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Part 2

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.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Part 4
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 p39  (Part 3)

All things being ready, we descended the river to a little gut a short distance above Fort Massac, where we concealed our boats and began our march in a northwesterly direction. Nothing worthy of remark occurred in this portion of our route. The weather was favorable, although in some places both water and game were scarce, which entailed some suffering both from thirst and hunger. On the third day John Saunders, our principal guide, appeared to be confused, and barring some other explanation of his conduct, we perceived that he was totally lost. I asked him a number of questions and was at a loss to determine from his answers whether his confusion was due to the knowledge that he was lost, or whether he was purposely deceiving us. The men all cried out that  p40 he was a traitor. On this he asked to be permitted to go some distance into a plain which was in full view, to try to make some discovery concerning the route. I told him he might go, but that I was suspicious of his conduct. From his first engagement he had claimed to know the way perfectly but now things looked different. I saw from the nature of the country that one who had once become acquainted with it could not forget it in a short time. I told him a few men would go with him to prevent his escape, and if he did not conduct us to the hunter's road he had frequently described as leading into Kaskaskia from the east I would have him immediately put to death. This I should have done, but after searching an hour or two he came to a place that he knew perfectly, and we now perceived that the poor fellow had been genuinely bewildered.

On the evening of July fourth we arrived within a few miles of the town, where we threw out scouts in advance and lay until nearly dark. We then resumed our march and took possession of a house on the bank of the Kaskaskia River, about three-quarters of a mile above the town, occupied by a large family. We learned from the inmates that the people had been under arms a few days before but had concluded the alarm to be groundless and at present all was quiet, and that there was a large number of men in town, although the Indians were for the most part absent. We obtained from the  p41 man boats enough to convey us across the river, where I formed my force in three divisions. I felt confident the inhabitants could not now obtain knowledge of our approach in time to enable them to make any resistance. My object was now to get possession of the place with as little confusion as possible, but to have it if necessary at the loss of the whole town. I did not entirely credit the information given us at the house, as the man seemed to contradict himself, informing us among other things that a noise we heard in the town was caused by the negroes at a dance. I set out for the fort with one division, ordering the other two to proceed to different quarters of the town. If I met with no resistance, at a certain signal a general shout was to be given and a certain part of the town was to be seized immediately, while men from each detachment who were able to talk French were to run through the streets proclaiming what had happened and informing the townsmen to remain in their houses on pain of being shot down.

These arrangements produced the desired effect, and within a very short time we were in complete possession of the place, with every avenue guarded to prevent any one from escaping and giving the alarm to the other villages. Various orders not worth mentioning had been issued for the guidance of the men in the event of opposition. Greater silence, I suppose, never reigned among the  p42 inhabitants of a town than in Kaskaskia at this juncture; not a person was to be seen or a word to be heard from them for some time. Meanwhile our troops purposely kept up the greatest possible noise throughout every quarter of the town, while patrols moved around it continually throughout the night, as it was a capital object to intercept any message that might be sent out. In about two hours all the inhabitants were disarmed, and informed that anyone who should be taken while attempting to escape from the place would immediately be put to death. Mr. Rochblave was secured, but some time elapsed before he could be gotten out of his room. I suppose he delayed to tell his wife what disposition to make of his public papers, but few of which were secured by us. Since his chamber was not entered during the night, she had ample opportunity to dispose of them, but how she did it we could never learn. I do not suppose she put them in her trunks, although we never examined them. From the idea she entertained of us she must have expected the loss even of her clothes.

During the night I sent for several individuals, from whom I sought to procure information, but obtained very little that was not already known to us. We learned, however, that the conduct of several of the inhabitants indicated them to be inclined to the American cause; that a large number of Indians were in  p43 the neighborhood of Cahokia,º sixty miles distant; that Mr. Cerré,​28 a leading merchant and one of our most inveterate enemies, had left Kaskaskia with a large quantity of furs a few days before, enroute to Michilimackinac and thence to Quebec, from which place he had lately arrived at Kaskaskia; and that he was then in St. Louis, the Spanish capital, together with a considerable quantity of goods which would be useful to our men.

