Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

French Precautions

I. Juchereau

As the years passed, each nation began slowly to provide defenses against any possible encroachment upon its possessions. The French built a fort on the Niagara River to make the English understand that the approaches to the Northwest would be protected. The English, to offset this, built a fort at Oswego and attracted thither a great deal of the Indian trade that would otherwise have gone down to Montreal. The French fortified their posts at Detroit and Mackinac to guard against any intrusion in the region of the upper lakes. They strengthened their friendship with the Miamis about La Salle's old fort on the St. Joseph, so as to protect the portage at South Bend and make it difficult for an enemy to approach their Illinois settlements by that favorite route. Near the head of Green Bay, close by the Jesuit mission of St. Francis Xavier, they maintained a stockade called Fort la Baie; and there they stationed a garrison to command the approach to the Mississippi by way of the Fox River portage and the Wisconsin.

All these forts were mere blockhouses, built chiefly of wood, and they had no great strength to withstand the attack of a determined enemy. They were the centers, however, of active trade with the Indians, and they were intended not only to keep English agents and traders from entering the hunting grounds of the Northwest, but also to prevent the distant tribes from carrying their peltries to the Dutch-English merchants at Oswego and Albany.

Very early in the century the French had seen the necessity of guarding the Mississippi from the intrusion of the English, and plans had been formed for the establishment of several armed posts at different points along the river. One of these posts was erected at the mouth of the Arkansas, and another near the mouth of the Ohio. The latter was commanded by Captain Juchereau of Montreal, and manned by thirty-five Canadian soldiers and hunters. It was a kind of midway point between Canada and the French settlements on the Gulf, and must be passed by all persons going from one of these places to the other.

No sooner was the little post inclosed with palisades than Juchereau began to make plans for the enlargement of his settlement. It was his intention, while guarding this entrance to the Illinois Country, to collect furs and other peltries, open mines of copper and lead in the neighborhood, and carry on trade with the Indians. He was not successful in prospecting for minerals, for none were discovered; but his hunters brought in such great numbers of buffalo skins that he found it advisable to set up a tannery for turning them into leather. Quite a number of Indians were attracted to the post, and Father Mermet, an earnest Jesuit missionary, tried hard to convert them to Christianity. A little village quickly sprang up. In the very shadow of the stockade a temporary chapel was built, while the Indian wigwams were clustered near by, half hidden in the tall grass of the prairie.

But the country for miles around was little better than a morass. The oozy soil bred miasms, and the air was laden with malaria. Soon nearly every person was prostrated with disease. The Indians were the chief sufferers, and numbers of them died. To appease their manitou, the poor savages killed forty dogs and carried them on poles in solemn procession round the village. Then, in their fear of the French manitou, which they believed to be more powerful than their own, the medicine men cried out: "Oh, manitou of the French, have pity upon us! Do not kill us all. Strike gently. Spare us or we shall all die."

Finally, as humble suppliants, they came to Father Mermet. "Truly, good manitou," they prayed, "thou art the keeper of life and death. We beg of thee to hold death fast in thy sack: give out life, that we may not die." But neither their own prayers nor those of the good priest availed to save them from the dreaded scourge, Death found new victims almost every day.

Such of the Indians as survived left the place as soon as possible. Father Mermet retired to Kaskaskia. Captain Juchereau, himself, soon fell a victim to the prevailing disease. A party of unfriendly Miamis—incited, it was thought, by the English—came sweeping down the Ohio, and the remnant of the garrison hastily abandoned the stricken post. Some sought safety and health in the slightly older settlements farther up the Mississippi, others returned to Mackinac on the lakes or to Canada.

II. Fort Chartres

No further attempt was made to hold the post at the mouth of the Ohio, and Juchereau's little fort, which, at best, was but a feeble affair, soon crumbled into ruins. The necessity, however, of a strong military station on the Mississippi was not lost sight of. At length, when M. Pierre y Dugue Boisbriant was sent to take command in the Illinois Country, he was directed to build a strong fort at some convenient spot in the neighborhood of the settlements.

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin


The place selected for this fortress was on the east side of the Mississippi, about sixteen miles above Kaskaskia. The work was planned by skilled engineers, and after eighteen months of labor, and a vast expenditure on the part of the government, it was finished and named Fort Chartres in honor of the regent of France.

