George Rogers Clark’s Initial Campaign
In 1777, George Rogers Clark, a Virginian, proposed a plan to protect the colony’s frontier settlements from attack by English partisans and their Indian allies by occupying the posts held by the British north of the Ohio River. On January 2, 1778, Governor Patrick Henry authorized formation of the Virginia Illinois Regiment to be commanded by Clark as a lieutenant colonel. (Note 1.)
In May 1778, Clark and his force of about 175 men were at the falls of the Ohio, where a post was established that would ultimately become the city of Louisville. In late June, the force traveled west, passing the site of Fort Massac on the way to Kaskaskia. In early July, Clark’s forces took the lightly defended British outposts on the Mississippi River at Kaskaskia and Cahokia (across the river from St. Louis). The military post at Kaskaskia, originally established by the French with the name “Fort of the Kaskasquias” and called Fort Gage by the British, was redesignated “Fort Clark.” This territory is depicted in the following excerpt from the map shown in full on the William Chribbs introductory page.
Many of the French residents in the territory were amenable to American authority and, as a result, Clark also gained control of Vincennes (San Vincent or St. Vincent) on the Wabash River in present-day Indiana. The British forces stationed at Detroit retook Vincennes in December 1778.
In late February 1779, Clark marched his troops east from Kaskaskia, surprised the British forces at Vincennes, took the garrison, and made prisoners of war of the British soldiers and their commander, Lt. Governor Henry Hamilton. The British post, which had been called Fort Sackville, was renamed Fort Patrick Henry.
Captain Jesse Evans and His Infantry Company
Jesse Evans, living in Montgomery County and serving as a lieutenant in that county’s militia, was commissioned there on December 29, 1778, as a captain in Clark’s regiment under Lieutenant Colonel John Montgomery. Evans did not participate in the taking of Kaskaskia or the recapture of Vincennes.
Evans spent the first two months of his service, January and February 1779, in southwestern Virginia recruiting a company of soldiers. By the end of February 1779, he had recruited 34 soldiers to serve in a company under his command, including Anthony Crockett as a lieutenant and William Peery, John Slaughter, and Andrew Clark as sergeants. For his recruiting efforts, Evans received a bounty of $50 per recruit for a total of $1700, as documented by the February 1779 receipt shown here. (Note 2.) He was still 19 years old.
There are only a few sources that document Evans’s activities in the Virginia Illinois Regiment. The most detailed and voluminous source is the accounting records kept by the colony itself to track expenditures for personnel and supplies during the war. Virginia would expend considerable effort both in the years immediately after the war and for decades afterward to reconcile amounts owing and paid for the Revolutionary War—including property and pensions granted to its veterans. A selection of Virginia accounting documents that refer to Jesse Evans beyond those accompanying this text is presented on the page “1799 – More Virginia Illinois Regiment Papers.”
Virginia’s records include the “Pay Roll of Capt. Jesse Evans’s Company of Infantry of the Virginia Illinois Regiment Commanded By Lieutenant Colonel John Montgomery from the 29th of Decemr 1778 until the Mens Times Was Expired.” (Note 3.)
The first page of the list is shown here. A transcription and the entire list, along with the final certification signed in 1789 by both Evans and Montgomery, is included on the page “1779 – Infantry Company of Capt. Jesse Evans.”
Although the last end date shown for these soldiers was July 30, 1780, some of these men—including Evans—continued to serve after that date. The list also reflects a high desertion rate, including several men who apparently thought better of their promise on their day of enlistment and several men who all deserted on March 30, 1779.
The latter date may correspond to the company reaching a point between Montgomery County and the Mississippi River at which the men came to understand the true nature of their venture and decided not to continue. James Bigger, a private who Evans would recruit the following year, sought a discharge in 1781 in part because his service went beyond what he said Evans had promised: that he would “do no duty further than south in [Montgomery] County and in case of attack from the savages.” (Note 4.)
Service in the Illinois Country
When Evans was 79 years old, he provided his own direct but brief account of his Revolutionary War service in a declaration filed to receive a veteran’s pension. (Note 5.) In that declaration, he recounted that he marched his company “to the boatyard on the Holston River” then to the Tennessee River and Ohio River and on “to the Mississippi River and up to Kaskaskia.” The declaration implies that his company participated in the taking of Kaskaskia and Vincennes.
A complete transcription of Evans’s declaration is provided on the page “1839 – Pension Declaration of Jesse Evans.”
Evans and his company probably left the Holston River in March or April 1779 and traveled via the falls of the Ohio to Kaskaskia. The accounting records of Virginia reflect that his company was at Fort Clark at Kaskaskia by late May of that year. (Note 6.)