In addition to Cerré, information was given me about numerous other individuals. I at once suspected that the object of the informers was to make their peace with me at the expense of their neighbors, and my situation demanded of me too much caution to permit giving them much satisfaction. I found Cerré to be one of the most eminent men in the country, with great influence over the people. I had some suspicion that his accusers were probably in debt to him, and hence desired to ruin him. What I had heard led me to feel that he was an object of importance to me, since he might  p44 be wavering in his opinion respecting the merits of the war; and if he should take a decisive stand in our favor, he might prove a valuable acquisition. In short, his enemies led me to desire much to see him, and as he was then out of my power I had no doubt I could bring this about by means of his family who were in my hands. I immediately caused a guard to be stationed at his house and his stores to be sealed along with all the others. I did not doubt that when he should hear of this he would be extremely anxious for an interview.

By the morning of the fifth Messrs. Richard Winston​29 and Daniel Murray,​30 who proved to have been attached to the American cause, had plenty of provisions prepared. After the troops had regaled themselves they were withdrawn  p45 from the town and posted in extended position on its border. Every man had been expressly forbidden to hold any conversation with the inhabitants. All was distrust; their town was in complete possession of an enemy of whom they entertained the most horrid conception, and they were unable as yet to have any conversation with one of our people. Even those I talked with were ordered not to speak to any of my men. After some time they were told they could walk freely about the town. Finding they were busily engaged in conversation, I had a few of the principal militia officers put in irons, without hinting any reason or hearing anything they had to say in their own defense. The worst was now anticipated by all. I perceived the state of consternation the inhabitants were in, and in imagination, I suppose, felt all that they were experiencing in reality; and I felt perfectly disposed to act as arbiter between them and my duty.

After some time the priest​31 obtained permission to call on me, and came accompanied  p46 by five or six elderly gentlemen. However great the shock they had already sustained by reason of their situation, the addition when they entered the room where I was sitting with my officers was obvious and great. Having left our extra clothing at the Ohio River, we were almost naked; torn by the bushes and briers, we presented a dirty and savage aspect. So shocked were they that some time elapsed before they ventured to seat themselves, and still more before they would speak. At length we asked them what they wanted. The priest stated (after inquiring which of us was the commander) that as the townsmen expected to be separated, never, perhaps, to meet again, they had commissioned him to petition for permission to spend some time in the church taking their leave of each other. I knew that they supposed their religion to be obnoxious to us. I carelessly told him, therefore, that I had nothing to say about his church and he might go there if he pleased; if he did, he was to tell the people not to leave the town. They attempted to introduce some other conversation, but were told that we were not at leisure; and, after answering a few questions, which I asked with a view to discouraging them from again coming to me with petitions, as they had not yet come to the state of mind I wanted, they went away. The whole populace now seemed to assemble in the church. The infants were carried along, and the houses were left  p47 for the most part without a person in them, with the exception of a few who cared little how things went and a few more who were not so much alarmed as the majority. I issued an order prohibiting the soldiers from entering the houses.

The people remained some time in the church, and, on breaking up, the priest and many of the principal citizens came to thank me for the indulgence shown them, and to be permission to address me further on a subject dearer to them than all things else. They stated that their present situation was the fate of war and they were reconciled to the loss of their property; but they hoped I would not part them from their families, and that the women and children might keep some of their clothes and a small quantity of provisions, that they might support themselves by their industry. Their entire conduct had been influenced by their commandants, whom they had felt obliged to obey, and they were not much acquainted with the American war, as they had had but little opportunity to inform themselves. Many of them, however, had expressed themselves as strongly in favor of the Americans as they had dared. In short, they said everything that sensible men in their situation could be expected to advance, and their sole hope seemed to be to secure some lenity for their women and families, supposing their property would appease us. I felt convinced there was no finesse  p48 in all this, but that they really expressed their sentiments and the height of their expectations.

This was the point to which I had wished to bring them. I now asked them very abruptly whether they thought they were addressing savages. I told them that from the tenor of their conversation I was sure they did. Did they suppose we meant to strip the women and children or take the bread out of their mouths? Or that we would condescend to make war on women and children or the church? I informed them it was to prevent the effusion of innocent blood by the Indians, instigated thereto by their commandants and enemies, and not the prospect of plunder, that had caused us to visit them. As soon as this object was attained we would be perfectly satisfied; and as the king of France had joined the Americans (this information affected them very visibly) it was probable the war would shortly come to an end. They were at liberty to take whichever side they pleased without danger of losing their property or having their families distressed. As for their church, all religions would be tolerated in America, and so far were we from meddling with it, that any one who offered insult to it would be punished by me. To convince them we were not savages and plunderers, as they had conceived us to be, they might return to their families and tell them to conduct themselves as usual, with entire freedom and without any apprehension of danger.  p49 I told them the information I had received since my arrival so fully convinced me that they had been influenced by false information given them by their leaders I was willing to forget all that had passed. Their friends who were in confinement would be released immediately and the guards withdrawn from every part of the town except the house of Cerré, and I only required compliance with a proclamation which I should immediately issue.

