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Bill Thayer

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Part 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Conquest of The Illinois

George Rogers Clark

in the reprint
of the 1920 edition by Milo Quaife,
Southern Illinois University Press, 2001

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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Part 3

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 p23  (Part 2)

When I left Kentucky, October 1, 1777, I plainly saw that every eye was turned towards me as if expecting some stroke in their favor. Some of the settlers doubted my return, supposing I would join the army in Virginia: I left them with reluctance, promising (what I had predetermined) that I would certainly return to their assistance.

 p24  On my arrival at Williamsburg I remained a considerable time settling the accounts of the Kentucky militia and taking note of everything I saw or heard that shed light on the disposition of those in power. Burgoyne's army having been captured and things seeming to wear a pleasing aspect, on December 10 I communicated my design to Governor Henry. At first he seemed to favor it, but to send a party off to so great a distance appeared daring and hazardous even though the service to be performed might be of great utility. To lay the matter before the Assembly, then in session, would be dangerous, as it would soon be known throughout the frontiers, and the first prisoner taken by the Indians would probably give the alarm, which would end in the certain destruction of the party. Governor Henry therefore held several private councils with select men. After making every inquiry into my proposed plans of operations (and particularly into that of a retreat in case of misfortune, in which event I intended to cross the Mississippi into Spanish territory) the expedition was resolved upon; and as an encouragement to those who would engage in it a document was drawn up whereby those gentlemen promised, in the event of success, to use their influence to procure from the Assembly 300 acres of land for each man.

The Governor and Council entered so warmly into the enterprise that I had very little trouble  p25 in getting matters adjusted, and on January 2, 1778, I received my instructions. I received also £1200 for the use of the expedition and an order on the authorities at Pittsburgh for boats, ammunition, etc. Finding from the Governor's conversation with me upon the subject that he did not wish an implicit attention to his instructions should prevent my doing anything that would manifestly tend to the public advantage, I set out on January 4, clothed with all the authority I could wish. I advanced £150 to Major William B. Smith​15 to recruit a force of men on Holston and meet me in Kentucky. Captain Leonard Helm​16 of Fauquier  p26 and Captain Bowman of Frederick were each to raise a company and arrive on February 1 at Redstone old fort.17

Being now in the country where all my arrangements were to be made, I appointed Captain William Harrod​18 and many other officers to the recruiting service and contracted for flour and other necessary stores. General Hand,​19 who  p27 then commanded at Pittsburgh, promised a supply of the articles for which I had orders. I received word from Captain Helm that several gentlemen in his section were endeavoring to counteract his efforts at recruiting, saying no such service was known to the Assembly. In consequence he had to send to the Governor to have his conduct ratified. I also encountered opposition to our enterprise in the country around Pittsburgh, where the people were violently divided into parties over the territorial claims of Virginia and Pennsylvania. As my real instructions were kept secret and only an instrument prepared by the Governor designedly for deception and directing me to raise men for the defense of Kentucky was made public, many men of both parties considered it injurious to the public interest to draw off men at so critical a moment for the defense of a few detached inhabitants that had better be removed.

These circumstances caused some confusion in the business of recruiting. On March 29 I  p28 received a letter from Major Smith by express informing me that he had raised four companies on Holston ready to march immediately to Kentucky in accordance with his orders; while an express from Kentucky brought information that they had been much strengthened since I left there. This information concerning Smith's four companies, besides those of Bowman and Helm which I knew were on their way to join me at Redstone, made me feel easier on the subject of recruits than I otherwise would have been. The recruiting officers secured only such men as had friends in Kentucky or were induced by a desire to see the country.

