again renounce the British, warmly greeted Clark's men, providing food and dry gunpowder. Hamilton's garrison now consisted of approximately 40 British soldiers and a similar number of French volunteers and militia from Detroit and Vincennes. These French troops were not enthusiastic to fire upon the enemy when they realized that the French inhabitants of the town again had embraced the Americans.
Clark's men surrounded the fort and gave the impression of having a much larger army. Flags sufficient for an army of 500 had been brought from Kaskaskia and now were unfurled and carried within view of the fort. The American soldiers, who were experienced woodsmen, could maintain a rate of fire that convinced the British that the army indeed was large in number. These woodsmen were armed with the famed long rifle. And their aim was accurate. To further unnerve the garrison, Clark ordered tunneling operations to begin from behind the riverbank a short distance from the fort. Such tunnels were used to plant explosive charges under fort walls or beneath powder magazines. Barricades were thrown up and entrenchments were dug to provide additional cover.
Contemplating his predicament with increasing foreboding, Hamilton became resigned to surrendering. The Englishman requested Clark meet with him at the nearby church, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Hamilton attempted to obtain liberal conditions while Clark insisted upon unconditional surrender. After a lengthy and heated discussion they failed to agree upon acceptable terms and each commander returned to their respective posts. At this time, an event occurred which caused the British to realize what might be their fate if the Americans were forced to storm the fort. An Indian raiding party, sent out by Hamilton to attack American settlers along the Ohio River, returned to Vincennes. Their entrance came during a lull in the battle and they saw the British flag flying, as usual, from the fort. The unsuspecting warriors, gleefully yelling and firing their weapons in the air, realized their mistake too late. Several Indians were killed or wounded by the frontiersmen while others were captured.
In retaliation for Indian raids in which numerous men, women and children had been slaughtered, Clark ordered five of the captured warriors to be tomahawked in full view of the fort. The executions were intended to heighten the psychological pressure upon the British, while also illustrating to Indian observers that the redcoats no longer could protect those tribes who made war on the Americans.
Following this grim scene, the lieutenant governor reluctantly agreed to Clark's final terms which were just short of unconditional surrender. Hamilton described his thoughts at having to surrender. "The mortification, disappointment and indignation I felt, may possibly be conceived..." The defeated British army marched out of Fort Sackville and laid down their muskets before their victors. The surrender occurred 10 a.m., Thurs., Feb. 25, 1779. An American flag was raised above the fort and 13 cannon shots were discharged in celebration. An accident during the firings severely burned several men including American Capt. Joseph Bowman. Six months later he died and was buried in the church cemetery adjacent to the fort.
Although unable to achieve his ultimate objective of capturing Detroit, Clark successfully countered British and Indian moves during the remainder of the conflict. The young Virginian had prevented the British from achieving their goal of driving the Americans from the Trans- Appalachian frontier. As a result of Clark's brilliant military activities, the British ceded to the United States a vast area of land west of the Appalachian Mountains. That territory now includes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the eastern portion of Minnesota.
The exact location of the fort is not known. It is believed that the fort was located on the present-day George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. Archaeological evidence suggests that the fort's front wall was roughly between the Clark Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana.
George Rogers Clark Memorial
An intense interest in commemorating the great accomplishments of George Rogers Clark had developed among the citizens of Vincennes and the state of Indiana during the early 1920s as the 150th anniversary of the American Revolution neared. After various proposals had been considered, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law a resolution establishing the George Rogers Clark Sesquicentennial Commission on May 23, 1928.
The 15-member commission was created for the purpose of "designing and constructing at or near the site of Fort Sackville . . . a permanent memorial, commemorating the winning of the Old Northwest and the achievements of George Rogers Clark and his associates. " President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the memorial June 14, 1936. In 1940, the memorial became a unit of the Indiana Department of Conservation.
In 1966, Congress made the building and grounds a part of the National Park Service. The measure was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson during a ceremony at the memorial on July 23, 1966.
The Clark Memorial is more than 80 feet high and is 90 feet across at the base. The walls are two feet thick. The exterior is composed of granite from Vermont, Minnesota, and Alabama. Towering over the entrance is an eagle with outspread wings. Above the 16 Doric columns is an inscription which reads: "The Conquest of the West - George Rogers Clark and The Frontiersmen of the American Revolution."
Inside the rotunda are seven murals, each created on a single piece of Belgium linen 16 feet by 28 feet. They were painted by Ezra Winter during a period of approximately two and a half years. Hermon Atkins MacNeil, designer of the Standing Liberty quarter, sculptured the bronze statue of Clark. Three of Clark's quotations are inscribed in the memorial: "Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted;" "Our cause is just . . . our country will be grateful;" and "If a country is not worth protecting it is not worth claiming." There are Roman numerals at three locations. Left of the steps are the numerals, 1931, the year construction of the memorial began.
Above the memorial's entrance door are the Roman numerals for the years, 1779 and 1933. In 1779, Clark captured Fort Sackville from the British and in 1933, the memorial was completed. Clark's birth and death years of 1752 and 1818 encircle the statue's base.
