- “All Anarchy and Confusion”: Leadership and the Contests for Collective Approval in Early Kentucky
On August 30, 1782, nearly two weeks after the Kentucky militia suffered heavy losses during the Battle of Blue Licks, Daniel Boone wrote to the governor of Virginia regarding the state of Kentucky’s defensive capabilities and tactics. Central to Boone’s concerns was George Rogers Clark’s role in the defense of the region and the control he sought to exert over the county militias. Clark, a general in the U.S. Army, was based near Louisville, far from the main settlements in central Kentucky. For Boone, if the militia continued to be placed “under the direction of Genl: Clarke [sic], they will be Little or no Service to Our Settlement, as he lies 100 miles West of us, and the Indians north East, and our men are often called to the Falls to guard them.” Boone was not alone in his concerns, with Benjamin Logan, likewise, writing a separate letter of complaint to the governor the following day. Logan expressed concern regarding Clark’s tactical priorities in his assessment of the Blue Licks defeat, stating that “I was instructed to send the men to the Falls of Ohio, in order to build a strong Garrison, and a row Galley, thus by weakening one end to strengthen another, the upper part of the country was left exposed, & the enemy intercepting our designs brought their intended expedition against the Frontiers of Fayette.”1 [End Page 135]
While both Boone and Logan expressed their concerns regarding Clark as the highest military authority in the region, the nine surviving militia officers from Fayette County directly petitioned Governor Benjamin Harrison to protest placing local militias under the authority of Regular Army officers. Echoing Boone’s earlier concerns, the Fayette petition protested that “our Militia are called on to do duty in a manner that has a tendency to protect Jefferson County, or rather Louisville, a Town without Inhabitants, a Fort situated in such a manner, that the Enemy coming with a design to Lay waste our Country, would scarcely come within one Hundred miles of it, & our own Frontier open & unguarded.” In the wake of a substantial attack on the central Bluegrass settlements it is perhaps unsurprising that militiamen from Fayette and Lincoln counties criticized Clark’s position as the highest-ranking military authority in Kentucky because of the location of his headquarters, a location that can reveal a great deal about the nature of leadership in Kentucky by the 1780s.2
The location of Fort Nelson at the Falls of the Ohio was not a new area of contention between Clark and the Kentucky militia officers in 1782. Many settlers believed the confluences of the Licking River and Limestone Creek with the Ohio River were the most logical sites for forts and that Fort Nelson was situated on a secondary warpath that had been effectively blocked when Clark captured Vincennes in the Illinois Country. Some people also suggested that the main purpose of Fort Nelson was not to ensure the safety of the Kentucky population but to secure Clark’s land claims. This criticism had also been leveled during Clark’s offensive campaigns against Vincennes and Detroit. Although many had issue with the militia being under the authority of a Regular Army officer, Clark’s daring offensive campaigns had provided him a high level of popularity. The criticisms of Clark following the Blue Licks (a defeat he was not directly involved in), however, highlighted a development that had been in progress [End Page 136] within backcountry communities during the preceding decades and was coming to a head in Kentucky during the 1780s. The changes placed the basis for leadership with the collective approval of the wider community.3
The Revolutionary movement in North America is an example of how the basis for authority could be affected on a wide scale. At its most basic, the Revolution rejected the previous system for one that placed authority with the people. In order for colonial elites to maintain their social leadership and authority, they had to secure the support of the wider population. The influence of egalitarianism...