American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Western States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
1901


VINCENNES
THE KEY TO THE NORTHWEST
BY WILLIAM HENRY SMITH

"ON the banks of the Wabash" is one of the greater historic sites of the great Northwest. Of no great importance, at least commercially, today, it was once the seat of the empire of France in the Ohio Valley, and long before, possibly when Moses was leading his people out of bondage, the seat of an empire established by a race we now call prehistoric. When the Mound Builders came, whence they came, when they went away, or whither, will, in all probability never be determined; but they were surely here, and from the works they left behind, must have been here for centuries, and must have numbered millions. The site of their capital is not known, but if it was not on the spot where Vincennes now stands, certainly one of the most populous cities of their empire did stand here. In the immediate vicinity are several large mounds, and around them are hundreds of smaller mounds.

There must have been something attractive about this spot on the Wabash, for after the Mound Builders deserted it and the red men came to occupy the land, they, too, selected it for the site of one of their principal towns No one knows what tribes have dwelt here, but when it was first visited by white men, the Pi-ank-a-shaws, one of the leading tribes of the great Miami Confederacy, organized to drive back eastward the Six Nations, occupied it as their principal village, and called it Chip-kaw-kay. As the red men depended upon the forests and streams for both food and clothing, this was for them an ideal spot. The finest forests in America were here, filled with buffalo, bear, deer, and other game; while the Wabash furnished them fish and gave them a highway easily traversed by which to visit friends in other sections or to make raids on hostile tribes.

The traditions of the Pi-ank-a-shaws indicate that they occupied the site for more than a century before the coming of the whites. Just when the first white man visited the spot cannot be determined. AThere is little doubt that La Salle passed up the Wabash about 1669, gave it the name of the Ouabache, and marked it on his maps.1 Finding an Indian town, he probably stopped and, as was his wont, made friends with the tribes. A few years later the town was abandoned for a while, owing to the irruptions of the fierce Iroquois, who were extremely hostile to the French, and La Salle gathered all the other Indian tribes around his fort on the Illinois, where they remained until about 1711. When the Iroquois retired over the mountains the other tribes returned to their old homes; the Pi-ank-a-shaws to their village on the Wabash, the Weas erecting their wigwams near the mouth of the Tippecanoe, and the Twight-wees locating at the head of the Maumee. Afterward the Delawares took up their home in Central Indiana, the Shawnees in the eastern portion, and the Pottawatomies around the foot of Lake Michigan.

The Indians had hardly gotten back to their old hunting grounds before the coureurs des bois began to make excursions into the territory in, search of peltries and adventures. Some of them penetrated as far as Chip-kaw-kay and dwelt for some time with the Pi-anka-shaws. Traditions tell of the visit of a missionary or two, but there is no certainty.

Rumors grew of English traders crossing the mountains, and as all the territory from the Ailéghanies to the Mississippi was claimed by France because of the explorations of La Salle, the French authorities in Canada and Louisiana became alarmed, and in 1718 sent out jean Baptiste Bissot, the Sieur de Vincent, from Canada to establish posts on the Wabash. He reached Ke-ki-on-ga, the town of the Twight-wees, at the head of the Maumee, selected it for one of his posts, and for another, Wea town, below the mouth of the Tippecanoe.

At that time not all of the Ohio Valley was under the jurisdiction of Canada, but the lower half of what are now Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois belonged to the province of Louisiana. For this reason Bissot made no effort to establish posts farther down the Wabash than Wea town, afterward known as Ouiatenon. He died at Ke-ki-on-ga, in 1719. The incursions of the English growing bolder and more frequent, M. Broisbriant, Governor of Louisiana, about 1725, ordered Francois Margane, Sieur de Vincent, who had succeeded to the title of his uncle, Jean Baptiste Bissot, to prepare to repel the advance of the English and drive them back across the mountains. For this purpose Margane established a post at Chip-kaw-kay, and about seven years later a number of French-Canadian families settled there. This was the first settlement of whites in Indiana, although trading posts had previously been established at the head of the Maumee and at Ouiatenon.

This was the beginning of Vincennes, which was called "the Post," "au Poste," and "Old Post," till in 1735 it received the present name. Margane commanded the Post until 1736, when he joined an expedition against the Indians on the Mississippi, and was captured and burned at the stake.

