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  • Kentucky and the Union at the CrossroadsGeorge Rogers Clark, James Wilkinson, and the Danville Committee, 1786-1787
  • David Narrett (bio)

The adage that past success does not guarantee future triumph certainly applies to General George Rogers Clark’s campaign against Indians of the Wabash during the fall of 1786. Formerly the terror of the Illinois country, Clark was undone when his poorly supplied and famished Kentucky militiamen deserted in droves even before encountering the enemy. Unable to rally the troops, the general called off his offensive north of the largely French community of Vincennes—ironically the same town where his onetime band of Virginia militiamen had defeated the British and their Indian allies in 1779. Clark won that fight by stratagem and ruthlessness, finally shocking his foes into surrender by having several Indian prisoners tomahawked to death in clear sight of the enemy garrison.1

Clark’s campaign of 1786 was no echo of the past but instead a fiasco. Though the general counted on civilian support at Vincennes, his conduct had nearly the opposite effect. Following his army’s retreat down the Wabash River valley, Clark obtained provisions in Vincennes by rifling goods owned by visiting merchants from Spanish Louisiana. This action triggered a backlash by several Kentucky leaders who were disgusted by the general’s apparent disregard for law. In December 1786, this group met in Danville, Kentucky, to investigate Clark’s seizure of property and his role in an alleged plot to capture Natchez—a strategic site in Spanish territory on the Mississippi’s east bank. The rumored conspiracy raised the issue of whether armed frontiersmen, acting entirely independently of Congress, could be restrained from making war against a European imperial power any more than they could be controlled in fighting Indian peoples.2

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George Rogers Clark (1752-1818).

filson historical society

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The Danville investigative committee strongly censured Clark in a report to Virginia’s state government, which endorsed this judgment before relaying the matter to Congress. Virginia was the vital link in this political chain since it held jurisdiction over Kentucky, which was then a district of the Old Dominion. With Virginia’s backing, the Danville committee report gained national attention just as Congress considered new plans for territorial governance that eventuated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Kentucky and the Union were together at a crossroads testing legitimate governmental power, the course of white-Indian relations, and the direction of interregional commerce in the trans-Appalachian West.3

George Rogers Clark’s failure on the Wabash was momentous. The thirty-four-year-old general, renowned for his exploits in the West during the Revolutionary War, never again obtained an official command under state or federal authority. Clark’s archfoe on the Danville committee was James Wilkinson, a Lexington merchant and former U.S. brigadier who exploited Clark’s misfortune to magnify his own influence and power. Wilkinson, who was only twenty-nine years old at the time, used his political triumph as a springboard to secret negotiations with the Spanish in New Orleans during the summer of 1787, which propelled him to the role of unscrupulous double-dealer and frontier power broker. Wilkinson’s maneuvers had a formative role in U.S. relations with Louisiana—a province encompassing vast but lightly colonized territories from the Gulf of Mexico to the Missouri River and Great Plains. Through his influence, Kentucky’s citizenry forged commercial paths to New Orleans even while their land hunger pushed above the Ohio.4

Given the powerful personalities involved in the Wilkinson-Clark clash, historians have not been averse to taking sides in the controversy. William Nester’s recent biography of Clark labels Wilkinson a “Judas” for playing the Spanish card in 1787 and gaining personal business advantages in New Orleans. While there is no doubt that Wilkinson deliberately benefited from Clark’s failed Wabash campaign, it is necessary to move beyond the arena of political skullduggery to understand events. Wilkinson did not act alone in rebuking Clark but garnered support among prominent Kentuckians anxious that rampant lawlessness could undermine congressional support for their particular interests.5

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