Indiana: Vincennes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A community dating to the early eighteenth century, Vincennes played an important role in the western campaign during the American Revolution. It includes the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park; Grouseland, the home of William Henry Harrison, a National Historic Landmark; the Indiana Territory State Historic Site; and the Fort Knox II Historic Park.

Site Offices:

George Rogers Clark National Historical Park

401 South Second Street

Vincennes, IN 47591

ph.: (812) 882-1776

fax: (812) 882-7270

Web site: www.nps.gov/gero/

Grouseland (William Henry Harrison Home)

3 West Scott Street

Vincennes, IN 47591

ph.: (812) 882-2096

The city of Vincennes, on the Wabash River in southwestern Indiana, is one of the oldest communities in the Midwest. During its eventful early years, its inhabitants lived under the flags of three nations: France, Great Britain, and the United States. Its role in the American Revolutionary War led to the acquisition of a vast territory for the new republic, and it continued to play an important part in the development of the young country.

Establishment of Vincennes

The French first established a fort at Vincennes in 1732 as an outpost and center for the lucrative fur trade with the Indians. The post was named in honor of its founder, François-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes, who was burned at the stake by the Chickasaw Indians in 1736. The site drew settlers from Canada, Detroit, and other French outposts as far away as New Orleans. Today there are still many reminders of the French heritage in Vincennes. The Old Cathedral, 205 Church Street, served as the parish church to the Catholic French inhabitants. Now called the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, it was begun in 1826, succeeding two prior log churches dating back to 1749. In its belfry hangs a bell brought from France in 1742. Four bishops are buried in its crypt, including Bishop Simon William Gabriel Bruté, who supervised its construction. Bruté’s fine collection of books dating to the fifteenth century is in the Old Cathedral Library, located in the courtyard behind the cathedral.

Next to the cathedral is the Old French Cemetery, in use since 1750 (although the oldest marker is dated 1800). The Old French House, 509 North First Street, was built between 1786 and 1814 by Michel Brouillet, a French-Canadian fur trader. Behind the house is the French-Indian Heritage Museum, which displays artifacts from prehistoric through French colonial times.

George Rogers Clark and the Revolutionary War

With the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, all of the North American continent claimed by the French was ceded to Great Britain. Vincennes was far off the beaten paths, however, and it was the late 1770’s before the British actually claimed their post on the Wabash, renaming the garrison Fort Sackville. The inhabitants were asked to swear allegiance to Great Britain, and as a matter of expediency, most of them did.

The war between Great Britain and the colonies on the eastern seaboard soon forced the issue of political allegiance. The British began encouraging their Indian allies to raid the American settlers moving into the Kentucky country. These allies then retreated to the safety of the wilderness and their British protectors north of the Ohio River. During the winter of 1777-1778, a tall, auburn-haired Kentuckian named George Rogers Clark went to Governor Patrick Henry in Williamsburg with an audacious proposal: He wanted to attack the British outposts north of the Ohio one by one, with the ultimate goal of capturing Fort Detroit. Clark left Virginia with public orders to raise a company of 350 men to defend Kentucky; his secret orders permitted him to launch a campaign across the Ohio.

Early in 1778 Clark marched 150 Virginia volunteers to western Pennsylvania; from there they floated down the Ohio to Corn Island, across from the present site of Louisville, Kentucky. Here the volunteers were drilled and joined by more men from Kentucky and Tennessee. In June they set out, floating down the Ohio to the abandoned Fort Massac, where they hid their boats and marched north across southwestern Illinois. On the evening of July 4 they reached Kaskaskia, which surrendered without resistance. Clark told the French inhabitants of the alliance between France and the new United States and promised them religious freedom if they chose to support the American cause. The Kaskaskians readily agreed and helped convince the residents of Cahokia to join them.

Clark also won a powerful ally in the Jesuit priest who ministered to the far-flung inhabitants of the region, Father Pierre Gibault. Gibault volunteered to go himself to Vincennes, where he won the support of the French. Clark sent Captain Leonard Helm to Vincennes to command the French militia at Fort Sackville. All three towns had been won without firing a shot.

However, the British were not willing to let their outposts go without a fight. When Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton learned of Clark’s activities he put together a large force of British, French, and Indian soldiers and headed south from Detroit, reaching Vincennes in December of 1778. Captain Helm’s militia was vastly outnumbered. He was forced to surrender, and the Union Jack again flew above Fort Sackville.

Francis Vigo

Another important ally won over by Clark was Francis Vigo, an Italian-born trader based in Spanish St. Louis. Vigo had loaned Clark money for supplies and had provided the Americans with goods from his own stock. Unaware of the capture of Vincennes, Vigo arrived there shortly afterward and was taken prisoner. He managed to keep the extent of his relationship with Clark from Hamilton and was released after promising he would take no action against the British on his way back to St. Louis. Vigo kept his promise strictly. He returned directly to St. Louis. Then he hurried to Kaskaskia to inform Clark of the situation at Vincennes.

Among the crucial pieces of information Vigo provided Clark was the news that Hamilton was remaining in Vincennes for the winter but had released his French soldiers and Indian allies. Hamilton planned to regroup in the spring and attack Clark at Kaskaskia. Clark saw he must seize the advantage of Hamilton’s reduced garrison. He recruited about seventy-five French volunteers to join one hundred of his own men for an overland march. It was February and the worst possible time for such a venture. The flat plains of Illinois were inundated with ice-covered water from the swollen rivers. The weather was cold and continuously rainy. Under such conditions, however, Hamilton would never expect an attack. On February 5 Clark and his men left Kaskaskia for Vincennes, two hundred miles away.

Invasion and Victory

For days the men slogged through water, sometimes so deep they had to carry guns and powder over their heads. The men were tired, cold, and hungry. Occasionally they had to stop to build canoes in order to cross the flooded plains. Nearly two weeks later they reached the Embarrass River, just west of the Wabash, where they could hear the guns of Fort Sackville. After some scouting revealed that the British still suspected nothing, they crept closer. On the evening of February 23 they quietly entered the town of Vincennes. Clark had sent a letter to the French inhabitants warning them not to interfere, and the invaders met no resistance. Clark deployed his men around the fort, using several ruses to make it appear that his force was much larger than it was.

Although Hamilton had heard rumors of American forces in the area, he had not taken them seriously. Even after hearing gunfire, he did not realize he was under attack. At last the garrison pulled itself together, but Hamilton saw that he had lost the support of the French and had little hope of relief. The exchange of fire continued throughout the next day, with intermittent messages between Clark and Hamilton arguing over terms. When Clark ordered a group of captured British-allied Indians to be killed in plain view of the fort, Hamilton was finally convinced that Clark was serious in his warning that no quarter would be given if the fort were stormed. On February 25 Hamilton surrendered. Fort Sackville was renamed Fort Patrick Henry.

George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, on the site of Fort Sackville overlooking the Wabash River, was established to memorialize Clark’s contribution. The centerpiece of the park is the George Rogers Clark Memorial, a classically styled structure containing a statue of Clark by Hermon A. MacNeil and seven murals by Ezra Winter depicting the western campaign. The memorial was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

Organization of the Northwest Territory

Although Clark was unable to achieve his ultimate goal of seizing Fort Detroit, the conquest of Fort Sackville and the other outposts above the Ohio gave the United States a crucial claim on the region during the treaty negotiations ending the Revolutionary War. In 1787 Congress organized the newly won land into the Northwest Territory, now known as the Old Northwest. Out of it would come the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota.

Vincennes was named the capital of the Indiana Territory, created from the Old Northwest Territory when Ohio became a state, and served as the seat of the Indiana Territory General Assembly from 1800 to 1813. A modest two-story frame building was the territory’s first capital building; it has been moved to its current location at First and Harrison Streets, where it is part of the Indiana Territory State Historic Site. Also at the site is a re-creation of the Western Sun print shop. The territory’s first newspaper, the Indiana Gazette, was printed in the original building by Elihu Stout in 1804. The press was destroyed by a fire in 1806. The next year the paper reappeared as a weekly publication, the Western Sun.

William Henry Harrison’s Governorship

The first governor of the Indiana Territory was William Henry Harrison, later ninth president of the United States; appointed territorial governor by President John Adams, he served from 1800 to 1812. Harrison’s home, Grouseland, is operated as a National Historic Landmark by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Federal-style house, at the corner of Park and Scott Streets, was built between 1802 and 1804. Harrison lived there until 1812. The house has been restored and furnished with Harrison family furniture.

