VII. The Bissell Affair

Daniel Bissell (1768-1833) was born in Connecticut and served in the Connecticut militia as a fifer during the Revolutionary War. He enlisted in the new American army in 1788 and, as a captain, was given command of Fort Massac in 1802. (Note 1.)

As recounted in Part IV, Bissell succeeded William Chribbs as the U.S. revenue collector for the District of Massac in 1802 and then served concurrently as collector and fort commander.

Chribbs must surely have been chagrined to lose his prestigious appointment and likely would have been predisposed to begrudge his successor, regardless of who it was. Exactly what transpired between Bissell and the Chribbs household over the next several years may be impossible to determine.

In 1794, Bissell had married Deborah Sebor in Connecticut. They remained married until his death, and Deborah lived another 10 years after her husband died. The couple had five children: Eliza Sebor (born 1794), Mary Green (born 1796), Cornelia Richmond (born 1801), James (born and died in 1806), and James Russell (born 1808). (Note 2.) Bissell would remain in command of Fort Massac until 1809. As will be seen, there is evidence that his wife was at the fort in 1806, but she may not have relocated there immediately with her husband in 1802, particularly considering the age of their three daughters.

The “Deed of Gift” to Mary

In September 1804, Chribbs apparently became fearful that one debt or another would result in the taking of his household property. None of the court cases that have been identified as pending at the time would seem to have been the cause of such worry, but legal procedures of the day allowed for a court to authorize the sheriff to levy or seize a defendant’s property upon an initial declaration by a plaintiff that the defendant was not within the territory. Chribbs was aware of this process because, as a plaintiff, he had relied on it. (Note 3.)

Excerpt of Sept. 22, 1804 “Deed of Gift” from William Chribbs to daughter Mary Chribbs (Randolph County, Ill., Deed Book K, p. 35, Microfilm #956815, FamilySearch)

In order to protect his property from creditors, Chribbs executed and recorded a “Deed of Gift” of his personal property to his daughter Mary Chribbs. (Note 4.) The document describes Mary (then 12 years old) as being of “unfirm state of body.” That may have been more an attempt to establish a legal basis for the deed than reflecting her actual condition.

As a legal matter, the deed would probably have been of little value in fending off creditors. At least from a modern legal viewpoint, the document could be interpreted to allow Chribbs to continue to assert control over the property being “given,” which detracts from effective transfer of the property. (Note 5.)

As a portrait of frontier life in 1804, the deed presents a list of everything in the household of monetary value, including Chribbs’s own assessment of those values. The complete text of the deed is included on the page “1804 – William Chribbs Deed of Gift.” Although farming was not Chribbs’s primary occupation, the family raised corn and oats and certainly relied on livestock for some sustenance. In addition to four horses, the list includes four oxen and 18 cattle of various descriptions. During Chribbs’s absences, at least, his wife Elizabeth (“Eliza”) would have been responsible for all of these. (Note 6.) The deed’s list of possessions also reflects some amount of wealth in items that would not be found in every frontier cabin: multiple chairs and tables, a clock and looking glasses, and a set of “china.” A collective value of $50 was placed on a sugar dish, soup spoon, sugar tongs, and cream jug, suggesting that these were of silver.

The witnesses to the deed were William King and Mathew Adams, whose names would appear again as the Bissell affair unfolded. William Chribbs and his witnesses signed the deed on September 22, but several weeks had passed and he didn’t want to wait until he was next able to travel to Kaskaskia to acknowledge the deed before the court or a justice of the peace. So he prevailed upon Capt. Bissell in his official capacity as commander of Fort Massac to authenticate Chribbs’s signature and that of the two witnesses. Bissell cooperated and provided his own signature on October 15, 1804.

Chribbs’s Claims Against His Wife and Bissell

Chribbs would claim two events took place that fall of 1804, both involving his wife Eliza and Daniel Bissell. The more shocking claim was that those two, along with a soldier named Stephen Ramsey, had conspired and attempted to murder Chribbs on October 20 by blowing up his house with gunpowder. Chribbs would also claim that Bissell had initiated an affair with Eliza—presumably before October 20, although Chribbs never attached a specific date to that claim.

Chribbs would pursue both criminal and civil cases against Bissell, proceedings that would continue for two years.