After his death till the territory was ceded in 1763 to the British, the Post was commanded by Lieutenant Louis St. Ange, who had assisted in establishing it. The French during this period lived in peace and friendship with the Indians, the Pi-ank-a-shaws giving the settlers a large tract of land around the Post for their use. This land was held in common by all the inhabitants. In the spring a certain portion was allotted to the head of each family, or to any one else willing to cultivate it, but when the harvest was over the fences were taken down and the land again became public property. After the accession of St. Ange to the command, he made to certain of the more important persons in the little settlement individual grants of some of this land, which later caused great confusion.

Lieutenant St Ange had much influence with the Indians, and as the French made no attempts to claim the lands of the. Indians, or to destroy their hunting grounds by cutting down the forests, the little settlement at Vincennes lived without molestation or fear, until about 1751, when British agents stirred up some of the tribes to attempt the destruction of the French posts in the Ohio Valley. St. Ange put his post in a secure state of defence, and although a few friendly Indians were killed by the hostiles in the immediate neighborhood, the Post itself was not attacked.

When Canada was ceded to the British it took with it the posts at the head of the Maumee and Wea town. They were garrisoned by small detachments of British troops. Pontiac's conspiracy to drive the British out of the country included the capture and destruction of all the posts then held by the British west of the mountains. The two other posts in Indiana were captured, but Vincennes, being still under the command of St. Ange, was not attacked. Pontiac endeavored to enlist St. Ange in his warfare against the colonists, but that astute officer was proof against all his blandishments. When the treaty of 1763 was made known, St. Ange was transferred to the command of Fort Chartres, on the Mississippi, and left the affairs of Vincennes under the control of three of the more prominent citizens.

The British reoccupied Fort Miamis, at the head of the Maumee, and garrisoned Fort Chartres, but did not occupy Vincennes or assume control over its affairs. General Gage, commander in chief of the British forces in America, issued a proclamation to the people of Vincennes offering them the privilege of remaining or of removing to the French or Spanish possessions, assuring them that if they remained they should have the same religious privileges as had been granted to the people of Canada. In a later proclamation he informed the inhabitants that he would not recognize any claim they had to the lands in and around the Post.

The priest of the little parish and some of the leading citizens memorialized the General, showing that the lands had been held by them for many years under grants recognized by the French government, and that it would be a hardship now to deprive them of the rights they had so long enjoyed. On the receipt of this memorial General Gage ordered that all evidences of title be submitted to him at Boston. This, for various reasons, could not be done. Many of the written grants had, as was the custom in France, been left in charge of a notary, who had disappeared with them. In other cases, the grants had been verbal, title passing again, after a French fashion, by the giving of possession with certain ceremonies. While this matter was in contest between the citizens of Vincennes and General Gage, the first mutterings of, the American Revolution brought the General duties of more pressing interest, and nothing further was done in regard to the land grants at Vincennes.

From 1763, when St Ange left for Fort Chartres, until 1777, the people of Vincennes had no civil government except such as they exercised themselves. On May 19, 1777, Lieutenant Governor Abbott, of Detroit, arrived and formally took possession of the place for the King, establishing a government and building a small stockade fort, which he named "Fort Sackville." He reported the "Wabache" as one of the finest rivers in the world, and spoke highly of the peaceful and correct attitude of the citizens of Vincennes. He also took supeevision of the garrisons at Ouiatenon and Fort Miamis, and the work of the British agents in stirring up the Indians to active hostilities against the Americans began. The arrival of Lieutenant Governor Abbott, and the hostilities of the Indians he encouraged, gave rise to the most interesting chapter in the history of Vincennes, and one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the United States. Through the influence of the British agents, the savages made a number of forays against the people of Kentucky, and brought about an event 'which added an empire to the United States.

In all American history there is no story more remarkable than that of George Rogers Clark, yet it is one of the least known. Some of the encyclopaedia do not even mention him, while others dismiss with a few lines a man who gave an empire to the United States. He lived a remarkable life, performed great services for his country, and was then permitted to die in extreme poverty in his old age. His country neglected even to reimburse him for the expenses incurred while winning for it an empire.

In 1777 Clark was a citizen of Kentucky. The great question to the people of Kentucky was how best to defend themselves against the Indian forays. Clark, through reports of spies he had sent out, became satisfied that the Indian hostilities were fomented by the British at the various posts northwest of the Ohio River. He went to Virginia and laid the facts before Governor Patrick Henry. He pointed out that the best, if not the only, way to protect the people of Kentucky was to capture and hold the posts at Kaskaskia, Vincennes, and Detroit; that with those posts in the possession of the Americans they could overawe and hold in subjection the various Indian tribes. He offered in person to lead an expedition for their capture.

