The following detail of the 1781 French map depicted on the William Chribbs introductory page shows the region that he would inhabit beginning in the late 1790s.
Prior to acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States extended only to the Mississippi River. Kentucky, originally a part of Virginia south of the Ohio River, was admitted as a state in 1792. Tennessee, further south, was separated from North Carolina’s territory and admitted as a state in 1796. The western part of both states was still largely unsettled as of 1800. Tennessee’s capital would not be moved west to Nashville until 1843.
North of the Ohio River were settlements at Kaskaskia and Cahokia on the American side of the Mississippi. On the western side of the river were the French villages of St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve, and Cape Girardeau (Cap Girardot). The land that is now Indiana and Illinois, including Kaskaskia and Cahokia, was part of the Northwest Territory (“Territory Northwest of the River Ohio”) and, after Ohio became a state in 1803, the Indiana Territory.
A fort was maintained intermittently on the north side of the Ohio River about 25 miles above the Mississippi River, first by the French and later by the Americans. The name, Fort Massac, is a corruption of the French name “Massiac.” The American military reestablished a fort at the location in 1794. (Note 1.)
Although Fort Massac does not enjoy wide name recognition, it played host to well-known names in American history.
- In 1778, George Rogers Clark’s forces passed by the site of the fort on their way to their capture of Kaskaskia.
- In November 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stopped at Fort Massac on their way to St. Louis where they would launch their expedition up the Missouri River. Three members of the expedition were recruited at Fort Massac: Private John Newman, Private Joseph Whitehouse, and civilian George Drouillard.
- In 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr met with General James Wilkinson at Fort Massac to discuss the conspiracy for which Burr was later tried for treason.
- Captain Zebulon Pike (Sr.) was the commandant at Fort Massac in the 1790s, and his son, Zebulon Pike, Jr., was stationed there with his father. In 1806, the younger Pike was sent by General Wilkinson (then Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory) on the expedition to Colorado and the mountain that bears Pike’s name.
Fort Massac is now memorialized by an Illinois state park. (Note 2.) The site of the American fort is marked with posts outlining the structure’s footprint, and a 20th century reconstruction of the fort is nearby.
Following reestablishment of Fort Massac in 1794, several dozen civilians settled nearby. According to a petition submitted to Congress by those settlers in 1805, General Anthony Wayne had encouraged the civilian settlement, and officers in charge of the fort had made various promises of land to the settlers. (Note 3.) The petition, which was dated January 10, 1805, was read on the floor of the House of Representatives on February 6, 1806, and was referred to the House Committee on the Public Lands. (Note 4.)
The House journal entry reads:
A petition of sundry inhabitants near Fort Massac in the Indiana territory, whose names are thereunto subscribed, was presented to the House and read, praying that the right to certain lands of the United States in said territory, which they have respectively settled and improved, may be confirmed to them by an act of Congress. Ordered, That the said petition be referred to the Committee on the Public Lands.
No further reference to the matter appears in the records of Congress.
The original petition is in the handwriting of William Chribbs, and from all appearances he was also the author. (Note 5.)
The petition described Fort Massac as
a Wilderness situate several hundred Miles from any Settlements on the River Ohio where [settlers] were not only exposed to the ravages of the Indians but to malignant fevers which is well known to have raged there at perticular seasons of the Year.
Nevertheless, the petitioners grimly explained how they remained—
surmounting these calamities and a variety of other hard ships and dificulties improveing a portion of those Lands to the benefit of the United States and to the great comfort and Support of the troops stationed there even Unto this day being upwards of nine Years whilst many of their fellows were call’d to the silent shades of death and entombed in the rubish of the wilderness leaving Widows and orphen Children.
In addition to being in his handwriting, Chribbs’s name appears in several contexts in the settlers’ petition. The petition claims that “Chribbs & Mitchell” had received promises from Lieutenant Aron Gregg at Fort Massac in 1795 and 1796, although it is unlikely that Chribbs had established a household there at such an early date. (Note 6.) Chribbs is also listed as one of the “Heads of Families,” with the number in his family shown as 13. (Note 7.)
Finally, his signature as a “subscriber” to the petition is the first one out of the 19.