In the civil suit Chribbs would file, here is how his attorneys, Carr & Robinson, described Bissell’s seduction of Eliza. (Note 7.)

with force & arms to wit guns swords knives and other hostile weapons an assault in & upon Eliza . . . did make, and then and there did break and enter the dwelling house of the said Plaintiff . . . and her the said Eliza Cribbs did then and there [ ], debauch & delude & of with her had & held carnal & criminal communications, and from the lawful estate of matrimony & the bed & board of the said Plaintiff, the said Eliza Cribbs then & there living in harmony & peace with the said Plaintiff as his lawful married wife, he the said Defendant did fraudulently & adulterously dissuade and advise – And . . . the said Eliza Cribbs being by the said Defendant so as aforesaid fraudulently & adulterously defrauded and advised & at the instigation of the said Defendant, afterward . . . did elope & . . . depart and with the said defendant in a state of adultery did live & abide for a long space of time . . . .

Tennessee Gazette masthead

Notice published 28 Nov 1804 in Tennessee Gazette and Mero District Advertiser

Notice published Nov. 28, 1804 in the Tennessee Gazette and Mero District Advertiser (Newspaper Microfilm #4798, Library of Congress)

Chribbs must have come to believe this by mid-October because, on October 19, he sent a notice for publication in the Tennessee Gazette and Mero District Advertiser, a newspaper published in Nashville. (Note 8.) Although neither his deed of gift to Mary nor his wife’s infidelity are specifically referred to in the notice, both of those circumstances would explain its contents.

The notice, which was published in the November 28, 1804 issue of the Gazette, reads:

This is to forbid and forewarn all whom it may concern, from leasing, hiring or buying, any goods, chattels, horses, or cattle, or by any means receiving, by loan or any other way, from my wife Elizabeth Chribbs, or Mary her daughter; as the same is my property and is illegally detained by force and otherwise—also, not to credit or harbour said Elizabeth Chribb’s—any offender I am determined to prosecute to the utmost extremity the law will permit, until she recovers her senses, of which there appears but small hopes—the heedless fair who stoops to joys, man may pity, but must despise.
William Chribbs.
Fort Massac, Oct. 19.

The last phrases of the notice are taken from a popular book of the time, Charlotte; a Tale of Truth. (Note 9.)

What happened next according to Chribbs—as described in the following indictment that would be made by a grand jury—was an attempt on his life by his wife, Bissell, and Ramsey. (Note 10.)

on the twentieth day of October in the year one thousand eight hundred & four . . . with force & arms, in the county aforesaid, in & upon one William Chribbs in the peace of God & of the United States, then & there being; did make an assault and him the said William Chribbs, then & there did beat, wound, ill treat, & attempt take away the life of the sd William Chribbs by blowing up his house with gunpowder, so that his life was greatly in danger . . . .

Chribbs went to the authorities, and the matter was taken up at the December court session in Kaskaskia before judges Pierre Menard, Robert Reynolds, John Beard, and James McRoberts. (Note 11.)

The Indictments

On December 4, the court impaneled a grand jury composed of Henry Noble, Elias Chaffin, Moses Oliver, Baptiste Fortune, James Hupnes, Stace McDonaugh, Alexander McNabb, James Cooper, Antoine LaChapelle, Joseph McMurtrey, James Cohell, Jesse Raynor, Michael Smith, Joseph Archambeau, and John Grosvenor as foreman. The grand jury heard evidence from Chribbs and from Pierre Demarchelle (“Peter Demuche”), retired to deliberate, and returned with indictments against Captain Daniel Bissell, Elizabeth Chribbs, and Stephen Ramsey. (Note 12.)

Excerpt of 4 Dec 1804 indictment of Capt. Daniel Bissell with signature of Benjamin Parke, attorney general of the Indiana Territory

Excerpt of Dec. 4, 1804 indictment of Capt. Daniel Bissell with signature of Benjamin Parke, attorney general of the Indiana Territory (Document B1264-1, Microfilm #1688934, FamilySearch)

4 Dec 1804 bond (Randolph County, Ill., Order Book, Vol. 2 (1802-1806), p. 70)

Dec. 4, 1804 bond (Randolph County Court of General Quarter Sessions, Vol. 2, p. 70, Microfilm Roll 5, Illinois Regional Archives Depository, SIU-Carbondale )

The court required that the two grand jury witnesses enter into a bond pledging to prosecute the matter. William Kelley was also named on the bond, but he may have appeared there as security for the others’ obligations instead of as a witness himself.