Such was the substance of my reply to them. They attempted to soften my idea that they had supposed us to be a set of savages and plunderers, or that they had supposed the property in a town belonged to those who captured it. I told them I knew they had been taught to believe that we were but little better than barbarians, but that we would say no more on the subject, and that I wished them to go and relieve the anxiety of the townsmen. Their feelings may more easily be imagined than expressed. They retired and in a few minutes the scene changed from an extreme state of dejection to one of great joy. Bells were rung, the church was crowded with people returning thanks, in short, every appearance of extravagant joy was manifested.

I immediately set about preparing a proclamation to be presented to them before they should leave the church, but wishing to test the people further, I postponed it for a few days. Feeling confident that any report that  p50 might now be sent out to the surrounding country would be favorable to us, I became more careless about who should go from or come into the town; but not knowing what might yet take place, I was uneasy over Cahokia and was determined as soon as possible to make a lodgement there and gain the place by some such stratagem as I had already employed at Kaskaskia.

I ordered Major Bowman to mount his company and part of another on horses to be procured from the town, and taking with him a few townsmen to inform their friends of what had happened, to proceed without delay to Cahokia and if possible gain possession of the place before the following morning. I gave him no further instructions on the subject, leaving him free to exercise his own judgment. He gave orders for collecting the horses, whereupon a number of gentlemen came to inform me that they were aware of the design. They pointed out that the soldiers were much fatigued, and said they hoped I would not reject their offer to execute whatever I might wish to have done at Cahokia. The people there were their friends and relatives and would, they thought, follow their example. At least, they hoped, they might be permitted to accompany the detachment.

Conceiving that it might be good policy to show them that we put confidence in them (which, in fact, I desired for obvious reasons  p51 to do), I told them I had no doubt Major Bowman would welcome their company and that as many as chose might go. Although we were too weak to be other than suspicious and much on our guard, I knew we had sufficient security for their good behavior. I told them that if they went at all they ought to go equipped for war. I was in hopes that everything would be settled amicably, but as it was the first time they had ever borne arms as freemen it might be well to equip themselves and see how they felt, especially as they were about to put their friends in the same situation as themselves.

They appeared to be highly pleased at this idea, and in the evening the Major set out with a force but little inferior to the one with which we had entered the country, the Frenchmen being commanded by their former militia officers. These new friends of ours were so elated over the thought of the parade they were to make at Cahokia that they were too much concerned about equipping themselves to appear to the best advantage. It was night before the party moved and the distance being twenty leagues, it was late in the morning of the sixth before they reached Cahokia. Detaining every person they met, they entered the outskirts of the town before they were discovered. The townsmen were at first much alarmed by this sudden appearance of strangers in hostile array and being ordered even by their friends and relatives  p52 to surrender the town. As the confusion among the women and children over the cry of the Big Knives being in town proved greater than had been anticipated, the Frenchmen immediately informed the people what had happened at Kaskaskia. Major Bowman told them not to be alarmed; that although resistance was out of the question he would convince them that he would prefer their friendship to their hostility. He was authorized to inform them that they were at liberty to become free Americans as their friends at Kaskaskia had done. Any who did not care to adopt this course were free to leave the country except such as had been engaged in inciting the Indians to war.

Cries of liberty and freedom, and huzzahs for the Americans rang through the whole town. The gentlemen from Kaskaskia dispersed among their friends and in a few hours all was amicably arranged, and Major Bowman snugly quartered in the old British fort. Some individuals said the town had been given up too tamely, but little attention was paid to them. A considerable number of Indians who were encamped in the neighborhood (Cahokia was an important center of Indian trade) immediately fled. One of the townsmen who was at St. Louis, some time later wrote a letter to me excusing himself for not paying me a visit. By July 8, Major Bowman had everything settled agreeably to our wishes. All of the  p53 inhabitants cheerfully took the oath of allegiance, and he set about repairing the fort and regulating the internal police of the place.

