Historical Context: The Northwest Territory

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May 21st 2018
Published: May 21st 2018
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George Rogers Clark Memorial
George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, Vincennes, Indiana

The geographical focus for this trip is the Great Lakes Region. And, as part of that, I expected to learn more about how they were carved out by glaciers and how those glaciers were responsible for most of the geology of the area. Even expected to see some of the oldest rocks on the planet as the North American craton, the original core of the continent, created billions of years ago, is exposed in places nearby. I also expected to to learn about the French and fur traders who were the original explorers of the area.

What I did not expect, though, was the political history we picked up yesterday at this bucket list item, and the reason for our stop here in southern Indiana. George Rogers Clark was a significant actor in the American Revolutionary War and if it weren’t for him, a lot of American westward movement might not have happened, or at least not at the time that it did.

George Rogers Clark was the older brother of William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame, but his contribution might loom even larger. During 1777 and 1778, when

Fort Sackville - Artists Conception
the bulk of America’s war against the British was going on in the original colonies, Clark led an effort, that many have called brilliant, to undo the British hold on the interior parts of the country and, therefore, expose a serious breach in England’s hold on the continent. The British, using alliances with the French and the Native American nations, were able to squeeze the colonists from the frontier side of the continent. Clark’s campaign, using less than 200 men, undid those alliances and broke British control on the area.

Clark first slipped, unnoticed, into the area in 1777 and managed to get the French in this town of Vincennes to turn against their previous allies, the British. From there he moved further west into Illinois towns of Kaskaskia and Cahokia where, working with the French and the Native Americans, he built alliances to undo the British stronghold, which was based in Detroit. The British eventually found out what Clark was doing and General Hamilton led his forces down to the Fort Sackville, just outside of Vincennes, returning the fort, and the town, to British control. Clark led a force in the winter of 1778-9, through the icy cold, Wabash-flooded plains, back to Fort Sackville where, using astute psychological tricks he was able to convince Hamilton that he Clark had a far superior force and got him to surrender. (In actuality, his force wasn’t any bigger than Hamilton’s and was on its last legs anyway.)

By the treaties that finally ended the Revolutionary war, Britain was forced to recognize that it no longer controlled ‘The Northwest Territories’ and ceded the entire chunk of land to the Americans. This was significant in huge ways. First, it was a big chunk of land and was the first territorial expansion of the country. The Northwest Territories included everything north and west of the Ohio river, westward to the Mississippi, and northward to the Great Lakes. That territory eventually became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and the easternmost portion of Minnesota. (I think it is kind of cool that those are the six states we’ve targeted on this trip.)

Perhaps even more significant than the actual expansion of U.S. territory is that the expansion forced the country to deal with political issues that would eventually force it to become a stronger nation. The original thirteen colonies had

Picturesque Bridge Over the Wabash
to define what it meant to become a state under the union. And, in creating these new states, they also formulated the early expression of what later became the Bill of Rights. They also had to decide whether slavery was permitted in these new states - it wasn’t - and that, of course, became controversial a few generations later. Remember that these decisions were being made in the middle 1780s, a few years before we even adopted the Constitution.

So, in an important sense, George Rogers Clark not only helped win the Revolutionary war, but he also set in motion a lot of mechanisms that defined our westward expansion and our political culture as a new nation. I guess I was aware that some Revolutionary War battles were fought ‘inland’ on the frontier, but I wasn’t aware of all of its ramifications. Nor was I aware that it was here, at Vincennes, that much of this took place. Vincennes, a little later, became the capital of the Indiana Territory. And it was also the home of a future president, Benjamin Harrison.

There is one aspect of this history that I feel compelled to write about because our nation isn’t perfect and our history is soaked in the blood of unnecessary prejudice. Historians like to say that Clark was a ‘brilliant strategist’, especially in convincing Hamilton to surrender when Clark’s forces were probably not superior to Hamiltons. Part of Clark’s ‘strategy’ involved some pretty nasty psychology. Clark had managed to capture some Native Americans who were allies of Hamilton and were returning to Fort Sackville. As a ‘show of force’ Clark took a group of them and executed them on the fields in front of the fort. The display was intended to hint to Hamilton that Clark would not display any mercy to the British if they forced Clark to continue the fight. That he chose to use ‘Indians’ as his subjects for this display of brutality shows how little regard he held for their culture. It was also a brutal execution, involving tomahawks and scalping. In the end, historians say, his brutality convinced Hamilton to surrender. But you have to ask the question whether the ends justified the means! To me this display certainly indicates the prejudice of holding ‘Indian’ lives in low regard and, despite the importance to American history, does nothing to elevate my respect for our forebears - we do not always stand on the higher moral ground.

All of this, we learned at this National Historical Park. And I appreciate the history lesson. But I have to say that, unless you are a student of this kind of history, I’m not sure that this is a ‘destination’ stop. Fort Sackville is, of course, long gone and all we have of its remains are artist conceptions. Much of what you learn comes from a 30 minute film at the visitor center, called ‘Long Knives’ - and it is a very good film describing the history that the park seeks to commemorate. The exhibits in the center are minimal and can be seen in a few minutes.

After that, the visitor proceeds outside and walks to the very imposing granite memorial. This structure was erected on the site where the Fort originally stood and is intended to pay tribute to Clark. The memorial consists of a classical style architectural circle of sixteen massive Corinthian columns under a rotunda. Inside is a bronze statue of Clark sitting on a pedestal. The floor is marble, and the walls are covered in seven murals which attempt to tell the story progressively in paintings. The memorial is set in a carefully manicured site on the Wabash river and there is a very picturesque bridge, unrelated to the park, in the background.

And that’s it - in two hours you are completely done with this park. From here you can proceed to state and local historic sites preserving Benjamin Harrison’s home, or a museum on Red Skelton. I’m sure Vincennes has some delightful shops and restaurants.

But I must say that I am disappointed that this is called a National Historic Park instead of an Historic Site or even a Memorial. To me, a National Historic Park represents something pretty big and is deserving of several days worth of exploration. The only other NHP that I have visited so far is Chaco Culture NHP in northwestern New Mexico. We spent four days at that park and just scratched the surface. It was after seeing Chaco that I expanded my bucket list to include National Historic Parks because, I reasoned, that these were called ‘parks’ because they were bigger than a simple site. But clearly that isn’t the case here at GRC. We will be seeing several additional ‘Historic Parks’ on this trip and I will have a chance to understand better what that designation means. However, based on the two I have seen so far, there is no clear meaning to the term - these two are radically different in scope and scale.

In short, this was a good stop, and I learned quite a bit. But I’m not sure it was worth the two days we had allocated, and maybe it wasn’t important enough to be in the bucket list.


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