Fifth Piece of the Puzzle

One of the texts I would like to use in my final project is George Rogers Clark’s Memoir of his campaigns against the British in the Old Northwest Territories. (A full-text transcript can be found online through the Indiana Historical Bureau.) This source is valuable as it contains a large amount of primary source material about the campaign leading up to his victory at Fort Sackville and an account of the take over of the Fort itself. It also provides one perspective (Clark’s) that is helpful for students to use in making comparing with other accounts by different historical actors that were involved.

There are a lot of questions about this document, which makes it an interesting one for historical investigation. This document appears to first have been written as a letter to one individual as the word “Sir” at the beginning indicates. Many believe it could have been written to Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. There is also evidence that Clark frequently communicated with George Mason of Virginia, whom he regarded as a sort of mentor. There is no date on the letter, although a letter to Jefferson in 1791 seems to indicate that Clark was writing the memoir during that time. The provenance of the document has also been a bit hard to trace. It has been said that the Clark family lent the original letter or a copy of it to Mann Butler in 1833. At one time or another the letter or a copy has been in the possession of the Kentucky Historical Society, a Professor Bliss and Mr. John B. Dillon. Eventually a copy ended up in the Lyman C. Draper collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

As a memoir, it is also an interesting type of source to talk about with students. On one hand, it was written by Clark himself, so it is considered a first-hand account. But at the same time, it was written years after these events occurred (even though the tone of the letter explains things as if they had just happened). It is also necessary to note that Clark’s military campaigns and business ventures after this one were not very successful. Clark’s memoir gave him a chance to secure his legacy as the heroic conqueror of the Old Northwest.

In my project, I am hoping to use this source in a couple of ways. First, as I mentioned earlier, I would like to use this as a comparison piece. I hope to help students compare Clark’s account of specific events to other first-hand accounts. For example, I might have them compare Clark’s rendition of the march to Fort Sackville to that of Captain Bowman, Clark’s second-in-command who kept a field journal on the trip. In this case, as the accounts are fairly similar, I would want to talk about corroborating evidence. Next, I might have them compare Clark’s account of the surrender of the Fort to that told by Henry Hamilton, the British commander of Fort Sackville, in his personal journal. In this case, I would want students to think about why the two accounts might be so different. I would want them to question the notion that there is one true account of history and that if two accounts conflict, one must be wrong. Instead, I would want them to explore the idea of that each person who was there has there own perspective about what happened, just as historians each have their own interpretation of what they think happened in the past.

Secondly, I would want to use this document to talk about sourcing. In particular, I would want to look at types of primary sources, such as journals and diaries vs. memoirs and autobiographies. I would want students to realize that there is an inherent difference between a source that has been written with the intent of private or personal use vs. a source that knowingly written for posterity or a public audience. For example, could Clark have embellished his account to make it seem like he and his men had faced greater hardship than they actually did, since we know that many people would read his account? Or could Clark have unintentionally fabricated some of the details that he had forgotten in the 10-15 years since the Siege at Fort Sackville actually occurred? I would want to teach students to always question why a source is being written and to use that information in their assessment of the content and perspective.

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