Historic Sites: Fort St. Joseph

Submitted by Robert C. Myers
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series on Revolutionary War historical sites in the Northwest Territory. If you know of a site or museum containing artifacts from our period, please consider submitting an article or at least let us know about it.

Situated at the site of present-day Niles, Michigan, Fort St. Joseph played an important role in Great Lakes history from its founding in 1691 through the American Revolution.

The Early Years

Fort St. Joseph originated as part of the French government's response to the Iroquois Wars of the late 17th century. The Governor General of New France, the Marquis de Denonville, wanted to strengthen French ties with the Miami Indians along the St. Joseph River to help alleviate the Iroquois threat to the French colony's western posts. To do so, the Crown granted the Jesuits a tract of land along the river to allow them to establish a mission to the Miamis, which was founded about 1684. In the fall of 1691, the governor general dispatched Ensign Augustin Legardeur de Courtemanche, apparently with a small force of soldiers, to build a military post near the mission.

Fort St. Joseph became the keystone of French control of the southern Lake Michigan region. Its site on the juncture of the Great Sauk Trail (a major east-west trade route) and the St. Joseph River was also near the Kankakee River portage, a link in the water route from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. The mission, fort and trading post, collectively termed Fort St. Joseph, served as a military, commercial and diplomatic center to influence and develop trade with the French-allied Indians. Its strategic location helped ensure the protection and growth of the fur trade by defending the area from English incursions.

After the French surrender at the close of the French and Indian War in 1760, Fort St. Joseph fell under English control. A detachment of thirteen or fourteen soldiers of the 60th Royal American regiment, commanded by Ensign Francis Schlosser, arrived in October 1761 to garrison the post. Young and inexperienced, Schlosser alienated both the French habitants and the Potawatomi at Fort St. Joseph. Pontiac's Rebellion erupted in the spring of 1763, and on May 2 the Potawatomi killed most of Schlosser's men. Schlosser himself and a few other soldiers were taken captive and later exchanged at Detroit for Indian prisoners held by the English. Fort St. Joseph was never re-garrisoned.

Revolutionary History

During the American Revolution, Louis Chevalier, an elderly French trader at Fort St. Joseph, served as a British agent, or "King's Man" and provided intelligence information to the British at Michilimackinac. In the summer of 1779, the commander at Michilimackinac, Major Arent Schuyler DePeyster, learned that George Rogers Clark was forming an expedition of 700 infantry and 200 cavalry in the Illinois country to attack Detroit.

Clark's force would pass near Fort St. Joseph, so DePeyster planned an ambush. In July 1779, he sent his second-in-command, Lt. Thomas Bennett, to Fort St. Joseph with a sergeant, a drummer, two corporals, fourteen privates, sixty French volunteers and canoemen, and two hundred Indians. Bennett was to gather intelligence information and intercept Clark's troops if they passed near the fort. DePeyster also sent the armed sloop Welcome to Fort St. Joseph with a cargo of provisions for Bennett's command.

Bennett arrived at Fort St. Joseph on July 23 and put his men to work digging entrenchments on the river bluff near the fort. While he waited at the fort, Bennett sent out a party under Corporal Gascon to capture Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, a black French trader on the River Du Chemin who Bennett believed to harbor anti-British sympathies. Gascon returned with the prisoner, having "commanded the Party very prudently." On August 13, Charles de Langlade, a French trader in the British service, arrived at Fort St. Joseph with a party of 21 Canadians and 60 Ojibwa. Bennett had seen no sign of Clark's expedition, and was faced with dwindling supplies and discontented Indians who would only remain with him if supplied with kegs of rum. In mid-August, he set off with his expedition on the long return trip to Michilimackinac. As it turned out, George Rogers Clark had learned of Bennett's expedition and planned to launch an attack on Fort St. Joseph, but his plans were thwarted by inadequate supplies.

In June 1780, Patrick Sinclair, who had replaced DePeyster at Michilimackinac, decided to remove the French habitants, a "lawless strange class of people" from Fort St. Joseph. The post thereafter continued in use by British traders who had stockpiled a large quantity of trade goods there. DePeyster, then at Detroit, appointed Lt. Dagneau De Quindre, a former officer in the French army, to act as an English representative among the St. Joseph River Potawatomi.