Meeting with several disappointments, it was late in May before I could leave Redstone with three companies of men and a considerable number of families and private adventurers. Taking in my stores at Pittsburgh and Wheeling, I proceeded cautiously down the Ohio. At the mouth of the Great Kanawha Captain Arbuckle,​20 the commandant, informed us that 250 Indians had warmly attacked his post the day before and wounded a few of his men. The Indians had then directed their course to the  p29 settlements of Greenbrier and Captain Arbuckle had sent off an express to warn the settlers. He thought the forces I had, with the addition of a part of a garrison, could in all probability overtake the Indians and inflict a total rout upon them. The prospect was a flattering one; but the uncertainty of obtaining the advantage over the enemy, the loss of time and perhaps a number of the men, which would cause the destruction of the enterprise upon which I had embarked — these considerations, together with the practical certainty that the settlers would receive the alarm in time and might repel the invaders (which they in fact did), induced me to decline it.

I proceeded on my way, therefore, being joined by Captain James O'Hara,​21 who was on his way to the Arkansas on public business. I landed at the mouth of the Kentucky River.  p30 Here I had intended to erect a fort, since the growth of Kentucky largely depended upon the establishment of a post on the Ohio River as a place of security for emigrants who wished to descend the river; but having in view my designs to the westward I perceived the mouth of the Kentucky was not a proper place to fortify unless we could afford to maintain two posts. In case of success attending my enterprise it would be absolutely necessary to have a post of communication on the river between the Illinois country and Kentucky; and of course the Falls of Ohio​22 was the more eligible spot as it would answer all these desirable purposes and would also protect in large measure the navigation of the river, since as every vessel would be obliged to stop some time at this place they would always be exposed to the Indians.  p31 I had learned that but one company of Major Smith's troops, that of Captain Dillard, had as yet arrived in Kentucky. This alarmed me, as I feared the disappointment would prove fatal to our enterprise. I wrote a letter to Colonel Bowman telling him of my intention to place a garrison at the Falls, and that I had an object in view of the greatest importance to the country. I urged him to meet me there with the available troops recruited by Major Smith and what militia could safely be spared from the different posts.

I moved on the Falls and inspected the several sites available for fortifying; but reflecting that my secret instructions were as yet unknown even to my own party, and not knowing what would be the consequence when they should be divulged, I wished to have everything as secure as possible when we should be joined by the entire force. I observed that the little island of about seven acres opposite the present site of Louisville was seldom or never entirely covered by water. I resolved to take possession and fortify it which I did on the ––––– of June, dividing the island among the families that had followed me, for gardens. These families I now found to be a real asset, as they occasioned but little expense and with the invalids would hold this little post until we should be able to occupy the mainland. This last occurred in the fall agreeably to instructions I sent from the Illinois. The people on the  p32 Monongahela, learning of this post by messengers I sent to them, moved down the river in great numbers. This was one of the chief causes of the rapid settlement of Kentucky.

Upon the arrival of Colonel Bowman with part of the militia and several gentlemen of this section of country we found on examination that we were much weaker than I had expected to be; meanwhile the Indians continued their warfare without intermission and their numbers increased the longer they could, as the British steadily added to their strength by stirring up others to join them. Under these circumstances we could not think of leaving the posts of Kentucky defenseless. We perceived that it was better to run a great risk with one party than to divide our forces in such a manner as to hazard the loss of both. We therefore agreed to take but one complete company and part of another from Kentucky, supposing that these would be replaced by troops we yet expected from Major Smith.

Such were our deliberations after I had made known my instructions. Almost every gentleman present warmly espoused the enterprise and plainly saw the utility of it, and supposed they saw the salvation of Kentucky almost within their reach, but they sorely repined that we were not strong enough to put it beyond all doubt. The soldiery in general debated on the subject but determined to follow their officers. Some were alarmed at the thought of being  p33 taken so great a distance into the enemy's country, fearing that even though they should be successful in the first instance they might be attacked in their posts without the possibility of obtaining succor or of making their retreat. I had spies continually among them, and some dissatisfaction was discovered in Captain Dillard's company. The boats were well secured, therefore, and sentinels were placed where it was thought there was a possibility of the men wading from the island. My design was to take those who would not attempt to desert down the river on our way,​23 but I was outgeneraled by Lieutenant –––––, of whom I had previously conceived a very tolerable opinion. While swimming during the day, they discovered that the channel opposite their camp might be waded, and a little before daybreak he and the greater part of the company slipped down the bank and reached the opposite shore before they were discovered by the sentinels.

