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Bill Thayer

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Part 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Conquest of The Illinois

George Rogers Clark

in the reprint
of the 1920 edition by Milo Quaife,
Southern Illinois University Press, 2001

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p97  (Part 5)

By this time we had done business with almost all the Indians of the Wabash and the Illinois as far up as the Iowa and the Sauk and Reynards,a and those living at the lower end of Lake Michigan, and the country appeared at this time to be in a state of perfect tranquillity. I was pleased to learn that our new post at 1 the falls of the Ohio continued to gather strength, as also Kentucky in general; and that a powerful expedition was to move from 2 Pittsburgh upon 
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	 Detroit. This information, with the thought of what we had already done, caused us to enjoy ourselves for the first time since our arrival. Our joy, however, did not last long.

Some Indians from the Missouri came from several hundred miles up that river to see us. Their curiosity was so great they could not resist  p98 the temptation. They told us their business was merely to pay us a visit. They said they had often heard of the Big Knives and wished to see them and hoped that their curiosity might be excused. We granted their request and treated them kindly while they were with us. They were somewhat different in their manner and complexion, being much fairer than any other Indians I had ever seen. I suppose it was this that gave rise to the idea of there being Welsh Indians in that quarter.38

Captain Helm sent an express to inform me that the British had sent an agent to 3 Ouiatanon with a considerable supply of goods to attempt to regain the affections of the Indians in that quarter. He said he thought the man might be taken if I would authorize the attempt, and that several gentlemen at 
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	 Vincennes shared  p99 this opinion. I gave my approval of the enterprise and authorized the Captain to act in accordance with the decisions of the councils they might hold; but I told him that if they at any time should find the enterprise dangerous or the chances against them, to relinquish it and return, giving out word that they had merely made a small excursion to see their friends. He set out up the Wabash by water with ––––– men, chiefly inhabitants of Vincennes. The French merchants with the expedition traded with the Indians along the way, and Captain Helm addressed them on public affairs; this was to give the impression that he was merely paying a visit to them, and that the Frenchmen with him had come along to look after their trade. The party did not display any hostile intention until it reached the vicinity of the Wea town. They then made all possible speed, and entering the fort took prisoner The Kite and twenty or thirty Chippewa warriors who were in council there. The British agent (I forget his name) heard frequently of the advance of this party up the river, but he was told by the Indians they intended no harm. They said that the Big Knife who was with the party merely came along with the traders to deliver good talks to his friends, and so forth. But after a few days the agent began to suspect the sincerity of the Indians and retired up the river a short time before Captain Helm arrived.

Note that at the scale this map first appears on your browser when you open this page, Prairie du Rocher (6) and Ste. Genevieve (7) are obscured behind Kaskaskia (4); they're very close.

[and if you need it, here's help in using the map,
including my own symbols & added information.]

 p100  Those Chippewas were a party which he had invited to meet at Ouiatanon to get supplies and conduct an expedition against Vincennes. They arrived but a few minutes before our party. Hearing the news and finding their friends gone they slipped into the fort to take some refreshments and hold a council. This they had scarcely begun when our party entered and closed the gate on them. As the inhabitants did not give them notice of its approach the Indians were much alarmed at finding themselves so suddenly captured and at first had little to say for themselves. After some consultation between Captain Helm and the French gentlemen who were with him it was thought that capital might be made of this adventure and accordingly a plan was fixed upon. A great deal was said to the prisoners, but it all amounted to this: that the Big Knives disdained to catch a prisoner asleep, and since that was the case in the present instance the Indians were at liberty and might fight for the English as long as they pleased; but if they should again fall into the hands of the Big Knives they need expect no mercy. The Indians gave suitable answer to this act of seeming generosity, declaring that they would never fight against the Big Knives again; and I understood that the Indians frequently mentioned this adventure and spoke much in our favor. Our party returned in safety to Vincennes, having spoken with the greater part of the Indians to  p101 the apparent satisfaction of both parties. So great was our influence among the Indians at this period that Governor Hamilton on his expedition against Vincennes with all his influence could raise but four or five hundred Indians to accompany him.

