On the morning of February 25, 1779, Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark, elder brother of explorer William Clark, accepted British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton’s unconditional surrender of Fort Sackville at Vincennes, Indiana.
Despite a 1763 prohibition against settlement of Kentucky and points west, hundreds of colonists and their families drifted beyond the Appalachians. With the Revolutionary War under way, these pioneers were vulnerable to attack from both British and Native American forces.
Clark believed that Hamilton rewarded Indians for raids on American settlements. With the support of Virginia’s Governor Patrick Henry, Clark marshalled volunteers from among the frontiersmen and successfully attacked British outposts along the Mississippi River.
To capture Fort Sackville, Clark relied on his men’s expert marksmanship and a classic military bluff. Although he commanded only two hundred buckskin-clad pioneers, Clark raised flags enough for a company of six hundred. Believing himself overwhelmed, Hamilton surrendered and was imprisoned at Williamsburg. The British never regained control of the fort.
Clark’s success was noted by Governor Thomas Jefferson, of Virginia, and General George Washington:
Sir: On the 4th Instant I had the Honor to receive your Letter of the 19th of June. Your Excellency will permit me to offer you my sincere congratulations upon your appointment to the Government of Virginia.
I thank you much for the accounts Your Excellency has been pleased to transmit me of the successes of Cols. Clarke and Shelby. They are important and interesting, and do great honor to the Officers and Men engaged in the Enterprises. I hope these successes will be followed by very happy consequences. If Colo Clarke could by any means gain possession of Detroit, it would in all probability effectually secure the friendship or at least the neutrality of most of the Western Indians.
Letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, July 10, 1779. Series 4, General Correspondence. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division
Clark’s bold defense of the trans-Appalachian frontier during the Revolution frustrated British attempts to drive Americans out of the region and legitimized American claims to the Northwest Territory—land ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
- Today in History features on Illinois and Michigan contain more information about settlement of this region.
- Search the collection Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910 on George Rogers Clark to retrieve several documents pertaining to the colonel.
- Search the George Washington Papers on George Rogers Clark to retrieve correspondence related to Clark.