George Rogers Clark and William Croghan: A Story of the Revolution, Settlement, and Early Life at Locust Grove by Gwynne Tuell Potts (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2020)
“The phenomenon of fame confounds and fascinates, indiscriminately raising some to glory while consigning apparent equals to exile.” This is Gwynne Tuell Potts’s insight in her new book on George Rogers Clark and his brother-in-law, William Croghan. “In its most satirical form,” she continues, “fame dooms an occasional soul to both states.” Potts’s 300-page volume is an exploration of the vagaries of fame and fortune.
George Rogers Clark was famous, once. He was a towering figure on the western front of the Revolutionary War. Potts quotes French Gen. Henri Victor Collot describing Clark as the person who had “gained from the natives almost the whole of that immense country which forms now the Western states.” Collot said Clark was “the rival, in short, of George Washington.” Clark’s reputation was diminished in his own lifetime and his fame has since waned. His story is not taught in most schools and his Virginia commission excludes him from the pantheon of well-known Continental generals.
William Croghan has never been famous, but his life illustrates the aspirations and achievements of America’s early frontiersmen. He fought for national expansion and then played an important role in that expansion by moving to Kentucky and running the office that parceled out bounty land to veterans. This was a lucrative position. Croghan prospered and built a stately home, which he called Locust Grove.
This is Potts’ second treatment of her dual subjects. In 2006, Historic Locust Grove published George Rogers Clark: Military Leader in the Pioneer West & Locust Grove: the Croghan Homestead Honoring Him, coauthored by Potts and Samuel W. Thomas. The earlier volume is a copiously illustrated coffee table book that broke new ground and focused more than the new book does on the house, its collection, and its preservation.
Potts’s new book is very good. Potts, who is a former high school history teacher, is executive director and president of Historic Locust Grove, which administers the National Historic Landmark. The Croghan home and the museum next to it are a destination for many school field trips and history-minded tourists, providing an excellent interpretation of life in Kentucky’s early years. Potts has been associated with Locust Grove for years and she is an authority on the home, its occupants, and its preservation. In writing a book about Croghan, Potts has created something almost entirely new. For Revolutionary War history readers, Clark’s story is more familiar. The book has some errors in its early chapters on the Revolution, but overall is quite good in substance and ably written.
The pursuit of tight storytelling compels historians to shed context and avoid tangents. As in our own lives, however, it is often the complexities that make things interesting. A dual biography allows an author to use each subject as a foil against which to highlight and contrast the other’s story, unlocking more opportunities to explain context and nuance. Potts takes full advantage of this approach. She tells the story of two very different Revolutionary War veterans who were bound closer and closer together by events until, as old men, they live together under one roof at Locust Grove.
The origins of William Croghan (1752-1823) are murky, but Potts’ investigation reveals that he was born in Dublin, Ireland, and probably came to New York as a soldier in the British 16th Regiment of Foot in 1767. The regiment left a detachment there for two years. What rank he held is not suggested, but at the end of that time he was either discharged or resigned a junior officer’s commission and settled near Fort Pitt, where his uncle George lived. George Croghan, who came from Ireland in 1741, is a significant figure in the early history of Pittsburgh and the frontier. He traded with the Indians, explored the far side of the Ohio, acquired land on questionable terms, and served for a time as a deputy Indian agent under William Johnson. He was an interpreter and a scout for Gen. Edward Braddock during the 1755 campaign against Fort Duquesne and chaired the local committee of safety a decade later when the Revolution began.
Not mentioned by Potts is the possibility that Clark and Croghan first met during this period. She does note that in 1772 Clark lived in a cabin in the wilderness below Pittsburgh with a friend named James Higgins. This may be the same James Higgins who became one of Croghan’s lieutenants in 1776. If Higgins was close to both Clark and Croghan before the war, there is every reason to suppose Croghan and Clark may have met during this period when all three were apparently in the area.