The Chickasaws being at war I wished to have some correspondence with them in order to learn their sentiments. I did not care to send to them, however, since this would appear too much like begging a peace as they call it. It occurred to me that the Kaskaskia Indians had long been at war with the Chickasaws; for some time this war had seemingly subsided, and Batisst,b the chief of the Kaskaskias, I knew was strongly disposed in our favor. I therefore suggested that he should go and propose a firm peace with the Chickasaws, and if he succeeded should mention something about the Big Knives. I was in hopes in this way to bring about a correspondence with them. Batisst went without being apprised of my real design. The Chickasaws received him cordially, but he could not conclude his business on account of the absence of some of the chiefs. He mentioned the Americans, but their conversation on this subject was cool and little was accomplished.

Winter was now approaching, and affairs began to wear a more gloomy aspect. I had not as yet received word from the authorities in Virginia. On the other hand I learned from  p102 various sources that preparations were under way at Detroit for a great expedition; an advance had already been made as far as the Miami town and talks had been sent to all the Indian tribes. We supposed that these preparations were designed to the end of giving the army from Fort Pitt as warm a reception as possible. This information gave us much pleasure until we learned that instead of marching into Detroit the army from Pittsburgh had spent its time parading and building a few posts to facilitate its future designs. This information, which came from the Falls of the Ohio, disappointed us greatly.

One Denny, an inhabitant of Cahokia, was seized by Major Bowman for sending by the Indians to his friend in Detroit a letter containing dangerous information. His message was intercepted, and he was tied to the tail of a cart and driven through the town, receiving a lash at every door. He was also branded in the hand for other misdemeanors. This was the first and the severest punishment inflicted by us on any of the inhabitants. It was necessary at this time to convince the people that we were capable of extremes either way, and that the good treatment we had heretofore shown them was due to the principles of the government.

For some time past we had received no information from Vincennes. Since the post went fortnightly we began to feel that something  p103 was wrong. We sent out some scouts, but they did not return, and we continued in a state of suspense. I had prepared to set out from 4 Kaskaskia to 5 Cahokia, but for several days the weather was bad. At length I set out in a snow storm which gave promise of clearing up, and which did so in about half an hour. We noticed that six or seven men had passed some distance along the road since the snow had ceased. We supposed it to be some of the townsmen, but we wondered what they could be about. I had several gentlemen accompanying me in chairs. Approaching the hill near the river, one of these sank in a swamp, and the gentleman who rode in it was some time in getting out, as the others would not permit any assistance to be given until after their laughter had subsided. We went cheerfully on to 6 Prairie du Rocher, twelve miles from Kaskaskia, where I intended to spend the evening at Captain Barbour's. After supper a dance was proposed. While it was at its height an express came to me that late that evening a party of white men and Indians had come to some negroes, who were up the Kaskaskia River cutting wood, and after asking a number of questions told the negroes that they had a party of eight hundred men a few miles away, and intended to attack the fort that night. They threatened the negroes with death if they should reveal this information and went away. The negroes told it and the express was dispatched  p104 for me. This report sounded to us like the truth. For some time past our suspicions had been aroused; we recalled the various reports of the Indians, the failure of our scouts to return, and the tracks we had seen in the road. The inhabitants of Prairie du Rocher were greatly alarmed. They urged me to cross the Mississippi to the Spanish side for protection, saying the fort must already be invested.

I laughed at the idea, and much to their amusement resolved to attempt to enter the fort. I ordered our horses, and borrowing clothes to dress my men in the garb of hunters set out, making a pretense of being greatly amused over the situation. The ground was covered with snow and the moon shone brightly. I took the express along with me in order to have some time for thought, and in about a quarter of an hour wrote a card to Major Bowman at Cahokia, directing him to come with his company and all the volunteers he could raise. I told him to be cautious, and if he should find he could not render any service to us he should retreat to 7 Ste. Genevieve and act as circumstances might dictate. The express was an expert woodsman, and was mounted on the best horse we had. He was ordered to run the horse as long as it could go faster than he could walk; then to abandon the animal and make the best of his way on foot.

 p105  We continued on our way, making a detour from the road whenever we came to any woods which might serve as a covert for an enemy. Our design in dressing as woodsmen in leggings and capotes, with handkerchiefs tied on our heads, was to leave our horses in case we should find the enemy had actually invested the fort, enter their lines and fight with the Indians (who we thought would not be likely to distinguish us from the English) until we could make good our way to a certain ravine near one of the angles of the fort where there was a small sally port. Here we could easily make ourselves known, and probably draw some of them into it. Such was our plan in this seemingly desperate situation. As we drew near the town all was silent. We approached cautiously, and making a circuit, perceived from the condition of the snow that no body of men had entered the town. Accordingly we went in, to the great joy of every one. I found that every preparation had been made and every circumstance, particularly the character of the conversation with the negroes, caused us to believe that the enemy was in the neighborhood. The night passed, however, without any further alarm, and it was generally supposed that the snow had prevented the attack.