The prosecutions would proceed separately with respect to each of the three defendants. Accordingly, a separate bond was prepared for the grand jury witnesses with respect to each of the three cases. The court’s order book entry shown here is the bond that relates to the Bissell prosecution. (Note 13.)

Bringing Bissell before the court for a trial would prove to be challenging. On December 8, 1804, the court issued its first capias to be served on him. The deputy sheriff returned the capias to the court stating that “the defendant would not be taken.” (Note 14.) The court reissued a capias in March 1805, June 1805, September 1805, and December 1805 without effect. (Note 15.)

Excerpt of capias served on Daniel Bissell in 1806 (Document B1264-11)

Excerpt of capias served on Daniel Bissell in 1806 (Document B1264-11, Microfilm #1688934, FamilySearch)

Finally, a capias issued July 28, 1806, was returned by the sheriff with the notation “cepi corpus” and enabled the court to proceed with a trial in August 1806. (Note 16.)

The accompanying excerpt of the 1806 capias served on Bissell required him to appear at the August court session to “answer to such things as shall then and there be alledged against him on our behalf for a misdemeanor whereof he stands indicted.”

Reverse side of 1804 capias stating that the "defendant would not be taken"

Reverse side of 1804 capias against Bissell stating that the “defendant would not be taken” (Document B229-9, Microfilm #1688926, FamilySearch)

The Civil Claims

During the December 1804 court session in which the grand jury returned its indictments, Chribbs and Bissell also initiated civil lawsuits against each other. Chribbs sued Bissell for “trespass vi et armis” as reflected on the accompanying image of the capias issued by the court on December 6. (Note 17.) The deputy sheriff’s notation on the document stated that the capias was “not served” and that “the defendant would not be taken.” Another capias was issued on December 8, with the same effect. (Note 18.)

The court records do not reflect further efforts to serve Bissell in that suit until another capias was issued on July 28, 1806. (Note 19.) Chribbs’s claim was described in that document as an “action of trespass vi et armus to the damages of the said William Cribbs three thousand dollars.” This capias was successfully served on Bissell, and the sheriff returned the document to the court with the notation “cepi corpus.”

December 1804 court order to issue capias against William Chribbs for malicious prosecution of Bissell (Document B70-3)

December 1804 court order to issue capias against Chribbs for malicious prosecution of Bissell (Document B70-3, Microfilm #1688924, FamilySearch)

Bissell, for his part, sued Chribbs at the December 1804 court session for “malicious prosecution.” (Note 20.) Bissell was represented by Rufus Easton. Chribbs was served with a capias, and the matter came before the court at the June 1805 session. According to the court’s order book, both Chribbs and Bissell were present, although no mention is made of their attorneys. The court determined that Bissell “did not prosecute with effect,” that his suit “be discontinued from want of prosecution,” and that he “take nothing of his writ.” (Note 21.) Presumably Bissell was in a difficult position to prove he had been wronged as long as he was still under a criminal indictment for attempting to take Chribbs’s life. This was not, however, to be the end of Bissell’s claim of malicious prosecution.

June 1805 court entry dismissing Bissell's suit for malicious prosecution

Excerpt of June 1805 court entry dismissing Bissell’s suit for malicious prosecution (Randolph County Court of Common Pleas Book 3, p. 281)

In the midst of these events, Chribbs wrote a letter from Kaskaskia on March 4, 1805, to Charles Wilkins, the Lexington, Kentucky, merchant with whom he was continuing to do business. (Note 22.) Chribbs began his letter by recounting his troubles with Bissell:

Excerpt of 4 Mar 1805 letter to Charles Wilkins

Excerpt of March 4, 1805 letter to Charles Wilkins (James Brown Papers, Mss. 44, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.)

I recd. your favour from Fort Massac & should have been extreamly happy to have seen you there though much embarrassed in mind at that time by the proceedings of Capt. Danl Bissell. Let opinions be as they may he has treated me worse then any other man can. My life property & character he has exerted himself to the extream to destroy.