The “return of provisions” shown here provides a snapshot of the troops under the command of George Rogers Clark (by now a colonel) at Fort Clark in early June 1779. Represented on the list are Col. Clark, Lt. Col. John Montgomery, Major Joseph Bowman, and companies led by Captains Robert George, John Williams, Thomas Quirk, Jesse Evans, James Shelby, Isaac Taylor, Edward Worthington, Robert Todd, Abram Keller, and Richard McCarty. (Note 7.)
The schedule of Evans’s company listed a lieutenant (Crockett), two sergeants, 25 “rank & file” privates, two bowmen, three wash women, and five children.
The accounting records show that Evans and his company traveled down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Ohio River later in June. (Note 8.) It was there that Evans received flints from the quartermaster for the use of his company.
By the middle of July, Evans’s company was at Fort Patrick Henry at Vincennes (“Sant Vinsent”). (Note 9.)
His company by that time was listed as consisting of one lieutenant, three sergeants, 14 “rank & file” privates, one “artificer” (craftsman), and two sick soldiers.
On August 5, 1779, Clark issued general orders at Fort Patrick Henry for the deployment of his troops. (Note 10.)
The first page of the orders states that Captain Williams was to be stationed at Fort Clark, Captain McCarty at Cahokia, and Capt. Shelby at Fort Patrick Henry. On the next page of the general orders, Col. Clark established a dedicated recruiting corps to be commanded by Major Bowman. Capt. Jesse Evans was assigned to this task.
This portion of Clark’s orders reads:
Major Joseph Bowman to proceed with the recruiting parties and to have the direction thereof. The Gen. Officers out recruiting are to make reports to him & receive orders and instructions from him.
Officers for the recruiting
Capt. Quirk, Evans, Taylor, Worthington, Keller
Lieut. Roberts, Crocket, Ramsay, Calvit
Because these officers were being reassigned to recruiting duty, the men in their companies were reassigned to other commands. Evans’s company was reassigned to Capt. Todd: “Capt. Robert Todd to be joined by Capt. Evans’s Company.”
The third page of the general orders describes that Col. Clark’s headquarters were being relocated to the falls of the Ohio River.
Recruiting Service and the Remainder of the War
Evans’s 1839 declaration describes only briefly his service in recruiting for the Virginia Illinois Regiment. (Note 11.) In the declaration, he stated that he
went back to Virginia to his residence, & shortly after commenced recruiting for the said Regiment there, and in the States of North and South Carolina, which in North Carolina he volunteered and fought at the race path on Haw River when [Dr. John Pyle] was defeated at Guilford Court House. Some time after this he started his recruits and returned to brig[ ] and when he was on his way back to his Regiment he was overtaken in the wilderness at a place called the Wolf hills where Abingdon in Washington County now stands but was then uninhabited by an [ ] orders to disband his men after Peace was made between the United States and Great Britain. He then returned home.
After Col. Clark issued his general orders in early August 1779, Evans returned east to Virginia and the Carolinas. As shown on the accompanying document, on August 14, he requested bags from the quartermaster to carry supplies on his trip to the falls of the Ohio. (Note 12.)
Between late 1779 and the end of the war, Evans was apparently home in Montgomery County from time to time. He was there in November 1780, when the county court entered the following order requesting that he provide certain provisions to soldiers’ families. (Note 13.)
It appearing to the Court that the Wives and Families of John Beard and Richard Gullock two Soldiers in the Service of this State are suffering for want of Provisions, Therefore it is ordered that Captain Jesse Evans purchase fifty pounds of Pork for Each person in sd. Families also to draw a Barrel of Corn from Fort Chiswell of the Corn Tax to each person in the families of sd. Soldiers.
Virginia’s accounting records show that Evans received $10,000 on November 10, 1779, for use in recruiting and another $2,135 on June 26 of the following year. (Note 14.)
No further information has been uncovered about Evans’s involvement in the Battle of Guilford Court House, which took place on March 15, 1781, at Greensboro, North Carolina. As shown on the accompanying accounting, Evans’s pay records reflect his service through the surrender of General Cornwallis, which took place on October 19, 1781. (Note 15.)
Evans had, however, actually tendered his resignation before that. On October 4, 1781, from Montgomery County, he wrote to (now General) Clark explaining that he had not been well since July. Now 22 years old, Evans described his enlistment of 53 men but that “most of them deserted from the lead mines.” He explained that he was not forwarding his commission because he had “left it in action in North Carolina last spring” (which coincides with the Battle of Guilford Court House). As noted on the reverse side of the document, Evans’s letter was received at Clark’s headquarters at the falls of the Ohio on Nov. 12, 1781. (Note 16.)