Vexed at the idea of their escape in this manner, since one of my principal motives for taking my station on the island was to prevent desertion, and intending to set out the next day, I was undetermined for a few moments what to do. It might require several days for a party to overtake the deserters and having no distrust of those that remained the example was not immediately dangerous.

 p34  However it might prove so hereafter, and recalling that we had with us a number of horses belonging to the gentlemen from Harrodsburg, I ordered a strong party to pursue them; the foot and horse were to relieve each other regularly, and they were to put to death every man they could who would not surrender. They overhauled the deserters in about twenty miles. The latter, discovering their pursuers at a distance, scattered in the woods and only seven or eight were taken. The remainder made their way to different posts; many who were not woodsmen almost perished. The poor lieutenant and the few that remained with him, after suffering almost all that could be felt from hunger and fatigue, arrived at Harrodsburg, where the settlers, having heard of his conduct, would not for some time suffer him to come into their houses nor give him anything to eat. On the return of the party the soldiery hung and burned his effigy.

Every preparation was now made for our departure. After spending a day of amusement we parted with our friends from Kentucky, they to return to the defense of their country and we in search of new adventures. On the twenty-fourth of June, 1778, we left our little island and running about a mile up the river in order to gain the main channel, we shot the Falls at the very moment the sun was under a great eclipse, which caused various conjectures on the part of the superstitious among us.​a

 p35  Knowing that spies were watching the river below the Illinois towns, I had planned to march part of the way by land. I therefore left behind all of our baggage except enough to equip the men after the Indian fashion. Our entire force, after leaving behind those who were judged unequal to the expected fatigues of the march, consisted of but four companies, under Captains Montgomery, Bowman, Helm, and Harrod. My force being so much smaller than I had expected, I found it necessary to alter my plan of operations. As Vincennes was a town of considerable strength, having four hundred militia, besides which there was an Indian town adjoining and large numbers of Indians always in the neighborhood, and since it was more important than any other from the viewpoint of Indian affairs, I had thought of attacking it first; but I now found myself too weak to undertake this, and accordingly resolved to begin operations against the Illinois towns. Although they had more inhabitants than Vincennes they were scattered in different villages. There was less danger of our being immediately over­powered by the Indians; in case of necessity, too, we could probably make good our retreat to the Spanish side of the river, while if we were successful here the way might be paved for us to take possession of Vincennes.

I was well aware of the fact that the French inhabitants of these western settlements had great influence over the Indians, by whom they  p36 were more beloved than were any other Europeans. I knew also that their commercial intercourse extended throughout the entire western and northwestern country, while the governing interest on the Great Lakes was chiefly in the hands of the English, who were not popular with the natives. These reflections, along with others of simple import, determined me to strengthen myself, if possible, by adopting such a course of conduct as would tend to attach the whole French and Indian population to our interest, and give us influence beyond the limits of the country which constituted the objective of our campaign. Such were the principles which guided my further conduct; fortunately I received at this time a letter from Colonel Campbell​24 at Pittsburgh informing me of the contents of the treaty between France and America.

 p37  Intending to leave the Ohio at Fort Massac,​25 three leagues below the mouth of the Tennessee, I landed on Barataria, a small island in the mouth of that river, to make preparations for our march. A few hours after our arrival here, one John Duff, coming down the river with a party of hunters, was brought to by our boats. They were originally from the states, and they expressed pleasure in the adventure, their surprise having been owing to lack of knowledge who we were. They had recently been at Kaskaskia and were able to give us all the information we desired. They told us that Governor Abbott​26 had recently left Vincennes to go to Detroit on business of importance.  p38 Mr. Rochblave​27 was commanding at Kaskaskia. The militia were in good order, spies were watching the Mississippi, and all hunters were instructed to keep close watch for the rebels. The fort was kept as orderly as an asylum, but our informants thought this watchfulness was due more to a fondness for parade than to any expectation of a visit from us. Should they receive timely notice of our approach, the hunters thought, they would give us a warm reception, since they had been taught to entertain horrible ideas of the barbarity of the rebels, especially so of the Virginians. If, however, we could surprise the place, they had no doubt of our ability to master it at pleasure.