The committee of safety chose Croghan to be the captain (and Higgins a lieutenant) of a company of provincial soldiers in 1776. They were assigned to Col. Peter Muhlenberg’s 8th Virginia Regiment and later taken into the Continental Army. After a long march to Williamsburg and a missed rendezvous, Croghan’s men were assigned for the year to the 1st Virginia Regiment. They joined George Washington’s main army in New York and participated in the battles of White Plains, Trenton, Assunpink Creek, and Princeton before finally uniting with the 8th Virginia the following spring. In 1777 they fought at Brandywine and Germantown and wintered at Valley Forge. During the encampment, Croghan was promoted and served as Brig. Gen. Charles Scott’s brigade major. He was at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. In 1780 he and most of the Virginia Line were captured after the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina. Paroled but not exchanged, Croghan witnessed the surrender at Yorktown but could not personally engage in the action there. “The first of October,” Potts quotes him saying in a letter, “flattering myself I was Exchanged [I] Settout to Join the Army at the Siege of York, but finding I was not [exchanged], came to this city [Philadelphia] Immediately after seeing Lord Cornwallis’ army lay down their arms.”
Though the surrender of Cornwallis signaled the winding down of the war along the seaboard, Croghan returned home just as the Indian conflict on the frontier was escalating. In the spring of 1782, Pennsylvania militiamen crossed the Ohio River and massacred dozens of pacifist Moravian-converted Delaware Indians. The Indians—men, women, and children—sang hymns before they were clubbed to death and scalped. The response of the region’s tribes was vicious. Col. William Crawford, the prominent half-brother of a former 8th Virginia captain, was captured and tortured to death. Croghan recorded the details of the episode in what remains one of the most grisly narratives in American history. To her credit, Potts includes the entire text.
Potts has uncovered Croghan’s back-story, carefully noting where doubts remain. There are, however, a few errors in her Revolutionary War-era narrative. She writes, “Croghan’s company initially was composed of 147 Fort Pitt-area men.” In fact, his original company was nearly doubled (to 120) at Williamsburg with the addition of stragglers from other companies. Lafayette is identified as Croghan’s division commander at a time when Adam Stephen was still in that role.
Croghan is credited in this book and elsewhere with participation in the battles of White Plains, Trenton, Assunpink Creek, and Princeton. His company did participate in all of those battles, but there is reason to doubt that Croghan participated in them himself. Muster rolls consistently list Croghan as “absent sick” from October 6 to November 5, 1776, demonstrating that he was absent from White Plains. Regimental rolls don’t seem to be available for December and January, but none of four identified pension affidavits from Croghan’s men describing Trenton, Assunpink Creek, and Princeton mention Croghan’s presence. Moreover, the pension affidavit of Pvt. Jonathan Grant prominently mentions 1st Lt. Abraham Kirkpatrick at Princeton, suggesting that Kirkpatrick was in command. The odds alone indicate that Croghan was absent from Princeton. Only twenty men out of the entire 1st Virginia Regiment were on the field that day, the rest presumably very sick after the ordeal of Trenton.
George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) fought a very different war. He is best known for his successful capture of Kaskaskia and Vincennes in 1778 and 1779. (John F. Winkler’s recent study of Clark’s victory at Peckuwe in 1780 has brought new attention to that venture, which he calls “the largest Revolutionary War battle on the Ohio River frontier.”) Were it not for these victories, states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois might today be part of Canada. Indeed, the Quebec Act—one of the Intolerable Acts—had already assigned the territory to that province.
Potts relates how Clark was raised in Caroline County, Virginia as a member of a large family. Two of his brothers, Jonathan and John, were Continental officers in the 8th Virginia Regiment—serving with William Croghan—during the War for Independence. Another, Edmund, was a young sergeant in the 4th Virginia. Clark’s youngest brother, William, who was eighteen years younger than he, was in some respects George’s protégé. Neither served in the Continental Army (William was too young) but they both became celebrities of the frontier. George convinced Gov. Patrick Henry to let him lead a secret mission of irregular volunteers against Kaskaskia in 1778. He then led the Illinois Regiment of Virginia state troops and was promoted to general by Gov. Thomas Jefferson. Brother William’s western fame came later.
