Sunday, June 26, 2022

ARP249 Saint Louis

In our last episode, we covered the fall of Charleston, which began the southern campaign that would occupy most of the fighting for the rest of the war.  It’s important, however, to remember that fighting remained a constant danger all over the continent, and even in other parts of the world.  Once Britain was battling France and Spain, colonies and territories of all combatant countries were up for grabs whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Cumberland Compact

The war also presented an opportunity for Americans to push westward once again.  Under the King, the Proclamation of 1763 prevented colonists from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains.  Not only would pioneers have to contend with angry Indian tribes who objected to encroachments on their land, London could opt to send in regulars to clear out illegal squatters on western lands.

St Louis attack as portrayed on Mo. Capitol
Recall that back in Episode 102, I discussed efforts by colonists to establish claims in what would later become Tennessee.  In 1772, the Watauga Association had negotiated a ten-year lease with the Cherokee, and in 1775 made an outright purchase of the land in what became known as the treaty of Sycamore Shoals.  Many Cherokee chiefs refused to recognize the treaty and argued that the other chiefs had no authority to sell this land.

British officials in London did not recognize the legality of this purchase, and still required colonists to remain east of the mountains.  But since the purchase took place about a month before the battle of Lexington, British attention was focused elsewhere.  The British did encourage Cherokee attacks led by Dragging Canoe.  The colonists defeated the Cherokee, who were forced to accept the sale of lands from the treaty of Sycamore Shoals in another treaty in 1777.  

James Robertson
A group of North Carolinians under the leadership of James Robertson traveled into what is today central Tennessee and established Fort Nashborough along the Cumberland River.  It was named after Francis Nash, a Continental general from North Carolina, who had just been killed at Germantown.  Robertson had lived in western Tennessee.  He had made earlier trips over the Appalachians to explore the region.  In 1769 he had made such a trip with Daniel Boone.  Robertson was not a fan of the North Carolina government, having fought at the Battle of Alamance in 1771. 

It was after Alamance that Robertson moved his first group of families over the mountains, with the hope of settling outside the reach of the colonial government.  In 1779 after North Carolina had its independent patriot government, Robertson briefly took on a post as the state’s agent with the Cherokee, but he soon resigned that post.  

With others, Robertson formed the Watauga Association as a somewhat informal governing body. These early settlers, along with others who had violated the British prohibition on settling west of the mountains, later became known as the Overmountain men.

Robertson’s community at Fort Nashborough was one of several tiny outposts in the region, still surrounded by Cherokee, many of whom were hostile to their presence.  In May of 1780, these families agreed to the Cumberland Compact.  Signed by 256 colonists, the Compact established a governing council of 12 judges, elected by free men aged 21 or older.  It allowed voters the right to remove judges at any time.  It also paid the judges and a few other officials in animal skins.  The primary purpose of the Compact was to establish a system of defense.  All males 16 or older were obliged to be members of the militia.  Crimes that could involve the death penalty would require the accused to be transferred to the east, where he could be judged by North Carolina Courts.

The Cumberland Compact created a relatively simple government, but it remained in place until Tennessee became an independent state many years later.  The British army never sent any regulars into the region during the war, but many of the militia would later march east and participate in the Battle of King’s Mountain.

Saint Louis

Of greater interest to the British was control of the Mississippi River.  In earlier episodes, I noted that the land west of the Mississippi was under the control of Spain.  France had turned over this territory to Spain at the end of the Seven Years War.  Although Spain had nominally taken control of the Louisiana Territory in 1763, St. Louis was founded within that territory by French settlers from Canada and named in honor of a former King of France.  Although Louis XV was king at the time, the city was named after King Louis IX, who had led France during the Crusades and who had been declared a saint in the Catholic Church.  

Much like the American settlers in Tennessee, the French settlers at St. Louis were mostly left to fend for themselves.  They established their own government and ran the area under French legal traditions. Spanish officials did not bother to arrive in the city until 1770. Even after they did, the town mostly spoke French and retained much of its French culture, giving only a nominal nod to Spanish rule.  The Spanish sent Don Pedro Piernas to be the lieutenant governor of upper Louisiana.  Piernas established residency at St. Louis with a small garrison of Spanish soldiers.

