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Bill Thayer

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The Conquest of the Illinois
George Rogers Clark

The Conquest of the Illinois, also known as "Clark's Memoir", is one of the most noteworthy of the 78 books — Nov 2017 — on American history on this site: it's a first-hand account by the chief participant, and thus a key primary source for the early history of the United States.

The document is an extraordinary one. The extraordinary part starts with its author, 21 years old at the opening of his narrative and not yet 27 when he and his men take Vincennes. The campaign he describes was his own creation, and was executed by him and not much more than a handful of men with minimal outside support, and its success insured that it would be the United States, and not Great Britain, who would control what would become the Northwest Territory: Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, with an aggregate area of about half the Thirteen original States, but more importantly forming a bulwark for them against foreign incursion, and guaranteeing American access to the Mississippi River, quickly to become crucial in the new country's exports and economic power.

Even more interestingly, it seems to me — I had never read the work until I input it here — The Conquest of the Illinois is a strikingly modern account, with its constant awareness of and emphasis on psychological warfare: out-psyching the British and the Indians, but also winning the hearts and minds of many of the native American and the pioneer French inhabitants of this vast area. In today's terms, Clark led a special forces unit, in which infiltration, engineering, psyops, and of course the more standard ingredients of military success, good generalship and physical training, all contributed to produce victory. The lesson is there to be read by today's Soldier and any who would lead them.

Faced with an account of this kind, in which the author is the chief protagonist of a great success story, we will, as thinking readers, naturally wonder how true it all is: it wouldn't be the first tissue of lies to palm itself onto its public. Indeed, no less a reader than Theodore Roosevelt thought the Memoir was essentially a tall tale: largely because of him, though, the critical faculties of scholars have been brought to bear on the matter and Clark has been vindicated.

I'm glad this is so, since for my part — I'm certainly no scholar — Clark's account fairly breathes truth. First of all, even if the details were false, the success of Clark's self-imposed mission is unarguable — and the difficulties he faced, if not these, solved in the ways he reports, must have been others equally great: Se non è vero, è ben trovato. But the text is strewn with all kinds of indications that the account is literally true: for example, the slice-of‑life passage (p8) where he and his companion have just walked out of the wilderness at a place they hoped would provide comfort and supplies, but find it abandoned and desolate: in shock they just sit down and look at each other in silence; and at one point at least, an important one at that (p125), he makes a speech, but writing years later he can no longer remember what he said — an untruthful man, or even a reputable ancient historian, would have invented it; and thruout, repeated regrets for various things (p136, for instance, but also in connection with his much-desired project to take Detroit) where it's clear he's attempted to put them out of his mind but they keep rolling around in him even years later: an experience we can all connect with.

Sure enough, though, we're all human; my gut and a long habit of explication de texte, tell me that though the facts may be true, the face Clark puts on them may be less so. Never once does he report a failure without explaining how in fact he had something good in mind and thus how in some manner it was planned and OK after all: like many writers of reports, he justifies himself. Here and there, too, he protests ever so slightly too much as to his American patriotism — and sure enough, his later involvement in the plans of the Frenchman Genêt shows that in a practical sense he was more of a freewheeling adventurer than a pure patriot; perfectly understandable after all since the United States had barely existed a decade or two.

Yet the most extraordinary feature of Clark's Memoir, making it a thoroughly relevant document for our own time, has to do precisely with being American.

There are of course the obvious advantages that allow an enterprising twenty-something to make history: but with generations of striking examples behind us, it hardly needs to be pointed out that the American climate of opportunity for all leads to personal success for far more of us than would be possible elsewhere, especially to the extent that the government stays discreetly out of our way, as was planned by the Founding Fathers.

Above all, though, Clark spells out clearly the advantages to the Soldier in being American, that he must have been one of the earliest to see: repeatedly, he notes the persuasiveness of the American ethic and the American way of government. Decency, honesty, democracy, the rule of law, tolerance for people's religion, respect for our property (even, as much as possible, in wartime) and the lack of covetous designs: to a good psyops man, these are weapons more powerful than muskets or nukes, and he records how they won over much of the French and the Indian population. Without such advantages, without winning over that civilian population, Kaskaskia and Cahokia could not have been taken, and ultimately the Northwest Territory would have become part of Canada — and the world a very different place.

Elsewhere Online

Another modernized edition of Clark's text, differently massaged, had already appeared in 1897, as part of a two-volume set edited by William Hayden English and entitled Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio 1778‑1783 and Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark: you may find it complete on the official site of the State of Indiana.

For technical details on how this site is laid out, see below, after the publisher's preface and my table of contents.

 p. xv  Publishers' Preface

The publishers of The Lakeside Classics have held themselves free to take any material that comes to hand, which promises to be interesting and worth while, regardless of its chronological relation to previous volumes, and this year they turn back from the early years of the Nineteenth Century to the stirring period of the Revolution.

