Location: One mile east of Metropolis, Illinois (also the home of Superman)
Fort Massac State Park is a reconstruction of a fort that was a major control point on the Ohio River for decades. The first historically documented fort here was constructed by the French in 1757 and called Fort Ascension or Fort Massiac; some historians believe the Spanish may have fortified this spot even before that date. In any case, the fort was turned over to British control in the aftermath of the French and Indian War in the 1760s. The Chickasaw Indians burned the fort to the ground before it was ever occupied by British troops.
In July 1778, George Rogers Clark chose this spot to begin his memorable march across southern Illinois to seize control of the occupied British frontier forts. In my opinion, Clark is easily the most underrated figure of the American Revolution, and the Illinois campaign illustrates why. At the beginning of the Revolution, Kentucky was extremely sparsely populated and under siege by Native Americans backed by the British. Most people thought the territory would have to be evacuated. In retrospect, the alternate history that might have unfolded from this retreat is almost unfathomable. If the United States had ended the American Revolution without possession of the territory west of the Alleghenies, westward expansion might never have happened.
A young officer named George Rogers Clark volunteered to defend the Kentucky territory and much more. With authorization from Virginia’s governor Patrick Henry (Kentucky was part of Virginia at the time), Clark raised a regiment of 150 men. Not one to adopt a purely defensive posture, Clark then went on the offensive to seize the British-occupied forts in the remote west.
Clark’s first target was the village of Kaskaskia, near modern-day Centralia, Illinois. Ordinarily, frontier Kaskaskia was reached by paddling up the Mississippi River, but Clark obviously wanted the element of surprise. He staged a 120-mile march across southern Illinois. The starting point of that historic march was the ruins of old Fort “Massac.”
Ultimately the heroism of Clark and his tiny band would lead to the possession of modern-day Illinois and Indiana by the state of Virginia. The vast territory needed to be defended, as the British, Spanish, and French continued to plot to wrest the western territories from the struggling new nation (this international intrigue is quite thrilling and forms the background for our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and isn’t today the day to click that “Buy Now” tab for some exciting summer reading? Thanks.). As a result, the Americans rebuilt Fort Massac. At the height of the Indian Wars of the 1790s, the fort had the largest garrison of any United States fort. It served as the port of entry into the United States for goods coming up river from the Mississippi (under Spanish control).
By November 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (George’s little brother) stopped at Fort Massac, under the command of Daniel Bissell. Probably to his dismay, Bissell had orders from President Jefferson to allow Lewis and Clark to recruit as desired from his garrison. He could not have been pleased about allowing the Expedition leaders to cherry-pick his best men. John Newman and Joseph Whitehouse would become the first two active-duty military personnel to enlist in the Corps of Discovery. In addition, Lewis recruited the indispensable George Drouilliard at Fort Massac. The half-Shawnee hunter and interpreter possessed frontier skills and knowledge that would make him one of the most valuable members of the Corps.
In June 1805, about the time Lewis and Clark were struggling to make their epic portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri, Fort Massac was the site of an intriguing meeting between disgraced former vice-president Aaron Burr and none other than our old friend, General James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson outfitted Burr with a barge and letters of introduction to his wide circle of international acquaintances in New Orleans. It is believed that Burr and Wilkinson drew up plans to launch a treasonous expedition of conquest into the American Southwest; Wilkinson would later betray Burr’s plan and order his arrest.
Fort Massac was heavily damaged in the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. It was, however, used as a training center during the War of 1812 before being closed at the end of the war in 1814. By 1833 it was described as a “ruin.” The fort’s site was purchased by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1903, and became an Illinois state park in 1908. Interesting archaeological research has been taking place at the fort site since the 1930s.
The current replica fort lies just beside the archaeological site and provides an accurate model of the fort as it existed in 1802. Visiting the fort is a total blast for buffs of the period. It consists of a four-sided wooden fort surrounded by trenches and palisades. Inside are wooden buildings and barracks. The design and construction of Fort Massac would have been typical of other frontier forts such as Fort Washington, the Cincinnati-area fort where Lewis and Clark first met in the 1790s. Lewis & Clark’s smaller Expedition forts, Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop, would have followed the same model.
There’s a good introductory film at the visitor’s center. We especially enjoyed the quaint 1930s statue of George Rogers Clark and spending lots of time exploring the outline of the original fort.
More great reading: