OT: Vincennes: Portal to the West

“Vincennes: Portal to the West,” by August Derleth, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1968. This 212-page hardback tells the story of Vincennes, IN, in the heart of the Northwest Territory. This is a detailed telling of the savage Indian wars in America’s midwest. Vincennes is on the Wabash River about 50 miles north of the Ohio River. The area between the Wabash and the Mississippi was known as the Illinois Country. It was mostly prairie grass wilderness with three French settlements: Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes.

Those who think the Indians were mistreated should read this book. They were savages who butchered women and children, tortured captives, and burned some alive. Some tribes were friendly but others were aggressive. The threat of Indian mischief was always present. They rarely attacked in mass. More often they attacked people away from groups. Travelers. Farmers working in their fields. Some were kidnaped. Some escaped to tell the tale. Others may have been raised by Indians. Some were murdered. Meanwhile the chiefs maintained they could not control their young braves.

The St. Lawrence River gave the French access to the Great Lakes and the territory between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River as far south as New Orleans and Mobile. They mostly traded with the Indians for fur. They also sent priests to convert Indians to Catholicism. To protect from British expansion Francois Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes was sent to build a fort. It was ready by 1732.

Tensions rose. French and their Indian allies burned Saratoga, NY and assaulted Albany in 1745. The British decided to build a fort at the junction of the Allegheny and Mononogahela Rivers, the Forks of the Ohio, in what is now Pittsburgh in 1754. The French occupied the site and built Fort Duquesne. By 1759, the British occupied all the French forts. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended the French and Indian war. France ceded all lands east of the Mississippi except New Orleans to Britain. That left French families probably from fur trading and subsistence farming in the Northwest Territory. Vincennes had close to 70 such families, mostly French Canadians.

Part of the story was told recently in “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the settlers who brought the American Ideal West,” by David McCullough, 2019. Although the original 13 colonies lacked western borders, the British saw the territory north of the Ohio River as a reservation for displaced Indians. Hence, to the South, Kentucky developed as settlers sought new lands, but not the Northwest Territory. That changed in 1783, when Britain ceded the land to the US government.

The Revolutionary War brought new tensions. The British hoped to annex the Northwest Territory to Canada. Working from Detroit, they allied with the Indians to discourage settlement. After years of Indian attacks the territory was secured by the Battle of Fallen Timbers (August 20, 1794, at Maumee, OH, near Toledo), the Battle of Tippecanoe (October, 1813, near Lafayette, IN), and some would add the Black Hawk Wars (1832, northern Illinois).

A key player was George Rogers Clark. He was a Virginia soldier with experience fighting Indians. Kentucky, then a county of Virginia, suffered from Indian raids from across the Ohio River. In 1778, with orders from the Continental Congress in Williamsburg, he assembled troops from Kentucky and captured Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Vincennes. The alliance with France helped as did the fear of his Kentuckians known as Long Knives.

The well known Revolutionary War concerns applied to fighters in the west. Congress failed to supply adequate support. Manpower, rations, ammunition, even clothing were insufficient. Add to that distance and slow communications. Funds to purchase supplies were limited. Paper money was easily counterfeited and too often worthless. Clark used his personal assets to buy supplies. His accomplishments were recognized with a monument in Vincennes.

In 1789, President Washington ordered General Josiah Harmar to attack the Indians along the Maumee River at present day Ft. Wayne, IN to discourage further Indian attacks. Harmar’s campaign from Ft. Washington, present day Cincinnati, ended in defeat. Arthur St. Clair, governor of the territory, was called on to lead a second effort. His forces were untrained and poorly paid; his officers inexperienced. The result was a disastrous defeat on November 4, 1791, at what is now Ft. Recovery, OH, on the headwaters of the Wabash River. The Indians were led by Chief Little Turtle of the Miamis. In response, Mad Anthony Wayne was called on to lead another attempt. This time the troops were better paid and trained. The result was the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

Tecumseh and the Prophet assembled braves from many tribes to attack the Americans. Their story is told in detail. The result was the Battle of Tippecanoe.

Ohio was admitted as a state on July 4, 1800. Vincennes was the capital of Indiana Territory and William Henry Harrision, the victor at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and later President, was Governor of the territory. He was instrumental in negotiating many of the Indian treaties.

The book tells us the Wabash River–Maumee River was long used as a connection between Lake Erie at Toledo and the Ohio River near Evansville, IN. That is the route of the Wabash & Erie Canal, which failed in the competition with the railroads. It is also the origin of the name of the Wabash Railroad, which laid its rails across Indiana on the canal route.

This is the story of the Indian wars in the Northwest Territory. Photos, references, index.


Wow, that really struck home! My parents grew up in a little town close to Evansville called Booneville. Not for Daniel Boone but named for his brother Jacob. Most of the original settlers in that area were from Virginia.

I lived in Vincennes as a young boy. It was the capitol of the northwest territory before Indiana and Illinois became states. The old governors house and the surrounding area have been made into a historical location. I toured it as a boy. Very cool. It had false walls to hide in case of attacks. They also had tunnels dug underneath in order to escape. I saw LBJ come and dedicate the George Rogers Clark memorial back in 1967 I believe. If you want a story in ruthlessness read about the capture of Fort Vincennes by Clark and the Long Knives. It went both ways. After a 5 year spell in South America, we ended up moving to West Lafayette, Indiana right next to a town called Battle Ground… named for the battle of Tippecanoe. The old battlefield is a historical site. Not much to see except for a monument and a small museum. My mother was a volunteer docent there for many years. Thanks for the post, brings back a lot of memories.


Of course, Daniel Boone and family were among those invited to settle in Missouri by the Spanish (after he left Kentucky). We have the Boone’s Lick Trail which later became the National Road, US 40 and essentially I-70 across Missouri. His home is open for tourists. He is buried in Missouri. We have Boone County and another Booneville, near the salt lick.

There is a story that his daughter was taken by the Indians in Kentucky, but he managed to rescue her. That story is not in this book, but I think its in one of his biographies.

Clearly Indian attacks were a major concern to settlers. And with a name like Indiana, what do you expect?

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My good friend wrote this book about King Philip’s War here in the New England area.

Talk about lots of killing on both sides. Lots of references to King Philip aka Metacomet all around here in SE Massachusetts. It’s a very interesting story and similar to the Daniel Boone story I’m sure.

It’s amazing that King Philip “ruled” the entire area from southern Rhode Island up to parts of Maine and he controlled all of this area by riding horses and paddling canoes.


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