“I have given the United States half the territory they possess, and for them to suffer me to remain in poverty, in consequence of it, will not redound much to their honor hereafter.”
— General George Rogers Clark, Letter to General Jonathan Clark
George Rogers Clark’s life didn’t fall apart all at once. It broke down piece by piece over a period of years, weighted down by debt and flooded by alcoholism. The State of Virginia’s treatment of the dynamic officer who had done so much on her behalf was grotesque. Bankrupted by years of conflict and economic disruption, Virginia made it policy not to honor promises of reimbursement for expenditures that could not be throughly documented.
Of course, Clark’s bookkeeping was imperfect; he was busy with military operations in the back of beyond. But he was not derelict about it. He did account for expenses — and his accounting was “lost” and some of it destroyed when the newly-minted Loyalist commander Benedict Arnold raided the new capital of Richmond.
The main problem was that the cost of western campaigns had shocked and dismayed eastern legislators.
In lieu of cash reimbursement, Clark received a substantial grant of land, which Virginia possessed in abundance. It did him little good. In 1780, he sold 1,500 acres to buy flour for his Peckuwe expedition. Over the years, he would have to sell land to satisfy creditors.
The state did present him with a sword in appreciation of his service. A second-hand sword. Seriously. Clark broke it in a fit of rage, the likes of which consumed him more and more frequently as the years advanced and the walls closed in.
As early as 1781, Clark was coping with the stresses of command and personal financial difficulties with drink. A lot of drink. He was accused of drinking on duty. One of his officers wrote that:
“He has lost the confidence of the people and is said become a sot; perhaps something worse.”
What something worse might be remains unsaid.
That Clark became a raging (literally) alcoholic cannot be denied. He drank heavily and raged against those who had wronged him. And, according to family lore, when in his cups he also wept for lost love. Supposedly, Clark had fallen in love with Teresa de Leyba, sister of the Spanish governor he met in St. Louis in 1778. They were to marry after the war, but debt, etc… Teresa returned to Spain and entered a convent and Clark would never love again.
The romantic story isn’t true, at least not entirely. Clark biographer William Nester asserts that de Leyba had no sister. Teresa may have been a servant in the de Leyba household. Or she may not have existed at all. In any case, Clark remained a bachelor all his days. He was hardly fit either financially or personally, to marry anyone anyway.
Clark remained friends with Thomas Jefferson, who wanted him to lead an expedition to explore west of the Mississippi. Clark turned him down; he probably wasn’t in any shape to undertake such a trek. His once-magnificent physique had gone slack and run to fat thanks to the tender mercies of John Barleycorn. It would fall to his younger brother, Captain William Clark, to join with Meriwether Lewis in leading the Corps of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean.
Clark schemed with the French and the Spanish, trying desperately to revive his fortunes wth filibustering plots. Nothing came of them. Nothing ever worked right for him again. He would suffer a stroke and fell into a fireplace, burning his leg so badly that it had to be amputated. He lived on the charity of his large and loving family. In 1818, he suffered another stroke and the long, sad decline was over.
What to make of George Rogers Clark? During the 19th and early part of the 20th Century, he was regarded as the man who won the West for the new United States. More recent historians have downplayed his “conquest” of the Illinois country, asserting that it was really just a temporary occupation that had little or no impact on the Treaty of Paris settlement of 1783.
If Clark had succeeded in his true mission of taking Detroit, there would be no doubt that he did, indeed win the West for the U.S. As it happened, the British did not actually give up Detroit until after Anthony Wayne finally decisively defeated the Ohio Indians at Fallen Timbers in 1794.
The bitter failure to achieve Clark’s main strategic goal does make the impact of his other accomplishments more ambiguous. My own take is that the Illinois Campaign of 1778-79 made the British realize that the far-flung territories of the Illinois were too vulnerable to attempt to retain. After all, Clark took it with fewer than 200 men. What he had done in the Revolutionary War could be done again by forces of the aborning American Republic. Better to just sign it away.
Under that analysis, Clark did, indeed, push the borders of the new United States to the Mississippi.
And there can be no denying the sheer epic balls-out audacity of the campaign. Whatever its ultimate strategic outcome, you have to tip your hat to Clark’s courage, leadership, and diplomatic acumen. The man was a hero by any reasonable measure.
His critics have a fair point that his obsession with his own strategic vision distracted him from the direct threat posed by raids from the Ohio country. The Shawnee, Mingo, Wyandot, Miami and Delaware were a much more potent and direct menace to the Kentucky settlements than any of the tribesmen Clark dealt with so deftly at Cahokia or so brutally at Vincennes. Perhaps his undeniable leadership qualities would have been better deployed going straight after them as he did at Peckuwe in 1780. And it’s hard not to agree that he should have been more attentive to guarding the Upper Ohio rather than focusing on his base at the Falls of the Ohio.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a bad drunk himself, wrote: “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” That certainly holds true for George Rogers Clark. Having glimpsed myself the destructive potential of an ardent relationship with the bottle, it is painful and revolting to confront what became of the man. But what he became does not erase what he once was. And for a time, George Rogers Clark was magnificent — one of the greatest of the Frontier Partisans.