In 1775, Piernas was replaced by Francisco Cruzat, another Spanish military officer.  He, in turn, was replaced by Fernando de Leyba in 1778.  Governor de Leyba was aware of fighting between British and American forces on the other side of the river, and wanted to be prepared for the war to spill over into Spanish territory.  

Fort San Carllos
He began to build up defenses at St. Louis including Fort San Carlos - named in honor of King Carlos III of Spain. The plans for the fort included four large stone towers, and a large trench around the entire village perimeter.  Although Spain declared war on Britain in June 1779, de Leyba did not receive word of this until February of 1780, only a few months before the attack began. He realized Saint Louis would not have time to build the entire stone fort that he wanted.  He had one of the towers ready and put up log walls.  He distributed five canons at various points to discourage any direct land attack.

Several weeks before the attack, de Leyba received intelligence that a raid was coming soon, but he never got detailed information about exactly when it would strike or how large a force he would face.

British Plan of Attack

In the early years of the war, both Americans and British did all they could to respect Spanish authority along the river.  Neither side wanted to push neutral Spain into joining the enemy. With Spain’s entry into the war in 1779, that drastically changed British attitudes toward Spanish possessions.  Britain hoped to take control of the Mississippi River, although since Spain controlled the mouth of the River at New Orleans, the British never devoted much resources to this goal.

Up until this time, British efforts along the Mississippi had not gone very well.  Recall back in Episode 210, I talked about British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton’s efforts to secure the region from his base in Detroit.  Hamilton had contended with Virginians under the command of George Rogers Clark during the winter of 1778-79, and had ended up being taken prisoner that spring.

After Hamilton’s capture, another British Lieutenant Governor, Patrick Sinclair of Michilimackinack assumed responsibility for retaking the region.  Sinclair was also an experienced military officer, having served under Amherst in America during the French and Indian war.  He remained in Canada after the war, gaining experience as a young officer exploring the wilderness areas around the Great Lakes.

Peacetime, however, was not a time for advancement.  At age 36, Sinclair retired from service as a captain in 1772.  His career took on a new chapter three years later when in 1775, he was appointed lieutenant governor and superintendent of Michilmakinack, then part of the Quebec territory.  He attempted to travel to Canada soon after his appointment, but several failed voyages left him still in England in 1778.  He finally managed to make it to Halifax, but then took another year getting to Quebec.  He did not present his credentials to Governor Haldimand until late 1779, over four years after receiving his commission.  He spent the next couple of years relocating a poorly positioned fort onto Mackinac Island.

As a civilian officer, Sinclair was not in command of military forces in the area.  That fell to Major Arent Schuyler DePeyster, who outranked Captain Sinclair in the British army.  DePeyster was soon transferred to Detroit, giving Sinclair command authority over the small military garrison.

Following Spain’s entry into the war, London dispatched orders to the British leadership in Canada from Secretary of State Lord Germain.  The instructions called on local leaders to plan and execute attacks on Spanish possessions.  Sinclair focused his sites on St. Louis.

Sinclair only had command of a tiny garrison at Michilimackinac, and he was not going to get any reinforcements.  An attack by regulars was out of the question.  Instead, it would consist of local volunteers supplemented by native warriors.  Sinclair offered local fur traders opportunities to control the fur trade along the territory as an incentive to participate in the campaign.  Native warriors were always up for the opportunity for plunder and also received generous gifts from Sinclair to encourage participation.

Command of this local military force was given to Emanuel Hesse, an experienced fur trader who had good relations with the native tribes and also had some experience as a militia captain.  There seems to be little in the way of exact numbers or written records for this campaign, but it appears that Hesse was joined by about two dozen other fur traders, lured by opportunities to control the fur trade in the captured territories.

The bulk of the fighting force would be native warriors.  About 200 Sioux (aka Dakota) warriors commanded by a war chief named Wahpasha made up the largest single contingent.  The Sioux, however, were not really British allies.  They had been staunch allies of the French for many years and had been rather stand-offish once the British took control of Canada.  It’s not clear exactly why they joined this campaign, but likely it was based on the relationships they had with the French speaking fur traders who recruited them.

