Interview by Katherine Dalton
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.
Gwynne Tuell Potts is a historian, Louisville native, and the former executive director at Locust Grove, the final home of Louisville founder and Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. Her new book, George Rogers Clark and William Croghan: A Story of the Revolution, Settlement, and Early Life at Locust Grove has recently been published by the University Press of Kentucky. She was interviewed by Katherine Dalton.
This is the third of three parts.
Q: Can you talk about certain key moments in George Rogers Clark’s life when, if he or someone else had made a different decision, the remainder of his life would have been very different?
Potts: I think if his parents had not been willing to remove him from school after one year his career may have been otherwise; it would have kept him in Virginia. After all, James Madison was in his class. There were students who emerged from that environment and did other things besides go to Kentucky and fight Native Americans. I think if Patrick Henry not been John Clark’s lawyer and therefore Clark had not been comfortable going directly to Henry for assistance with Kentucky, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to lead the Illinois Regiment to Kaskaskia, Vincennes, and (he hoped) to Detroit. In fact, there probably wouldn’t have been an Illinois Regiment at all. That was certainly a turning point.
Had Jefferson not had so much confidence in Clark’s apparent superhuman abilities, Clark’s state of mind might have been calmer in his body less ravaged at the end of the day—and his reputation less electric. But instead, between Henry and Jefferson, Clark is in Kaskaskia, and then he’s in Vincennes; he’s negotiating a Native peace alliance; he’s chasing down Girty and McKee at Bryan’s Station; he’s building a hopeless fort at the mouth of the Ohio; he’s planning for a campaign to Detroit; he’s in Virginia on the James River firing at Benedict Arnold; he’s pleading for volunteers at Fort Pitt; he’s begging a Lincoln County militia to stay with him. He’s supposed to quiet all Indian unrest in Ohio without any support whatsoever from anywhere.
Had anyone been there to help, his life would have been better. But those governors of Virginia seemed to think all they had to do was tell Clark, and he was going to magically create this thing that no human being could have done.
Finally, had Virginia paid him, he could have retired in Louisville or anywhere else as a comfortably wealthy man who was a great Revolutionary hero. But Virginia didn’t bother to add up the money that it owed Clark until 1831, 13 years after his death. The balance then came to more than $31,000, which would have been a fortune in Clark’s lifetime. He never saw any of it, and so he lived his life always scrapping for something that would get him out of debt and restore his reputation and make him whole again. He never, ever found it.
Q: William Croghan was not the renowned hero Clark was, but he was interesting in his own right: an Irish immigrant who became a Revolutionary officer, fought, and finally settled down on the edges of his new country in order to establish his own future—and Kentucky’s. What about his life or character stands out to you?
Potts: I like Croghan a lot. Think about it: not many men who fought with Washington, drilled with von Steuben, rode with Lafayette, survived as a prisoner of war and witnessed Cornwallis’ defeat could show up in a backwater like Louisville. I’m not even sure Louisville was called Louisville then–Fort Nelson or the falls of the Ohio. And then he went on to spend the rest of his life essentially playing second fiddle to the Clarks. He didn’t only do that; he accomplished his role with steadiness and compassion and generosity and apparently quite a lot of patience, all qualities I think are admirable.
He was born in Dublin, and he formed the 10th company of the Eighth Virginia Continental Regiment, which was also Jonathan Clark’s regiment. Jonathan Clark and William Croghan were close friends all through the Revolutionary War, and it was actually Jonathan Clark who ended up getting George Rogers Clark together with William Croghan. He became a major when he was at Valley Forge, and I don’t want that to just lie there: while George Rogers Clark was leading his little band away from Corn Island, over the Falls and on to history, William Croghan was at Valley Forge learning to become one of Washington’s trusted spies.
And once the two men were in Louisville together, it was Croghan who carried the load of surveying, because Clark was called to New York almost immediately as Indian Commissioner. As they went on through life together, when Clark was low, when he was unsure of his authority on the frontier issue, when he was ill, it was Croghan who always shared the burden, who protected him–taking careful minutes at militia meetings, making Clark’s local authority clear to future readers so there would be no problem there. It was Croghan who, at the end, took him in. Clark died at Croghan’s house; he was buried in Croghan’s family graveyard. Can we expect more from our citizens, our family members, than this?
He was also apparently a careful and tender father; he was a faithful husband; he was an excellent provider. We have to acknowledge that, for all of this, he and Clark owned men, women and children, and somehow the Enlightenment that they all so admired simply did not extend to abolition in that generation. There’s the totality of the man: he was a man of his era, and he was an exceptional man of his era. Still, this is where we end up, on a farm with fifty enslaved people. But if you asked William Croghan about that, he would say, “This is an indication of my success.” Again, they were people of their time, as are we. No excuse for it; it’s just what it was.
Q: There are many more Croghans besides William. What is your favorite story about a member of the extended family?
Potts: I actually have two favorite members of the Croghan extended family. The first one is his Uncle George; he’s my all-time favorite. He had come to this country in 1741, trading Philadelphia goods to Western settlers and Native Americans as far as Cleveland–think about that. There was no Cleveland, but he was at Cleveland. He became Sir William Johnson’s Deputy Indian Supervisor; he participated in dozens of negotiations. Finally, he was one of America’s first successful land developers. He was all set to become the governor of a new, 14th colony named Vandalia when the Revolution wrecked all of his hopes. Vandalia would have extended south from Pittsburgh all the way through West Virginia and into Kentucky, almost as far west as Lexington.