These men asked to be permitted to join our expedition, and offered to assist the guides in conducting our party across the country. This offer was accepted by me and they proved a  p39 valuable acquisition, all the more so in view of the fact that I had had no intelligence concerning the French posts since that gained from the spies I had sent a year before. No part of the information I received pleased me more than that concerning the inhabitants believing us to be more savage than their neighbors, the Indians. I resolved to make capital of this should I be fortunate enough to gain control over them, since I considered that the greater the shock I could give them in the beginning the more appreciative would they be later of my lenity, and the more valuable as friends. This I conceived to accord with human nature as I had observed it in many instances.

Milo Quaife's Notes:

15 William Bailey Smith, a native of Virginia, who early migrated to North Carolina, where he associated with the Hendersons and other prominent men of the time. In 1775 he attended the treaty at Watauga whereby Henderson secured his Kentucky claim from the Cherokee, and he went out to Boonesborough that summer. In 1777 he went back to the settlements and brought out a force of men for the relief of Kentucky. He largely failed in his recruiting efforts for which Clark commissioned him. Of the one small company he eventually forwarded to Clark, a portion deserted on learning the destination of the expedition. Smith later returned to North Carolina where he was commissioned to extend the boundary line between modern Tennessee and Kentucky. For this service he received a tract on Green River, where he settled in 1794 and died in 1818.

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16 Leonard Helm had served with Clark in Lord Dunmore's War of 1774. He was one of Clark's captains in the Illinois expedition, and the commander relied more upon him, perhaps, than any other member of his force.

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17 This was at the mouth of Redstone Creek, where the Ohio Company had built a storehouse as early as 1752. In 1754 the English defenses here were burned by the French, but after the capture of Fort Duquesne by the English in 1758, an officer was sent to reëstablish a fort at this point. It was abandoned during Pontiac's War, but appears to have been garrisoned at the time of Lord Dunmore's War in 1774, and was now made the rendezvous for Clark's forces. In 1785 the town of Brownsville was incorporated here, and this remained for many years an important starting point for western emigration.

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18 This was the elder brother of James Harrod, the founder of Harrodsburg. William was with his brother at this place in 1775, but western Pennsylvania continued to be his permanent home. He raised a company under the appointment from Clark here noted and, joining his commander at the Falls of Ohio, served efficiently throughout the Illinois campaign. The next year he brought a company from the Falls of Ohio to take part in Colonel Bowman's campaign into the Miami country in 1779. He died in 1801.

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19 Edward Hand was born in Ireland on the last day of the year 1744. He studied medicine and in 1767 became surgeon's mate in the British army, his regiment being sent to America that same summer. It was at once ordered to Fort Pitt, where Hand served until 1774; then, the regiment being ordered east, he resigned and settled at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At the outbreak of the Revolution he enlisted in the colonial army and soon joined Washington before Boston, serving later in the Long Island and New Jersey campaigns. In the spring of 1777 he was made brigadier-general and sent to the West as commander-in‑chief. Hampered here in his work, he asked to be recalled early the following year, and served in the East until the close of the war. He then retired to his home near Lancaster and resumed the practice of medicine. He died September 3, 1802.

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20 Captain Matthew Arbuckle was one of the best known woodsmen and Indian fighters of this period. In 1765 he had explored the Kanawha Valley to the Ohio, the first white man to pass this way except as a captive in the hands of the Indians. In 1776 he was sent to command Fort Randolph at the mouth of the Kanawha, where he remained for the three ensuing years. He was killed in 1781 by a falling tree.