Warriors from quite a few other tribes also joined the campaign.  Warriors from the Chippewa, Menomminee, Winnebago, Sac, and Fox nations all participated.  Because the British did not entirely trust the Sioux, their Chief Wapasha had to cede overall command of the Indian force to Matchekewis, a Chippewa Chief.  The Sioux and Chippewa were traditional enemies, but the two chiefs managed to establish an understanding during the course of the campaign that allowed the warriors to remain on good terms.  In total there were probably around 1000 native warriors from at least ten different tribes joined together on the campaign.

St. Louis Raid

The mostly native force marched for a little over three weeks before reaching the vicinity around St. Louis.  Captain Hesse sent out scouts to get a look at the Spanish defenses, but could not get close enough.  He wanted to maintain the element of surprise, and there were too many farmers in the area for a group to get close enough to the village undetected.

On May 26, Hesse deployed his warriors.  He opted to divide his warriors in order to attack the American controlled town of Cahokia on the eastern bank and St. Louis on the Western Bank.  Cahokia was under the command of George Rogers Clark.

Raid on St. Louis
Despite wanting the element of surprise, the attackers launched their raid around mid-day.  The Spanish defenders fired a warning shot from their stone tower to let them know they had been spotted.  The Sioux and Winnebego warriors led the attack, backed up the Sac and Fox warriors. The French fur traders, including Captain Hesse, made up the rear.  The battle raged over several hours. 

The Spanish defenders were well outnumbered, with only about 200-300 men to defend the village, most of them inexperienced militia.  The attacking warriors attempted to draw out the Spanish defenders into open combat.  This included executing some captives in front of the enemy.  The natives hoped the defenders would rush to the aid of their friends and family, so that they could be attacked by the warriors in an open field.

Some of the defending militia asked to make a sortie and rescue the captives, but de Lebya refused, knowing it was a trap.  The defenders remained behind their defenses.  They used their cannons effectively to discourage a frontal attack by the enemy.

The Spanish commander later reported that the defenders took about 100 casualties, the majority of whom were captured as prisoners by the attacking force.

Cahokia Raid

At the same time Hesse launched the raid on St. Louis, one of his other associates, Jean-Marie Ducharme launched the raid against Cahokia, with a force of about 300 warriors.  Cahokia did not have cannons but had set up defensive barriers in anticipation for an attack.  Clark had traveled to St. Louis to coordinate with Spanish authorities over a defense strategy ,and lobby for a joint offensive against the British.  Clark and his officers rushed back to Cahokia after receiving word that the enemy was close.  They arrived shortly before the attack began.

The defenders stood their ground, behind defensive barricades.  Clarke’s arrival with reinforcements shortly after the attack began discouraged the attackers.  Clark’s combined force was about 400 men.  The attack did not last long.  Clarke reported the loss of only one Virginia officer, three soldiers, and five of his men taken prisoner.  The attack was poorly organized and was quickly repulsed.  The attackers gave up and began to retreat north.


The attackers gave up on taking either town and moved back toward British lines to the north in a rather scattered and disorganized movement.  Native raiders sacked all the farms and isolated homes they came across, murdering the inhabitants.  In some stories, those captured were burned alive.  Warriors stole what they could and burned whatever they could not take with them.

George Rogers Clark

A few weeks after the attacks Clark organized an offensive raid with about 350 men, mostly Virginians.  They attacked Indian villages at Rock River and Prairie du Chien, burning crops and homes, and paying back the same sort of devastation that the warrior force had inflicted on their people.  The Spanish, who had relied almost entirely on local militia for defense, opted to remain in St. Louis, and did not conduct any retaliatory raids by land.  The Spanish did, however, later send gunboats up the Mississippi, raiding villages of natives who were friendly with the British they seized furs and other valuable supplies, 

The Sac  tribe, which was within the Spanish sphere of influence, tried to make up for participation in the raid.  In June, they sent a delegation to St. Louis, bringing six prisoners, three French-speaking militia and three slaves.  The Fox would also soon try to repair their relationship with Spanish authorities.  Other tribes, particularly the Sioux, remained in active warfare against the Spanish.

