Clark was the preeminent American military leader on the northwestern frontier during the Revolutionary War. He was once regarded as one of the great American military heroes—hailed as the conqueror of the Northwest Territory at the apex of his fame—but his star has since faded considerably. He is now sometimes confused with his younger brother William of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Clark was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, not far from the home of young Thomas Jefferson. Clark attended Donald Robertson's school with James Madison and John Taylor of Carolina, eventually becoming a farmer and surveyor.
In 1772, as a 20-year old surveyor, Clark made his first trip into what would become Kentucky, one of thousands of settlers entering the area as a result of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1768. Indians living in the Ohio Country had not been party to that treaty, which ceded their Kentucky hunting grounds. The violence that resulted eventually culminated in Lord Dunmore's War, in which Clark played a small role.
During the Revolutionary War, the Kentucky settlements were at war with Indians in Ohio, particularly the Shawnee, Mingo, and Wyandot. Working on behalf of Virginia, Clark helped to raise a militia and to organize the defense of the region. He was selected as a delegate to the Virginia Convention and managed to obtain supplies of ammunition there that he used to repel attacks on Harrodsburg, Kentucky in 1777. After sending spies into the Illinois Country, he developed a plan to capture it. Receiving support from Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, Clark was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given authority to raise troops to carry out the plan.
In 1778, Clark led 175 volunteers from Fort Pitt to begin the secret mission. Clark traveled down the Ohio River along the northern border of Kentucky to the Falls of the Ohio with his troops and many families who joined the military convoy for security and protection from Indian reprisals. On May 27, 1778, Clark chose an island he named Corn Island to set up camp at the falls. This marks the founding of the settlement later to be named Louisville.
On June 24, 1778, Clark and his troops landed at the abandoned Fort Massac in Illinois. Seeking to surprise the British soldiers occupying Fort Kaskaskia, they walked overland and arrived in the night on July 4. They captured the fort and city without firing a shot. Clark resupplied and intended to hold the fort. He sent the French Priest Father Pierre Gibault to Fort Sackville, located near the city of Vincennes, Indiana to influence and secure the inhabitants of Vincennes and secure Fort Sackville. Clark then placed Capt. Leonard Helm in command of Fort Sackville.
Early in 1779, Clark received word from Fort Sackville that the Lieutenant Governor of Canada, Henry Hamilton, had retaken that outpost for Great Britain. On February 5, Clark led 170 volunteers from Fort Kaskaskia 210 miles over "drownded country" in the dead of winter in 18 days to capture Fort Sackville from Hamilton. Upon arrival at Fort Sackville on February 23, Clark ordered all of the company's flags out to give the illusion of not 200 men, but 600 men. He then opened fire upon the surprised soldiers and threatened to storm the fort and give no quarter. Hamilton formally surrendered on February 25.
Clark's ultimate goal during the Revolutionary War was to seize the British stronghold of Fort Detroit and claim all lands west of the Appalachians for the American Revolutionaries, but he could never recruit enough men to make the attempt. (The Kentucky militiamen generally preferred to defend their homes by staying closer to Kentucky, rather than making a long and potentially perilous expedition to Detroit.) However, Clark's capture of Governor Hamilton and occupation of the Illinois Country helped to reduce British effectiveness in the Northwest Territory.
At the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, England ceded the Northwest Territory to the United States. Many traditional accounts credit Clark's efforts with winning that vast territory. However, historians now question whether Clark's "conquest" played any significant role in the treaty negotiations. He led an unsuccessful expedition against the Wabash Indians in 1786.
Clark was just 30 years old when fighting in the Revolutionary War ended, but his greatest military achievements were already behind him. Ever since Clark's victories in Illinois, settlers had been pouring into Kentucky, often illegally squatting on Indian land north of the Ohio River. Clark helped to negotiate the Treaty of Fort McIntosh in 1785 and the Treaty of Fort Finney in 1786 with tribes north of the river, but violence between American Indians and Kentucky settlers continued to escalate. According to a 1790 U.S. government report, 1,500 Kentucky settlers had been killed in Indian raids since the end of the Revolutionary War. In an attempt to end these raids, Clark led an expedition against Indians towns on the Wabash River in 1786, one of the first actions of the Northwest Indian War. The campaign ended ingloriously: lacking supplies, about 300 militiamen mutinied, and Clark had to withdraw. It was rumored that Clark had often been drunk on duty. Clark's reputation was tarnished and he never again led men in battle.
Clark lived most of the rest of his life in financial difficulties. Clark had financed the majority of his military campaigns with borrowed funds. When creditors began to dun him for these unpaid debts, he was not able to obtain recompense from Virginia or the United States Congress because record keeping on the frontier during the war had been haphazard. Although Clark had claims to thousands of acres of land resulting from his military service and land speculation, he was "land-poor", i.e. he owned much land but lacked the means to make money from it.
With his career seemingly over and his prospects for prosperity doubtful, on February 2, 1793, Clark offered his services to Edmond-Charles Genêt, the controversial French ambassador. Western Americans were outraged that the Spanish, who controlled Louisiana, denied Americans free access to the Mississippi River, their only easy outlet for long distance commerce. The Washington Administration was also seemingly deaf to western concerns about opening the Mississippi to U.S. commerce. Clark proposed to Genêt that, with French financial support, he could lead an expedition to drive the Spanish out of the Mississippi Valley. Genêt appointed Clark "Major General in the Armies of France and Commander-in-chief of the French Revolutionary Legion on the Mississippi River." Clark began to organize a campaign to seize New Madrid, St. Louis, Natchez, and New Orleans, getting assistance from old comrades such as Benjamin Logan and John Montgomery. Clark spent $4,680 of his own money for supplies. In early 1794, however, President Washington issued a proclamation forbidding Americans from violating U.S. neutrality, and the French government revoked the commissions of Americans recruited for the war against Spain. Clark's planned campaign gradually collapsed, and he tried but was unable to have the French reimburse him for his expenses.
After a few years, the lenders and their assigns closed in and deprived the veteran of almost all of his property. Clark was left with a small plot of land in Clarksville, containing a small gristmill which he worked with two African American slaves. Clark lived for another two decades, often struggling with alcohol abuse, a problem which had plagued him on-and-off for many years. He never married and had no verifiable romantic relationships, although a family tradition held that he had once been in love with Teresa de Leyba, sister of Don Fernando de Leyba.
In 1809, Clark suffered a severe stroke. Falling into an operating fireplace, he suffered a burn on one leg so severe as to necessitate the amputation of the limb. It was impossible for Clark to continue to operate his mill, so he became a dependent member of the household of his brother-in-law, Major William Croghan, a planter at Locust Grove farm eight miles (13 km) from the growing town of Louisville. After a second stroke, Clark died at Locust Grove in 1818. Originally buried at Locust Grove, General Clark was reburied at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville in 1889.