His younger brother got most of the glory. Even though George taught William everything he knew, it was always about William. In Indiana, George Rogers Clark got his due. In Kentucky too. In Illinois, he is the forgotten one. Why is that? Why has Illinois never fully given George Rogers Clark his just reward for his efforts? It is hard to fathom.
The Clark family was originally from Virginia. Born in 1752, George Rogers Clark would spend most of his life westward, mainly in Kentucky. When the Revolutionary War broke out, George was 23. At that young of an age, George played a huge role in helping America spread westward to the Mississippi River. George and his allies in what is now Kentucky received appropriations from Virginia Governor Patrick Henry to defend the “Kentucky County” from not only the British and the Indians, but also other settlers determined to turn Kentucky into another colony for the British. Clark’s job was to keep Kentucky in US control, more importantly to Henry, Virginia’s hands.
In his efforts to defend the county, Clark received orders from Governor Henry to attack British forts in what was called “The Illinois Country”. Clark had asked for the orders and he and his men, whom the Indians called “The Long Knives” (for their muskets) set off on a daring raid into British territory in July of 1778.
With 175 men, Clark left Fort Massac and marched 100 miles to Kaskaskia and without firing a shot took Kaskaskia and the entire Illinois Territory for the State of Virginia and the fledgling United States. The raid itself would play no major role in the war, but it did lead to later raids including the capture of Vincennes later that winter that ended the British presence in the Northwest. The huge effect of Clark adding not only Kentucky and Indiana but Illinois as well helped to establish the US as major economic power after the Revolutionary War as the fledgling country would control all of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. The valuable fur trade along with access to major agricultural regions paid huge dividends for the country.
But Clark is almost unknown as a hero in Illinois. In Indiana he has his own statue and park at Vincennes. In Kentucky, he basically founded Paducah and Louisville along with many other towns along the Ohio River. Is it because he died destitute? Is it because he was overshadowed by his brother? Or is it because he is overshadowed by Abraham Lincoln? I tend to agree with the latter.
The History of Illinois is all about Abraham or at least that what is told. But when one begins to examine the fabric of the state’s history, there are many others who have played just as significant a role as Lincoln in the history of the state. From John Deere to Black Hawk to Joseph Medill to even George Rogers Clark, the past in Illinois is a quilt of many people. It is time to give George Rogers Clark his due and to pull him out from under the shadow of Lincoln and onto his own pedestal. His bravery and foresight helped shape a nation beyond the Revolution.
The author and GRC at the mural along the Ohio River in Paducah, Kentucky.