Most of us think of the Revolution as being fought only in the Colonies stretched along the Atlantic Seaboard. Yet out in what is now Illinois and Indiana, a frontiersman by the name of George Rogers Clark carried on a campaign for American supremacy that for enterprise, daring and determination, is equal to any in our history. To his foresight and success is due the fact that the great country lying west of Pittsburgh, north of the Ohio and stretching to the Mississippi, was saved for the Colonies, and did not fall to the lot of Canada under the Treaty of Paris.

Clark's Memoir was written in illiterate style and with the spelling and punctuation of the frontiersman, and, in its original form, makes difficult reading for any but the historical scholar. We are, therefore, indebted to Mr.  p. xvi Milo M. Quaife not only for his continuing to act as editor, but also for his appreciation of the necessity of transcribing the Memoir and for accomplishing it so successfully.

The publishers feel that they are especially fortunate in being able to put this heroic, in readable form, into the hands of their friends and patrons, and do so with their annual message of Christmas Good-Will.

The Publishers.

Christmas 1920.

The numbered "Parts", and the summaries in this Table of Contents, are my own and have no editorial authority. In order to avoid a single indigestibly long webpage, I merely divided the text at the places I thought the most suitable.

Historical Introduction by Milo Milton Quaife

1774‑1777: Clark throws his lot in with the new Virginian county of Kentucky. He travels back to Virginia, to Williamsburg — its capital at the time — to obtain financing for the defense of Kentucky. He returns to Kentucky with men and ammunition.

Oct 1777 – Jun 1778: Clark lobbies for, and gets, official support from Virginia for operations against the British in the Northwest. He builds a base at the Falls of the Ohio, then sets out for the Illinois.

Jun‑Jul 1778: Clark secures Kaskaskia, then Cahokia, mostly by winning the hearts and minds of the French population there.

Jul‑Jul 1778: Clark's firmness and straight shooting with the Indians gain their respect and cause many to desert the cause of the British. Treaties with the Indians.

1778 – Feb 1779: Clark consolidates the American position in the Illinois. Relations with the Indians and the French; final preparations for the campaign against the key British fort at Vincennes.

Feb 1779: Clark and his men trek to Vincennes, for long distances in chest-high water — and take the British fort, thus securing the Northwest to the fledgling United States.

Feb 1779 – spring 1780: Clark wants to march on Detroit, but just doesn't get the reinforcements he needs, so abandons the project, and consolidates the American hold on the upper Mississippi and the Northwest.

[decorative delimiter]

Technical Details

Edition Used

The edition transcribed here is the 2001 reprint by Southern Illinois University Press, minus the new foreword (pages v‑xiii) written for that edition by Prof. Rand Burnette, which remain under copyright. The basic edition by Milo Milton Quaife, including the modernized text of Clark's memoir and 58 editorial notes, dates to 1920 and is in the public domain: details here on the copyright law involved.


As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if successful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

This transcription has been minutely proofread. In the table of contents above, the sections are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe the text of them to be completely errorfree. As elsewhere onsite, the header bar at the top of each chapter's webpage will remind you with the same color scheme.

The edition I followed was well proofread. I marked the few corrections, when important (or unavoidable because inside a link), with a bullet like this;º and when trivial, with a dotted underscore like this: as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the bullet or the underscored words to read the variant. Similarly, bullets before measurements provide conversions to metric, e.g., 10 miles.

Very occasionally also there appear to be other errors not marked by the editor; they may be in the sources themselves; I've marked them º. A small number of odd spellings, curious turns of phrase, etc. have been marked <!‑‑ sic  in the sourcecode, just to confirm that they were checked.

Any other mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have a copy of the printed book in front of you.

Pagination and Local Links

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is shown in the right margin of the text at the page turns (as in the publisher's preface above); these are also local anchors. Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the author's own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.


The 2001 edition reproduces two illustrations found in the original of 1920, which is almost certainly all of them. The facsimile of the first page of Clark's manuscript, facing p. xxviii in the print edition — I've moved it — is barely readable. Much clearer, on the other hand, is the frontispiece, a black-and‑white reproduction of Matthew Jouett's portrait of Clark; but it was painted after Clark's death and depicts him toward the end of his life, nothing like the young man of 27 whose story is told in his book: I've omitted it. The incurably curious will find the best online reproduction of the Jouett painting at the official site of the State of Indiana.


There were no maps in the original memoir, nor did Dr. Quaife add any of his own when editing it. To follow Clark's expedition properly, however, does seem to require the occasional map.

[image ALT: A woodcut of a group of people in the dress of working people of the late 19c, many of them armed with muskets, in front of a wooden fort.]

The icon I use to indicate this subsite is an adaptation of the United States postage stamp issued in 1929 to commemorate the Vincennes sesquicentennial. The unaltered stamp may be seen on several websites, for example at Mystic Stamps.

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Site updated: 1 Apr 18