It was known to Governor Henry that the Spaniards west of the Mississippi had been secretly trying, with some encouragement, to induce the people of Kentucky to place themselves under Spanish protection. When Clark approached him with the suggestion to capture the posts northwest of the Ohio, Governor Henry at first regarded the project as chimerical. One day, after a long argument, Clark left his presence with the significant remark "that a country country that was not worth defending was not worth possessing." Interpreting this remark to mean that if Virginia would not help to defend Kentucky the people there would seek protection from Spain, Governor Henry recalled Clark, and after a further conference, authorized him to recruit 350 men for the capture of the posts.

He gave him also a small supply of Virginia money and some ammunition. Returning to Kentucky, Clark hastily recruited a number of men, without divulging, his purpose to them. They rendezvoused on an island in the Ohio River, opposite the site of Louisville. There he explained his full design, and all but about 15o refused to join the expedition. Undismayed, Clark floated the few men remaining with him down the river in boats prepared for the purpose, and captured Kaskaskia on the 4th of July, 1778. Hearing that the British had a large force at Vincennes, and had gathered around the fort a large number of Indians hostile to the Americans, he waited at Kaskaskia till he could get further information.

The cordial welcome which the French inhabitants of Kaskaskia gave the Americans led Clark to believe that the inhabitants of Vincennes would prove friendly. French in both places, they were easily led by their priests. The priest at Kaskaskia, Father Gibault, a. warm partisan of Clark, offered to go to Vincennes, sound the inhabitants, and learn the strength of the British there. His offer was accepted, and with a single companion he made the journey. He found the French inhabitants, in the absence of the commander of the post, who had gone to Detroit, willing to welcome a change of rulers, and induced them to go in a body to the little church and take an oath of allegiance to the American colonies. After this they took possession of Fort Frackville, and garrisoned it with some of their own number. Father Gibault also induced the Indians to bury the hatchet and promise to live in peace with the Americans, now the friends, as he reminded them, of their great French father.

The news of his success was speedily sent to Clark. Though he had no troops to, send to garrison the fort, he dispatched Captain Leonard Helm to assume direction of affairs. This was a fortunate selection, for Helm added to great courage, tact and an intimate knowledge of the Indian character.

It was not long before the British authorities at Detroit were informed of the change in the situation at Kaskaskia and Vincennes, and at once began preparations to recover the lost ground. At this time Colonel Henry Hamilton, of the British army, was Lieutenant Governor of Detroit. He assembled a force of five hundred men, regulars, militia and Indians, and started for Vincennes. Captain Helm did not learn of the approach of this force until, about the middle of December, it was within three miles of the fort. His garrison consisted of one American and a few inhabitants of Vincennes. Seeing that it would be impossible to defend the fort, the inhabitants quietly dispersed to their homes, leaving Helm and his one American in the fort. Though he knew he could not successfuly defend the fort, Helm put on a bold front, loaded his two cannon, and placed himself at one and his solitary soldier at the other. To Hamilton's demand for the surrender of the post, Helm replied that no man could enter the post until the terms of surrender were made known. Being promised the honors of war, he surrendered himself and his one man, to the chagrin of Hamilton, on discovering the size of the garrison.

The approach of the British had been so sudden that Helm was not able to dispatch a messenger to Clark, who in consequence remained for several weeks in ignorance of the change in the situation. The last word he had received from Helm was a request for more supplies. At that time Francis Vigo, a merchant of St. Louis, happened to be in Kaskaskia. Loving the Americans and hating the British, he volunteered to go to Vincennes and make arrangements to furnish the garrison with supplies. Vigo started on his journey at once, but was captured by the British just before he reached Vincennes, and taken before Hamilton. To his demand for immediate release on the score that he was a citizen of St. Louis, Hamilton was deaf, until the Roman Catholic priest, heading a delegation of citizens, notified Hamilton that they would furnish no supplies for the garrison unless Vigo were released.

Vigo was released, after promising against his will that "on his way to St. Louis he would do no act hostile to the British interest." He at once took a canoe and was rapidly paddled down the Wabash to the Ohio, then on to St. Louis. Keeping the letter of his pledge he did nothing hostile on his way to St. Louis, but on his arrival there he jumped from the boat to the land and then back into the boat,and pushed with ally speed for Kaskaskia, where he told Clark of the condition of affairs.

