Sunday, July 25, 2021

ARP210 Fort Vincennes


In early 1779, a group of Virginians attacked Fort Vincennes, which sits on the Wabash River, in what is today Indiana, right on the Illinois border.  In 1779, this was deep into Indian territory, where few people of European descent had settled, or even traveled.  This week, I want to take a closer look at the western dispute that flared up so far away from the main areas of battle.

Henry Hamilton

The British retained outposts deep in the continent’s interior, in order to maintain claims to all of the land that had not been settled or governed by any other European power.  The few white settlers in the area were almost all French, whose families had come to what is today Canada before the British took control of that region in the 1760’s.

Fall of Fort Sackville

Henry Hamilton was the British official in charge of this area.  He was Irish by birth (and no known relation to Alexander Hamilton).  His father had descended from aristocracy, but with that title passing to first-born relatives.  His father, still part of a wealthy and powerful family, served in the Irish Parliament.  His older brother, Sackville Hamilton, would also serve in the Irish Parliament, and would later become undersecretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

Henry grew up in Ireland and as a younger son, followed a traditional route of joining the regular army as an officer.  In 1755, at age 21, he received an ensign’s commission. He had risen quickly to captain when the French and Indian War began.  Serving under General Guy Carlton, Hamilton fought at the Battle of Quebec and the Siege of Louisbourg.  By the end of the war, he served as brigade major.

As with many peacetime officers, Hamilton’s position in the army stagnated.  He returned home with his regiment after the war, but then came back to Quebec when the American rebellion began to heat up in 1775.  Hamilton was still a military officer, but served mostly in administrative positions in Quebec. 

In 1775, London offered a new opportunity.  The North Ministry created five lieutenant governorships in Quebec.  This was part of the expansion of the Quebec territory that Parliament had approved in the Quebec Act of 1774, one of several laws often listed as one of the coercive acts or intolerable acts that set off colonial violence.

Henry Hamilton
Hamilton sold his commission in the army and began a new political career as a lieutenant governor and commander of Fort Detroit, in what is today Michigan.  Other lieutenant governors took posts at Vincennes in what is today Indiana, and Kaskaskia, near the settlement of St. Louis.

Like the other new lieutenant governors, Hamilton was pretty much on his own, at a distant outpost with few resources.  By the time he left for Detroit in the fall of 1775, Americans were already invading Quebec and besieging the capital city.  Hamilton had a few companies of regulars and a handful of local administrators, who were mostly leftovers from French rule.  The judge for the territory had lost his authority with the passage of the Quebec Act.  But since there was no replacement for him, Hamilton simply allowed him to continue handing out judgments.

Because he had no real government to administer.  Hamilton’s real role was more of a diplomat.  His job was to convince the few French Canadians and the local tribes to remain neutral in any coming fights.  By most accounts, he developed a good working relationship with the leaders of the local Ottawa and Huron tribes.

As the war progressed, Hamilton pushed for a more aggressive role.  In 1777, he encouraged local warriors to go on the attack against western settlements, where supporters of American independence were taking hold.  He received the nickname of “Hair Buyer” because of rumors that he paid for each rebel scalp that the warriors collected.  There are some who dispute that Hamilton actually paid for scalps, but there is no question that he encouraged Indian attacks on American settlements.  Initially, the program was a great success.  Indians took hundreds of scalps and forced many settlers to abandon the western territories.  Governor Hamilton seemed willing to overlook that many of the scalps seemed to come from women and children.

In a few cases, the warriors brought back live prisoners.  One of these prisoners was Daniel Boone, who met with Hamilton in Detroit.  Hamilton had hoped to keep Boone a prisoner, but the Indians who captured him refused to turn him over.  Instead they wanted to accept Boone into their tribe.  Later that year, Boone escaped and returned to Kentucky.

George Rogers Clark

Although London had decided this territory was part of Quebec, Virginia still claimed that all of this land was part of Virginia.  Many of the settlements that had been attacked were  composed of Virginians moving west into what became Kentucky, as well as lower Indiana and Illinois.

The British-backed Indian raids on these western lands demanded a response.  The man in charge of responding was George Rogers Clark.  The older brother of William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Clark was born in Virginia, near Charlottesville, in 1752.  When he was still a toddler, his family moved further west, on the Virginia frontier.  This was a particularly dangerous time when France was stirring up Indians to attack British colonists  during the French and Indian War. George remained back east with his grandfather, where he attended the same school as James Madison.

