A Brief History of St. Clair County, Illinois - Chapter 3 - The Transition to American Rule
A Brief History of St. Clair County
Chapter III
The Transition to American Rule
by Prof. W. C. Walton
Excerpted from the Centennial History of McKendree College (1928)

The Illinois Country was a part of the British possessions in America from the time of the treaty of Fountainebleau in 1763 until, as a result of the Revolutionary War, the American colonies wrested from Great Britain all the Americana territory she possessed south of the Great Lakes. The transfer of the Illinois country from British to American control occurred 1778, after only fifteen years of British rule, as a result of the expedition of Colonel George Rogers Clarke. It seems appropriate here to give a brief account of this remarkable achievement, condensed from the various histories of those times. The British garrison at Kaskaskia, or Fort Gage, which had been the military stronghold instead of Fort Chartres since 1772, was probably withdrawn early in the war because the soldiers were needed elsewhere. The place was left in charge of a commandant with perhaps a few soldiers for body servants. Illinois was so remote from the theatre of action and means of communication so imperfect that the people of these villages were but little disturbed by the rumors of war that occasionally came from the Atlantic coast. The French inhabitants were in sympathy with the Americans rather than the English, but probably understood very imperfectly the nature of the struggle. According to the theory of the Colonial Government at Philadelphia, Illinois was under the jurisdiction of Virginia. Colonel George Rogers Clarke, who had visited Kentucky in 1775, first saw the great advantage of having the Illinois settlements actually in the hands of the Americans.

So he visited Patrick Henry, then Governor of Virginia, and laid before him a plan for the capture and possession of these colonies. The Governor was pleased with the idea and gave Clarke authority to raise seven companies of men with which to carry out this bold project. However he succeeded in enlisting only four companies, which were commanded by Captains Montgomery, Bowman, Helm, and Harrod. With these men Clarke started for the west. At Corn Island, opposite Louisville on the Ohio, he announced his destination to his men. At the mouth of the Tennessee River they encountered a man who had recently visited Kaskaskia. He told them that the commander at that place was a French Canadian named Rocheblave, that he kept what few soldiers he had well drilled and sentinels posted to watch for the "Long Knives," as the Virginians were called, of whom the inhabitants were in mortal terror. Securing his boats at Fort Massacre, afterwards called Massac, he undertook the journey across the country, one hundred and twenty miles, to Kaskaskia. It was a difficult march thru an unbroken wilderness. On the afternoon of July 4, 1778, the exhaused band of invaders came to the vicinity of Kaskaskia, and concealed themselves in the hills east of the town. After dark Clarke called his men together and laid his plans before them. He divided them into three divisions, two of which were to take the town, entering from different directions, while the third, under Clarke himself, was to take the Fort. The plan worked out perfectly. Kaskaskia was at that time a village of abouty two hundred and fifty houses. The British commander last in charge had instilled in the minds of the people the idea that the Virginians, otherwise the "Long Knives," were a ferocious band of murderers, plundering houses, slaughtering women and children, and committing acts of greatest atrocity. Clarke determined to take advantage of this and frighten them into submission without resistance. He and his men affected an entrance into the fort without diffculty. The other parties entered the town at opposite sides at a given signal, and with terrible noises and hideous shouts aroused the sleeping inhabitants who shrieked in their alarm, "The Long Knives! The Long Knives are here!" The panic stricken townsmen delivered up their arms and the victory was accomplished without shedding a drop of blood. Rocheblave, the British commandant, was unaware of the presence of the enemy until an officer entered his bed chamber and claimed him as a prisoner. The next day Clarke withdrew his forces from the town and sternly forbade all communication between it and his soldiers. Also some of the principal officers and citizens were put in irons. The terror now reached its height. A deputation consisting of the priest and several elderly men of the village called on Clarke and humbly requested permission to assemble in the church and take leave of each other and commend their future lives to the protection of a merciful God, since they expected to be separated, perhaps never to meet again. Clarke gruffly granted the privilege. The whole population convened at the church and after remaining together a long time, the priest and a few others agaiin waited on the commander of the American forces, presenting thanks for the privilege they had enjoyed and desiring to know what fate awaited them. Clarke now determined to lift them from their despair and win their gratitude by a show of mercy. "What!" said he, "Do you take us for savages? Do you think Americans will strip women and children and take bread from their mouths? My countrymen disdain to make war on helpless innocents." He further reminded them that the King of France, their former ruler, was the ally of the Americans and was now fighting their battles. He told them to choose whichever side they preferred and they should be respected in their liberty of choice and in their rights of property. The revulsion of feeling was complete. The good news spread rapidly throughout the village. The church bell rang a merry peal and the delighted inhabitants gathered at the chapel where thanks were offered to God for their happy and unexpected deliverance. The loyalty of the inhabitants was assured and ever after they remained faithful to the American cause. The French inhabitants of Kaskaskia never did admire the English and so were readily reconciled to a change of government.