This remarkable structure stood in the heart of the wilderness, a short distance from the river's bank. It was four-sided in form, although not a square; and at each corner was a bastion built of stone and plastered over with lime. Each side was three hundred and forty feet in length, and the walls were from two to three feet thick and fifteen feet high. In each wall, at regular distances, were loopholes for cannon. The cornices and casements about the gates were of solid blocks of freestone. Within the walls were two roomy barracks built of stone, a spacious magazine, two deep wells, and houses for the officers. A wide and deep ditch was begun on the outside of the walls, but was never finished. The structure was said to be the most convenient and the best built fort in North America.

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin


Here, far removed from the world's civilization, dwelt the French commandant with his officers and their families and a goodly number of soldiers and servants. To this place were carried the polite manners and the fashions of Paris. Noble gentlemen and well-dressed ladies danced in the great hall, or strolled among the trees outside the walls, or in some other manner whiled away the lonely hours and made the long days enjoyable. Priests in their black gowns, and sweet-faced nuns with beads and crucifix, were there to maintain the authority of the Church, to console the sick and distressed, to admonish the living, and to pray for the dead. Hither came rude coureurs de bois with their strange, rough manners and their tales of adventure among wild men and savage beasts. Hither also came traders with goods of all kinds from France, or with loads of furs and buffalo skins to be carried to the market at Kaskaskia, or shipped direct to Mobile on the Gulf. Half-naked Indians, too, gay with feathers and horrible in their war paint, often visited the fort to trade with the inmates, to see the soldiers drilling on the parade ground, or to beg some favor from the commandant.

Very strange and romantic was life in that remote wilderness fort, a thousand miles from the nearest center of civilization, and we could wish to know much more about it. But the traveler who now visits the place will fail to find any remnant of the massive fortification or any memento to remind him of the grandeur and gayety that once existed within its walls. Fifty years after its completion the spring floods were so unusually strong that the river broke through its banks, overflowed the bottoms, and formed a new channel much nearer the fort. Soon the western walls were undermined by the current, and two of the bastions tumbled into the stream. Then slowly but surely the waters wore away the land; the barracks, the garrison chapel, the officers' quarters, all were swallowed up, and not a vestige of "the strongest fortress on the continent "remained.

III. Vincennes

At about the time that M. Boisbriant was laying the foundations of Fort Chartres, the Twightwees, a powerful branch of the Miamis, were beginning to make their influence felt among the western tribes. They had lately removed from their old homes about the St. Joseph and were settled along the head waters of the Wabash and at their village of Kekionga near the Maumee portage. Their hunting parties ranged the country to the southeast, and wandered as far as to the Ohio, where they often had dealings with trespassing English traders or were tempted by Iroquois agents in the pay of the English.

Very naturally the French began to feel alarmed. They could not afford to lose the friendship of the Miamis. The safest thing to do was to keep them out of the way of temptation. If they could be persuaded to return to the St. Joseph and hunt only in the secure wilds of Michigan, all would be well.

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin

The man who had most influence among these savages was the Sieur de Vincennes, a Canadian gentleman, kinsman of Louis Joliet, the explorer of the Mississippi. To him the woods and great rivers of the Northwest offered so many attractions that he had spent his life among them, building up French interests and enjoying the savage freedom of the wilderness. At the suggestion of the governor of Canada, he undertook the duty of persuading the Miamis to remove from the region of danger. The savages listened to him with patience, and when he promised to go with them to their former homes on the St. Joseph, they consented, if only they might wait until after the autumn hunt and the gathering in of the corn.

But before the autumn came the Sieur de Vincennes was taken sick; and while the corn was still green in the ear he died and was buried in the village of Kekionga. "Who now will lead us to the St. Joseph, and who will befriend us there?" asked the Miamis. "We will stay where we are."

The noble Canadian was succeeded by his nephew, Francois Margane, who also assumed his title of Sieur de Vincennes. The young man was brave, discreet, and thoroughly inured to the wild life of the woods. No one was better fitted to carry on the work which his uncle had begun. The Miamis looked up to him with confidence, but they would not be persuaded to stir from Kekionga. The best he could do was to cultivate their friendship and keep a watchful eye on such of their young men as were most likely to be influenced by the English.