As a warrior, Clark was capable of brutality. Potts tells us how he terrorized the British garrison at Fort Sackville (Vincennes) by tomahawking Indian prisoners to death outside the gate. He could also achieve his aims through restraint. When he captured Kaskaskia, an old French settlement in Illinois, he “Explain’d the nature of the dispute to them in as clear a light as I was capable of, it was certain that they were a Conquered people, and by the fate of War was at my mercy [but] that our Principal was to make those we Reduced free instead of enslaving them as they imagined.” When he told their priest he could continue performing the Catholic mass, Rogers wrote, “This seem’d to compleat their happiness.” At a peace conference with the Miami Indians near the Mississippi he announced that he “had instructions from the Great Man of the Big Knives [Governor Henry] not to ask Peace from any People but to offer Peace and War, and let them take their choice.” He illustrated the choice to them with wampum. “I presented them with a Peace and a War Belt . . . They, with a great deal of seeming Joy took the Belt of Peace.”
Potts adds to our understanding by retelling Clark’s story with an emphasis on his family relationships. Clark and Croghan both moved to Kentucky after the war, where they worked as “principal surveyors of public lands” beginning in 1784. Soon, the entire extended Clark family had settled around Louisville, including George and Lucy’s parents. Croghan married Clark’s petite red-headed sister, Lucy. Clark gave up his position surveying bounty lands for veterans to accept an appointment as an Indian negotiator. As the years went on, Clark impacted his siblings’ lives both positively and negatively, relying on them more and more for support as his luck failed and his health deteriorated. Virginia never reimbursed him fully for the expenses he incurred during the war. Having borrowed money himself, he was left deeply in debt. Jonathan and William both advocated for him with the government of Virginia. Lucy and William Croghan brought Clark home with them to Locust Grove when his health declined.
Potts deals fairly with Clark’s evident abuse of alcohol, neither exaggerating it nor understating it. Where this is most important is in her telling of how he lost his right leg in 1809. He fell, while alone, into a fireplace and severely burned it. The limb had to be amputated. It is sometimes said that he fell because he was drunk. Potts is careful to review the various accounts, which suggest some sort of “fit” and unsteadiness caused by rheumatism in his other leg as alternate causes. While Clark’s nieces and nephews later acknowledged that alcohol had long been rumored to be the cause, Potts notes that no one who actually cared for Clark at the time ever said so. This is admirably careful writing that resists the temptation to tell an entertainingly simple story.
Potts provides a very readable and insightful narrative of Kentucky in postwar years. The youngest of the Clark siblings, William, partnered with Meriwether Lewis to explore the west from 1804 to 1806. We learn from Potts that at the prompting of soldier-politician James Wilkinson, two militia units from Spanish Texas were sent into the wilderness to kill or capture the duo. (If the book has a villain, it is Wilkinson. Decades after his death he was proven to be a Spanish spy. Theodore Roosevelt said of him, “In all our history, there is no more despicable character.”) In 1806, Lewis and the youngest Clark visited Locust Grove on their way back from their remarkable adventure. Locust Grove is the only known structure west of the Appalachian Mountains to house Lewis and Clark together.
Over several chapters Potts describes the long struggle with the Shawnee and other native tribes and the efforts of three presidents to keep Kentucky and the west from following the waters of the Ohio River into the arms of the Spanish and the French. Clark offered to help the Spanish settle the land across the Mississippi by leading a group of Anglo-American settlers there. Clark was one of many Democratic-Republicans on the frontier who aligned with Thomas Jefferson’s Francophile views, even accepting a more-or-less pointless commission in the French army. At one point during the Quasi-War with France, Clark’s French associations prompted Federalist President Adams to issue an order for his arrest. Unlike Vice President Aaron Burr and James Wilkinson, however, Clark never contemplated treason. Potts defends Clark by asserting that when he offered to establish a colony for Spain, he was in the company of others who actually sought to weaken Spain by settling “Americans” along the Mississippi. “Had Spain accepted the offer,” she writes, “Clark would be thought of today, with Austin, Houston, and others, as a successful western pioneer.”
If Wilkinson is the book’s villain, Locust Grove is its heart. Potts paints an epic picture of life in the house over decades and generations. Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Zachary Taylor (who grew up next door) all make appearances. The stories of the family’s slaves and the tale of an old Indian warrior who visited shortly before Clark’s death are particularly interesting. The book’s final chapters tell the stories of the family’s succeeding generations and the fate of the home. On the whole, the children of William and Lucy Croghan seem far less impressive than their parents and their uncle. George Rogers Clark never married and had no children. Still, his legacy loomed large over his family. At his funeral, a cousin who closed his casket commented aloud, “The mighty oak of the forest has fallen, and now the scrub oaks may sprout all around.”
