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The Getaway Guys visited Vincennes, Indiana, in August 2011 and thought its name was derived from Vincennes, France. It is in fact named for Francois-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes (1700-36), a French-Canadian explorer who established a fort and trading post near Vincennes on the Wabash River.
Bissot was not an aristocrat. Sieur de Vincennes was strictly an honorary and non-hereditary title which did not help him much in this country: He was burned at the stake by Chickasaw Indians when only 36.
Because of its place in American history Vincennes, Ind., is noteworthy for its pivotal role in who would dominate the Northwest Territory (Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin).
Today it is somewhat sleepy, with much of its history obliterated by “progress.” Gradually it is rediscovering its past, but with the economic austerity measures in Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., its prospects for either state or federal assistance are dim.
Two other men dominate Vincennes history: George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) and William Henry Harrison (1773-1841). Clark was a war hero of the American Revolution and Harrison a military officer-politician best remembered for the Battle of Tippecanoe (1811), just prior to the War of 1812.
During the Revolution, Clark marched his small army across the frozen turf of Southern Illinois and captured Fort Sackville at Vincennes from the British, dealing a blow to British claims in the Northwest Territory.
Harrison’s claim to fame is more nuanced. As the Governor of the still largely unsettled Northwest Territory, he irrevocably alienated Tecumseh at a parley in Vincennes and then led a successful preemptive attack on this charismatic Indian at Tippecanoe.
The Revolution won for the United States an ill-defined territorial claim on the Northwest Territory. Technically it was still up for grabs and a potential flash point between the U.S. and a British Empire still smarting from its defeat in 1783.
Harrison (the ninth president of the United States) is commemorated by his mansion and headquarters at Grouseland. By contemporary standards it is grand. From a frontier perspective, it was palatial and was home and seat of power for essentially a viceroy. Once described as President Jefferson’s “hammer,” Harrison made territorial decisions that in effect were law. It was at Grouseland that Harrison had his fateful meeting with Tecumseh that almost resulted in the slaughter of Harrison, his family and the citizens of Vincennes.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.
The sumptuous interiors restored by the Daughters of the American Revolution, make it hard to believe such a residence could have existed in the middle of a wilderness. Aside from artifacts related to the Harrisons, Grouseland is a cornucopia of information about Vincennes’ territorial past. A modest fee is charged, and the guided tour is fascinating and well presented.
Due south and within walking distance are the George Rogers Clark Memorial, St. Francis Xavier Church, the Lincoln Memorial Bridge and the Old French House and Indian Museum.
Reminiscent of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Clark Memorial, on the banks of the Wabash, overlooks an expansive plaza. Now administered by the National Park Service, the memorial was completed in 1936 and dedicated by President Roosevelt on June 14 of that year.
Within the spacious rotunda are a bronze sculpture of Clark by Hermon A. MacNeil and seven large vertical murals by Ezra Winter that depict Clark’s epic march and capture of Fort Sackville (1779). This magnificent structure dedicated to a largely forgotten Revolutionary war hero seems a bit over the top but nevertheless is quite stunning.
Adjacent to the Clark Memorial Plaza is the Lincoln Memorial Bridge with two massive pylons representing Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa in low relief. The irony is not lost, as these two Native American leaders fiercely opposed white expansion in general and the dictates of William Henry Harrison in particular. Completed in 1933, these sculptural reliefs reflect a strong WPA art influence.
Close by, St. Francis Xavier Church (c. 1826) is a reminder of Vincennes’ French origins. St. Francis X is very large by frontier standards and quite ornate internally. With a somewhat provincial Baroque interior, it reminded Neil and Alan of churches they had seen in France.
North of St. Francis and a little beyond Grouseland on 1st Street, the Guys visited the Old French House and Indian Museum, which consists of a preserved and restored dwelling from 1809.
An adjacent building houses artifacts related to Vincennes history. This very early house is well built, using timbers and straw-infused wattle for insulation. Predictably it is small and compact, its sleeping quarters on the second floor and the first floor devoted to cooking and eating, with a large fireplace for meal preparation and heating.
Out back, in a less-than-desirable building for artifact preservation and display, is the “museum,” which contains an interesting collection.
The French House is owned by the Old Northwest Corporation, but when the Guys visited, a National Park Service guide “on loan” from the Clark Memorial was on duty because nobody else was available. A nice young man studying to be a Park Ranger full time, he knew very little about what he was guarding.
Finally, Neil and Alan visited a group of rescued, early Vincennes structures further north on West Harrison Street.
These are admirably restored structures saved from a wrecking ball and moved to a central location, a gesture that fails to address their history and importance to Vincennes as an outpost of our western expansion.
Today much of Vincennes’ city center is somewhat woeful, and the present economy is not helping. There are vintage 19th-century commercial buildings of interest and residential areas with remaining once-prosperous houses. In such a residential area the Guys stumbled on the overwhelming Knox County Court House, a limestone structure built in the style of a Norman castle.
Historically, Vincennes is compelling. As a destination the Guys suggest a Vincennes-New Harmony combo. The two make an easy long-weekend trip.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.