Although Chribbs may not have been regularly at Fort Massac by 1795, other surviving documents show that by 1798 he certainly was. The most voluminous documentation of his activities appears in records of court cases arising from his business transactions.
The earliest of those cases involved curious circumstances. Early in 1798, Aron Colvin sued William Chribbs and Robert Mitchell in the federal court at Kaskaskia, which had jurisdiction over Randolph County in the Northwest Territory. On April 17, 1798, the court issued to the sheriff a capias or arrest warrant for the defendants. (Note 8.)
Upon receiving notice of the suit, Chribbs resolved the dispute by reaching a settlement with Colvin and paying him seventy-five dollars. To document the settlement, Chribbs had Colvin sign a receipt. Based on the way Chribbs’s own name is written, it is apparent that the receipt is in his own handwriting.
The receipt, which suggests that Colvin’s claim was due to his “disapointment of hunting,” reads:
Kaskaskia 20 May 98
Recd. of Wm Chribbs seventy five dollars in full for the damages I sustained in consequence of the disapointment of hunting for Wm Chribbs in the year 1797 caused by Peter Dumais noncomplyance with the orders of said Chribbs.
[signed] Aron Colvin
The surviving documents provide no further explanation of the “disapointment of hunting.”
1798 – Purchase of Property at Fort Chartres
Beyond the 1805 settlers’ petition to Congress, Chribbs exhibited relatively little interest in owning land, and no direct records of his land ownership in the Indiana Territory have been found.
His name does appear, however, in the title history of one parcel in Randolph County, which then encompassed the entirety of what is now southern Illinois. The parcel was variously described both as 400 acres at a place called “Little Pass” and as 374 acres at Fort Charter (Chartres), which was north of Kaskaskia. It is not known what the name “Little Pass” referred to, but, given the vagaries of the Mississippi River, it might well have referred to a geographic feature of river bottom land that no longer exists.
Chribbs’s name first appears in the title history of the parcel when the land was sold to William Rector in 1807. According to a deed from Pierre Menard to Rector, Chribbs had acquired the property on May 22, 1798, from Joseph Rocheblanc and Joseph Turcott, then sold it to Menard on September 10, 1804. (Note 9.) These same transactions are described in Rector’s subsequent sale of the property to Jacob Funk in 1812 and in Funk’s sale of the property in 1813. (Note 10.)
Menard’s 1807 deed is only one of two deeds made to Rector for the parcel that year. On April 12, 1807, the Indiana Territory General Court sitting at Vincennes issued a writ of vendi expercies (writ of execution) to the Randolph County sheriff with respect to any of Chribbs’s property in the county. (Note 11.) The execution was on a judgment against him for $2,000 obtained by plaintiffs Toussaint Dubois and Francois (Francis) Vigo in that court on September 2, 1806. (Note 12.)
In August 1806, Chribbs had obtained a two-day loan for $2,100 from Dubois and Vigo, who wasted no time in seeking a court judgment at Vincennes when Chribbs did not pay. (Note 13.) Dubois and Vigo were both prominent merchants. Vigo (1747-1836) was an Italian immigrant who provided invaluable assistance to George Rogers Clark in taking Vincennes during the Revolutionary War and is memorialized by a statue at the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana.
In response to the writ of execution, the Randolph County sheriff initiated proceedings against the “Little Pass” property. Although Chribbs had apparently sold his interest in the property to Menard in 1804, that transaction hadn’t been recorded. The execution sale was held May 8, 1807, in Kaskaskia at the house of George Fisher. William Rector made the highest bid ($45), and the sheriff recorded a deed for the property. This event likely led to the simultaneous sale to Rector of Menard’s interest in the property, if indeed Menard had any.
1798 – Confrontation at the Saline River Salt Works
The map excerpt at the beginning of this Part III notes a “Source Salée” (salt source) about 40 miles northeast of Fort Massac. This location on the south side of the Saline River was long used by the Indians to make salt and had been used by the French by the middle 1700s. The site, which is three miles southeast of the present-day town of Equality, Illinois, is shown with a red circle on the accompanying excerpt of a USGS map.
