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  • The Life of George Rogers Clark, 1752-1818: Triumphs and Tragedies
  • Roger L. Nichols (bio)
The Life of George Rogers Clark, 1752-1818: Triumphs and Tragedies. Edited by Kenneth C. Carstens and Nancy Son Carstens. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. Pp. 368. Cloth, $104.95.)

Edited collections of essays and anthologies represent the ideas and work of many scholars, and as such they tend to be more difficult to assess [End Page 502] than single-author books. This book of eighteen chapters, each focusing on some aspect of the life of George Rogers Clark, offers readers as many theses as it has chapters. The result of a two-day conference held at the Locust Grove Historic Home in Louisville, it brings together recent research findings and scholarly ideas about Clark's accomplishments during the War for Independence and the decades of early settlement of the Ohio Valley frontier.

A would-be aristocrat, the Virginian reached pioneer Kentucky just in time to take part in local political wrangling, frontier fighting with the Indians, and campaigning against the British in the American Revolution. Since his death nearly two centuries ago, the federal government and three states have raised monuments in his honor. That being the case, one might reasonably ask, "What did he accomplish that would justify the memorials?" Or, more pertinent to this volume, "Does his career really deserve another book?"

Clearly the authors and editors think so. The essays in this collection comment on many aspects of Clark's life. Not all of the authors present their subject in a positive light. He appears as a young opportunist somewhat akin to William Ashley and Andrew Henry's "enterprising young men," or to William Goetzmann's Jacksonian man of the 1820s. The authors reexamine his conquests of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes during the 1770s. They give him credit for bold leadership and achievements beyond what could have been expected given his small force and lack of support. At the same time, the authors fault Clark for his obsession with the British at Detroit and his inability to retain control of the West. Nevertheless, the authors suggest that his isolated victories had a symbolic importance beyond their strategic results in that they induced some of the Indian tribes to refrain from attacks on American pioneers and gave the United States a bargaining chip in the negotiations to end the conflict.

One of the longer essays focuses on Clark's dealings with the Indians in Kentucky and north of the Ohio River. It demonstrates that the Kentuckian either had some basic understanding of Indian diplomacy or was incredibly lucky. He seemed to know instinctively when to bluster and threaten and when to use more diplomatic means for achieving his objectives. Like many of the men he led in attacking Indian villages north of the Ohio River, he fought, robbed, burned, and destroyed crops and native settlements repeatedly. He could order that Indian captives be publicly executed but also negotiate with other native people. [End Page 503]

In the long run, neither his home state of Virginia nor the new United States government treated him well. During the Revolution, Virginia leaders encouraged and supplied his tiny army as it swept west to the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, financing the battle for independence proved almost too much for the state. To complicate matters, Clark was careless and irresponsible when it came to record-keeping, so the accountants rejected many of his claims for war-related expenditures. As a result, he turned to frontier intrigue, first against the Spanish and later with the French. In 1793 he actually accepted a commission in the French Army while remaining in the United States.

The essays in this collection present Clark as a multidimensional man, one who acted quickly and thought about his exploits later. They depict him as one who felt overlooked and unappreciated by his government and society and use that impression to explain why he was willing to risk arrest and prison by joining the French Army. Throughout the collection, the contributors effectively place Clark in the context of the early republic. It was an era of frontier opportunity, of rapidly changing social attitudes, of violence...


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