I spent the night in various reflections. I knew that it was impossible for us to defend the town, or to hold out in the fort, but I was  p106 in hopes of baffling their enterprise and frightening them away by circulating a plausible report (since they must have taken Vincennes before they could get to us) that we have received full information of their proceedings, and had sent an express to Kentucky for an army to advance and cut off their retreat. Since according to the report of the negroes most of the inhabitants of the town were severely threatened, I was afraid they would propose defending it; but that nothing should appear wanting on our part, I sent for the principal men and put the question to them, desiring them to speak their sentiments freely. After some deliberation they told me that they thought it prudent to remain neutral. This was certainly a judicious resolution, and was what I desired, but I proceeded to make capital of it. I pretended to be in a passion, and ordered them to their homes, saying I had no further business with them, and that I expected they would soon see their town in flames. They went away and some of the young men voluntarily joined us. Some of them privately advised that all the wood in town should be ordered into the garrison, but I gave them a short answer, and told them we had plenty of provisions. Several houses being close to the walls of the fort, the inhabitants were told to vacate them as they would be burned at once. A large barn full of grain that stood a short distance away was immediately set on  p107 fire without anything being taken out of it, and soon other small buildings were torn down and carried into the fort for fuel, while preparations were made to fire still other buildings.

All was now confusion, the town on fire, the women and children screaming, and the inhabitants moving out. I keenly felt their distress. Some of them begged to know how much of the town I intended to burn, so that they might move their goods out of danger. They were told that it was far from our wish to destroy more than was absolutely necessary. They must realize that at a time like this it was our duty to do whatever might be necessary to promote our safety. I said that although I knew the enemy would soon be intercepted by an army from Kentucky, they might, meanwhile, do us much damage if we did not take necessary precautions. We meant to destroy the provisions only to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. This they must confess was justifiable, but as the wind was unfavorable no more buildings would be set on fire till it shifted. They went away, and we waited to see what the result of our procedure would be. In a very short time we observed the carts begin to move, and within two or three hours we had upwards of two months' provisions in store.

Our policy was, aside from getting the provisions, to make ourselves appear as daring as possible. We therefore desired the people  p108 to stop, telling them that perhaps the report was false, and that the scouts would soon return, when we would know better how to proceed. They did so in a short time, and informed me that they discovered the trail of seventy or eighty men who were apparently directing their course towards Vincennes, but that there was no sign of a formidable force in the neighborhood. Things now began to quiet down. The next day Major Bowman arrived with a considerable force of men and we began to pluck up our courage.

It was now conjectured that Vincennes was in the hands of the enemy and that the party which had been seen in our neighborhood had been sent from that place on some errand or other; the snowfall had rendered it impossible for them to remain undiscovered, since they were compelled to hunt to obtain food, and they had given the alarm in order that they might gain time to escape. We afterward learned that this was substantially the case. It was a party composed chiefly of Indians which Governor Hamilton, who was now in possession of Vincennes, had sent out with careful instructions to lie in the neighborhood of the Illinois towns until they could find an opportunity to make me prisoner. Under no circumstances were they to kill me, but in case of success were to treat me with every courtesy. They were to furnish me with a horse for the return journey and were to permit me to take such  p109 amusement as I should desire en route, but I was always to be attended by persons mounted on better horses than my own. Thus I was to be a prisoner of state in the hands of the savages.

By some means or other (I never could be entirely satisfied from whom) this party learned of my intention to pay a visit to the garrison at Cahokia. Accordingly they concealed themselves behind a hill near the road about three miles above Kaskaskia, keeping a small lookout in advance. The day I set out these fellows had advanced closer to the town than usual. The snow coming on, they had returned to their camp, walking some distance in the road, which occasioned the tracks we saw. The country being very open in this vicinity and we riding very fast, made it impossible for them to return so as to alarm the camp without being discovered, and they therefore secreted themselves behind some logs and bushes within seventy or eighty yards of the ravine where we were delayed by the swamping of the chair. They reported that they could have surprised and taken most of us, but not being able to distinguish me from the rest, as we were all muffled up, they were afraid to fire for fear of killing me. I suppose the truth was that they were afraid to reveal themselves as we were nearly twice their number, and even our servants were fully armed. The bad weather proved to be our salvation as they did  p110 not expect us to come out and the greater part of them had returned to camp, leaving only seven men on outpost duty.