Tales of an Old Soldier
Years after Evans’s death, his grandson James S. Evans corresponded with Lyman Draper of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Draper was compiling historical information on the settlement of the trans-Allegheny West, including events in the region that related to the Revolutionary War.
Accompanying an April 19, 1870 letter from James Evans to Draper is a handwritten narrative that appears to have been written by James Evans based on stories he had heard his elderly grandfather tell. (Note 17.) Most of the narrative describes events during the Revolutionary War.
The following stories from the narrative have been substantially rewritten for readability but retain the original flavor and details. The first story recounts what happened when Jesse Evans and his lieutenant arrived at a log school house to meet up with their recruits to muster them into service.
When they arrived, they were gratified to see so many horses hitched, but secretly wondered why no one was outside. They were armed with holster pistols, and Capt. Evans also had a horse whip. They entered the school and found to their surprise a high-ranking British officer and a number of leading local Tories and that Capt. Evans’s volunteers had been enlisted into the British army. The officer demanded Capt. Evans’s name and business; Capt. Evans told him, after which the officer cursed him and called him a rebel. Capt. Evans responded to the insult with a violent blow with his whip which felled the officer to the floor. The officer’s companions attempted to surround and capture Capt. Evans and his lieutenant, but they drew their swords and cut their way out and mounted and escaped through a shower of bullets. Capt. Evans afterwards succeeded in getting a good many of his volunteers back. But the British officer was so incensed that he offered a large reward for Capt. Evans’s head, which stimulated the disaffected Tories and the British to make every available effort to capture him.
The next story involves another episode during the Revolutionary War.
In a wealthy neighborhood where dwelt a great many Tories was one who owned a mill. The British often encamped there and sent out detachments to devour the surrounding country. The wife of this Tory was a firm unflinching Whig and a personal friend of Capt. Evans before the War. On a certain night there came to the mill a British officer with his troops. The lady observed her husband and this officer in close conversation and hearing the name of Evans mentioned she determined to find out what plot was brewing. She succeeded in gaining the desired information and formed the daring resolution to defeat their heinous plot.
Capt. Evans was at the time camped 10 or 12 miles from the mill unsuspicious of the vile plot that would that night have terminated his existence but for the heroic conduct of the noble Revolutionary woman. The plot was to be enforced a short time before day. The lady was very solicitous for her husband to retire early in order that she might be able to carry out her plan. As soon as the officer returned to camp and her husband was sleeping, she quietly arose and proceeded to the stable, saddled a horse, took a path leading around the British Guards, and made her way to the camp of the American troops. The pickets halted her and asked her business, but she told them she would give her information to no one but Capt. Evans himself. Accordingly she was conducted to him where she unfolded the whole plot of the enemy, after first extracting the promise to protect her husband and property to the extent Capt. Evans was able. The conference being ended, Capt. Evans called a faithful trooper and told him to take the woman and deliver her home in the shortest possible time. She arrived safe at home without her absence having been discovered.
The American camp got ready to leave and ambush the enemy as they were to have been ambushed. Camp fires were lit and left burning to have the semblance of quiet and unsuspicion. They then prepared themselves to take their foe by surprise. They did not have to wait long before they heard the approaching enemy. Just as the enemy came up the signal agreed upon was given, and a destructive fire rained upon the now confused British troops. Time was not given them to rally but a violent charge was made scattering them in every direction. The fight continued until morning with great loss to the enemy, few escaping and no quarter being asked or given. After the war ended the miller’s wife received a pension from the state of Virginia.
According to the narrative, it was after this that Jesse Evans joined the Virginia Illinois Regiment.
The soldiers in General Clark’s army were in the habit of hunting turkey and deer, which proved fatal to many of them, as the Indians were always on the alert to cut off a single hunter. At one place, ten or twelve men were killed by being decoyed by an Indian who imitated the cry of a turkey. It was evident that something must be done to put a stop to this. The Commander called in Capt. Evans to take a detachment of men and inquire into the matter. Capt. Evans refused to take troops, but after night he went alone to the hunting ground and stationed himself behind an old log. About daybreak he heard the gobbling of a turkey. After listing attentively, he ascertained the noise to be stationary and finally found that it came from a tree. He crawled along until he got to a convenient distance from the tree, and then fired. Down came the Indian, for such it was who was making the noise. Capt. Evans took the Indian’s scalp and cut from his back skin enough to make a razor strap. With these trophies he proceeded back to camp where he was met with the most enthusiastic shout of approval. The Indian was found to be a noted chief and had in his possession a peculiar bone with which he could imitate the cry of a turkey exactly.
According to the narrative:
Capt. Evans was wounded a number of times. On one occasion he had the skirts of his coat cut off with a cannon ball, at another, he had a bullet hole shot through his hat. He had a great many narrow escapes.
Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks
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