Jonathan Clark – A Witness to History

Jonathan Clark, of the famous Clark family, passed away on November 25, 1811 - 200 years ago this month. Born in August 1750 in Albemarle County, Virginia, Clark was the oldest of the ten children of John and Ann Rogers Clark. Two of his younger brothers - George Rogers and William - achieved great fame; George for his exploits in Kentucky and the Northwest Territory during the Revolutionary War and William as co-leader of the epic 1803 to 1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition across the American West to the Pacific Ocean.

George Rogers Clark, portrait by Matthew Jouett, ca. 1825.  No portrait for brother Jonathan is known to exist.

William Clark, portrait by Joseph H. Bush, ca. 1817

Jonathan was a source of solid support and advice to both George and William as to his other siblings. He also achieved success and was widely admired in his own right. Jonathan served as a representative to two Virginia Revolutionary conventions and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel of the Eighth Virginia Regiment in the Continental Line during the American Revolution. He served with distinction in a number of campaigns and battles. He was one of the original Virginia members of the Society of the Cincinnati and in 1793 was commissioned a major general in the Virginia militia. Thus he, like George and William, also achieved the rank of general (all in militia service).

Jonathan moved with his family from Spotsylvania County, Va., to Jefferson County, Ky., in the summer of 1802, settling on a plantation on the South Fork of Beargrass Creek near his brother William's Mulberry Hill plantation (and where the Clarks had settled in 1785). His house was located off of Dundee Road near Atherton High School and still stands (though greatly altered over the years).

Jonathan and Sarah Clark's Louisville home, located off of Dundee Road, photo by Jim Holmberg.

Jonathan moved at a fortuitous time, as great things were happening in the west beyond the Appalachians. Brother William set off on his "western tour" to the Pacific in the fall of 1803. Jonathan and other Clarks were there to see him depart. Big brother even sailed downriver a ways with the captains and the nucleus of the Corps of Discovery.

Jonathan Clark's diary entry for 26 October 1803.

William wrote letters to him during the expedition and sent reports, notes, and artifacts collected along the trail to him for safe-keeping and dispersal to family and friends.  When the captains returned to the Falls of the Ohio in early November 1806,  Jonathan noted it in his diary; as he did a celebration at sister Lucy Croghan's home Locust Grove in honor of their return. As short as these diary entries are, at least they record these momentous events in the life of the family, our region, and the country.

Jonathan Clark's diary entry for 5 November 1806.

Engraving of the Falls of the Ohio, by Victor Collot.

Not long before his death, Jonathan recorded yet another event that proved to have great regional and national  importance. He took a ride on the first steamboat to travel on western waters. The New Orleans  left Pittsburgh in October 1811 and eventually reached New Orleans in January 1812.  While waiting at Louisville for the Ohio to rise sufficiently to pass through the Falls, Nicholas Roosevelt (the boat's designer and one of its owners) gave rides upstream to demonstrate the paddlewheeler's ability to travel against the current.  On November 9, Jonathan was one of the passengers to take a ride and see for himself what this feat of engineering foretold for river travel and the development of the country.  It is one of the few references by someone about, much less who rode on, the boat. One wishes he had described the boat and his excursion, but at least we have this: "Sailed in the Steam Vessle New Orleans - as far as the Diamond Island." (Although uncertain, best evidence indicates that Diamond Island is present Twelve Mile Island.)

Diary entry noting ride on the steamboat "New Orleans", 9 November 1811.

Sixteen days later Jonathan Clark passed away. Thanks to his diary-keeping, as brief as his entries are, Jonathan recorded the momentous as well as the mundane over the course of more than forty years, and provided an important record of American history.

James J. Holmberg

5 comments on “Jonathan Clark – A Witness to History

  1. Jocelyn

    Hello. Jonathan Clark was my 6th great grandfather. How have you come to know so much about him? I’d like to learn as much as I can. Thank you for any help you can offer.


    Jocelyn Wright Sese

  2. admin

    The Filson has a large collection of Clark family papers, primarily those of Jonathan Clark. In my Clark family research I’ve learned a lot about him and other members of this famous family. There are a couple of publications available for sale through The Filson (or even online via Amazon perhaps) that provide information on Jonathan and the Clark family.

    – James. J. Holmberg

  3. Glenda Barnes

    Hello, I’m writing a book concerning the Oregon Trail and I want to get more information on Lewis and Clark. Jonathan Clark was my 7th g grandfather and so interested in his history. Could you please give me some information that I could use. Thank you. Glenda Barnes, Nyssa, Or

  4. H Benjamin

    One minor correction may be in order. In response to your statement, “Thus he, like George and William, also achieved the rank of general (all in militia service),” William Rogers Clark never attained a general officer’s commission. His military rank as part of the militia was captain, but he served in the US Army as a lieutenant. He was posthumously promoted to captain by President Bill Clinton in 2001.

    1. Jennie Cole

      Dear Mr. Benjamin,

      You mention “William Rogers Clark” – William Clark and George Rogers Clark were brothers, and both were given the rank of brigadier general in militias. William Clark received a commission as brigadier general of the Louisiana Territory militia as a reward for his services during the Expedition, and was appointed chief Indian agent for the territory. Clark also received double pay for the period of the expedition and a 1,600 acre land grant. This is the generalship two which the author of our blog post refers. In 1781 Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson, promoted George Rogers Clark to brigadier general and gave him command of all the militia in the Kentucky and Illinois counties.
      Jennie Cole


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