I’m assuming the tradition continues today, albeit in virtual mode among the saner schools out there, but back in the ancient times of my childhood, every fourth-grade social studies class here in the Hoosier State had to include at least one full unit of Indiana history. We learned about the famous personalities who contributed to our formative years, and covered happenings from the tribal lands that white guys renamed the Northwest Territory to our official statehood in 1816. We sighed a bit to hear about severe underdog William Henry Harrison. Then we skipped a lot of locally uneventful decades until we got to more interesting subjects such as sports legends, Michael Jackson, and the original One Day at a Time.
In that semester’s specialized curriculum, teachers made sure to cover a Revolutionary War hero named George Rogers Clark. He may not mean much to most states, and he didn’t mean much to us after fourth grade, but we were told we needed to know about him anyway because he was on the test. Naturally there’s a memorial for him.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Then came 2020 A.D.
Even in an ordinary average year, sometimes you really need to get away from it all. In a year like this, escape is more important than ever if you can find yourself one — no matter how short it lasts, no matter how limited your boundaries are. Anne and I had two choices: either skip our tradition for 2020 and resign ourselves to a week-long staycation that looks and feels exactly like our typical weekend quarantines; or see how much we could accomplish within my prescribed limitations. We decided to expand on that and check out points of interest in multiple Indiana towns in assorted directions. We’d visited many towns over the years, but not all of them yet.
In addition to our usual personal rules, we had two simple additions in light of All This: don’t get killed, and don’t get others killed…
After our brief stop for giant props, we reached our intended destination two hours from home, the city of Vincennes, founded by French traders in 1732. Its early settlers negotiated life and commerce alongside those who were there first. Things went relatively peaceably until the French and Indian War, when the British butted in and ruined everything. Relations between all involved factions and cliques went straight downhill from there for a good while, influenced and/or aggravated by any number of forces including but not limited to capitalistic frontier exploration, imperialist Manifest Destiny, and/or colossal armed misunderstandings.
Yadda yadda yadda, Indiana became a state and Vincennes became a city. It was the pre-statehood capital of the Indiana Territory until the mantle was passed to Corydon in 1813. Its most famous inhabitants have included comedian Red Skelton, football costar Curtis Painter, Hank Kimball from Green Acres, Jefferson Davis’ ex-wife, and the aforementioned President Harrison the First.
George Rogers Clark made a name for himself as a militia-leader protagonist during the Revolution. He brought men west from Virginia, solidified our side’s hold on the Kentucky Territory, and ventured here and there throughout the area that would come to be labeled the Northwest Territory. Today that comprises Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. He captured Vincennes and other area towns in December 1777. He schmoozed with the French and talked some of them into coming aboard. He finagled a few neutrality pledges with tribes who were still side-eyeing everyone and trying to discern which potential allies might later be the worst backstabbers.
He and his guys defended the Ohio River Valley through the end of the war. Clark’s best win arguably came in February 1778 when he took back Fort Sackville from the British, after some other guys lost it to them a few months earlier. Ultimately Clark and his underpaid soldiers contributed significantly to the Revolution’s western front and to the slow-going march of Indiana history, warts and all.
We parked two blocks away from George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, but had to walk two more blocks to begin our wandering at their official Visitor Center. The guard on duty quickly pulled his mask back up as we entered and welcomed us to the modest selection of introductory exhibits and the restrooms, which we appreciated in reverse order.
Fort Sackville was razed centuries ago. In its place stands the park, whose feature presentation is the rather large George Rogers Clark Memorial. First authorized by President Calvin Coolidge in 1928 at the behest of the Daughters of the American Revolution, it was eventually finished, then dedicated by FDR in 1936. It stands today on the banks of the Wabash River, which factors into our official state song “On the Banks of the Wabash”, whose lyrics are known only to Anne and seven other native Hoosiers today. Anne might the only one under 70.
The public-access portion of the monument’s interior is a single rotunda with a 7½-foot statue of Clark standing in the middle, as shown in our lead photo. On the walls are seven murals by painter Ezra Winter depicting events from his Revolution travels in chronological order, each captioned thusly:
- Kentucky: Entering the Great Valley
- Cahokia: Peace or War with the Indians
- The Wabash: Through Wilderness and Flood
- Vincennes: The British Barrier to the West
- Fort Sackville: Britain Yields Possession
- Marietta: The Northwest, a New Territory
- St. Louis: The Way Opened to the Pacific
Above the murals it reads, “OUR CAUSE IS JUST * OUR COUNTRY WILL BE GRATEFUL * GREAT THINGS HAVE BEEN EFFECTED BY A FEW MEN WELL CONDUCTED”.
All available exhibits and materials effectively end Clark’s story with the triumph of the Revolution and don’t delve much into the not-so-heroic forms of unseemliness that followed, as they maintain an upbeat pro-Clark viewpoint. They also downplay the fact that his little brother William was a famed explorer in his own right, who alongside pioneering partner Meriwether Lewis charted new lands out to the Pacific Northwest on orders from President Thomas Jefferson. Lewis and Clark also costar in the long-running Image Comics series Manifest Destiny, which vastly improves their story with value-added magical monsters, but it’s currently on pandemic hiatus. Perhaps upon its return Our Heroes could make a pit stop somewhere near the remains of Fort Sackville and invite George as a special guest star for one issue, for old times’ sake.
To be continued!
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