Of all the routes between Canada and the Illinois Country that by way of the Maumee and the Wabash was much the shorter and easier. To aid in protecting this route as well as to supply a kind of midway station for traders and voyageurs, the young Sieur de Vincennes built and fortified the post of Ouiatenon near the present site of the city of Lafayette. This little fort was on the north bank of the Wabash, two or three miles above the chief village of the Ouiatenon Indians.

A few years later another fort was built near the Piankeshaw town of Chipkawkay, a hundred and twenty miles farther down the Wabash, and the Sieur de Vincennes was appointed to its command. A mission was established, and a French village grew up around the fort. Traders and coureurs de bois were attracted to the place, and it soon became a depot where immense stores of furs were collected to be shipped northward to the Canadian markets or southward to the French ports on the Gulf. The Sieur de Vincennes was not only the military commander of the post, but for a few years he was the leader of every important enterprise. He was honored as the founder and patron of the village. Many new families gathered there, and the place grew and prospered, being in all things much like any other French settlement in the Northwest. It was long known merely as the Post on the Wabash (Poste au Ouabache); but after the tragic death of its founder—burned at the stake by Chickasaw Indians—it was named, in his honor, Post Vincennes.

Life was easy at Post Vincennes. The soldiers and their officers, the traders, the coureurs, and the contented villagers felt very secure in their secluded home with the trackless forest stretching hundreds of miles to the east of them, and on the west the treeless prairies extending to the setting sun. Furs were plentiful; the Indians were friendly; and but little occurred to disturb the serenity of the little settlement. And if, now and then, rumors came of trespasses by Englishmen into the regions about the head waters of the Ohio, these rumors caused but little anxiety—the English were still so far away.

IV. The Trespassers

The Shawnees in the valley of the Ohio had never been firm friends of the French, and it was through them that the Dutch-English traders at Oswego and Albany hoped finally to gain a foothold in the Northwest. The white men whose tampering with the Miamis of Kekionga had given the first alarm to the French, were agents of these traders. They were backwoods adventurers, having all the bad qualities of the French coureurs de bois and but few of their redeeming traits. They were rough, bold, cunning, heartless, skilled in the lore of the woods, and having a thorough knowledge of Indian character. If the Shawnees and Miamis chose to trade with them, how could the French soldiers and traders on the Wabash or at Fort Chartres or Detroit prevent their coming?

Year after year these men continued to visit the region watered by the northern tributaries of the Ohio. Singly, or by twos and threes, they would go to an Indian village in the autumn carrying a stock of blankets and fire water which the savages were always eager to buy. The agent was all smiles and blandishments. He was not obliged, like the French traders, to divide profits with a great monopoly or with the king, and therefore he could sell his goods cheap and offer high prices for furs. "You may have as much fire water as you want," he would say. "You need not pay for it now; but in the spring, when I come again, you may give me as many furs as it is worth." Of course the foolish Indians would buy in large quantities. They would spend the winter in carousing, and when the time for payment came they would be in hard straits to meet their promises. More smiles and more blandishments would follow; more strong drink would be produced; and then all the furs that could be gotten together would pass into the agent's hands.

Early traders


It was through such means as these that the English traders sought to gain and keep the friendship of the western tribes and turn them away from the French. And they succeeded so well that, in the course of time, a large share of the fur trade in the valley of the Ohio was controlled by them and their agents. English rum was plentiful, English goods were cheap, English promises were alluring—and these bade fair to win the hearts of the wavering red men.

V. Joncaire

With every day that passed, the French became more and more convinced that something must be done to counteract the influence of their rivals. But what could they do? If they could only drive the trespassing Englishmen from their territory, they might make short work of the whole matter. But the agents were too wily to be caught; and it soon became plain that some of the tribes were ready at any time to transfer their friendship to the English. At length it was decided to send into the Ohio Country a man of influence among the Indians, who should show the Shawnees and Miamis the great mistake they would make by turning away from their former patrons and friends.

