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Hidden tribute to a hidden hero
As you drive into this historic town, if you're a particularly alert traveler you may glimpse a couple of rather inconspicuous signs along the road noting that a memorial to George Rogers Clark stands in the town. Considering the size of the signs, and the fact that, although history hasn't exactly ignored Clark, it hasn't done him any great favors either, you half expect the memorial not to amount to much.
But if you're a history buff, you'll want to take a look. So you follow the directions and come to a long bend in the Wabash, where a wide, mocha-colored arc of the river flows past the old part of town, and the four long arches of a gleaming white concrete Roman-style bridge (the Lincoln Memorial) span the river. There, on 25 acres of manicured greensward stands an imposing Pantheon-like structure, the monument.
Almost like D.C.
So grand is the scene--elegant marble, granite and white limestone, with limestone walls edging the tree-statued park and the river, seemingly for miles--that you think you've certainly made a wrong turn and landed in Washington, D.C.
Clearly, despite the inauspicious signs, the folks in Vincennes appreciate George Rogers Clark, whose contributions to history (at least according to modern perception) were largely eclipsed by those of his younger brother William Clark, who had co-commanded the Corps of Discovery's 1804-06 expedition to the Pacific Ocean.
Yet without the exploits of George Rogers Clark, an imposing red-haired man who stood 6-foot-2, the outcome of the Revolutionary War might have been very different, and the land President Thomas Jefferson later sent the Corps to explore might never have been part of the United States.
"Throughout the Revolution and later, Clark was the leader people turned to in every crisis," said Pamela Nolan, a park ranger at the memorial, which was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 and became part of the National Park system 30 years later.
It was "in large part due to Clark's tireless exertion and the extraordinary force of his personality" that the western frontier was held in the face of odds that seemed to call for a retreat, Nolan said. His defense of Kentucky, his trans-Ohio River conquests, and the defeats he handed the western Indians all lent weight to America's postwar claims on the Old Northwest, she said.
"Clark and his American soldiers, with occasional help from the French, decided the future of more territory than all the armies that raged back and forth in Europe's wars, and added to the United States as much land as was in the original 13 colonies," she said.
Work on the monument began in 1931, creating a monument to Clark that stands more than 80 feet high, and is 90 feet across at its base. The walls are two feet thick. The exterior is of granite from Vermont, Minnesota and Alabama.
Inside the rotunda is a larger-than-life bronze statue of Clark atop a marble pedestal, and seven 28-foot-tall murals by Ezra Winter circle the room, each painted on a single piece of linen, showing different events in Clark's life.
Twenty-five years before the Corps of Discovery headed west, George Rogers Clark had played the hero, when in February 1779, as a Revolutionary War commander, he led a small force of frontiersmen through the freezing waters of the Illinois country to capture British-held Ft. Sackville at Vincennes, said Nolan. She presides at the nearby visitors center, where just about any information you could want about Clark is available. There's also a short video introducing visitors to the man and his heroics.
It explains that about the time the Revolution began in the East, settlers started crossing the Appalachians in large numbers, mainly into Kentucky, which Virginia claimed as part of its territory.
Clark, one of Kentucky's military leaders, persuaded Gov. Patrick Henry and other Virginia officials in the winter of 1777-78, to let him take the war into British-held territory north of the Ohio. Commissioned a lieutenant colonel, Clark was authorized to raise a force of 350 men, with public orders to protect the Kentucky frontier.
But he had secret instructions from Henry: to operate against the British-controlled posts of French inhabitants at Kaskaskia and Cahokia in Illinois country and Vincennes on the Wabash River.
Clark took the three posts, won over the French residents to the American cause, but in December 1778, lost Vincennes to a superior British force. Two months later, when Clark learned that Indian allies and French militia had left Ft. Sackville for the winter, he set out with 170 Virginians and Illinois French volunteers to attack the weakened British garrison.
Their attack surprised the British, who surrendered the fort--where the monument stands today--on Feb. 25, 1779.
Clark died at 66 in 1818.
IF YOU GO
George Rogers Clark National Historical Park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is $2 for age 17 and older; under 17 free. All sites are handicap accessible.
For information about the memorial write Superintendent, George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, 401 S. 2nd Street, Vincennes, IN 47591; 812-882-1176; www.nps/gov.gero.
Other nearby historic attractions include:
- Old Cathedral Complex. St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, which dates from 1749, is the oldest parish in Indiana. The present church, where services are still regularly held, was built in 1826. Also here is a French and Indian cemetery, and the Old Cathedral Library, which contains a large collection of rare books and documents (205 Church Street).
- Old State Bank State Historic Site, built in 1838 as the State Bank of Indiana (114 N. 2nd St.).
- Old French House, built in 1806 as the home of fur trader Michel Brouillet, is one of the few remaining vertical log houses in North America. Exhibits on the fur trade are here, and an Indian Museum is in what was once Brouillet's back yard (First and Seminary Streets).
- Grouseland, home of William Henry Harrison and his family from 1803-1812, when he was governor of the Indiana Territory; the house is restored to its original condition (3 W. Scott St.).
- Vincennes State Historic Sites: Indiana Territory Capitol, Elihu Stout Print Shop (where the Territory's first newspaper, the "Indiana Gazette," was printed), and the Maurice Thompson Birthplace (author of "Alice of Old Vincennes"), and a log cabin visitors center where a video of Vincennes history is shown (1 W. Harrison St.).
- Fort Knox II, one of three forts in the area built to protect settlers and control the Wabash, was the staging area for the troops that fought at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Today the walls of the old fort no longer are standing, but posts mark where they stood (Fort Knox Road three miles north of Vincennes).
- Indiana Military Museum has displays of vehicles, weaponry, uniforms and artifacts from all wars Americans have fought in from the Civil War through Desert Storm (4305 Old Bruceville Road).
- Sugar Loaf Indian Mound was used by Native Americans as a cemetery during the Late Woodland period, 600-1000 AD/ A spiral staircase takes visitors to the top (Wabash Avenue behind the YMCA).
- Lincoln Memorial Bridge at the west end of Vigo Street, which crosses the Wabash into Illinois, was dedicated in 1933. It marks the point where Abraham Lincoln crossed the river on a ferry with his family in 1830, on their move from Indiana to Illinois. It also marks the spot where for centuries huge herds of bison forded the river, carving the Buffalo Trace across present-day Indiana.
For information about these attractions contact the Vincennes/Knox County Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 602, Vincennes, IN 47591; 800-886-6443.