It is highly fitting that the nation honors the great individuals and deeds of the past. Certain things do not change. The virtues that Clark and his men exhibited transcend an era. A memorial such as this serves as a reminder that courage, fortitude, and valor do not go out of style. The truly great heroes of history age well and provide guidance for the future.
To learn more about the history of the Memorial, please read the Historic Structures Report/Historical Data written by Edwin C. Bearss (1970).
George Rogers Clark
George Rogers Clark is remembered as the heroic Revolutionary War commander who led a small force of frontiersmen through the freezing waters of the Illinois country to capture British-held Fort Sackville at Vincennes during February 1779. Although this was Clark's most dramatic accomplishment, he continued his exertions on behalf of the American cause in the West during the entire war. These efforts included building forts on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, repelling a British-led Indian attack in the Illinois country, and leading two major expeditions that destroyed the major Shawnee towns in the Ohio country. Despite these accomplishments, the second half of his life witnessed a sad decline in his fortunes and health.
During September 1783, the Revolutionary War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris and Clark returned to private life. Following the war, Clark served as chairman of a board of commissioners that allotted lands across the Ohio River from Louisville to those individuals who had taken part in his 1778 and 1779 campaigns. He also was appointed a commissioner to make treaties with tribes north of the Ohio River who were continuing their raids into Kentucky. During 1786, after it became apparent that the treaties were ineffective, Clark was requested by Kentucky and Virginia authorities to lead a retaliatory expedition against the tribes along the Wabash River. From the beginning, however, Clark was plagued by questions of his authority and by the unruly behavior of the troops. After proceeding along the Wabash River north of Vincennes, a large portion of the men mutinied. Clark returned to Vincennes and established a garrison to protect this outpost before returning to Kentucky.
This expedition was the low point of Clark's career. Soon he became the victim of a deliberate campaign to ruin his reputation. Hounded, too, by creditors, Clark turned to a series of projects in an attempt to recoup his fortune. The first of these undertakings was to start a colony across the Mississippi River in Spanish Louisiana with the consent of the Spanish government. When this consent was not given, Clark made preparations to establish a colony of American adventurers in Spanish territory near Natchez, but President George Washington issued a proclamation against this project. During 1793, Clark agreed to accept a French commission as major general and lead an expedition of American frontiersmen against Spanish Louisiana. This venture also failed when Washington again issued a proclamation against American citizens invading foreign territory. During 1798 the plan was resurrected, but once more came to naught.
During 1803, at the age of 51, Clark moved from Louisville across the Ohio River to Clarksville, IN, a town named in his honor. Six years later he suffered a stroke of paralysis and also the amputation of his leg. He returned to Louisville where he lived with his sister, Lucy Croghan, at Locust Grove. In 1812, in belated recognition of Revolutionary War services, the General Assembly of Virginia granted Clark a sword and half pay of $400 a year. His health continued to deteriorate and he died on February 13, 1818, at the age of 65. On February 15, a cold and stormy day, Clark's body was laid to rest in a ceremony attended by a large crowd. In his funeral oration, Judge John Rowan succinctly summed up the stature and importance of George Rogers Clark during the critical years on the Trans-Appalachian frontier: "The mighty oak of the forest has fallen, and now the scrub oaks sprout all around."
Vigo was born December 3, 1747, in the town of Mondovi in what is now northern Italy. Little is known of his early life until he joined a Spanish regiment and was sent to New Orleans, then a possession of Spain. After his discharge, Vigo entered the fur trade. By 1772, he was established as a merchant and trader in St. Louis in Spanish Upper Louisiana. Later, as a business associate of Spanish Lieutenant Governor Fernando de Leyba, Vigo was quite successful trading among the area's Indians and French settlers.
During July 1778, George Rogers Clark and his force of 180 frontiersmen captured British-controlled but French inhabited Kaskaskia and Cahokia across from St. Louis. Vigo, in St. Louis, decided to support Clark and the Americans by furnishing them with supplies from his own stores. In making this decision, Vigo no doubt was influenced by the assistance being given the Americans by Governor de Leyba. Vigo also loaned Clark money to pay the local inhabitants for needed goods. Vigo's visible assistance was noted by the French and further solidified their support behind Clark.
During December 1778, Vigo was taken prisoner by the British in Vincennes and was held for several weeks. Vigo was released upon the condition that on his way back to St. Louis, he do nothing that would harm the British cause. Vigo complied with the letter, if not the spirit, of this agreement by first returning to St. Louis before starting out for Kaskaskia to report to Clark. Arriving on January 29, 1779, he provided Clark with valuable detailed information on the situation at Vincennes. Vigo told Clark that the British intended to descend upon the Americans at Kaskaskia in the spring and that they would not expect the Americans to attack them at Vincennes during the winter. Clark later wrote of Vigo: "in sho[r]t we got Every Information from this Gentn [gentleman] that we could wish for as he had had good opportunities and had taken great pains to inform himself with a design to give intelligence...."
Thanks to Vigo's information, Clark's army surprised the British at Vincennes and defeated teh redcoats. The fort was surrendered on Feb. 25, 1779.
