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LETTER FROM GENERAL GEORGE ROGERS CLARK TO HIS
FRIEND AND PATRON GEORGE MASON, OF
GUNSTON HALL, VIRGINIA
LOUISVILLE, FALLS OF OHIO, NOV. 19, 1779
My Dear Sir:
Continue to favor me with your valuable lessons---continue your reprimands as though I was your son---when suspicious, think not that promotion, or conferred honor, will occasion any unnecessary pride in me. You have infused too many of your valuable precepts in me to be guilty of the like, or to show any indifference to those that ought to be dear to me. It is with pleasure that I obey in transmitting to you a short sketch of my enterprise and proceeding in the Illinois, as near as I can recollect, or gather from memorandums.
After disengaging myself from Kentucky I set out for Williamsburg in August, 1777, in order to settle my accounts. I had just reasons, known to few but myself, that occasioned me to resolve not to have any further command whatever, without I should find a very great call for troops and my country in danger; in such case I was determined to lose my life rather (than) we should submit. On my arrival, I found, to appearance, a friend in many gentlemen of note; that offered their interest to me in case I should offer at any post. Many (were) surprised that I would not solicit for some berth. I must confess that I think myself often to blame for not making use of interest for my promotion, but to merit it first is such a fixed principle with me that I never could, and I hope never shall, ask for a post of honor, as I think the public ought to be the best judge whether a person deserves it or not; if he did he would certainly be rewarded according to the virtue they had. But finding that we were in (an) alarming situation, the Indians desperate on one side, the Britains on the other, I immediately resolved to encourage an expedition to the Illinois. But to make it public was a certain loss of it. I proposed the plan to a few gentlemen; they communicated it to the governor; it was immediately determined on, to (be) put in execution as soon as a bill could be passed to enable the governor to order it. It accordingly passed, though but a few in the House knew the real intent of it. After giving the council all the intelligence I possibly could, I resolved to pursue my other plans. But being desired by the governor to stay some time in town, I waited with impatience, he, I suppose, believing that I wanted the command, and was determined to give it to me, but it was far from my inclination at that time. I was summoned to attend the council board; the instructions and necessary papers were ready for putting in the name of the person to command. I believe they expected me to solicit for it, but I resolved not to do so, for reasons I hinted you before. However, I expected it after being told the command of this little army was designed for me. I then got every request granted, and (was) fully empowered to raise as many men as I could, not exceeding a certain number. After being engaged I was then as determined to prosecute it with vigor as I was before indifferent about the command. I had, since the beginning of the war, taken pains to make myself acquainted with the true situation of the British posts on the frontiers, and since find that I was not mistaken in my judgment. I was ordered to attack the Illinois---in case of success to carry my arms to any quarter I pleased. I was certain that with five hundred men I could take the Illinois, and by my treating the inhabitants as fellow-citizens, and (showing) them that I meant to protect rather than treat them as a conquered people---engaging the Indians to our interest, etc.---it might probably have so great an effect on their countrymen at Detroit (they already disliked their master), that it would be an easy prey for me. I should have mentioned my design to His Excellency, but was convinced or afraid that it might lessen his esteem for me, as it was a general opinion that it would take several thousand to approach that place. I was happy with the thoughts of fair prospects of undeceiving the public respecting their formidable enemies on our frontiers. I left Williamsburg, January the 18th, made as quick dispatch as possible to the frontiers, and by the end of the month had recruiting parties disposed from Pittsburg to Carolina; had my little army recruited in half the time I expected.
Elevated with the thoughts of the great service we should do our country, in some measure putting an end to the Indian war on our frontiers, it may appear to you to be a mere presumption in me, but I was always too jealous of my self to be far wrong in plans that I had so long studied, and since find that I could have executed it with the greatest ease if it had not been (for the) following conduct of many leading men in the frontiers that had liked to have put an end to the enterprise: Not knowing my destination, and through a spirit of obstinacy, they combined and did everything that lay in their power to stop the men that had enlisted, and set the whole frontiers in an uproar, even condescended to harbor and protect those that deserted. I found my case desperate---the longer I remained the worse it was. I plainly saw that my principal design was baffled. I was resolved to push to Kentucky with what men I could gather in West Augusta, being joined by Captains Bowman and Helm who had each raised a company for the expedition, but two-thirds of them was stopped by the undersigned enemies to the country that I before mentioned. In the whole, I had about one hundred and fifty men collected, and set sail for the falls. I had, previous to this, received letters from Captain Smith, on Holdston, informing me that he intended to meet me at that place with near two hundred men, which encouraged me much, as I was in hopes of being enabled by that reinforcement at least to attack the Illinois with a probability of success, etc.