George Rogers Clark
Clark, however, only attended school for a short time.  He learned a trade as a surveyor and by age 19 was surveying western lands for Virginia settlers.  He also took a commission as a captain in the Virginia militia.

In 1774, Captain Clark led a company in the frontier fighting that became known as Lord Dunmore’s War.  After that, Virginia got the Shawnee to cede control of land south of the Ohio River, thus opening up Kentucky for settlement.  There were still a few hurdles for settlers.  Britain had banned settlement west of the Allegheny mountains via a 1763 proclamation.  There were also a number of other tribes who claimed this same land as their own, and were not part of the treaty that ceded the land.  Beyond that, a North Carolina land speculator was attempting to create a new colony out of this land, based on a treaty that North Carolina had settled with the Cherokee.

To help cement Virginia’s claim to this land, Clark and others petitioned the Governor to recognize the Kentucky territory as part of Virginia.  By 1776, Lord Dunmore had fled Virginia.  The new Governor Patrick Henry did not feel constrained by any royal proclamation.  Governor Henry designated Kentucky as a county in Virginia.  The county included all of the land that is the current State of Kentucky.

Clark served as military commander of the new county.  But it was so lightly populated, and Virginia’s focus was on the war in the east, that very little happened there.

American Offensive

In 1777, after the native tribes began stepping up their attacks on settlers in the region, Clark pushed for a response. In December 1777, Clark presented a proposal to Governor Henry to lead a regiment. Henry approved the plan in a set of secret orders that he did not want to run by the state legislature.  Publicly, Clark’s mission was vaguely defined as protecting Kentucky from attack.  His secret orders were to attack enemy outposts north of the Ohio River, evict the enemy, and secure that land for Virginia.

Henry commissioned Clark as a lieutenant colonel and authorized him to raise a Virginia regiment. These were not militia. Rather, they were regular soldiers commissioned by the State of Virginia. The regiment would sail down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt, then take the British outposts north of the Ohio River that were being used as bases of operations for attacks into Kentucky. 

March to Vincennes
Clark had difficulty raising a sizable regiment since most men were already fighting in the larger campaigns in the east. Also, Clark needed to keep his military targets a surprise and could only reveal to potential recruits the vague goal of protecting Kentucky.  As he worked to recruit volunteers from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina for his “Illinois Regiment of Virginia” he also sent spies into the Illinois territory (which includes modern day Indiana and Illinois) to scout out the enemy defenses.

While he hoped to raise a regiment of 350 men, he only raised about half of that amount for the mission.  Undeterred, the group set out from Fort Pitt in May 1778.  Their first target was the British outpost at Kaskaskia.  

Clark faced his first challenge when several of his recruits objected to the plan.  They had joined the regiment because Clark had told them they were going to be defending Kentucky.  They did not sign up for a military offensive into Illinois territory.  Several tried to desert, but were dragged back to camp.  With threats of execution, Clark managed to keep his new regiment together as they began the journey down the Ohio River.

By late June, the regiment was close to where the Ohio joins the Mississippi River.  They encountered a group of American hunters who were paddling up the Ohio.  The hunters warned Clark that Kaskaskia had lookouts along the Mississippi River to warn about any enemies approaching.  

With this information, rather than approach by moving up the Mississippi River, Clark landed his regiment on the north bank of the Ohio River and marched overland to the town.  The hunters agreed to guide the regiment through the wilderness to Kaskaskia.  The march took longer than expected when the guides got lost.  The men carried four days worth of rations, which ran out during the six day march.  The hungry regiment reached Kaskaskia on July 4.  There, they only encountered the local French-speaking population.  The British lieutenant governor had abandoned the town and headed north to Fort Detroit.

Clark convinced the French locals to sign loyalty oaths to Virginia, and took prisoner several who defiantly backed British rule.  His news that France had recently formed an alliance with the Continental Congress helped to encourage the locals to support the Americans.  Of course, most locals were happy to support whichever side let them keep their property and generally left them alone.  

Clark also removed his soldiers from the town as soon as it was secured, leaving only a small garrison at the fort.  He wanted to avoid any conflicts between his soldiers and the locals that might turn the local population against him.  He also assured the local priest that Virginia would not interfere with the practice of Catholicism. This light-touch approach seemed to work well.  The locals were very happy that their town was not looted and plundered by the enemy army. Most settlers seemed happy to cooperate.