Gwynne Potts has done an admirable job of bringing the history of Locust Grove to life. More than that, she has shown her readers how important the Clark and Croghan families were to the history of Kentucky, Ohio, and the frontier. For a great number of colonists, the Revolutionary cause began in 1763 when the Proclamation Line was drawn to seal off the west from further settlement. The familiar Boston- and Philadelphia-centric narrative of the Revolution unjustly ignores the frustrated aspirations of thousands who wanted to go west. Those early pioneers are the connection between the Revolutionary era and the America we know. If this book reaches the audience it deserves, many more will understand that.
Potts, Clark & Croghan, 33; James Higgins Bounty Land Warrant Information, Library of Virginia, VAS1517; James Alton James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1912), 8: 1-2.
In December of 1775, Virginia’s West Augusta District, which included Fort Pitt, was directed by the Virginia Convention to raise two companies. Capt. John Stephenson, the half-brother of William Crawford, led one company and Croghan led the other.
Potts, Clark & Croghan, 48, 78; Andrew Lewis to Charles Lee, August 13, 1776 and Charles Lee to John Armstrong, August 15, 1776, in Henry Edward Bunbury, ed., The Lee Papers(New York: New York Historical Society, 1871-1875), 2: 212, 230-231; William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large, Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619(Richmond, J. & G. Cochran, 1819-1823), 9: 75-92. A full Virginia company at this time was composed of 68 men plus commissioned and noncommissioned officers (Hening). One hundred and twenty 8th Virginia soldiers were added to the 1st Virginia in Williamsburg (Lewis to Lee: “I have succeeded so well that with the addition of 120 of the Eighth Battalion they will be compleat.”). One hundred forty-seven 8th Virginia soldiers who were sick with malaria were left behind in Charleston in August when the regiment continued south into Georgia (Lee to Armstrong: “One hundred and forty seven of Colonel Mughlenburghs Regiment with two Captains and three subalterns are left sick at Charlestown.”).Lafayette did not command the division until after Stephen was cashiered following the Battle of Germantown in October.
Potts, Clark & Croghan,49-52; 30, 33, 35; Returns of the 1st Virginia Regiment, October 6, 1776, October 14, 1776, October 22, 1776, October [?], 1776, and November 5, 1776; Pension Application of Henry Brock (S36431); Pension Application of Harmon Commins (S21701); Pension Application of Jonathan Grant (S42758); Pension Application of David Williams (S4729); William L. Kidder, Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds (Lawrence Twp., NJ: Knox Press, 2018), 302; Jared C. Lobdell, “The Revolutionary War Journal of Sergeant Thomas McCarty,”Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, 82 (1964):29-46. McCarty’s diary, which covers the periods from August 23 to September 25, 1776 and from November 23, 1776 to February 16, 1777 never mentions Croghan by name, but does refer to “the captain” several times in the first time period. One and maybe two of these instances refer to the captain as being ill. Three references to a mysterious “Captain Rogers” appear to refer to a boat captain who helped McCarty ferry wagons across the Susquehanna River, though Lobdell postulates that the name is a misspelling of “Crogen” in the manuscript. The lack of references to “the captain” in the second period could be explained by a change in McCarty’s duties. McCarty was at Trenton and Assunpink Creek, but not at Princeton.
Ibid., 130. Many of William Croghan and Jonathan Clark’s fellow 8th Virginia veterans also settled in the area. George Slaughter was a major in George Rogers Clark’s Illinois Regiment and one of Louisville’s original town fathers. James Knox (who had been an early prewar “longhunter”) settled nearby outside Shelbyville. 8th Virginia Col. Abraham Bowman settled outside Lexington. Gabriel Neville, “George Slaughter: Louisville’s Forgotten Founder,”“Searching for Captain Knox,”and “A Frontier Cabin Restored,”The 8th Virginia Regiment, 8thVirginia.com.
Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West(New York: Review of Reviews, 1904), 3: 212. “Lewis and Clark,”LocustGrove.org.