The neighboring villages followed the example set by Kaskaskia and Cahokia, and since we made no strict inquiry concerning those who had been engaged in encouraging the Indians to war, within a few days the country appeared to be in a state of perfect harmony. Friendly correspondence which was at once commenced between the Spanish officers and ourselves added much to the general tranquillity and happiness. It was not my fortune to enjoy pleasures of this kind. I found myself embarked on an enterprise that would require close attention and all the skill of which I was master to execute that service for my country which now appeared in prospect, with honor to it and with credit to myself.

Being now in position to procure all the information I desired, I was astonished at perceiving the pains and expense the British had incurred in inciting the Indians. They had sent emissaries to every tribe throughout the vast country, even bringing the denizens of Lake Superior by water to Detroit and there outfitting them for war. The sound of war was universal, there being scarcely a nation among them but what had declared and received the bloody belt and hatchet.

Vincennes I found to be a place of infinite importance for us to gain. This was now my  p54 object, but realizing that all the force we had, joined by every man in Kentucky, would not be able to take the place, I resolved on other measures than those of arms. I determined to send no message to the Indians for the present, but wishing an interview between us to be arranged through the agency of French gentlemen, to assume the appearance of carelessness about the matter. In all the papers I wrote I referred to myself as at the Falls of the Ohio, in order that it might appear that the troops we had with us were only a detachment from that place. I sought to spread the impression that the main body of our troops were fortifying that point, and that large reinforcements were daily expected, on the arrival of which we intended to continue the war. Every man we had was instructed to talk in this strain. Indeed, from many hints and pretended information of mine, before I left that place the greater part of them believed the most of this to be true. In short, as I had early perceived, an excuse for our marching into the Illinois country with so small a force was really necessary.

I inquired particularly into the manner the people had been governed heretofore and found, much to my satisfaction, that the government had generally been as severe as though under martial law. I resolved to make capital of this, and took every step in my power to cause the people to appreciate the blessings enjoyed  p55 by an American citizen. This enabled me, as I soon discovered, to support by their own choice almost supreme authority over them. I caused a court of civil judicature, elected by the people, to be established at Cahokia. Major Bowman, to the surprise of the people, held an election for a magistracy, and was himself elected judge of the court. His policy in holding an election can easily be perceived. After this similar courts were established at Kaskaskia and Vincennes. There was an appeal to myself in certain classes of cases, and I believe no people ever had their business done more to their satisfaction than these had for a considerable time by means of this regulation.

At the time of Major Bowman's arrival at Cahokia, Mr. Cerré, whom I have already mentioned, was still in St. Louis preparing to prosecute his journey to Canada. He was deterred from this in consequence of the news of our arrival. Agreeably to my expectation, upon learning the situation of affairs he resolved to return, but hearing that there was a guard kept at his house alone, and that several persons had attempted to ruin him with their information to me, he was advised not to cross the river without a safe-conduct. He applied to the Spanish governor for a letter requesting this, and coming to Ste. Genevieve, across the river from Kaskaskia, procured another of the same tenor from the commandant of that post and sent them both to me. However, all  p56 of the intercession he could arouse through the channel of Spanish officers and the solicitation of his particular friends, whom I found to constitute a great majority of the people, could not procure him a safe-conduct. I absolutely refused it, and intimated that I wished to hear no more on the subject; nor would I hear any person who had anything to say in vindication of him. I told them I understood Mr. Cerré to be a sensible man. If he were innocent of the allegations against him he would not be afraid to surrender himself. I added that his backwardness seemed to prove his guilt, and I felt very little concern about him.

I suppose rumor immediately carried this information to him, for in a few hours he crossed over the river and, without stopping to visit his family, presented himself before me. I told him that I supposed he was aware of the charges preferred against him, particularly that of inciting the Indians to murder, a crime that ought to be punished by all people who should be fortunate enough to get such culprits into their power; and that his recent backwardness about surrendering himself convinced me of his guilt. He replied that he was merely a merchant, that he never concerned himself about affairs of state further than the interest of his trade required, and that he had not as yet enjoyed opportunity to inform himself of the principles involved in the present  p57 contest sufficiently to enable him to form an opinion about it. He said he was so remote from the seat of war that he was doubtful of having heard more than one side of the question. He had learned more within the last few days than he had ever known before, and this information had only confirmed his former impression. I read to him part of a letter from Governor Hamilton​32 of Detroit to Mr. Rochblave, wherein he was alluded to in affectionate terms. He said that when he was at Detroit he behaved himself as became a subject, but he defied any man to prove that he had ever incited the Indians to war. Many people, on the contrary, had often heard him express his disapproval of the cruelty of such proceedings. He said there were several people in town who were  p58 deeply indebted to him, and it might be the object of some of them to extricate themselves from their debts by ruining him. In his present situation it would be inconsistent for him to offer to declare his sentiments; but with respect to his part in the war he welcomed every investigation, as he had ever detested inciting the Indians. He sought to excuse his fears about coming across the Mississippi as soon as he could have wished.