At the time that Fort Massac was reestablished by the American army in the 1790s, the United States recognized the rights of the Indian nations north of the Ohio River to the land containing these salt springs. Rights to the springs were ultimately transferred to the federal government in 1803 by the Treaty of Fort Wayne. (Note 14.)
In 1798, Joshua Flaherty (sometimes spelled “Fleehart”) set up a salt works at the springs. Such incursions into Indian territory by Americans were problematic for the federal government. Based on court records in a case subsequently filed against Chribbs at Vincennes, he was instrumental in the actions taken by the U.S. army against Flaherty. (Note 15.) A complete transcription of the court records described in this section is included on the page “1798 – Confrontation at Salt Works on Saline River.”
Taking at face value the complaint and affidavits filed by Flaherty in 1800 and 1801, here is what happened. Probably in response to Indian complaints, Chribbs was hired by the army out of Fort Massac as a “spy” or scout to verify Flaherty’s unauthorized salt operation. At the beginning of November 1798, Chribbs traveled to the salt spring accompanied by an Indian. He stayed about three days and spoke with Flaherty about engaging in a trading business.
About November 20, Chribbs returned, accompanied by Lieutenant Robert Parkinson and 15 other soldiers from Fort Massac. The men proceeded to dismantle the salt works by destroying or taking away the kettles, manufactured salt, horses, and various tools and equipment.
What destruction was carried out by Chribbs personally is not clear, but Flaherty and his men held him directly responsible. In 1800, Flaherty sued Chribbs for $2000 in the Court of Common Pleas at Vincennes. Chribbs, represented by attorney Henry Hurst, obtained bonds from William Mills, Toussaint Dubois, Robert Buntin, Benjamin Beckes, Jonathan Purcell, and James Purcell as security.
Chribbs’s attorney obtained a writ of habeas corpus from the higher court in the territory, the General Court, to have the case removed. (Note 16.) Flaherty didn’t follow up on the matter in the General Court, and, on September 6, 1803, that court awarded Chribbs his costs of defense as the result of Flaherty’s failure to prosecute. (Note 17.)
Perhaps Flaherty’s suit had brought his activities to the attention of the judicial authorities in the territory. In any event, he was subjected to an examination under oath on August 24, 1801. (Note 18.) In that testimony, Flaherty claimed that a man named John Duff had rented the land containing the salt springs from a “certain Indian,” and Flaherty, in turn, had rented the land from Duff.
Despite Flaherty’s assertion that he had always been ready to vacate the land if ordered either by the government or by the Indians, a grand jury indicted him for having entered “with force and arms” the land of the saline springs “belonging to the Indian Tribes residing in the boundaries of the United States and secured to them by Treaty.”
Whether Flaherty was convicted has not been researched further, but he died by 1804. (Note 19.)
1799 – Murder of Thomas Key
Several years after the fact, Chribbs was charged with murder as the result of the death of Thomas Key on August 29, 1799. The indictment and trial took place at Kaskaskia during the October 1805 term of the Indiana Territory General Court. (Note 20.) A transcript of the court proceedings is included on the page “1805 – Trial for Murder of Thomas Key.”
The court records provide little detail about Key’s death, except that it took place in Williamsburgh Township of Randolph County and was caused by gunshot. Williamsburgh is no longer a place name in southern Illinois but, at the time, consisted of the area west of the Kaskaskia River extending to the front of the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River (including the present-day town of Red Bud). (Note 21.)
The court records illuminate the workings of early nineteenth century justice on the frontier. Judge Henry Vanderburgh opened the court session on Monday, October 7, with U.S. Attorney Benjamin Parke (1777-1835) and Clerk Pro Tem John Rice Jones (1759-1824) present. The court would hear a handful of cases that week, including the trial of Michael Squires for the murder of Abraham Stanley and forgery charges against Robert Reynolds who, strangely enough, began the week as foreman of the grand jury.
The records name various witnesses who provided testimony to the grand jury but do not identify which witnesses testified about which matters. On Tuesday, however, Chribbs (who apparently was in town) was summoned and testified before the grand jury. Later that day, the grand jury issued an indictment against him “for the murder of one Thomas Key,” the court ordered Chribbs to be arrested, and he was brought to court where he pleaded not guilty.