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21 James O'Hara entered the Indian trade at Pittsburgh prior to 1773. He enlisted in the Ninth Virginia Regiment during the Revolution, being employed as quartermaster. In the Whiskey Rebellion of Washington's administration he served as quartermaster-general of the army, and in a similar capacity under General Wayne in 1794. In 1797 he established at Pittsburgh the first glass manufactory west of the Alleghanies, and by his business ability did much to develop the town. He died in 1819 leaving a large estate. At the time of Clark's journey O'Hara had been sent by General Hand to succor Captain Willing, who had gone to the lower Mississippi country to secure the neutrality of the inhabitants there and bring back provisions to the states. Willing, although not mentioned by Clark, is of interest to our story in at least two respects. After a long and stormy career in the far Southwest, he sent his troops up the Mississippi, under charge of Lieutenant Robert George, who, arriving in the Illinois country, placed them subject to the orders of Clark. Willing himself went to Mobile where he was captured by the British and narrowly escaped being hung. After a long imprisonment, at one time being loaded with irons in New York City for three months, Willing was released on parole and finally exchanged for Governor Henry Hamilton, who since his capture by the Americans had undergone ill treatment at their hands fairly comparable to that which the British meted out to Willing.

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22 At the site of modern Louisville.

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23 The precise meaning which Clark intended to convey by this statement is not clear.

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24 Colonel John Campbell was a native of Ireland who early came to America and entered upon the Indian trade. In 1764 he laid out a town on the site of modern Pittsburgh, and ten years later purchased a large tract of land at the Falls of Ohio. He acted as commissary at Fort Pitt during the early years of the Revolution. In the summer of 1779 he was captured at the defeat of Colonel Rogers' party on the Ohio a short distance above Cincinnati. Campbell was carried to Quebec and there held prisoner until almost the close of the Revolution. In 1784 he located in the vicinity of Louisville. He served in the Virginia legislature from Kentucky, in the Kentucky constitutional convention of 1792, and in 1798 was speaker of the state senate. He died in 1799.

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25 Fort Massac was a French post erected in 1757 on the north side of the Ohio, eight miles below Paducah, Kentucky. When the French surrendered Illinois to the British the latter neglected to fortify this point, and so Clark was enabled to make it his point of entry into Illinois. In 1794 General Wayne established a fort on the site of the old French post, and the new Fort Massac continued for many years a post of the regular army in the Northwest.

Thayer's Note: The pages at Illinois Department of Natural Resources and StateParks.Com provide good information; see alsothe editor's note to Bedford's Tour down the Cumberland . . ., Tenn. Hist. Mag. V No. 1, p53.

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26 Edward Abbott was a British artillery officer who came into the Northwest about the close of the French régimeº in this region. In the spring of 1777 he was sent to Vincennes, being the first and only British governor there. He built Fort Sackville, which Clark captured from Hamilton in the winter of 1779. As here noted, Abbott was withdrawn from Vincennes in February, 1778. In July of this year he was sent to the West Indies, and therewith ceased to figure in the history of the Northwest.

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27 Philippe François Rastel, sieur de Rochblave, was a native of France who served for a time in the army. Coming to New France about the year 1750, he entered the colonial army and was employed about Fort Duquesne and in the Illinois country. At the close of the French and Indian War he located at Kaskaskia and here married in 1763. Later he crossed the Mississippi into Spanish territory and was at Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, for a time. In 1776, when the last British officer withdrew from Kaskaskia, Rochblave was left in command, but with no garrison or other support. Clark sent him a prisoner to Virginia. Here he evaded his parole and made his way to the British army in New York. He died in Lower Canada in 1802.

Thayer's Note:

a According to Fred Espenak's Canon of Eclipses at NASA, at the Falls of the Ohio the eclipse of June 24, 1778 obscured roughly 88% of the sun. Eclipses start to be noticeable at about 70%, but not markedly so until past 90%.

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