When studying the Revolutionary War of the United States, most recall the events that took place in the thirteen colonies in the East. While it is true that the major battles were won or lost in that arena, there was a conflict taking place in the West that is often overlooked. As Americans began to explore the western territory and migrate to that vast area, they confronted numerous obstacles. The land was already occupied by various Indian nations as well as Europeans who were attempting to gain control of the area for their respective nations. The French had migrated down from Canada into the Mississippi Valley where they trapped and intermarried with Native Americans. Spain had control of New Orleans and the western shore of the Ohio River. The English encroached upon the western arena, treating with the Indians to win their loyalty away from the French. The area was known by many names which made concrete description of the area impossible. It was the Northwest Territory, the West, The Illinois, Ohio frontier, Upper and Lower Louisiana, New France, Mississippi Valley, and many other names which overlapped in an effort for each faction to declare ownership or at least the right to occupation based on previous exploration.
As the United States attempted to gain independence from Great Britain it also saw the need for western expansion if the struggling colonies were to become a legitimate united nation. Control of the area given in the original charter of Virginia became of utmost importance in the mind of those like Jefferson who could foresee that control of the continent would be the only way that a new nation could be assured of unity and protection from foreign invasion. It was essential to make the area from the Atlantic to the Pacific entirely American or one would always be looking over the proverbial shoulder at who was plotting to take over.
Jefferson knew that the West needed to be defended and as Governor he gave commissions to George Rogers Clark to conquer and occupy that area. He knew Clark personally and agreed with his endeavors to free the western territory from British occupation. When Clark first envisioned taking control of the forts in the area close to the falls of the Ohio, he needed provisions and went to Patrick Henry for such. Henry was at home ill but gave Clark permission to entreat upon Congress to supply his needs. Congress was for all practical reasons destitute and could not see the reasoning behind dealing with an uninhabited wilderness when the eastern seacoast was in need of reinforcements. Patrick Henry is known for the famous line "Give me liberty or give me death" as all students of U. S. History know. But Clark’s rebuttal to the Executive Council of Virginia should also be held up to students. When they wavered in granting Clark’s request for the defense of the part of Virginia known as Kentucky, he informed them that a "if a country was not worth protecting, it was not worth claiming." If they did not want the West then they could ignore it, but it would not go away; it would just be taken over by other - others whom the Congress would not want in control of their back yard. Thus Kentucky became a county of Virginia.
The struggle that continually ensued in that area over land was not to be quickly or decisively settled for many generations to come. At this time France, England, Spain, America and numerous differing bands of Indians scrabbled, fought, clawed, and connived in any way possible to gain and keep control over that area. All knew that the future depended upon the West. Whoever would control that area would control all the untapped riches of thousands of acres of virgin forests, uncrossed rivers, and routes that led to Alaska, Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean. Too much to risk losing before it had even begun to be settled, the Virginia Assembly agreed to give Clark five hundred pounds of gunpowder to defend the county of Kentucky. Clark recognized that this would then afford Kentucky the future protection and control by Virginia. Clark was to go into the western area and take back the forts that were occupied by the English, treat with and pacify the Indians, and to move upward to Detroit if possible. These orders were given to him secretly by Patrick Henry. Both desired that all the area west of the Appalachian Mountains north to New Orleans, and south to Detroit (which meant Canada) could later be claimed as part of the United States.
Clark did his job and most of that vast arena was claimed by in the peace negotiations after the war ended; Ben Franklin insisted that the West be included in the Paris Peace Treaty. Historians continue to debate whether the West belonged to the United States by right of conquest as a result of Clark’s exploits. Although Clark did not maintain control of that area for long and never did reach Detroit, still his heroic efforts to take the forts of Vincennes, Cahokia, and Kaskaskia made it possible for further legitimate expansion to occur. The area would not be settled for many decades to come but the beginnings of a new united nation were in place.
As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase it is also a good time to consider that the brave exploits of one man who with a few rag tag frontiersmen, provisioned with so little that they arrived at their destination to all accounts naked and on the brink of starvation, took the mightiest nation in the world by surprise and afforded a new struggling nation to have the right to see an area west of the Ohio as their own long before it was actually purchased by Jefferson for the United States.