Clark at, once saw the danger surrounding him. The term of enlistment of most of his men was about to expire. By making them large promises he induced about 150 to extend their enlistment for a term of eight months, and recruited about fifty more from the inhabitants. of Kaskaskia. He could get no reinforcements short of Virginian, even if he could obtain them there. If he waited until spring Hamilton would be largely reinforced, he would be driven from Kaskaskia, and his whole design frustrated. He etermined to make a winter campaign. He sent forty six of his men in boats carrying provisions and ammunition around by water, and with 170 set off February 5, 1779, to make a march of near two hundred miles. It was a fearful enterprise. The land for most of the way was level, and water, when it rained, or when the snow melted, lay in a. broad sheet over the whole country. He did not know how many of his foes were before him. He had no tents to shelter his men and no way of transporting baggage; there were a few pack horses to carry what provisions and ammunition the men could not carry on their backs.

His men were all hardy frontiersmen; their leader had imbued them with his own heroic spirit; they feared no danger. Before they left the little settlement of Kaskaskia, the good priest gave them a blessing, and all the people accompanied them the first three or four miles of their journey. Scarcely had the farewells been said and the march begun when the rain began to fall, and for nearly twenty days there was but a brief glimpse of sunshine now and then.

Only a few miles had been covered when they struck a long stretch of overflowed land. Although the water was cold, into it they plunged, their gallant leader in front; and until the evening of the 22d they saw no dry land, except an occasional half acre or so barely peeping above the flood of waters and furnishing a meagre resting place. It can hardly be said they rested, for on several occasions they had to remain standing throughout the night, or were compelled to walk about to keep from freezing. When they came to a river that had overflowed its banks and was too deep to ford, they made canoes and rafts and floated over.

Always they found the water covered with a thin coating of ice in the morning, and through the ice and water they forced their way. When the water was deep the sergeant carried the drummer boy on his shoulders, and from that perch he beat his charge. Sometimes the water was only knee deep; sometimes it reached the middle and often to the shoulders; but not one of the men thought of turning back. The boat with provisions that had been sent around by water failed to connect and to their other discomforts hunger was added.

On the morning of the 21st they came within sound of the morning gun at Fort Sackville, but it required two more days of wandering without provisions before they could cross the Wabash River. At last they captured some Indians and with them the half of a buffalo rump, which they made into a broth. On the 23d they arrived at the heights back of the town, and for the first time since their departure had an opportunity to dry their clothing. Clark sent a letter to the French inhabitants of the town, telling them of his presence, but warning them not to give any information to Hamilton. The news caused the greatest excitement; the French ran about the streets telling it with joy, for Hamilton had won their hatred. They sent out provisions to the hungry Americans, who that night marched into the town and by opening fire on the fort gave the first intimation to Hamilton and the garrison of the presence of an enemy. The firing was continued until about nine o'clock the next morning, when a surrender was demanded, accompanied by a threat that if the place had to be taken by storm the officers would be treated as murderers. A parley ensued, followed after a few hours by the surrender of the fort, and once more the American flag floated over Fort Sackville, which was then renamed Fort Patrick Henry.

Hamilton and the other officers were sent to Williamsburg, Va., where they were held in custody for a year or two. From papers found in the fort, Clark learned that reinforcements, bringing supplies and stores, were on the way, and at once sent a part of his little force to intercept and capture the reinforcements, which was promptly done.(2)

Vincennes was now the most important place in the Illinois country. When Colonel John Todd was appointed Lieutenant for the County of Illinois, he made Colonel Legrace his deputy for Vincennes, who established the first court the place ever had. Virginia ceded the territory to the United States, and by the Ordinance of 1787 a civil government was set up, Governor St. Clair sending Winthrop Sargent to assume direct jurisdiction at Vincennes. The French inhabitants were finally permitted to hold the lands to which they could show title, while all the rest were taken by the Government.

Clark added an empire to the domain of the colonies, made possible the Louisiana Purchase and the future extension of the country to the Pacific, and then in his extreme old age Virginia sent him only a sword when he asked for repayment of what he had disbursed for the country.

In 1800 Indiana Territory was established with Vincennes as its capital. The jurisdiction of the Territory then included what are now the States of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and a part of Minnesota, and to this was afterward added for a short time the whole of the Louisiana Purchase.