In late 1780, a French officer, Augustin de la Balme, sent a force of sixteen Cahokians commanded by Jean Baptiste Hamelin to raid Fort St. Joseph. Hamelin reached the fort in December while De Quindre was away and almost all the Indians were out on the first hunt of the winter, so Hamelin met with no resistance. He captured the British traders he found, loaded his pack horses with fifty bales of goods and headed for the Chicago River. When De Quindre learned of the raid he hastily assembled the Indians and set off in pursuit. On December 6, 1780, he caught Hamelin's men near the Calumet River and called on them to surrender. Hamelin refused. De Quindre urged his Indians to attack, and in the ensuing skirmish they killed four of Hamelin's men, wounded two and captured seven more. Only three survivors escaped into the woods.

In late 1780, Frenchmen and Indians intent on plundering English goods and avenging property losses suffered in English raids in the St. Louis area, approached the Spanish governor at St. Louis, Francisco Cruzat, and demanded that he authorize and equip an expeditionary force to attack Fort St. Joseph. Cruzat himself feared an English attack the following spring. He hoped that a successful raid on Fort St. Joseph would diminish both English influence and supplies among the Indians and serve to demonstrate Spanish strength. He therefore approved the expedition.

On January 2, 1781, Captain Eugene Poure and sub-lieutenant Charles Tayon set out from St. Louis with sixty-five militiamen and sixty Indians. Louis Chevalier, Jr., son of the elderly trader, accompanied them as interpreter. Along the way, they picked up twelve more militiamen under Jean Baptiste Mailliet, who had been stationed on the Illinois River. On February 12, 1781, they took Fort St. Joseph by surprise. De Quindre was away and the Potawatomi promised to remain neutral in exchange for a share of the loot. Poure took the fort's inhabitants prisoner, raised the flag of Spain, claimed the region for the king of Spain, and left the next day for St. Louis. During peace negotiations preceding the end of the American Revolution, Spain used Poure's proclamation to claim (unsuccessfully) territory east of the Mississippi River. The "Spanish Raid" is generally regarded as concluding Fort St. Joseph's history. American settlers arrived in the St. Joseph River valley in the 1820s and founded the village of Niles, Michigan, near the site of Fort St. Joseph in 1829. The fort was virtually forgotten, but during the 1890s several men "pothunted" the site and accumulated a remarkable collection of artifacts. Most of their artifact collection eventually found its way into the Fort St. Joseph Museum.

The Fort St. Joseph Museum

The Museum is located at 508 E. Main Street in Niles, immediately behind the City Hall. Hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., year-round. The museum is closed Sundays through Tuesdays. Artifacts from the Fort St. Joseph site include trade silver, musket parts, glass beads, buttons, gunflints, knife blades, door hinges, and so on. Artifacts in the collection are similar to those found at Fort Michilimackinac, which is not surprising considering the fact that the two posts operated simultaneously and were closely interrelated. Many of the best artifacts are on exhibit, but thousands of others are in storage. The museum director, Melissa Olson, welcomes researchers who wish to examine the stored artifacts by appointment. Write the museum at 508 E. Main St., Niles, MI 49120, or call (616) 683-4702, ext. 236. Two other museums possess artifacts from the Fort St. Joseph site. The Northern Indiana Historical Society in South Bend has a few items, including a nice escutcheon plate from a Brown Bess. The Kalamazoo Public Museum has several dozen artifacts, including a stunning silver crucifix, that were collected in a 1949 archaeological dig at the Fort St. Joseph site. Unfortunately, all field notes and other documentation from that excavation have apparently been lost.

The Fort St. Joseph site itself is now partly covered by the backwaters of the Niles dam and partly by six feet of landfill. The artifacts in the museum collection, having been unscientifically collected, have no provenance other than having come from the Fort St. Joseph site.

This writer's pet theory is that Fort St. Joseph continued on as an English/American settlement well after the "Spanish Raid" and the end of the American Revolution. Many period maps continue to show the fort until the late 1810s, and various written accounts mention "St. Joseph's" (one name by which the fort was known) until about the same time. It may be that the fort simply died out gradually along with the declining fur trade instead of going out with a bang in the "Spanish Raid". Examination of the museum's artifact collection by knowledgeable people in the NWTA might help bear out ­ or refute ­ this thesis.