The letter goes on to discuss his business arrangements with Wilkins. Chribbs then mentions that he has “drawn up a petition” that will be sent to Congress concerning lands at Fort Massac, referring to the petition described in Part III. He concludes the letter requesting Wilkins’s opinion about starting a boating or public house business at Natchez.

The Witnesses

For the various court cases involving Chribbs and Bissell, witnesses would be needed to appear at trial. Subpoenas requiring particular individuals to testify were periodically issued by the court at Kaskaskia in expectation that a trial would be held at the next upcoming session. What witnesses actually appeared is unknown.

Most remarkable is that William and Eliza Chribbs’s own daughter, Mary, was subpoenaed to testify. Following is a list of the witnesses subpoenaed by case:

  • December 1804 (U.S. v. Bissell): Mary Chribbs, [ ] McCombs, Margret Eady, James Donaldson (Donley) (Note 23);
  • December 1804 (U.S. v. Elizabeth Chribbs): Stephen (Thomas) Humberson (Note 24);
  • December 1804 (Chribbs v. Bissell): Thomas Brandon, Mathew Adams, John Prichard, Dr. William King (Note 25);
  • March 1805 (U.S. v. Bissell): Thomas Humberson, Dr. William King, James Donaldson (Note 26);
  • April 1805 (U.S. v. Elizabeth Chribbs): Thomas Humberson, Dr. William King, James Donaldson (Note 27);
  • December 1805 (U.S. v. Bissell): James Donaldson, Thomas Humberson, Joseph Marinre, Mary Chribbs (Note 28);
  • December 1805 (U.S. v. Elizabeth Chribbs): James Donaldson, Thomas Humberson, Joseph Marinre, Mary Chribbs (Note 29);
  • August 1806 (U.S. v. Bissell; U.S. v. Elizabeth Chribbs; U.S. v. Ramsey): Margret Eady, [ ] McCombs, Mary Chribbs, Thomas Humberson (Note 30);
  • October 1806 (Chribbs v. Bissell): Frederick Graetere (Note 31).

United States v. Elizabeth Chribbs

A capias had been issued against Eliza Chribbs in March 1805, and the sheriff filed his return stating “cepi corpus.” (Note 32.) The court continued the matter for some time, perhaps so that it would be taken up concurrently with Bissell’s prosecution.

Following is her indictment, as recorded in the court’s order book. (Note 33.)

on the 20th day of October in the year one thousand eight hundred and four . . . with force and arms in the county aforesaid in and upon one William Chribbs, trader, did make an assault and attempt to take the life of the said William Chribbs by beating, wounding and ill treating him and by blowing up his house with gunpowder and other wrongs to the said William Chribbs and against the peace and dignity of the United States.
True Bill
John Grosvenor Foreman
Benjn Parke Att Genl

Another capias against Eliza Chribbs was issued July 29, 1806, returnable for the August term, and the sheriff noted that he had served it on her. At the August court session, the United States attorney made a motion that nulli prosequi be entered, in other words, that he was declining to prosecute further. The court accordingly dismissed the charges. (Note 34.)

August 1806 dismissal of charges against Elizabeth Chribbs

August 1806 dismissal of charges against Elizabeth Chribbs (Randolph County Court of Common Pleas Book, Vol. 3, p. 307, Microfilm Roll 1, Illinois Regional Archives Depository, SIU-Carbondale)

A similar result took place in the case against Stephen Ramsey at the August session, except that the sheriff had never been able to serve a capias on the defendant: “Upon motion of the States attorney for a nulli prosequi – the Court orders this cause to be dismissed.” (Note 35.)

Reverse side of indictment of Daniel Bissell with "Not Guilty" jury verdict

Reverse side of indictment of Daniel Bissell with “Not Guilty” jury verdict (Document B1264-1, Microfilm #1688934, FamilySearch)

United States v. Daniel Bissell

Unlike the cases against the other two defendants, Bissell’s indictment went to trial in August 1806. Bissell formally pleaded “not guilty” by signing a statement to that effect on the indictment document.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury foreman, Elijah Backus, signed the indictment document with the jury’s verdict: “Not Guilty.” (Note 36.) Shown here is the reverse side of that document including that verdict, the signature of the grand jury foreman, and Bissell’s earlier “not guilty” plea.

Excerpt of August 1806 peace bond by Daniel Bissell

Excerpt of August 1806 peace bond by Daniel Bissell (Document B229-5, Microfilm #1688926, FamilySearch)

That was not quite the end of the matter however. Upon learning the verdict, Chribbs petitioned the court for protection and swore an oath “that his life was in danger from the [ ] of Captain Daniel Bissell of Massac to persecute him wherever he could find him.” (Note 37.)

Consequently, the court agreed to require Bissell to enter into a $500 bond to “keep the peace towards” Chribbs for a year. Bissell complied and was joined in providing the bond by John Edgar.

Bissell's declaration on 19 Aug 1806

Aug. 19, 1806 declaration by Bissell (Document B70-4, Microfilm #1688924, FamilySearch)

The Civil Cases

Fortified by his acquittal, Bissell renewed his claim of malicious prosecution against Chribbs. On August 19, 1806, in support of that proceeding, he provided a declaration that Chribbs was now residing at Smithland, Kentucky, and that he had reason to believe that Chribbs would be departing from the area. (Note 38.)

The same day, the court issued a capias against Chribbs, and it was returned by the sheriff with the note “cepi corpus,” presumably because Chribbs was present at the proceedings at Kaskaskia. (Note 39.)

Bissell was once again represented by attorney Rufus Easton, who filed a declaration by Bissell that claimed that Chribbs “did falsely and maliciously and without any reasonable or probable cause; procure and cause him the said Daniel . . . to be falsely indicted.” The declaration recited that the criminal trial had been held “on the third Monday of August [1806] before the honorable George Fisher and Samuel Cochran Esquires judges” and that Bissell “was in due manner acquitted of the premises in the said indictment above charged upon him.” (Note 40.)

Excerpt of William's civil claim as stated in 1806 (Document B229-1)

Excerpt of Chribbs’s civil claim against Bissell as stated in 1806 (Document B229-1, Microfilm #1688926, FamilySearch)

On October 18, 1806, the court issued another capias against Bissell in Chribbs’s civil case against him. This time, the capias was successfully served on Bissell and returned by the sheriff stating “cepi corpus.” (Note 41.)

That same month, Easton filed Bissell’s answer to Chribbs’s claim. He penned it on the same document that contained Chribbs’s declaration, an excerpt of which is quoted at the text accompanying Note 7 above. (Note 42.)

Both civil cases were now set to come to trial at the December 1806 session of the court.

Bissell's answer to civil claim filed in October 1806 (Document B229-1)

Bissell’s answer filed in October 1806 to Chribbs’s civil claim (Document B229-1, Microfilm #1688926, FamilySearch)

Court records have not yet been found that describe what the results were. Chribbs, however, would write a letter from New Orleans the following year (described below in Part VIII) noting that his claims against Bissell, at least, had been “dismissed.” (Note 43.)

Excerpt of Elizabeth Chribbs’s Aug. 7, 1806 petition for divorce (Indiana Territory General Court Case Files, Box 9, Folder 614, Indiana State Archives, Commission on Public Records)

Excerpt of Elizabeth Chribbs’s Aug. 7, 1806 petition for divorce (Indiana Territory General Court Case Files, Box 9, Folder 614, Indiana State Archives, Commission on Public Records)


Concurrently with the criminal and civil proceedings at Kaskaskia in August 1806 involving Bissell, Chribbs’s wife sued for divorce. (Note 44.) Elizabeth, like Bissell, was represented by Rufus Easton. In her August 7, 1806 petition for divorce, Elizabeth did not mention the fact that William had succeeded in having her indicted for conspiracy and attempted murder. Instead, she accused him of committing adultery over a period of years with various other women—some of whom were named in the court record—and of abandoning her and no longer living with her or providing support. (A complete transcription of the petition and other divorce proceedings are included on the page “1806 – Divorce Proceedings.”)

Elizabeth described that the couple had generally lived together for 14 years after their marriage on May 1, 1789, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, although William had gone off to live with Margaret Eady at Massac for nine months beginning on April 19, 1799. (In a subsequent reply filed in the divorce proceedings, Elizabeth also claimed that William had lived with a woman named “Fanny Mitchel” at Fort Massac for ten months beginning on October 19, 1799.) Then, in 1803, when the couple was living at “Fort Wilkinson” (which may refer to either Fort Massac or Wilkinsonville), William had begun to consort with various Indian women (“squaws”), and, on October 1 of that year, William had assaulted her and threatened her with a gun:

William did treat her the said Elizabeth in a most cruel inhuman and intemperate manner by beating striking and wounding her and did then and there with a loaded gun and pistol presented at and toward the said Elizabeth threaten to take her life.

Since that time, Elizabeth said, William had left her.

Excerpt of William Chribbs’s answer to divorce petition (Indiana Territory General Court Case Files, Box 9, Folder 614, Indiana State Archives, Commission on Public Records)

Excerpt of William Chribbs’s answer to divorce petition (Indiana Territory General Court Case Files, Box 9, Folder 614, Indiana State Archives, Commission on Public Records)

For his part, William formally denied that he had failed to keep his marriage obligations. He also repeated the allegations he had made in his civil suit against Daniel Bissell—that Elizabeth had eloped with Bissell and the two lived together for a period of time.

In preparation for a divorce trial, on September 22, William obtained the joint deposition of John and Mary McClain, a couple who at the time was living at Smithland, Kentucky, but had been living at Massac several years before. (Note 45.) In fact, the McClains were living in a house at Smithland owned by the Chribbs & McCawley partnership. (Note 46.) Mary McClain testified (apparently based on hearsay) that William had knocked Elizabeth down several times about 1803 while they were at Wilkinsonville and that Captain Bissell had told Elizabeth: “if ever Bill Chribbs offends you by words or blow, strike a knife in him and I will protect you.”

Excerpt of Sept. 22, 1806 deposition of John and Mary McClain: “god dam him when I am mad I cold kill him and when I am in a good humer I cant hurt him”) (Indiana Territory General Court Case Files, Box 9, Folder 614, Indiana State Archives, Commission on Public Records)

Excerpt of Sept. 22, 1806 deposition of John and Mary McClain: “god dam him when I am mad I cold kill him and when I am in a good humer I cant hurt him” (Indiana Territory General Court Case Files, Box 9, Folder 614, Indiana State Archives, Commission on Public Records)

According to Mary McClain, Bissell also told Elizabeth to save up money so that she would be able to live without her husband. When Elizabeth replied that William conducted his business so that he never brought any money home, Bissell responded that he would find a way for her to make money, such as putting her in a tavern at Massac. Both McClains testified that everyone around there, including themselves, believed that Bissell kept Elizabeth as a “common prostitute.” John McClain said that Bissell had asked him to keep Elizabeth at the McClains’ house, but he had declined in order to avoid getting “between man and wife.” Mary McClain provided more expansive testimony (edited here for readability):

Mary McClain: . . . I asked Misses Chribbs what she thought of following Capt. Bissell’s advice [about dealing with her husband] and she answered and said, “god damn him, when I am mad I could kill him and when I am in a good humor I can’t hurt him.

Question: Did you ever hear Misses Chribbs say that she loved Capt. Bissell better than she did her husband?

Mary McClain: I did, and she said the cause was that he treated her ill and Capt. Bissell treated her well.

1806 Divorce order 1

October 1806 divorce and child custody order (Indiana Territory General Court Case Files, Box 10, Folder 678, Indiana State Archives, Commission on Public Records)

October 1806 divorce and child custody order (Indiana Territory General Court Case Files, Box 10, Folder 678, Indiana State Archives, Commission on Public Records)

At the October 1806 term of the Indiana Territory General Court sitting at Kaskaskia, Judge Waller Taylor heard the evidence and arguments on the requested divorce. (Note 47.) He didn’t record any findings on the various charges that William and Elizabeth made against each other but entered an order that granted the divorce and granted custody of the couple’s four children. (Note 48.)

To Elizabeth, he granted custody of “Mary & Eliza,” and to William he granted custody of “Hannah & John.” This is almost the only reference that has been found to the children Eliza and John, and their ages are not stated.


Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks

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