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Kaskaskia, Illinois



When, some months since, the press dispatches from Washington announced that the Post Office Department had abolished the office at Kaskaskia, Ill., the thought of the student of history naturally turned to the passing of this old town, and to the men who made it famous. Indeed, a brilliant history it is, especially from a Catholic standpoint, for if you eliminate the work of the Catholic missionaries, it is to leave the story of Kaskaskia unwritten. We know that it is one of the oldest towns in the Mississippi Valley, antedating New Orleans, Louisville, St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati. We also know that the saintly priests, Marquette, Gravier, Meurin and Gibault labored here for the salvation of the red men's souls. Space permitting, willingly would we write the story of all of these illustrious men, but we must confine ourselves to one - the Patriot-Priest of the Revolution, "the stout priest of the West," Father Pierre Gibault. He first appears in the history of Illinois when he is sent by the Bishop of Quebec to aid Fr. Meurin, a veteran who has grown old in his work. When, shortly after his arrival, Fr. Meurin was forced to leave the missions, Fr. Gibault was left for a long time, the only priest in the present States of Illinois and Indiana. The journeys he performed and the hardships that he endured seem almost incredible. There is a letter extant in which he says that he did not sleep in his own bed four nights a year. Of him Fr. Conway, of St. Louis University, says that he "stands out among his contemporaries on either bank of the Mississippi as one of the most industrious and most disinterested of God's ambassadors to the frontiersman, and to the chafed and hated red man. His labor emulated his zeal and that was endless. Kaskaskia it is true, was his home; but it was he who revived and cherished the Faith in Vincennes. It was he who administered to the spiritual needs of St. Genevieve. It was he who blessed the first church bell in St. Louis. It is he who visited Fort Chartres, Prairie du Rocher, Cahokia, St. Phillips, and who even contemplated missionary expeditions as far north as St. Joseph, Peoria and Chicago."

Truly, this was the "strenuous life." Doubtless, had it not been for the American Revolution, the name of Fr. Gibault would receive no more mention in the pages of history than that of scores of other humble missionaries. During this conflict the settlements in Kentucky had been ravaged several times by the Indians of the north. The British commanders - Sinclair at Michimackinae, Hamilton and his minions, Laruoult and Dejean at Detroit, and Rocheblare at Kaskaskia - with the aid of British gold or the more potent firewater, encouraged the Indians to continue their bloody work. The frontiersmen determined to capture some of these posts; and thus hold the savages in check. Accordingly, Gen. George Rogers Clark, with 135 men, acting under the orders of Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia, embarked on the flat-boats at the Falls of the Ohio (Louisville), and after a toilsome journey by land and water, reached Kaskaskia. The commander of this post, M. Rocheblare, was contemplating the capture of the Spanish town of St. Louis and was unaware that danger lurked so near. At midnight Clark and his men entered the town terrifying the people with their war-whoops. This they had planned to awe the people, as they did not know whether they were friendly or not.

The next morning, a deputation of citizens, with Fr. Gibault at their head, met Gen. Clark, who told them that his war was with Great Britain, not them; told them of the treaty of alliance by which France was to aid the American colonies; told them to go and enjoy the practice of their religion in peace, only exacting that they take the oath of allegiance to Congress. At the mention of the French alliance, the Kaskaskians grew enthusiastic, and their shouts rent the air. Many of them enlisted, and, bringing their best horses, accompanied Col. John Bowman to Cahokia, sixty miles north, of Kaskaskia. This post was secured without the loss of a man. Gen. Clark, encouraged by his success, was about to move Vincennes, but Fr. Gibault, told him not to, saying "I know my people and will mediate for you." Assembling them in the little chapel of St. Francis Xavier, he told them of what had transpired at Kaskaskia and Cahokia. Respect for the holy place kept them from cheering, but each one, solemnly on the crucifix, took the oath of allegiance to the Continental Congress. Through the capture of these forts, the valuable territory embracing the present Sates of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin was acquired, and much of the credit for this must be given to Fr. Gibault. Indeed, some historians assert that Gen. Clark at first contemplated the conquest of Kaskaskia only, but was urged by Fr. Gibault to take the other two posts. One of the tributes to his patriotism is paid by the British commander, Hamilton, who, in one of his reports, says that he was responsible for the French at Vincennes espousing the American cause, and he deserved hanging as a traitor.

From the day that he met him at Kaskaskia, Gen. Clark found in the good priest a true friend and a firm ally. His influence with the Indians gained many of them to the American cause; through his efforts friendly relations were established between Gen. Clark and Don Francisco de Leyba, the Spanish commandant at St. Louis.

But this is not all. When the traders, accustomed to the pettries or coin of the French, refused to take Continental currency in payment for supplies, this patriotic priest gave over one thousand dollars in coin - the savings of a life time - no doubt the money that he had saved to sustain him his declining years, to Gen. Clark to clothe and feed his troops. Some time after the Revolution, Gen. Arthur St. Clair, Governor of Northwest Territory, is a report to Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, dwelt at length on the services he had rendered and the losses he had sustained, but there is no record that the Government ever reimbursed him for a penny that he had given. Two Indiana historians deserve great praise for the work that they have done in behalf of Fr. Gibault. Mr. Henry Cauthorn, one time Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, introduced a bill in that body to change the name of the Wabash County to that of Gibault. Judge John Law says that "next to Clark and Vigo, the United States are indebted more to Fr. Gibault for the accession of the States comprising the Northwest Territory than to any other man." Far from home, after thirty-five year of toil in the wilderness, this saintly man was summoned to his reward at New Madrid, Mo., in 1804. Where he is buried is only a matter of conjecture: some writers claim that he was interred at the place of his death, others claim that he rests at Quebec. And now a word regarding old Kaskaskia. In all probability it was visited by these good men whose names are revered by all Kentuckians. We mean Father De Andreis and Rosati. It is also very likely that the saintly Bishop Flaget was there when he made his visitation of the missionary stations on the Mississippi in 1814. During its palmy days, Kaskaskia boasted of a population of between 2,000 and 3,000, and was a comparatively large town. But it has been overlooked by that important factor in the progress of any place - the railroad. The population has gradually decreased, and today it stands a prosaic little village of 177 souls.

- Emil E. Mouth in Louisville, Ky., Record.
[The Indian Advocate. ([Sacred Heart, Okla.]), 01 April 1906]

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