I set out from Redstone the 12th of May, leaving the country in great confusion, much distressed by the Indians. General Hand, pleased with my intentions, furnished me with every necessary I wanted, and the --- of May I arrived at the Kanawha river, to the joy of the garrison, as they were very weak and had the day before been attacked by a large body of Indians.
Being joined by Captain Oharrard's company on his way to the Osark, after spending a day or two we set out and had a very pleasant voyage to the falls of Ohio; having sent expresses to the stations on Kentucky from the mouth of the river, for Captain Smith to join me immediately, as I made no doubt but that he was waiting for me. But you may easily guess at my mortification on being informed that he had not arrived; that all his men had been stopped by the incessant labors of the populace, except part of a company that had arrived under the command of one Captain Dillard, some on their march being threatened to be put into prison if they did not return. This information made me as desperate as I was before determined.
Reflecting on the information that I had of some of my greatest opponents censuring the governor for his conduct, as they thought, ordering me for the protection of Kentucky only. That, and some other secret impulses, occasioned me, in spite of all counsel, to risk the expedition to convince them of their error, until that moment secret to the principal officers I had. I was sensible of the impression it would have on many; to be taken near a thousand (miles) from the body of their country to attack a people five times their number, and merciless tribes of Indians, their allies, and determined enemies to us.
I knew that my case was desperate, but the more I reflected on my weakness, the more I was pleased with the enterprise. Joined by a few Kentuckians under Colonel Montgomery, to stop the desertion I knew would ensue on the troops knowing their destination, I had encamped on a small island in the middle of the falls, kept strict guards on the boats, but Lieutenant Hutchings, of Dillard's company, contrived to make his escape with his party, after being refused leave to return. Luckily a few of his men (were) taken the next day by a party sent after them. On this island I first began to discipline my little army, knowing that to be the most essential point towards success. Most of them determined to follow me; the rest, seeing no probability of making their escape. I soon got that subordination as I could wish for. About twenty families that had followed me, much against my inclination, I found now to be of service to me in guarding a blockhouse that I had erected on the island to secure my provisions.
I got everything in readiness (and) on the 26th * [A mistake. It was the 24th, the day of the great eclipse of the sun.] of June, set off from the falls, double-manned our oars and proceeded day and night until we ran into the mouth of the Tennessee river; the fourth day landed on an island to prepare ourselves for a march by land. A few hours after, we took a boat of hunters, but eight days from Kaskaskias. Before I would suffer them to answer any person a question, after taking the oath of allegiance, I examined them particularly. They were Englishmen, [Probably meant only that they were of the English race, the inhabitants of Kaskaskia and the Illinois country being generally of French origin.] and appeared to be in our interest; their intelligence was not favorable. They asked leave to go on the expedition; I granted it and ordered them what to relate particularly, on pain of suffering. They observed my instructions, which put the whole in the greatest spirits---sure by what they heard of success. In the evening of the same day, I ran my boats into a small creek about one mile above the old Fort Massack, reposed ourselves for the night, and in the morning took a route to the northwest and had a very fatiguing journey for about fifty miles, until we came into those level plains that (are) frequent throughout this extensive country. As I knew my success depended on secrecy, I was much afraid of being discovered in these meadows, as we might be seen in many places for several miles.
Nothing extraordinary happened during our (march, except) my guide (John Sanders) losing himself and not being able, as we judged by his confusion, of giving a just account of himself. It put the whole troops in the greatest confusion. I never in my life felt such a flow of rage---to be wandering in a country where every nation of Indians could raise three or four times our number, and a certain loss of our enterprise by the enemies getting timely notice. I could not bear the thought of returning. In short, every idea of the sort put me in that passion that I did not master for some time; but, in a short time after, our circumstances had a better appearance, for I was in a moment determined to put the guide to death if he did not find his way that evening. I told him his doom. The poor fellow, scared almost out of his wits, begged that I would stay a while where I was and suffer him to go and make some discovery of a road that could not be far from us, which I would not suffer, for fear of not seeing him again, but ordered him to lead on the party---that his fate depended on his success. After some little pause, he begged that I would not be hard with him, that he could find the path that evening. He accordingly took his course, and, in two hours, got within his knowledge.