For this important duty Joseph Joncaire, a Frenchman of great shrewdness and daring, was chosen. No man understood the Indian character better than he: no man was more highly esteemed by all the red men of the Northwest. He was almost an Indian himself. Many years before, when a young man, he had been taken prisoner by the Seneca-Iroquois. His captors tortured him in their usual manner, and were astonished at his fortitude. They tied him to a tree and kindled a fire to burn him to death; but his courage and indifference to pain won their hearts. They scattered the burning brands, and ended by adopting Joncaire into their tribe, and welcoming him as their brother. He did not object to becoming an Indian. He lived with the Senecas for many years, married the daughter of a Seneca chief, brought up a family of copper-colored children, and became almost as much of a savage as the savagest Iroquois. But he was always faithful to his kinsmen, the French, and more than once did he render them valuable service. He was now to aid them in another manner by being their envoy to the tribes in the Ohio Valley.

Joncaire, with a few Indian companions, embarked upon one of the head waters of the Ohio and floated down that stream toward the country of the Miamis. The region between Lake Erie and the Beautiful River was still for the most part an uninhabited wilderness—the hunting grounds of the Iroquois and of some of the smaller western nations. To white men the Ohio itself was almost unknown, for since its discovery by La Salle, more than half a century before, few but the most daring wood rangers had visited it; and even the Indians who ventured to set up their wigwams near its banks were ignorant of much of the country through which it flowed.

As Joncaire with his companions canoed down the noble stream, now swollen by the spring floods, they met several small bands of Shawnees hunting in the forest or encamped in some temporary village near the shore. To all these he delivered his message from "Onontio, their loving father" the governor of Canada, telling them to beware of the English. Now and then he heard news of trespassing agents having crossed his path, but they were always careful to keep out of his sight. Near the place where now stands the city of Cincinnati he found some straggling Miamis whose homes were a little farther westward and northward on the rivers that bear their name. All listened with great attention to what he had to say. They promised not to sell their furs to any but French traders, and declared themselves ready to go on the warpath whenever "Onontio "should call for the punishment of the English.

But no sooner had Joncaire left them than they forgot all their promises, welcomed the English traders to their villages, and renewed their friendship with Onontio's enemies.

VI. Fort Massac

While the Sieur de Vincennes was establishing the post that was afterward known by his name, other Frenchmen were building i small fort on the north bank of the Ohio, about forty miles above the junction of that stream with the Mississippi and just opposite the mouth of the Tennessee. This fort was intended to serve as a trading post, a missionary station, and a protection against raids by hostile Indians from the south. Soon after Joncaire's visit, it was enlarged and strengthened, and surrounded by high palisades, so that it might be proof not only against the attacks of unfriendly savages but also against any attempted seizure by English traders or explorers. A garrison of French soldiers was stationed there, and the place became quite a resort for the coureurs who ranged the woods and prairies of the lower Wabash. Its prosperity, however, was but short lived.

One morning the French soldiers, looking out over the river, were surprised to see half a dozen bears ambling along among the bushes near the opposite bank of the river. It was a strange and unusual sight, and all the men in the garrison, together with the visiting coureurs and traders, were wild with excitement. So far as the soldiers knew, there was not an enemy within a hundred miles. Why should they stay cooped up within the fort when such rare game was in sight?

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin


Some of them at once rushed for the boats and rowed rapidly across the river. All the others ran down to the water side to watch the sport, leaving the gate of the stockade wide open. Scarcely had the boats touched the opposite bank when wild yells were heard on every hand and a scene of frightful confusion began. The supposed bears suddenly turned into naked savages, and at the same time a score of warriors rushed from the thickets on this side of the river and crowded through the open gate into the fort. The soldiers—many of them being without arms—were taken by surprise. A terrible massacre followed, and but few of the French escaped with their lives. The Indians burned the fort and then, with many bloody scalps dangling from their belts, returned into the woods.

Some time afterward another fort was built on the same spot. It was made much stronger than the first, and was garrisoned by soldiers who were not likely to be deceived by savage cunning. It was called Fort Massac, in honor of M. Massac, the first commander of the post; but in remembrance of the bloody slaughter that had taken place there, many people were accustomed to speak of it as Fort Massacre. It formed one of a chain of military posts which the French planned to establish from Lake Erie and the head waters of the Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico. The governor of Canada and the French king were beginning to understand that a great struggle for the possession of the lakes and the Mississippi was near at hand. "If the English once gain a foothold in the West," said some of the king's counselors, "we shall lose not only Louisiana and the regions north and west, but Canada itself."