Because of the hostile environment, de Leyba sent letters to Governor de Galvez in New Orleans, stating that unless the Spanish could complete a defensible fort at St. Louis with a garrison of at least 200 regulars, they might have to abandon the region as too dangerous.  This threat to leave was probably more of an attempt to get the military support he wanted.  

Death of de Leyba

We don’t know if de Leyba would have made good on his threat to withdraw, because he died in late June from an illness.  The King sent congratulations for his defense of St. Louis, and granted him a promotion to lieutenant colonel, but those honors did not arrive until after his death.

His successor, Lieutenant-Governor Cartabona took a different tact, blaming much of the losses on de  Leyba’s inability to build proper defenses quickly enough.  This was during a period of panic since the Spanish defenders had pretty much used up all their available ammunition and were receiving reports that the Sioux might launch an even larger raid on the city very soon.

Governor Galvez was too busy with his campaign against West Florida to provide much of anything to St. Louis.  He did send Fransisco Cruzat back to take command of St. Louis. Cruzat had been de Leyba’s predecessor in command of the region.  He would take command by September.  Fortunately, none of the rumors of a second major Indian attack proved true before his arrival.

Cruzat spent most of his time trying to secure alliances with all of the local tribes, to ensure they would hot join another attempted raid on the region, and perhaps would be part of any Spanish attempt should the British instigate another raid from northern tribes.  He also continued construction of a better fort at St. Louis.

Despite receiving continued rumors that the British might encourage another Indian attack, St. Louis would never again face a large-scale attack on the city.

Next Week: John Johnson and Joseph Brant lead attacks into the Mohawk Valley.

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Next Episode 249 Mohawk Valley Raids 

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Further Reading


James Robertson:

James Robertson:

Dick, Jimmy “The Battle of St. Louis” Journal of the American Revolution, February 10, 2014:

Battle of St. Louis:

Battle of St. Louis:

Battle of Fort San Carlos:

Drumm, Stella M. “The British-Indian Attack on Pain Court (St. Louis).” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), vol. 23, no. 4, 1931, pp. 642–51. JSTOR,

Nasatir, A. P. “The Anglo-Spanish Frontier in the Illinois Country during the American Revolution 1779-1783.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), vol. 21, no. 3, 1928, pp. 291–358. JSTOR,

Peterson, Charles E. “Notes on Old Cahokia: Part Two: Fort Bowman (1778-1780).” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), vol. 42, no. 2, 1949, pp. 193–208. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

James, James Alton (ed) George Rogers Clark Papers, Springfield, Ill., Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, 1912. 

Matthews, Thomas E. General James Robertson, Father of Tennessee, Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1934.  

McDermott, John Francis (ed) Old Cahokia: a narrative and documents illustrating the first century of its history, St. Louis : St. Louis Historical Documents Foundation, 1949. 

Putnam, A.W. History of Middle Tennessee; or, Life and Times of Gen. James Robertson, Nashville: self-published, 1859. 

Snyder, Ann E. On the Watauga and the Cumberland, Nashville, M.E. Church, 1895. 

Spencer, Thomas E. The Story of Old St. Louis, St. Louis: 1914. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bays, Bill, James Robertson, Father of Tennessee and Founder of Nashville, West Bow Press, 2013. 

Goodstein, Anita S. Nashville, 1780-1860: From Frontier to City, Univ. Press of Florida, 1989. 

Harrison, Lowell H. George Rogers Clark and the War in the West, Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1976. 

Kling, Steven L. Jr. (ed) The American Revolutionary War in the West, THGC Publishing, 2020.

Kling Stephen L. Jr., Kristine Sjostrom & Marysia T. Lopez The Battle of St. Louis, the Attack on Cahokia, and the American Revolution in the West, THGC Publishing, 2017. 

Nester, William R. George Rogers Clark: I Glory in War, Univ. of Okla Press, 2012. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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