Indian affairs occupied much of Harrison’s time as governor. He was aggressive in obtaining land concessions from the Native American tribes still living in the territory and stirred up resentment among the tribes. Realizing that Harrison was playing one tribe off against the other, the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet, began to urge the formation of an Indian confederation to oppose white encroachment. Both came to Vincennes to meet with Harrison at Grouseland on several occasions. Harrison recognized the danger to white settlement presented by the intelligent and eloquent Tecumseh and made plans to attack early in 1811. On September 26 he led one thousand men north from Fort Knox to engage Tecumseh’s followers. They reached the Prophet’s town near the Tippecanoe River in early November; Tecumseh was not present, and Harrison’s men defeated an attack by the Prophet’s warriors on November 7 in the Battle of Tippecanoe.

The fort from which Harrison led his troops was the second of three Vincennes garrisons named for Henry Knox, the first U.S. secretary of war. It was located three miles north of the village and used from 1803 to 1813; one of its commanders was Captain Zachary Taylor, later the twelfth president of the United States. The Indiana Historical Society now operates the Fort Knox II Historical Park, a forty-four-acre park on the site.

Vincennes University

In 1801 the Jefferson Academy was founded in Vincennes; its name was changed when the first General Assembly of Indiana Territory chartered it as Vincennes University in 1806. Vincennes University is the oldest comprehensive junior college in the United States. Its charter provided for the free education of Indian students and encouraged the inclusion of women. The first building was completed in 1811. Competition from Indiana University in Bloomington lost Vincennes University its state support; instead Vincennes created a place for itself as an outstanding junior college. The original campus southeast of the current site was sold by the trustees in 1839. The school moved to the corner of Fifth and Busseron Streets, then moved again in 1953 to the eighty-five-acre site it occupies today near the Wabash River.

As a boy Abraham Lincoln passed through Vincennes when his family moved from Indiana to Illinois in 1830. Later, Lincoln’s law practice often brought him back to Vincennes, where he was sometimes a guest of friends and clients. The Lincoln Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Wabash from Vigo Street, commemorates that association with the sixteenth president. A monument to Lincoln was erected on the Illinois side of the bridge in 1938; a bronze statue of the young Lincoln stands before a stone bas-relief of the Lincoln family crossing the Wabash into Illinois.

Architecture of Vincennes

Vincennes also offers a number of architecturally and historically significant houses and commercial buildings. The Old State Bank, 114 North Second Street, the oldest surviving bank structure in the state, was built between 1836 and 1838 as the Vincennes branch of the State Bank of Indiana. It is now an Indiana Territory State Historic Site, restored and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Across the street is the Ellis Mansion, a two-story brick structure built by Judge Abner T. Ellis in 1830. In addition to his legal duties, Ellis was the first president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, which later became the Baltimore and Ohio. Abraham Lincoln was his attorney and a frequent guest in the house.

The Baty Place, 617 North Second Street, served as the first hospital in Indiana. It was built by Samuel Judah, a pioneer lawyer, about 1840. Dr. Jean Isidore Baty, a French physician, lived in the house from 1848 to 1865 and built a three-story addition to serve as a hospital. The Bonner-Allen Mansion is the home of the oldest continuously operating family business in the state. The house was built for David S. Bonner in 1842 and purchased by Cyrus M. Allen, a lawyer and railroad contractor, in 1845. Allen was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, and a plaque marks the bedroom Lincoln used when a guest. The Gardner family purchased the home in 1915. In 1816 Andrew Gardner started a cabinet and coffin-making shop; a sixth-generation Gardner now operates the Gardner Funeral Home in the mansion at 505 Main Street.

In 1842 a merchant named Adam Gimbel arrived in Vincennes and began a mercantile store. His sons continued his business, founding the Gimbel Brothers department stores in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York. The second Gimbel store was located in the building at 200 Main Street, constructed in 1875.

For Further Information
  • Day, Richard. Vincennes. Dover, N.H.: Arcadia, 1998. Offers a pictorial history of Vincennes from picture postcards and rare photographs.
  • Derleth, August. Vincennes: Portal to the West. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Provides a thorough and detailed account of the city’s origin and history up to the War of 1812, focusing on Clark’s campaign and including William Henry Harrison’s dealings with the Indians.
  • Taylor, Robert M., Jr., Errol Wayne Stevens, Mary Ann Ponder, and Paul Brockman. Indiana: A New Historical Guide. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1992. An excellent city guide to Vincennes attractions. It is geographically arranged and could serve for a self-guided walking or auto tour.
Categories: History Content