Clark’s forces next took Vincennes and the British Fort Sackville, again without a fight.  The local militia who garrisoned the fort swore an oath to Virginia and continued to garrison the fort under an American officer and flying the American flag.  No one put up any resistance as Clark’s men collected loyalty oaths over much of July 1778 from small settlements around the region and many of the local tribes.

There was some resistance.  During the occupation, a group of Indians attempted to attack and kill Colonel Clark.  After putting down the attack, Clark held several war chiefs in irons and kept them prisoner.  Many of his Indian allies attempted to intervene and get him to release the prisoners on the promise that they would not attack again.  Clark refused to do so.  Clark and his men all had families who had endured merciless Indian raids over the prior two years. Many lost friends and family to these attacks.  While they were willing to make peace with Indians who offered peace, they would also treat harshly any Indians who showed an inclination toward continued violence.

Clark also reached out to the local Spanish leaders at St. Louis.  The Mississippi river marked the border between Spanish territory and the land under dispute between Quebec and Virginia.  Spain was still neutral at this time, and was not helping either side.  Clark opened a friendly correspondence with Fernando de Leyba, the Lieutenant Governor for Upper Louisiana.  Governor de Leyba made clear that as long as they stayed on the eastern side of the Mississippi, there would not be any problems.

By late summer, Clark had largely completed his mission.  His regiment had been recruited for a term of 90 days, which expired in August.  Many of the men who had not wanted to be on this mission in the first place, were more than ready to go home. Others also were eager to get back  home for the winter.

Clark realized that they needed to hold this new territory, or the British would likely simply take it back.  He prevailed on the regiment to reenlist for another eight months.  He managed to convince about 100 of the men to remain.  The rest returned home.

British Retake Vincennes

Up in Detroit, by August, Lieutenant Governor Hamilton received news of the American incursion and the capture of Kaskaskia and Vincennes.  Hamilton sent word to Quebec and hoped to get some guidance, and military assistance from Quebec’s Governor. He wrote to Guy Carlton, not having heard that Frederick Haldimand replaced Carleton in June 1778.  After waiting several weeks and receiving no response, Hamilton decided to act on his own.

Crossing the Wabash
Although he was no longer a military officer. Hamilton raised a battalion which he would lead personally to recapture Vincennes.  He took about 30 British regulars from the Detroit garrison, as well as about 175 local French-Canadian militia.  He also recruited about 60 Ottawa warriors under the command of Chief Egushwa.  

Hamilton’s force left Detroit on October 8th, 1778 for a late season campaign that would inevitably continue into the winter.  As the British force moved south on the 300 mile journey to Vincennes, they recruited more native warriors along the way, so that they had roughly 300 warriors, for a total of about 500 soldiers by the time they reached Vincennes.  Many of the warriors who joined Hamilton had signed loyalty oaths to Clark only a few weeks earlier.

On reaching Vincennes in December, the local French Canadian militia that garrisoned Fort Sackville immediately abandoned their posts and submitted to the British force under Hamilton.  Captain Leonard Helm, who Clark had left in command of the fort, had no choice but to surrender and become a British prisoner of war.  Once again, Vincennes changed hands without any bloodshed.

Given the onset of winter, Hamilton remained in Vincennes, reaching out to local settlements and tribes to receive oaths of loyalty to the king.  He did not engage in any major acts of retribution for those who had signed loyalty oaths to Virginia.  He did not want violence to push the local population into backing the Americans.  Hamilton’s goal was to use his presence as incentive to get the locals to change their minds back to supporting Britain.  He planned to wait until spring to take back Kaskaskia and return all the land north of the Ohio River to his control.  Then, Britain could resume attacks on American settlements in Kentucky.

Clark Counter-Attacks

At the time Hamilton recaptured Vincennes, Clark was in Kaskaskia, making plans for a spring and summer campaign for 1779.  The government in Williamsburg was thrilled with his success the previous summer.  He received a promotion to full colonel and was authorized to raise an army of 500 men. 

Surrender at Vincennes
Virginia’s political leaders had given its full confidence to Colonel Clark, who was still just 25 years old.  Officials left to his discretion whether he wanted to spend the next summer subduing the Indian tribes that had been leading attacks against settlers in Kentucky, or whether he wanted to engage in an assault to take Fort Detroit.

Hamilton retaking Vincennes disrupted all that, and threatened to undo all the work Clark had done to bring the locals into the American camp.  Clark realized he could not wait until spring.  He needed to evict the British from Vincennes as quickly as possible.