The following day, Parke entered a “nolle prosequi” in the case against Chribbs, which meant that the government would not pursue prosecution on the indictment. Immediately after, however, the grand jury returned a second indictment against Chribbs. Perhaps the first indictment was defective for some reason and Parke wanted it to be replaced. Or perhaps Parke didn’t want to rely on an indictment by a grand jury whose foreman had been charged with forgery.
Chribbs remained under arrest and appeared in court on Thursday, where his attorney, W.C. Carr, argued that he could not be tried for the same crime as the one on which a nolle prosequi had been entered.
The judge considered the matter overnight and, as the first order of business on Friday, October 11, rejected the defense contention. The murder trial proceeded that same day. A twelve-man jury was selected (including local notables such as Pierre Menard and George Fisher) and, after hearing the evidence, found Chribbs not guilty.
1801 – Bakery at Wilkinsonville
Related to the military presence at Fort Massac there was, for a short time, another installation a few miles down the Ohio River called “Cantonment Wilkinsonville.” (Note 22.) Mysterious from the beginning, Wilkinsonville was destined to be occupied by a substantial number of troops only from January 1801 to about August of the same year. The namesake and driving force behind Wilkinsonville was General James Wilkinson, a controversial figure repeatedly involved in schemes for the development—and perhaps the secession—of western territories.
In one of his earliest recorded activities at Fort Massac, Chribbs had performed some unspecified work on behalf of General Wilkinson and accordingly was paid 80 dollars. The August 11, 1798 receipt documenting the payment describes Chribbs’s work as “secret service rendered the U. States.” (Note 23.) Based on the date, it is quite possible that this was an advance payment for Chribbs’s reconnaissance at the Saline River salt works described above.
He also provided other, more customary services to the military at about the same time. As documented by the quartermaster’s expense records, he provided the use of four pirogues and two canoes at the mouth of the Ohio, for which he was paid 23 dollars on August 14, 1798. The record notes that this was “paid by order of the general,” presumably General Wilkinson. (Note 24.)
Chribbs was also to have some involvement in the installation at Wilkinsonville. According to research by historian Norman Caldwell in the 1940s and 1950s, Chribbs operated a bakery at Wilkinsonville in order to pay off a debt he owed to Oliver Ormsby, the food contractor at the post. (Note 25.) What few details are known about what took place at Wilkinsonville are owed to the detailed records kept and preserved by John R. Williams (1782-1854), the commissary agent. (Note 26.) Williams later became a wealthy merchant and the first elected mayor of the city of Detroit. A collection of his papers is in the archives of the Detroit Public Library.
Caldwell’s 1949 article on Wilkinsonville describes a contract dated May 16, 1801, between Chribbs and Ormsby under which Chribbs agreed to bake and produce 120 pounds of “Good and Wholesome Bread” from each 100 pounds of flour to be delivered to him and Chribbs would receive a credit of five dollars for every 196 pounds of bread baked. (Note 27.) Unfortunately, the contract Caldwell described is no longer to be found among the John R. Williams papers in the Detroit Public Library’s archives.
Caldwell’s information is not to be doubted, however, as other evidence remains of the bakery agreement. In an April 10, 1801 letter to Matthew Adams, then the contractor’s agent at Fort Massac, Williams wrote from Wilkinsonville of the impending “evacuation” of Fort Massac, due to the fact that the soldiers stationed there were to be relocated to Wilkinsonville. (Note 28.)
In the letter, Williams informed Adams:
In consequence thereof you will immediately prepare necessary transportation for the removal of the provisions remaining at that post the property of the new contractors Ormsby & Wilson. Should you want assistance you will apply to Mr. Chribbs.
Not long after, the order was received to relocate most Wilkinsonville troops elsewhere. In connection with the winding down of operations at Wilkinsonville, Ormsby wrote to Williams in September 1801 about various matters. (Note 29.)
With respect to the bakery, he wrote:
You will please to settle with Chribs for baking &c and if you can sell the balance of the goods for cash at a small advance I shall be well pleased, otherwise my brother will take them on to Natchez.
Chribbs’s bakery venture at Wilkinsonville thus lasted only several months at most.
Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks
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