Without making any further reply, I told him to withdraw into another room. The whole town was anxious to know his fate. I sent for his accusers, who were followed by a large number of townsmen, and had Mr. Cerré called in. I perceived plainly the confusion into which they were thrown by his appearance. I stated the case to the whole assembly, telling them that I never condemned a man unheard. I said that Cerré was now present and I was ready to do justice to the world in general by punishing him if he were found guilty of inciting to murder, or by acquitting him if he proved innocent of the charge. I closed by desiring them to submit their information.

Cerré undertook to speak to them but was ordered to desist. His accusers began to whisper among themselves and to retire for private conversation. At length only one out of six or seven was left in the room, and I asked him what he had to say to the point in question.  p59 In short, I found that none of them had anything to say. I gave them a suitable reprimand and after some general conversation informed Mr. Cerré that I was happy to find he had so honorably acquitted himself of so black a charge. I told him he was now at liberty to dispose of himself and property as he pleased. If he chose to become a citizen of the United States it would give us pleasure. If he did not, he was at full liberty to do as he wished. He made many acknowledgments and concluded by saying that many doubts he had entertained were now cleared up to his satisfaction, and that he wished to take the oath of allegiance immediately. In short, he became a most valuable man to us. Simple as this transaction may appear, it had great weight with the people, and was of infinite service to us.

Milo Quaife's Notes:

28 Jean Gabriel Cerré was the most prominent merchant of British Illinois. A native of Canada, he came to Kaskaskia in 1755, and marrying there, made the Illinois country his future home. Clark describes for us how he was won over to the American cause. In 1779 Cerré removed to St. Louis, dying there in 1800. He was the father-in‑law of Auguste Chouteau, one of the founders of that city, and famous in its early annals.

Thayer's Note: An interesting article on him, with a portrait, is found in Trans. Illinois S. H. S. (1903), pp274‑288, reprinted from the Journal of the Missouri Historical Society.

[decorative delimiter]

29 Richard Winston was a Virginian who was trading in the western country at the close of the French and Indian War. He soon located at Kaskaskia, where upon the advent of Clark he promptly sided with the Americans and was appointed a captain by Clark. The following year he was made sheriff by John Todd, and when the latter left the Illinois Winston became deputy lieutenant-governor. He had much trouble in this position, and his devotion to the American cause brought about his financial ruin. He died in poverty in 1784, after having spent eighteen months at Richmond vainly prosecuting his claims before the Virginia government.

[decorative delimiter]

30 Daniel Murray, like Winston, was a merchant at Kaskaskia, and like him gave the Americans important help. He remained in Kaskaskia during the following years and was finally shot in a quarrel over money matters.

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31 This was Father Pierre Gibault, a native of Canada, who came out to Illinois in the capacity of vicar-general in 1768. Locating at Kaskaskia, his parish included all the French settlements of the Illinois country and the Wabash. He threw his influence on the side of the Americans and rendered service of great importance to Clark in his conquest of the country. He was at Cahokia as late as 1791, but later withdrew to the Spanish side of the river and settled at New Madrid.

[decorative delimiter]

32 Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton of Detroit, Clark's antagonist in the Northwest, was of Irish birth and had served in the British army since 1754. He was appointed lieutenant-governor of Detroit in 1775, and assumed his new duties in November of that year. In the autumn of 1778 he advanced upon and captured Vincennes, only to be taken in turn, with his whole garrison, by Clark. Hamilton was much disliked by the Americans owing to their belief that he was active in stirring up Indian scalping parties against them. He was known to them as the "hair buying general." Clark sent him a prisoner to Virginia where he was closely confined and endured great hardship. On being exchanged in 1780 he visited England, returning to Canada as lieutenant-governor in 1782. He later served as governor of the Bermudas and of Dominica, dying at the latter place in 1796.

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