By Gary Liming
This article originally appeared in the Summer edition of the Journal of the Middle Waters Frontier, published by Graphic/Fine Arts Press and is reprinted here with permission of author Gary Liming.
To understand this particular bit of history, it is always helpful to look at the situation leading up to the event. From the secret treaty of 1762, the Spanish began to lay out their occupation of the Louisiana territory -- the lands west of the Mississippi river. Provision was made for a governor, resident at New Orleans, and orders were issued for a strategic fort to be built in the Upper Louisiana at the mouth of the Missouri river. When the new commander of the expedition arrived a fort was constructed, but it was recognized as temporary since the area was a flood plain. The French village of St. Louis, a few miles down river, was used as a the commanderŐs base and a barracks. St. Louis was an unfortified location, since the fur traders had used their trade to manage the Indians by providing gifts to those tribes that were friendly, and cutting off trade to those that were troublesome. There were more traders than farmers, and agriculture had not reached the point of making the settlement self-sufficient.
The British had gained control of the Illinois country from the French at the conclusion of the Seven Years War. Across the Mississippi, the British occupied the eastern bank at Cahokia and Kaskaskia with a minimal investment, appointing the French settlers to positions of government. Both the British and Spanish were slow to exploit the new country -- their resources exhausted from war and other sovereign interests. The Louisiana territory was seen as a large expense, with little immediate return.
Into this environment, Captain Fernando de Leyba was named the third Lieutenant Governor, and took command of the Upper Louisiana on June 14, 1778. His orders were to learn any news concerning the war with the British and their colonists, and to prevent himself from being "surprised in case of any unforeseen design." He was also ordered to keep correspondence with any American chief secret and report it to Governor Galvez. Just a few weeks later, on July 4, 1778, Clark and his army took Kaskaskia.
A month later, Clark visited de Leyba in St. Louis and a celebration of several days ensued, with dances and a "great consuming of powder at his arrival as well as his departure." His support was recognized by Clark in a letter to Patrick Henry, describing de Leyba as most interested in favor of the States, and offered all the force he could raise in case of attack by Indians from Detroit. Many other letters were written in the last half of 1778. De Leyba wrote to Galvez, proposing fortifications for St. Louis, but received a reply telling him that he would have to make due on his own. De Leyba empathized with Clark, since they were both trying to accomplish urgent and strategic goals with little support from their distant superiors. De Leyba urged local merchants to extend credit to Clark, providing his own assurances for the debts.
Another letter to Galvez was written by Henry Hamilton at Detroit. In it, Hamilton threatened Galvez saying that if he supported the Rebels the "Several Nations of Savages who accompany me may forget the instructions I have given them from time to time with relations to the subjects of His Catholic Majesty." He also warned that if the Rebels should find shelter across the river, "it will become my duty to dislodge them, in which case their protectors must blame their own conduct." After several warning letters from Clark and others, Galvez wrote back to De Leyba only saying that should Hamilton attack St. Louis, "you will be able to act in such a manner as to preserve the honor of our arms."
Any intended attack by Hamilton was thwarted by Clark's bold move to capture him at Vincennes on February 29, 1779. Instead of commanding Indian tribes to ravage the Illinois and Upper Louisiana country, Hamilton was made prisoner and escorted in chains to Williamsburg. After Hamilton's capture, an attack on St. Louis became less likely -- until Spain broke off diplomatic relations with Great Britain in June. Thereupon, General Haldimand, commander of the British forces in Canada, was ordered to remove the American and Spanish hold on the Mississippi. This task fell to Patrick Sinclair, commander of the British post at Michilimackinac.
In February of 1780, the French trader Chouteau returned from New Orleans with the news of the declaration of war between Spain and Great Britain. De Leyba created plans for the protection of St. Louis, calling for the construction of Fort San Carlos, consisting of four towers with walls between them. Without funding from the Spanish treasury, De Leyba pleaded the desperate situation with the local settlers, and donated 400 piastres of his own money, raising a total of 1,000 piastres for the construction of the fort. De Leyba was already deep in debt from providing gifts for the westerly Indian nations and his financial backing of Clark, so he could ill afford to fund the fort himself. After construction began, it became apparent that the amount raised would only complete one of the towers and part of a second. Cannon from the old Fort Prince Charles were brought up to the new tower. This tower overlooked the St. Louis riverfront, near where the south leg of the arch stands today.
By the spring of 1780, Sinclair had assembled 750 men, including traders, servants, and Indians. On May 9, De Leyba was informed that an army of 300 Englishmen and 900 savages was within 80 leagues of St. Louis. De Leyba, now very ill, ordered the militia to service in St. Louis, including any hunters scattered on the river. He also ordered the militia from St. Genevieve to join them and they arrived on May 13, bringing the total number of defenders to about 300.
While awaiting the attack, work on the tower continued at a faster pace, and embankments were dug. Finally, on May 26, the attack came. The British-led Indians, convinced from old intelligence that the village was unprotected, advanced with little caution. De Leyba writes, "Although the tower was not all covered, and the parapet for the cannon not in position, yet we used them successfully, and very much surprised the savages, who did not expect such a maneuver; if it had not been for the rapidity in which I acted, together with all of the people on the fortifications, it would have been the last day of St. Louis."
Unable to penetrate the village defenses, the British and Indians withdrew, brutally slaying 21 of the surrounding settlers and slaves, and capturing 25 more. The British withdrew north to the mouth of the Illinois river, and eventually up the Illinois to the Chicago area.
After the attack, De Leyba's illness grew much worse and by June 28, 1780 he was dead. De Leyba's report, having been sent to Galvez and eventually to the King, resulted in his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, but not until six months after his death.
The story of De Leyba does not end with his death. Many of the surviving villagers, finding their food stores, money, and leadership exhausted, began to blame the deceased De Leyba for their troubles. They wrote anonymous letters to the Governor in New Orleans, and as time passed, the reported villainy of De Leyba grew. In 1831, William Primm produced a lecture which was based on the anecdotes of survivors fifty years later, which proclaimed that De Leyba had sold the stores of gunpowder to the British, acted in a cowardly manner during the battle and had deliberately impeded the defense of the village. De Leyba was even called a "Spanish Benedict Arnold." More amazingly is how Primm's descriptions go unchallenged and are repeated in a wide variety of historical documents throughout the 19th century. In several histories of St. Louis and Missouri, De Leyba is villianized, and only in the twentieth century do we see historians begin to check contemporary documents for an understanding of what happened at the time of the battle.