Clark assembled a force of 172 Americans and local French-Canadian militia to retake Vincennes, leaving Kaskaskia on February 6.1779.  The winter was not a terribly cold one, but the nearly 200 mile trip through driving rain created its own difficulties.  The force did not reach Vincennes until the evening of February 23, by which time it had run out of food.

Once again, the locals did not seem to care much about which side was in control.  They mostly wanted to avoid suffering the vengeance of the winning side.  The Americans were able to enter Vincennes that evening without anyone in town alerting the garrison in Fort Sackville.  Governor Hamilton did not realize an attack was coming until the Americans opened fire on the fort.  Clark built a barricade opposite the fort’s main gate and began to lay siege.  Hamilton asked for terms.  Clark demanded unconditional surrender, which Hamilton refused.

The following day, a group of French Canadians and natives returned to Vincennes, unaware that the Americans occupied the town.  After a brief fight, the Americans captured two French Canadians and four Native Americans as the remainder fled.  Clark released the Frenchmen, but not the natives.  

He lined up the four natives in full view of the fort. He then proceeded to have his men tomahawk the prisoners, killing them, scalping them, and throwing their dead bodies into the river. It was intended to send a message to the fort occupants.  It was almost certainly in part in revenge for the many Indian attacks the settlers had endured over the prior years.

After one day and two nights of siege, Hamilton realized his situation was hopeless.  The French Canadian militia was unwilling to support him.  His Indian allies had returned home for the winter, and the few dozen regulars were no match for the attackers.  Over the first day of the attack, the British has suffered eleven killed and five wounded.

Hamilton surrendered the fort on the morning of February 25, 1779.  The Americans renamed Fort Sackville, Fort Henry, after Governor Patrick Henry, and once again raised the stars and stripes over the fort.  Lieutenant Governor Hamilton became a prisoner and was sent back to Williamsburg in chains.

Virginia reasserted its claims to all of the Northwest Territory, from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi River, and as far north into what is today Canada.  George Rogers Clark was widely celebrated and took command of what Virginia’s leaders now called Illinois County, Virginia.

Next week, we head back to the area around New York City as the Continental Army settles in for the winter at Middlebook, New Jersey.  

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Next Episode 211 Winter at Middlebrook 

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Further Reading


Henry Hamilton:

Sheehan, Bernard W. “‘The Famous Hair Buyer General’: Henry Hamilton, George Rogers Clark, and the American Indian.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 79, no. 1, 1983, pp. 1–28. JSTOR,

“Patrick Henry in Council to George Rogers Clark, [12 December] 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Gov. Patrick Henry’s Secret order 1/2/78 (image)

Shepherd, Joshua “George Rogers Clark at Vincennes: 'You May Expect No Mercy'" Journal of the American Revolution, Feb. 17, 2015:

Shepherd, Joshua “Stern Measures: Thomas Jefferson Confronts the ‘Hair Buyer’” Journal of the American Revolution, August 22, 2016:


Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Barnhart, John D. Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution, with the unpublished Journal of Henry Hamilton, Crawfordsville, Ind. R. E. Banta, 1951. 

Butterfield, Consul Willshire History of George Rogers Clark's Conquest of the Illinois and the Wabash Towns 1778 and 1779, Columbus: F.J. Heer, 1904. 

Clark, George Rogers Col. George Rogers Clark's sketch of his campaign in the Illinois in 1778-79, Cincinnati: Robert Clarke, 1907. 

English, William Hayden Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783 : and, life of Gen. George Rogers Clark, Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill Co. 1897. 

Esarey, Logan A History of Indiana from its Exploration to 1850, Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen & Co. 1918. 

Henry, William Wirt Patrick Henry, Life,  Correspondence and Speeches, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, New York: Scribner, 1891. 

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

Law, John The Colonial History of Vincennes, Under the French, British, and American Governments, Vincennes, IN: Harvey, Mason & Co. 1858. 

Quaife, Milo Milton (ed) The Conquest of the Illinois, Chicago, R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co. 1920. 

Starkey, Daniel B. George Rogers Clark and his Illinois Campaign, Milwaukee: E. Keogh, 1897. 

Thwaites, Reuben Gold How George Rogers Clark Won the Northwest: and Other Essays in Western History, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. 1903. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Evans, William A. (ed) Detroit to Fort Sackville, 1778-1779: The Journal of Normand MacLeod, Wayne State Univ. Press, 1978, or borrow at

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

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

Van Every, Dale A Company of Heroes: The American Frontier, Morrow, 1962. l

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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