In October, 1778, the Virginia Assembly erected the conquered territory into the "County of Illinois." This new county embraced all the territory north-west of the Ohio, and five large states have since been formed from it. Colonel Clarke was appointed military commander of all the western territory, both north and south of the Ohio, and Colonel John Todd, one of Clarke's soldiers, who had been the next man after Clarke to enter Fort Gage, was made Lieutenant-Commandant of Illinois. In the spring of 1779 Colonel Todd visited Kaskaskia and made arrangements for the organization of a temporary government. Many of the French inhabitants of St. Phillippe, Prairie Du Rocher, and the other villages willingly took the oath of allegiance to Virginia. Colonel Todd was killed in the famous battle of Blue Licks in Kentucky, August, 1782, and Timothy de Montbrun, a Frenchman, succeeded him as commandant of the Illinois County. Of his administration but little is known. Colonel Clarke's further achievement, marching across Illinois, fording swollen streams, suffering from the cold and other hardships, besieging and capturing Vincennes for the Americans is a story that is well told by Theodore Roosevelt in "The Winning of the West."

Illinois did not long remain a county of Virginia. The several states agreed on adoption of the Articles of Confederation, to cede all their claims to western lands to the general government. Virginia executed her deed of cession March 1, 1784. This left Illinois a part of the Northwest Territory, which by the ordinance of 1787 was organized into one district for purposes of government and General Arthur St. Clair was selected by Congress as the governor. Marietta, Ohio was the seat of government. In the year 1790 Governor St. Clair organized the first county in the Illinois country and named it after himself. We quote a portion of his proclamation, which shows the original boundaries of this county.

"Know ye that, it appearing to me to be necessary for the purposes above mentioned, a county should be immediately laid out, I have ordained and ordered, and by these presents do ordain and order that all and singular, the lands lying and being within the following boundaries, namely: Beginning at the mouth of the Little Michilliakinack River, running thence southerly in a direct line to the mouth of the little river above Fort Massac upon the Ohio River; thence with the said river to its junction with the Mississippi; thence up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Illinois River, and so up the Illinois River to the place of beginning, with all the adjacent islands of said rivers, Illinois and Mississippi; shall be a county and the same is hereby erected into a county, named and hereafter to be called the County of St. Clair, and the said County of St. Clair shall have and enjoy all and singular the jurisdiction, rights, privileges, and immunities whatsoever to a county belonging and pertaining and which any other county that may hereafter be erected and laid out shall or ought to enjoy conformably to the ordinance of Congress before mentioned. In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the sale of the territory to be affixed this 27th day of April in the fourteenth year of the Independence of the United States, and in the year of our Lord, 1790.

Arthur St. Clair
Countersigned by His Excellency's Command.
Winthrop Sargent, Secretary"

These bounaries made the original St. Clair County include about two-thirds of the State of Illinois, but with a population of only a few thousand, both whites and Indians. In the year 1795, Governor St. Clair divided the county into two. All south of a line running thru the New Design settlement, which is in the present county of Monroe, was erected into the County of Randolph. It was so named in honor of Edmund Randolph, of Virginia. This division left Kaskaskia the original county seat in the new county of Randolph, and Cahokia became the new county seat of St. Clair. It remained there until it was moved to Belleville in 1814. Up to the time when it fell into the hands of the Americans, thru the conquest by Colonel Clarke, it was inhabited almost solely by French people or the native Indians. In fact it was a sort of "New France" being set up in the Illinois wilderness. In the main, the settlers lived on friendly terms with the Indians. They frequently mingled with them, not only in their hunting enterprises, but sometimes in a social way many of them were quite at home beside the Indian camp fire. They adopted many of the native modes of life, imitated his dress in some particulars, and some of the settlers even took wives from among the dusky squaws of the aborigines, and married them according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, which thru its missionaries wielded a strong influence upon the native tribes. The record of the "Salem Witchcraft" in 1692 is a sort of blot on American history. An echo of it appears about a century later out in the Mississippi Valley. In Cahokia about the year 1790 superstition got the upper hand of reason and several negroes were put to death for this imaginary offense. An African slave called Moreau was hung for this crime on a tree not far southeast of the village. It is stated that he said that he "poisoned his master but his mistress was too strong" for his powers of necromancy. Another slave, Emanuel, was shot at Cahokia for the same reason. An old woman named Jeannette was believed to have power to destroy persons and property by her incantations. The children as well as many grown up people were terrified at her approach. And all this within the present bounds of St. Clair County.

CHAPTER I - Under French Rule

CHAPTER II - Under British Rule

CHAPTER IV - Settlers of the Early Period

CHAPTER V - Early American Settlers of St. Clair County

Back to the St. Clair County ILGenWeb Project Page.