Sample text for William Clark and the shaping of the West / by Landon Jones.
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Excerpt from William Clark and the Shaping of the West by Langdon Y. Jones. Copyright © 2004 by Landon Y Jones. To be published in May, 2004 by Hill and Wang, A Division of Farrar Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved.
A DARK AND BLOODY GROUND
In the cold morning air of February 1, 1792, a detachment of 150 soldiers on horseback rode toward the headwaters of the Wabash River in Indian country north of the Ohio. The troops were mounted militiamen led by Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkinson, the newly appointed commander of the western army. Just thirty-four, Wilkinson had won an early reputation for brilliance during the Revolutionary War in Boston and in the New Jersey campaign at Trenton and Princeton. His social connections through his marriage to a prominent Philadelphian, Ann Biddle, had further helped smooth his rise in the army, despite his reputation for intrigue.
The soldiers found it slow going. On either side of them were the blackened branches of the Ohio hardwood forest, dense with trees reaching a circumference and height that were almost unimaginable. There were red and white oaks and maples 100 to 150 feet tall, enormous chestnuts and buckeyes 18 feet in girth. Along the frozen river bottoms stood huge thickets of cane, with stalks 12 to 20 feet high, tall enough to hide a man on horseback. The hollowed-out trunks of the sycamores, called buttonwoods, could shelter a family. Running up the branches and through the treetops was the forest's most distinctive feature: ropy tangles of wild grapevines that in warmer months made a canopy so dark and forbidding that no underbrush could grow beneath it.
For years, Indian hunters had burned scattered clearings into the impenetrable Ohio woodlands to flush out deer and to create meadows to attract herds of elk and eastern bison. Settlers later found another way to clear fields: they notched dozens of closely arrayed trees, each halfway through. They would then topple one of the goliaths, which would in turn bring down an entire stand in a succession of deafening crashes.
Wilkinson and his troops approached the Wabash on a rough road that had been cut into the forest the previous autumn. A fresh snowfall blanketed the ground twenty inches deep. As their horses snorted and pawed through the drifts, the soldiers began to realize that the piles of snow in front of them were covering up a multitude of objects strewn about the road. As they rode on, they discovered increasing numbers of cartridge boxes, pieces of uniforms, carcasses of horses and mules, fire-locks, knapsacks, and other debris.
Just before 10:30 a.m., a few miles from a branch of the Wabash, they began to find the bodies. First they stumbled on a few, almost imperceptible beneath mounds of soft snow. But then they found dozens of corpses, many of them dragged into the open by scavenging animals. Almost all had been grotesquely mutilated-stripped naked, scalped, genitals cut off, "stakes as thick as a person's arm drove through their bodies," one officer in the party later reported in a letter.1
Buffeted by a strong, cold wind, the soldiers tried to bury the victims, most of them men, but there were also many women and children among them. The icy soil was hard as granite, and, as Winthrop Sargent, an adjutant general and secretary of the Northwest Territory, wrote in his report, the task was difficult, "the bodies being frozen down to the ground, quite covered with snow, and breaking into pieces in tearing them up."2 A genteel Harvard graduate who was once known as the best-dressed man in the Continental Army (he was said to own a field kit made by Paul Revere), Sargent rode bleakly around the site, noticing that many trees had been stripped of twigs and branches by the ferocity of the gunfire.
The soldiers pulled together several ruined wagons and gun carriages and burned them in order to salvage their ironwork. But they were unable to locate the six cannons that had been carried by the destroyed army. They concluded that the Indians must have thrown them into the river, now covered with a hard shell of ice. In the end, Wilkinson's party buried about one hundred bodies, placing them in several shallow mass graves hacked into the ground. Many of the dead, they observed, bore a disturbing sign: their mouths had been stuffed with handfuls of dirt.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Clark, William, 1770-1838, Explorers West (U, S, ) Biography, Governors Missouri Biography, West (U, S, ) Discovery and exploration, Frontier and pioneer life West (U, S, )Indians of North America Wars 1750-1815, Indians of North America Wars 1815-1875, Indians of North America Wars West (U, S, )Clark, George Rogers, 1752-1818, Clark family