Perceiving that their hopes were now blasted, and that they could not remain longer without being discovered, they fell in with the negroes with the design of creating such an alarm as should give them time to get away, and in this they were entirely successful. The instructions given by Governor Hamilton to this party was one of the principal causes of the respect shown him by our officers when he fell into our hands, but his treatment in Virginia was quite different and highly unsatisfactory to them, as they thought it in some measure involved their honor.

To return to our subject, it was concluded to send additional scouts to Vincennes, and in the meantime to prepare ourselves for action. Being fully confident that a change either in our favour or against us would shortly take place, we desired to strengthen ourselves as much as possible. The volunteers who had accompanied Major Bowman from Cahokia were presented with an elegant stand of colors and sent home. Those of them who were but poorly armed were outfitted from our stores, while presents were made to the others by way of acknowledgment of the good will they had shown on the present occasion. They paraded about town with their new flag and equipment and looked upon themselves as superior to the young fellows of Kaskaskia; it  p111 caused so much animosity between the two parties that it did not subside until I intervened, some later, when it suited my purpose to do so, and by a little strategy reunited them.

After making every arrangement that we thought most conducive to our safety Major Bowman returned to Cahokia and we awaited in suspense the return of our scouts. I thought that if we should find there was no probability of retaining our posts I would abandon them upon the approach of the enemy and return to Kentucky where I would raise a force (the population having considerably increased) sufficient to cut off the retreat of the English to Detroit, since I knew the Indians, who were not fond of long campaigns, would abandon them. However, on the 29th of January, 1779, Mr. Vigo,39 a Spanish merchant, arrived for Vincennes, bringing the information that Governor Hamilton with thirty regulars and fifty French volunteers, besides Indian agents, interpreters, and boatmen to a considerable number,  p112 and about four hundred Indians had taken that post in December. The season being so far advanced, he had thought it impossible to reach the Illinois and had sent some of his Indians to Kentucky to keep watch of the Ohio River and disbanded the rest. All were to meet again in the spring, drive us out of the Illinois country, and in conjunction with their southern friends attack Kentucky in a body. All the goods belonging to the merchants at Vincennes were taken for the king's use. They were repairing the fort and expecting a reinforcement to arrive from Detroit in the spring. Mr. Vigo stated that they appeared to have plenty of stores of all kinds, and that they were strict in their discipline, but he did not believe they were under much apprehension of a visit from us and he thought that if we could get there undiscovered we might capture the place. In short, we received all the information from this gentleman that we could desire as he had enjoyed a good opportunity to inform himself and had taken pains to do so with a view to bringing the report to us.

We now saw that we were in a very critical situation, cut off as we were from all intercourse with the home government. We perceived that Governor Hamilton, by the junction of his northern and southern Indians, would be at the head of such a force in the spring that nothing in this quarter could withstand him. Kentucky must fall immediately and it  p113 would be fortunate if the disaster ended here. Even if we should immediately make good our retreat to Kentucky we were convinced that it would be too late even to raise a force sufficient to save that colony, as all the men in it, united to the troops we had, would not suffice, and to get succor in time from the Virginia and Pennsylvania frontiers was out of the question. We saw but one alternative which was to attack the enemy in his stronghold. If we were successful we would thereby save the whole American cause. If unsuccessful, the consequence would be nothing worse than if we should not make the attempt. We were encouraged by the thought of the magnitude of the consequences that would attend our success. The season of the year was also favorable to our design, since the enemy could not suppose that we would be so mad as to attempt a march of eighty leagues through a drowned country in the depth of winter. They would, therefore, be off their guard and would not think it worth while, probably, to keep scouts out. If we could make good our advance to Vincennes we might probably surprise and overcome them, while if we should fail, the country would be in no worse situation than if we had not made the attempt. This and many other similar reasons induced us to attempt the enterprise, which met with the approbation of every man among us.

