William Becknell was born about 1788 in Amherst County, Virginia, to Micajah and Pheby Landrum Becknell. His parents’ marriage in 1782 is listed in that county’s records, as shown in the accompanying image. (Note 1.) The date of his birth about five years later is corroborated by the 1850 U.S. Federal Census, which listed him as 62 years old. (Note 2.)
As Larry Beachum tells it, Becknell shared his grandfather’s name, and his father had three sisters and four brothers, including a half-brother who was also named William Becknell. (Note 3.) As a result, it would not be surprising if more than one William Becknell was born in Amherst County in the 1780s.
The county’s marriage records list a November 1807 marriage of William Becknell to Jane Trusler. (Note 4.) It has long been assumed that this entry refers to the William Becknell who was living in the Missouri Territory by 1810 and later emigrated to Texas. Nothing further is known about Jane Trusler Becknell, but, in any event, the western pioneer named William Becknell would marry someone else within a few years.
On May 28, 1804, William Becknell enlisted for five years as a private in the First Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. His enlistment record does not reflect where he was initially posted, but within two years he would be serving at Fort Massac under Captain Daniel Bissell. (Note 5.)
Becknell arrived at Fort Massac between January and May 1806. (Note 6.) According to muster rolls during this period, about 70 soldiers at a time were stationed there. There may have been between 100 and 200 civilians living on adjacent land. There was no other settlement closer than a day’s travel distance. (Note 7.)
Life at Fort Massac was difficult and unhealthy. Hostilities with nearby Indians persisted, adding to the dangers of military service there. Boredom was more prevalent than excitement, however. A private earned between five and seven dollars per month. (Note 8.)
Enlistment as an army private was an attractive option only for young men who had no property or prospects. This must have described the 16-year-old Becknell when he enlisted.
The surviving muster rolls for the troops under Bissell’s command show Becknell at Fort Massac in June 1806, posted in “Washington City” from May to December 1808, and back at Fort Massac at the beginning of 1809 where he remained until his discharge on May 28 of that year. (Note 9.) Although Becknell’s posting in the nation’s capital suggests the possibility that he was advancing in his military career, he remained a private throughout his five-year enlistment.
Captain Bissell and the Chribbs Family
When the 18-year-old Becknell arrived at Fort Massac in the first half of 1806, the fort’s commander, Captain Bissell, was under indictment for attempting to murder William Chribbs, a civilian living nearby. (Note 10.) The trial was scheduled to take place that August at the federal territorial court in Kaskaskia. The entire matter was undoubtedly the topic of continuing gossip throughout the region. The indictment had been issued in 1804 by a 15-member grand jury who would have hardly felt constrained from talking about the testimony they had heard.
Underlying the criminal charges was the allegation that Bissell had begun an affair with Chribbs’s wife Elizabeth and had then conspired with her to get rid of her husband. Chribbs had also filed his own civil lawsuit against Bissell based on these allegations. As of 1804, Bissell had been married for some years and had three young daughters, but his family most likely had not yet moved west from their Connecticut home to live with him at his frontier post. By the time that Becknell arrived in early 1806, Mrs. Bissell (and presumably the Bissell daughters) had joined her husband at Fort Massac, and she was pregnant with their fourth child.
In the meantime, Chribbs had succeeded in having his wife indicted for the same crimes as Bissell. The couple was living apart, and Elizabeth was without the financial support of her husband. Bissell retained her to do the baking for the garrison and provided a soldier to assist her in that task. (Note 11.) The four Chribbs children likely continued to live with their mother, including 14-year-old Mary, the oldest, who probably helped with the baking. Mary was subpoenaed to appear as a witness both at her mother’s trial and at the trial of Captain Bissell, although there is no record of whether Mary actually testified.
During the August 1806 court session at Kaskaskia, a jury issued a “not-guilty” verdict in Bissell’s criminal trial, but he was nevertheless required to file a peace bond with the court, based on Chribbs’s claim that Bissell continued to pose a physical threat. (During the same session, the U.S. Attorney dismissed the charges against Chribbs’s wife without a trial, and Elizabeth sued her husband for a divorce, which was granted by the court in October.) Chribbs’s civil claim against Bissell remained open, along with a counter suit for malicious prosecution that Bissell had filed. That fall, the Bissells’ newborn first son died, and Mrs. Bissell was still recovering the following December.
The evening of December 29, former Vice President Aaron Burr’s controversial expedition to Spanish Mexico sailed down the Ohio River by Fort Massac, and, the following morning, Bissell paid Burr a cordial visit a mile downstream where the expedition’s boats had tied up overnight. (Note 12.) Although President Jefferson had issued a proclamation the prior month that Burr should be arrested for treason, Bissell later contended that he hadn’t received the order until January 5, 1807, several days after Burr passed by Fort Massac.
When boats owned by William Chribbs passed by on January 18, however, Bissell detained them and subjected the crew members to questioning about possible participation in the Burr expedition. Bissell concluded that there was insufficient evidence to connect Chribbs’s boats to Burr’s venture. Detaining that property within the Indiana Territory on the north bank of the Ohio River, however, enabled the Randolph County sheriff to seize the boats in execution of court judgments against Chribbs. On January 24, Bissell proudly described the boats’ seizure in a letter to the Secretary at War, portraying the incident solely as his vigilance against Burr’s scheme. (Note 13.) The number of soldiers required to secure the boats makes it likely that Becknell was involved in that effort.
The Missouri Territory
It is conceivable that Becknell traveled to Virginia in late 1807 and married Jane Trusler in Amherst County that November. Bissell himself was in Richmond that fall to testify in Burr’s trial for treason but was back at Fort Massac at the beginning of 1808. Becknell’s posting at Washington for much of 1808 would have been somewhat more convenient for his wife—if he did marry Jane Trusler—but the question remains why she would have married the poor 19-year-old private.
As noted above, Becknell was back at Fort Massac in early 1809. His term of service expired on May 28, 1809, as shown in the accompanying muster roll.
Following his discharge, Becknell moved on west to the Missouri Territory. By the end of March 1810, a letter addressed to him had been received at the St. Louis post office, as shown in the accompanying notice published in the St. Louis newspaper, the Louisiana Gazette. (Note 14.)
In February 1809, Elizabeth Chribbs remarried in Randolph County. Her new husband (and stepfather of the Chribbs children) was Drury Prichard, who had been living near Fort Massac for about ten years. By 1811, the Prichard family relocated to the Missouri Territory town of St. Charles and, a few years later, moved further west to central Missouri. (Note 15.)
Sometime between 1807 and 1814 and somewhere from Fort Massac to St. Charles, William Becknell married Mary Chribbs.
Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks
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