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The Surender of Vincennes in 1779

Church history is part of all history and certainly the city of Vincennes is tied inextricably to the history of the Catholic Church in Indiana. That is why February 24th and February 25th are important dates in the history of the Church as it relates to the history of Indiana and the United States.

On February 24, 1779, Gen. George Rogers Clark and Governor Hamilton met in the old church at Vincennes (St. Francis Xavier), and they signed the treaty establishing the Northwest Territory as part of Virginia and later the US. 1

On the morning of February 25, 1779, Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark, elder brother of explorer William Clark, accepted British Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton’s unconditional surrender of Fort Sackville at Vincennes, Indiana.

Despite a 1763 prohibition against settlement of Kentucky and points west, hundreds of colonists and their families drifted beyond the Appalachians. With the Revolutionary War under way, these pioneers were vulnerable to attack from both British and Native American forces.

Clark believed Hamilton rewarded Indians for raids on American settlements. With the support of Virginia’s Governor, Patrick Henry, Clark marshalled volunteers from among the frontiersmen and successfully attacked British outposts along the Mississippi River.

To capture Fort Sackville, Clark relied on his men’s expert marksmanship and a classic military bluff. Although he commanded a mere two hundred buckskin clad pioneers, Clark raised flags enough for a company of 600. Believing himself overwhelmed, Hamilton surrendered and was imprisoned at Williamsburg. The British never regained control of the fort.

Clark’s success was noted by Governor Thomas Jefferson, of Virginia, and General George Washington:

Sir: On the 4th Instant I had the Honor to receive your Letter of the 19th of June. Your Excellency will permit me to offer you my sincere congratulations upon your appointment to the Government of Virginia.

I thank you much for the accounts Your Excellency has been pleased to transmit me of the successes of Cols. Clarke and Shelby. They are important and interesting, and do great honor to the Officers and Men engaged in the Enterprises. I hope these successes will be followed by very happy consequences. If Colo Clarke could by any means gain possession of Detroit, it would in all probability effectually secure the friendship or at least the neutrality of most of the Western Indians. 2

Clark’s bold defense of the trans-Appalachian frontier during the Revolution frustrated British attempts to drive Americans out of the region and legitimized American claims to the Northwest Territory”‚ÄĚland ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

  1. Cauthorn: Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral (1892) p. 228 []
  2. In a letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, July 10, 1779. The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress []
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