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River Lore: The Wabash

George Rogers Clark Crossing The Wabash River, 1779.

George Rogers Clark Crossing The Wabash River, 1779.

Dale Glasgow

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On a journey that lasted 18 cold days and nights, George Rogers Clark led a force of 175 American and French militia from Kaskaskia, Ill., to Vincennes, Ind., with the goal of capturing Fort Sackville. But this was no road trip. To reach Vincennes, the oldest city in Indiana, Clark and his men marched through 120 miles of land flooded by winter snow melts and rains and traveled in — not along — the Wabash River where Fort Sackville sat.

How arduous was that?

To show me, Pamela Nolan, a park ranger and interpretative guide for the George Rogers Clark Memorial, tells me to put my hand in a metal can filled with ice cold water. Since Nolan, garbed in the fashion of women’s wear during Revolutionary War times, is holding a long rifle like the ones carried by Clark’s militiamen, I obey her.

The water is achingly cold. But that’s just the beginning.

"Hold this over your head," Nolan says, thrusting the rifle in my hands. "The men didn’t want their rifles to get wet, so they had to move through the river holding them above their heads. The water sometimes reached their necks. Imagine doing this for three straight days. And then imagine sleeping on the cold, hard ground without having eaten anything for those three days."

It’s hard to imagine, since standing in this position for three short minutes seems difficult enough. The defeat of the British at Fort Sackville forced them to surrender a huge tract of land west of the Appalachian Mountains — land that now includes Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the eastern portion of Minnesota. It was one of the great victories of the Revolutionary War and one of the reasons we’re all not drinking tea and saying "jolly good."

The massive granite memorial with its 16 Doric columns on the banks of the Wabash commemorates a hero that many of us confuse with his younger brother, William, who, with Meriwether Lewis crossed the continent of the United States in the early 1800s. William was just a boy when his eldest brother, 18 years his senior, reached heroic stature.

Vincennes, founded in 1732, was originally a French fur trading post. A charming town filled with immaculately restored late 18th century homes and storefronts, Vincennes is also home to the Old Cathedral, build in 1826. The cathedral stands on the site of three previous churches, including a basic log structure that was built in 1732.

Like the nearby memorial, the cathedral is substantial, made of red brick. A courtyard, laid out in the symmetrical style typical of French gardens, connects it to Old Cathedral Library and Museum. Here again is another first, the oldest library in Indiana, containing 10,000 rare volumes that date back to 1319.

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