Robert J. Holden
In the beginning of human existence, the entire world was a wilderness. As islands of civilization slowly grew in various parts of the globe, the wilderness gradually began to recede. This process greatly accelerated after 1500 with the exploration and the subsequent settlement of the Americas, Africa and Australia by the Europeans, whose own continent had been a wilderness not many centuries earlier.
The European struggle for supremacy throughout the wilderness of the North American continent would develop into a three-pronged attack. From the north, came the French. Out of the south, arose the Spanish. And in the east, there loomed the English. All three European powers viewed the vast area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River as an important prize in their race for empire.
This strategically located Trans-Appalachian frontier would attract another contender during the last quarter of the 18th century. Although a neophyte among nations, the newly created United States stepped into the frontier contest while waging a revolution for its own independence.
Strong opposition to the moves being made by all four of these nations came from among the region's large numbers of Indian tribes. For them, the wilderness was not something to be pushed back or to be conquered. This North American heartland was a homeland they were determined to defend.
As we know, the settlers of the United States eventually were successful in this struggle. These rugged pioneers had evolved into an egalitarian, individualistic and footloose society; they also possessed an ability to survive upon a subsistence economy of agriculture, livestock raising and hunting. To these traits was added a skill in warfare that made their victory inevitable once they had arrived in sufficient numbers. The ultimate triumph of the United States throughout this region made possible the expansion of that new nation to the Pacific Ocean.
A central figure in the struggle for empire was George Rogers Clark. Born in Virginia in 1752, Clark had migrated into the Trans-Appalachian area prior to the outbreak of hostilities between the 13 colonies and England. By 1779, after successfully wresting Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Vincennes from British control, Clark became the acknowledged American leader throughout the West. At no time during the Revolution did anyone else appear who could have filled his role on the frontier. Without Clark's leadership, there seems little doubt that the entire Trans-Appalachian region would have been lost to the British before the conflict's end, thus possibly creating an entirely different outcome to the war and subsequently to world history.
The annual George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conference was inaugurated in 1983. It was designed to encourage research into this important field of study and to serve as a focal point for presentation of that research. Although papers on the subject often have been delivered at other meetings, there existed no regularly scheduled conference devoted solely to this particular frontier. The importance of both Clark and the settlement of Vincennes in the early history of the Trans-Appalachian region make this historic city along the Wabash River the site of the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park a perfect setting for such a gathering.
This volume from the 1991 and 1992 conferences contains papers covering a wide variety of frontier subjects including warfare, religion, Indians, frontiersmen and traders. J. Martin West's "George Rogers Clark and the Shawnee Expedition of 1780" illuminates a lesser-known episode in Clark's career. Larry L. Nelson's "Cultural Mediation on the Great Lakes Frontier: Alexander McKee and Anglo-American Indian Affairs, 1754-1799" explores the role of a key figure during the struggle for empire. Kenneth C. Carstens' "Fort Jefferson, 1780-1781: A Summary of Its History" illustrates the function of this fortification built by George Rogers Clark along the banks of the Mississippi River. Richard Day's "Daniel Sullivan, Frontiersman and Adventurer" presents the life of a colorful character. J. T. Scott's "The Great Revival in Kentucky" looks at an interesting and unique aspect of frontier culture. Robert G. Gunderson's "William Henry Harrison: Master of Grouseland" explores the personality of this important leader while he resided in Vincennes. Dennis M. Au's "'Best Troops in the World': The Michigan Territorial Militia in the Detroit River Theater During the War of 1812" provides an insight into a virtually forgotten military organization. Rob Mann's and Rick Jones' "Zachariah Cicott, 19th Century French Canadian Fur Trader: Ethnohistoric and Archaeological Perspectives on Ethnic Identity in the Wabash Valley" discusses the role of that trader on the Indiana frontier.
Many individuals have given invaluable assistance with the 1991 and 1992 history conferences and with the preparation of these selected papers. I wish to express my appreciation to Superintendent James Holcomb, Tern Utt, Pat Wilkerson, Richard Day and Pamela A. Nolan of the National Park Service and to President Phillip M. Summers, Robert R. Stevens, E. J. Fabyan, Douglas Power, Ken J. Whitkanack, Harold Turner and Barbara A. Kunkler of Vincennes University.
Robert J. Holden
Last Updated: 23-Mar-2011