Vigo's service to the United States continued during the remainder of the Revolution and during the years following. By 1783, Vigo had moved to Vincennes where he spent most of the next 50 years working in the fur trade and serving as a colonel in the militia.
Vigo's business affairs eventually suffered setbacks; virtually impoverished, he died at age 88 in 1836. He was buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Vincennes. Prior to his death, Vigo had specified that a portion of any money received by his estate should be used to purchase a bell for the Vigo County Courthouse in Terre Haute, IN. Finally in 1875, almost a full century after the war, Vigo's estate was paid $8,616 principal and $41,282 in interest for his services both to Clark and to his country.
In 1934, sculptor John Angel was commissioned to prepare a suitable statue of Vigo to be placed on the park grounds adjacent to the George Rogers Clark Memorial. On May 4, 1936, the 10-ton granite work was positioned where it overlooks the Wabash River. For the thousands of visitors to the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, the Vigo statue serves as a fitting tribute to the contributions of this important American patriot.
Father Pierre Gibault
Father Pierre Gibault has earned a place in history as the "Patriot Priest" for his great contributions to the American cause during the Revolutionary War in the West. He also ministered to the spiritual needs of his widely scattered parishioners on this wild and far-flung frontier for more than three decades.
His early years are unknown, he was baptized April 7, 1737 in Montreal, Quebec. It is probable that he attended the Jesuit College at Quebec and perhaps briefly worked in the fur trade before being ordained into the priesthood at the age of 31. He immediately was sent to the Illinois country as the only active missionary priest serving an area which extended from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River and from the Great Lakes to New Orleans. Selecting Kaskaskia, near the Mississippi River, as his headquarters, Gibault traveled by foot, horseback, and canoe through much of this vast region to serve his scattered congregation. He also took an active part in the social life of Kaskaskia, including sports and games. According to one observer, he enjoyed proving his "skill, agility and strength," physical traits that served him well in his strenuous life on the frontier.
Kaskaskia of the 1770s was a British-controlled, but French-populated town. As such Father Gibault's parishioners became caught up in the war raging between Great Britain and its colonies.
On July 4, 1778, American Col. George Rogers Clark and his frontiersmen surprised the Kaskaskians who initially were fearful of their fate. But the inhabitants of Kaskaskia and of Cahokia (approximately 50 miles north of Kaskaskia) soon joined the American cause. A major influence in their decision was Clark's assurance of religious and political freedom. In his Nov. 19, 1779 letter to his friend George Mason, Clark stated, "... the scene of mourning and distress was turned to an excess of joy. . . (the residents began adorning the streets with flowers and pavilions with different colors, completing their happiness by singing, etc.
Having obtained such great success with the French of the Mississippi River towns, Clark's thoughts turned toward the French-inhabited village of Vincennes along the Wabash River. "Post Vincenes never being out of my mind and from some things that I had learnt (I) had some Reason to suspect that Mr Jebault (Gibault) the Priest was inclined to the American Interest previous to our arrival in the Cuntrey . . . (he had) great Influance over the people at this period St Vincent also being under his Jurisdiction (.) I made no doubt of his Integrity to us (.)" Father Gibault volunteered to travel to Vincennes where he convinced the town's inhabitants to embrace the American cause. After remaining a few days in Vincennes, he returned to Kaskaskia to resume his priestly duties.
After the Revolution, Father Gibault lived for a time in Vincennes. Later he moved across the Mississippi River to New Madrid in the present state of Missouri and continued his labors for his church and his God. He died at the age of 65 in 1802.
During his lifetime, Father Gibault never received appropriate recognition for his crucial aid to George Rogers Clark and to the American cause in the West. In an effort to remedy this oversight, a bronze statue of Gibault by Albin Polasek was erected during the summer of 1935 on the park grounds in front of the Old Cathedral.
George Rogers Clark was a remarkable leader. His insight and cunning, coupled with his understanding and experience upon the frontier, made him a formidable adversary. Yet, he could do little without others to help in a variety of ways. Below is a short list of some of the other individuals involved in this exhilarating story of the frontier.
Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark
Capt. Joseph Bowman
Capt. Leonard Helm
Father Pierre Gibault
And, of course, what is a great military leader without a great adversary?
British Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton
Following are links to Internet sites containing information about George Rogers Clark and the capture of Vincennes.
Indina State Historic Bureau - web page contains Col. George Rogers Clark's Memoir, Capt. Joseph Bowman's Journal, Roll of Clarks' officers and privates, Clark's grant land reciepents, Hamilton's Journal and more.
First Illinois Regiment - This living history unit portrays the various units which served under George Rogers Clark. This website offers a wealth of information including a list of monuments to Clark throughout the country.
Locust Grove - This magnificant house was the home of George's sister Lucy and her husband William Croghan. George would spend the last nine years of his life at this home
Fort Sackville was a British outpost located in the frontier settlement of Vincennes. Begun in 1777 and named for a British government official, it was one of several forts built by the French, British or Americans from 1732 to 1813 in this important frontier settlement.
The exact location of the fort is not known. The fort site is located on the present day George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, roughly between the Clark Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial Bridge.