By PATRICK MCGINLEY
He still stands here, looking southwest across the Mississippi, claiming the lands he conquered more than 200 years ago. George Rogers Clark was born in Virginia but moved to Kentucky after the French and Indian War. Shortly after the war, King George forbade colonists to settle west of a line running from Maine to southern Georgia mostly along the Allegheny Mountains. This arbitrary limit was known as the Proclamation Line of 1763. Many colonists had fought in the area west of it during the French and Indian War and considered the region a prize for their service. The king was now trying to deprive them of the lands they had thought they were fighting for. The British army took over many of the old French forts, and some French people remained in the area, now under British rule. Many other settlers had also moved into what is now Pennsylvania and Kentucky and wanted to stay there, too.
Once the Revolutionary War started, the lands west of the Proclamation Line were in limbo. If the colonists won the war, would that area still remain in British hands? George Rogers Clark was in his mid-20s when he was chosen by people in the Kentucky settlements to ask Virginia to consider Kentucky a part of the Virginia colony. Kentucky would receive the protection of Virginia from both the British and the Indians. When Clark met with the governor of Virginia Patrick Henry, another plan was discussed. Clark wanted to move farther west and attack the British forts in the Illinois territory. He was supported by Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, who realized this would double the size of the country should the colonists win. Governor Henry supplied Clark with $1,200 and 50 barrels of powder and agreed to the venture.
Clark set out for Fort Pitt to recruit volunteers for his journey. He had hoped to gain 300 soldiers but had about 200 when they left the fort. The men floated down the Ohio River and came to the Wabash River. They captured the fort at Vincennes, Ind., and went south on the river to where Paducah, Ky., is located today. The men hid their boats and canoes and dressed like Indians. They walked across the southern tip of Illinois just north of Fort Massac. They then headed north and captured the forts at Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, and Cahokia.
After Clark overpowered Kaskaskia, British Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton headed south from Detroit to capture Clark and his "Long Knives." He reoccupied Vincennes and remained for the winter, planning to resume his venture in the spring. Clark had made friends with a Catholic priest, Fr. Pierre Gibault, and asked him to travel to Vincennes to quietly speak to the inhabitants of the fort of the generosity Clark had shown the people of Kaskaskia and Cahokia. Many of the people were French and hated the British for having won the French and Indian War. They quickly sided with Clark. Clark gave Gibault a letter to read to the inhabitants of Vincennes:
"To the inhabitants of Vincennes – Gentlemen: Being now within two miles of your village with my army, determined to take your fort this night, and not being willing to surprise you, I take this step to request as such of you are true citizens and willing to enjoy the liberty I bring to you, to remain still in your houses. And those, if any there be, that are friends to the king, will instantly repair to the fort and join the Hair-buyer General and fight like men, and if any such, as do not go to the fort shall be discovered afterwards, they may depend on severe punishment. On the contrary, those that are true friends to liberty may depend on being well treated. And I once more request they shall keep out of the streets, for every person I find in arms on my arrival, I shall treat as an enemy. G. R. Clark"
Henry Hamilton was known as the "hair buyer" because he was alleged to have paid the Indians for every scalp which belonged to a colonist not loyal to the Crown. Hamilton was amazed when he heard about the letter. Clark had marched his men 240 miles in the dead of winter, crossing frozen land and icy ponds as they traveled from Cahokia to Vincennes. Troops did not fight in winter, let alone march over 200 miles in winter! On Feb. 24, 1779, with little support from the local people Hamilton surrendered. He and his officers were sent on horseback to Williamsburg as a present for Gov. Patrick Henry.
The land George Rogers Clark won from the British later became known as the Northwest Territory. Five states were carved from it: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. So as the statue of Clark on the bluff in Quincy's Riverview Park looks to the southwest, he can be assured the land to the north and east behind him remained true to his intentions.
In 1907 State Rep. (and later state Sen.) Campbell S. Hearn of Quincy secured $6,000 from the state of Illinois to erect a statue of George Rogers Clark in Riverview Park. The bronze statue is nine feet tall on a pedestal 11-feet, 9-inches high. The creator of the statue was Charles J. Mulligan, a student of Lorado Taft who designed the Lincoln-Douglas Memorial in Quincy's Washington Park.
The statue was unveiled on May 22, 1909. More than 8,000 people, including a marching band and two choral groups, attended the festivities. The great-great-grandson of George Rogers Clark, Rogers Clark Ballard, was to conduct the unveiling. However, he died May 5, 1909, from complications of an appendectomy. Ellen Pearce Bodley, Clark's 12-year-old great-great-niece, unveiled the statue. Gov. Charles Deneen, Sen. Hearn, Mayor John Steinbach, and Edward J. Parker of the Quincy Historical Society were just a few of the many dignitaries who attended the ceremony.
The Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County has in its library one of the programs for the 1909 ceremony and several from the 100th anniversary ceremony honoring the unveiling of the statue in 2009. The original 1909 committee kept copious notes and copies of letters that can also be viewed at the Society.
Patrick McGinley is a retired teacher of Quincy Public Schools and John Wood Community College. He attended Quincy University, Western Illinois University, and Southern Illinois University where he earned a doctorate. He is currently the secretary of the Historical Society.
Husar, Ed. "Memory of View from Park Turns into Labor of love." Quincy Herald-Whig. November 18, 2005.
Letter of Illinois State Senator Campbell S. Hearn, speech at unveiling, in File MS, Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, Quincy, Illinois.
Programme of the Unveiling of the Statue, May 22, 1909, in File MS, Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, Quincy, Illinois.
WPA Collection; Manuscript Catalog, August 2, 1939, in File MS, Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, Quincy, Illinois.