As you drive into this historic town, if you're a particularly alerttraveler you may glimpse a couple of rather inconspicuous signs along the roadnoting that a memorial to George Rogers Clark stands in the town. Consideringthe size of the signs, and the fact that, although history hasn't exactlyignored Clark, it hasn't done him any great favors either, you half expect thememorial not to amount to much.
But if you're a history buff, you'll want to take a look. So you follow thedirections and come to a long bend in the Wabash, where a wide, mocha-coloredarc of the river flows past the old part of town, and the four long arches ofa gleaming white concrete Roman-style bridge (the Lincoln Memorial) span theriver. There, on 25 acres of manicured greensward stands an imposingPantheon-like structure, the monument.
Almost like D.C.
So grand is the scene--elegant marble, granite and white limestone, withlimestone walls edging the tree-statued park and the river, seemingly formiles--that you think you've certainly made a wrong turn and landed inWashington, D.C.
Clearly, despite the inauspicious signs, the folks in Vincennes appreciateGeorge Rogers Clark, whose contributions to history (at least according tomodern perception) were largely eclipsed by those of his younger brotherWilliam Clark, who had co-commanded the Corps of Discovery's 1804-06expedition to the Pacific Ocean.
Yet without the exploits of George Rogers Clark, an imposing red-haired manwho stood 6-foot-2, the outcome of the Revolutionary War might have been verydifferent, and the land President Thomas Jefferson later sent the Corps toexplore might never have been part of the United States.
"Throughout the Revolution and later, Clark was the leader people turned toin every crisis," said Pamela Nolan, a park ranger at the memorial, which wasdedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 and became part of theNational Park system 30 years later.
It was "in large part due to Clark's tireless exertion and theextraordinary force of his personality" that the western frontier was held inthe face of odds that seemed to call for a retreat, Nolan said. His defense ofKentucky, his trans-Ohio River conquests, and the defeats he handed thewestern Indians all lent weight to America's postwar claims on the OldNorthwest, 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 andforth in Europe's wars, and added to the United States as much land as was inthe original 13 colonies," she said.
Work on the monument began in 1931, creating a monument to Clark thatstands more than 80 feet high, and is 90 feet across at its base. The wallsare two feet thick. The exterior is of granite from Vermont, Minnesota andAlabama.
Inside the rotunda is a larger-than-life bronze statue of Clark atop amarble 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'slife.
Twenty-five years before the Corps of Discovery headed west, George RogersClark had played the hero, when in February 1779, as a Revolutionary Warcommander, he led a small force of frontiersmen through the freezing waters ofthe Illinois country to capture British-held Ft. Sackville at Vincennes, saidNolan. She presides at the nearby visitors center, where just about anyinformation you could want about Clark is available. There's also a shortvideo introducing visitors to the man and his heroics.
It explains that about the time the Revolution began in the East, settlersstarted 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 andother Virginia officials in the winter of 1777-78, to let him take the warinto British-held territory north of the Ohio. Commissioned a lieutenantcolonel, Clark was authorized to raise a force of 350 men, with public ordersto protect the Kentucky frontier.
But he had secret instructions from Henry: to operate against theBritish-controlled posts of French inhabitants at Kaskaskia and Cahokia inIllinois country and Vincennes on the Wabash River.
Clark took the three posts, won over the French residents to the Americancause, but in December 1778, lost Vincennes to a superior British force. Twomonths later, when Clark learned that Indian allies and French militia hadleft Ft. Sackville for the winter, he set out with 170 Virginians and IllinoisFrench volunteers to attack the weakened British garrison.
Their attack surprised the British, who surrendered the fort--where themonument 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 5p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is $2 forage 17 and older; under 17 free. All sites are handicap accessible.
For information about the memorial write Superintendent, George RogersClark 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 from1749, is the oldest parish in Indiana. The present church, where services arestill regularly held, was built in 1826. Also here is a French and Indiancemetery, and the Old Cathedral Library, which contains a large collection ofrare books and documents (205 Church Street).
- Old State Bank State Historic Site, built in 1838 as the State Bank ofIndiana (114 N. 2nd St.).
- Old French House, built in 1806 as the home of fur trader MichelBrouillet, 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 onceBrouillet'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 itsoriginal condition (3 W. Scott St.).
- Vincennes State Historic Sites: Indiana Territory Capitol, Elihu StoutPrint Shop (where the Territory's first newspaper, the "Indiana Gazette," wasprinted), and the Maurice Thompson Birthplace (author of "Alice of OldVincennes"), and a log cabin visitors center where a video of Vincenneshistory is shown (1 W. Harrison St.).
- Fort Knox II, one of three forts in the area built to protect settlersand control the Wabash, was the staging area for the troops that fought at theBattle 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 ofVincennes).
- Indiana Military Museum has displays of vehicles, weaponry, uniforms andartifacts from all wars Americans have fought in from the Civil War throughDesert Storm (4305 Old Bruceville Road).
- Sugar Loaf Indian Mound was used by Native Americans as a cemetery duringthe Late Woodland period, 600-1000 AD/ A spiral staircase takes visitors tothe top (Wabash Avenue behind the YMCA).
- Lincoln Memorial Bridge at the west end of Vigo Street, which crosses theWabash into Illinois, was dedicated in 1933. It marks the point where AbrahamLincoln crossed the river on a ferry with his family in 1830, on their movefrom Indiana to Illinois. It also marks the spot where for centuries hugeherds of bison forded the river, carving the Buffalo Trace across present-dayIndiana.
For information about these attractions contact the Vincennes/Knox CountyConvention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 602, Vincennes, IN 47591;800-886-6443.
--P.S.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times