On the 4th of July, 1800, the government of Indiana Territory was formally organized. The Governor, William Henry Harrison, was, however, not present. General John Gibson, who represented him, was one of the Revolutionary heroes. He had married a sister of Logan, the celebrated Mingo chief, and it was to his brother that Logan made his famous speech. On his arrival, Governor Harrison began the work of trading the Indians out of their lands. He made one treaty after another, until more than one half of the present Indiana, together with a good part of Illinois, was ceded. He erected the first brick house in all that section, perhaps the first west of the Alleghanies, in its day a structure so magnificent as to be called the "Governor's Palace." It is still standing, and near it the tree under which the Governor held his historic interview with Tecumseh, when the Indian chief planned the Governor's death.

In 1813 the territorial capital was removed to Corydon, and the political importance of Vincennes ceased. Already a university had been established, Congress giving to it a township of land, and the beginning was made for what is now one of the most valuable libraries in the West. The first church in the Northwest Territory was built in Vincennes about 1742, under the rectorship of Father Meurin, who had come from France to care for the spiritual wants of the settlers. In 1793 M. Rivet, a French priest, driven from his native country by the terrors of the Revolution, arrived at Vincennes and opened the first school taught in Indiana.

The Vincennes of today is a thriving, bustling city of ten thousand inhabitants. It has modern schools and modern churches, modern ideas and modern progressiveness. As a city it has had its ups and downs since it lost political prestige, but for some years it has steadily grown, until now it is classed as one of the beautiful cities of the State. Surrounded by a magnificent agricultural section, and with many manufacturing interests, it threw off long ago the old French habits and customs and took on a progressive spirit, which promises a bright future.

Vincennes has had a glorious past; it occupies a unique place among the historic towns of the country. Boston may have been the cradle of American independence; Philadelphia the place where that liberty was first announced; but after all Boston gave to the Union only Massachusetts, and Philadelphia only Pennsylvania. Vincennes gave us Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the great Middle West. But for the genius and perseverance of George Rogers Clark, when independence came the United Colonies would have stopped at the Alleghanies. The capture of Vincennes spread the jurisdiction of the colonies to the Mississippi, carrying with it American liberty, American progress, American ideas. More than this, it made possible the Louisiana Purchase, which in turn opened the way to the annexation of Texas, the securing of California and the Pacific coast, and the later acquisition of Hawaii and the Philippines. The capture of Vincennes carried American liberty to a domain stretching from the Alleghany Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, yea even to the Orient, a domain which else would still be British or Spanish.

It was Indiana, of which Vincennes was the chief part, that stopped the extension of slavery at the Ohio River, and made all the Northwest free territory. It was at Vincennes that Aaron Burr received his first decided check in his great scheme to dismember the Union. It was Benjamin Parke, a citizen of Vincennes, who placed in the first constitution of the State the clause making it obligatory on the Legislature to provide for the care and treatment of the insane, the first provision of the kind made by any civilized government, a provision which has revolutionized the treatment of the insane throughout the world. Such is the story of Vincennes, no frontier town like Albany or Pittsburg, for when its history began Vincennes was hundreds of miles out in the wilderness beyond the frontier line, and was still hundreds of miles beyond when the great event occurred which changed it from a French settlement under the jurisdiction of Great Britain into the chief seat of American power west of the Alleghanies.


Notes:
1) La Salle, in drawing his maps, made the Ouabache to empty into the Mississippi at Cairo. According to him the Oyo (Ohio) was a tributary of the Ouabache. About 1702, one, M. Juchereau, sent to establish a post for the protection of the traders in peltries, reported that he had established a post about forty leagues above the mouth of the Ouabache. Some writers have taken that to mean Vincennes, and it is so recorded in some of the encyclopaedias, but his post was on what is now called the Ohio, and not on the Wabash.

2) Clark began at once to organize an expedition against Detroit, but it never started. Francis Vigo, who had let Clark have pro­visions and money for his expedition against Vincennes, aided in like manner in fitting out the new expedition, lending money to the amount of $8616 for which Clark gave him an order on Virginia. The order was never honored, and an appeal was made to Congress. Finally, in 1872, nearly a century after the debt was contracted, and nearly thirty seven years after Vigo had died in extreme poverty, Congress referred the matter to the Court of Claims, which four years later allowed the claim, together with more than $41,000 in interest.

Historic towns of the Western States

Return to History at Rays Place