 p114  Orders were immediately issued for making the necessary preparations. The whole country took fire and every order, such as preparing provisions, encouraging volunteers, etc., was executed with cheerfulness by the inhabitants. Since we had an abundance of supplies, every man was equipped with whatever he could desire to withstand the coldest weather. Knowing that the Wabash would probably overflow its banks to a width of five or six miles and that it would be dangerous to build vessels in the neighborhood of the enemy, I concluded, both to obviate this and to convey our artillery and stores, to send around by water a vessel strong enough to force her way, as she could be attacked only by water (unless she should choose otherwise) since the whole of the lowlands was under water and she might keep away from any heights along the river. A large Mississippi boat was immediately purchased and completely fitted out as a galley, mounting two four-pounders and four large swivels, and manned by forty-six men under the command of John Rogers.40 He set sail on February 4th, with orders to force his way up the Wabash as high as the mouth of White River, and there  p115 secrete himself until further orders; if he should find himself discovered he was to do the enemy all the damage he could without running too great risk of losing his vessel. He was not to leave the river until he had abandoned hope of our arrival by land, but he was strictly enjoined to so conduct himself as to give rise to no suspicion of our expected approach.

We placed great dependence in this vessel. She was far superior to anything the enemy could fit out unless they should build a new one, and at the worst if we were discovered we could build a number of large perogues, such as they possessed, to attend her. With such a fleet we could annoy the enemy very much, and if we saw it to be to our interest could force a landing. At any rate it would be some time before they could match us on the water. Having been in a state of suspense for some time past we had made preparations in part for some such event as this and these were now soon completed. The inhabitants of Kaskaskia had been somewhat cowed since the affair of the supposedly impending siege and nothing was said to them on the subject  p116 of volunteering until the arrival of the volunteers from Cahokia. We gave these an expensive entertainment to which they invited all their Kaskaskia acquaintances. During its progress all minor differences were composed and by twelve o'clock the next day application had been made for permission to raise a company at Kaskaskia. This was granted and before nightfall the company was enrolled, all of the townsmen having exerted themselves in order to wipe out the memory of their former coolness.

Milo Quaife's Notes:

38 There is a tradition that one Madoc, a Welsh prince of the twelfth century, disgusted at the dissensions which prevailed in his native land, resolved to explore the western ocean in search of more tranquil scenes. He came to America with a numerous company, and their descendants, mingling with the natives, were the so‑called "Welsh Indians." The belief in their existence has been very persistent, and many of the older writers on American history discuss the subject. George Catlin, the noted student and artist of Indian life, identified the Mandan Indians of the upper Missouri as the Welsh Indians. A full discussion of the subject with citations from many authorities may be found in Reuben T. Durrett's Traditions of the Earliest Visits of Foreigners to North America (Louisville, 1908. Filson Club Publications, No. 23).

Thayer's Note: These Welsh Indians have a mythical feel to them, and no evidence has yet surfaced contemporaneous with the 12c Madoc, even as to his existence, let alone his American explorations. That said, stranger things have proven true, and it may be unwise to dismiss this tale altogether out of hand, the wide dissemination of which seems to be due to its printing in The Gentleman's Quarterly, Vol. X, pp103‑105 (March 1740), where details may be found.
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39 François Vigo was a Sardinian who, after resigning from the Spanish army entered the fur trade, with headquarters at St. Louis. He was a business partner of the Spanish governor of Upper Louisiana. He threw his influence upon the American side, and both on his own behalf and through his influence with Governor DeLeyba gave powerful aid to Clark. In so doing he incurred heavy expenditures which he never recovered, although he lived until 1836. Not until 1875 did the United States government reimburse his heirs for the money advanced in its behalf almost a century before.

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40 John Rogers was a cousin of Clark. He saw service in the earlier years of the Revolution, and in 1778 became second-lieutenant in Captain Helm's company on Clark's Kaskaskia expedition. As noted here, Clark placed him in command of the war galley sent against Vincennes. After its capture Rogers was sent to convey the British prisoners to Williamsburg. In Virginia he was accorded public honors for his services and was made captain of a mounted troop for the western service. Returning to the west he served in Montgomery's Rock River expedition, and in the autumn was appointed commandant of Kaskaskia. He returned to Virginia the following summer, and died at Richmond in 1794.

Thayer's Notes:

a The Fox: renard in French.

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b A residual sample of Clark's original spelling, a phonetic transcription of the common French name Baptiste (in the standard pronunciation, the p is silent). The man is Maughquayah, son of an Indian and a Frenchwoman, whose Christian baptismal name was Jean Baptiste Du Quoin (Ducoigne, de Coigne, etc.). A brief biographical sketch is found on this page by the City of Du Quoin, IL, named after him.

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