He survived a shipwreck off the coast of France; he married a Mohawk woman; he convinced Pontiac to stop his war, and he lived in one of the finest houses in Philadelphia. His life was extraordinary. And in the book, I use it to exemplify the British colonial experience in the American West, because he lived through every bit of it.
My second favorite Croghan was William and Lucy’s granddaughter Mary, who at the age of 14 eloped from her tony New York boarding school with her headmistress’s 42-year-old former brother-in-law. She gave birth to her first two children in South America, where her husband was stationed as a British diplomat. She was a darling in Victoria’s court circle; she maintained a vacation home in Cannes; and she lived across the street from Hyde Park in the house that was later purchased by her neighbor John Pierpont Morgan, whose son donated it to the U.S. Government. Robert Worth Bingham and Joseph P. Kennedy brought their families to Mary’s house during their stints as U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. And though she didn’t live in America, her estate was always in Pittsburgh, and she was the wealthiest woman in the United States at her death. Mary was amazingly lucky, but she was also a little more Clark than Croghan. She had a great big life.
Q: Any recommendations on what early American or Kentucky history books to read during this time we are spending most of our days at home?
Potts: I would start with The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover. It’s one of my favorite windows into what real life for an early Virginia planter was like. It covers the years 1709 to 1712.
The book I’ve told my husband I want to be buried with is B. and M. Gratz, Merchants in Philadelphia, 1754-1798 by William Vincent Byars. It’s my favorite source for the late Colonial Ohio River Valley activity, despite its title; a wonderful source.
I would also recommend Isabel Thompson Kelsay’s biography Joseph Brant, 1743-1807: Man of Two Worlds, because anybody who wants to understand the British-Mohawk colonial connection can learn it here. It also provides a human perspective to the Native experience during the American Revolution, which is critical.
Even though I have strong feelings about James Wilkinson, I would have to suggest Andro Linklater’s biography Artist in Treason. If you want to understand why Anthony Wayne and Clark and Aaron Burr and Washington were against this fellow, and why three United States presidents continued to promote him, even though he was a known traitor, read this book.
Finally, if you haven’t read Ron Chernow’s excellent biographies Alexander Hamilton or Washington: A Life, I want to know what you’re waiting for.
KD: How much do you think is left to learn about early Kentucky history?
There isn’t a lot in some ways, but yet, truthfully, I think there’s much. I don’t mean that scholars and researchers haven’t combed the archives for official documents, but the point of historical research is not to memorize the chronology of well-known events or the lineages of well-known families; the point is to understand the cause or the causes of consequential events, and the effects of events that change human nature. The religious, the political, the economic European upheavals that ignited immigration in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries resulted in the creation of the United States we know today, and while it’s lovely to recite your family tree back to 1738, I’m interested in learning about what happened in 1738 to bring your ancestor here, and how did that experience impact his life in North America–because that’s the story.
We also need to learn more about the people whose lives and in some cases whose civilizations were destroyed by our invasive ancestors. Joseph Brant, who devoted a good part of his life to trying to kill George Rogers Clark, fought for the British because he believed the Mohawk nation would be annihilated if the rebels won the Revolutionary War. Was he prescient? Yes.
Our ancestors were not the only human beings who lived through the frontier wars, and we can only understand that era if we dignify the perspectives of all the people involved in it. And that includes the enslaved men and women whom both settlers and Natives involved in the conflict. People should remember that Lord Dunmore, the last colonial governor of Virginia, emancipated Tidewater slaves who agreed to fight for him when Virginia decided to join the Revolution, only to abandon them to die on the shore after smallpox broke out among them, while he sailed away for New York. We know Clark took several enslaved people with him to Kaskaskia, as did most of his officers, and Croghan took his man all the way through the Revolution, including into prison, when Charleston was surrendered to the British in 1780. And in 1785, when Clark called for all the Ohio River Valley chiefs to attend the federal Native conference, he told them to bring all their captives with them, black and white–so the Natives were also capturing enslaved people to keep as prisoners. Every human being who lived in the Ohio River valley between 1774 and ’95 was involved in that war, and there does remain much to do to understand all their stories. Until we can talk to each group’s experience, we haven’t finished our work.
Q: You have had a long association with Locust Grove, as its executive director, its board president, and its historian. What makes Clark and his final home so compelling to you?
Potts: Maybe eight generations ago my father’s ancestor was a member of the Illinois Regiment, and he rode with Clark and Boone and Kenton and all the others in the 1782 Chillicothe campaign. He, his brother, his sister-in-law and their children were among the families who arrived with Clark at Corn Island in 1778. I learned about all of this in the swing on my grandfather’s front porch, and, remarkably, much of what he told me actually turned out to be true. That was my favorite fairy tale, George Rogers Clark.
And as for Clark’s home, Locust Grove, I was introduced to it one perfect fall evening sometime around 1978, when one of Sam Thomas’s coworkers took me to his cabin (which is now part of the Locust Grove Visitors’ Center) after she and I had had dinner, and we three sat out on the cemetery wall and Sam told us about the restoration. It never left me. I lived in two states subsequently, and I always knew while I was gone from Kentucky that I was going to come back and I was going to be at Locust Grove. These are long-held feelings that came from a really deep place, and it just feels natural to me to talk about Clark.
Katherine Dalton (Boyer) is a writer and editor, and a former board president at Locust Grove. She is a contributor to Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky), Morris Grubb’s volume Conservations with Wendell Berry, and Localism in a Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto.