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Vincennes: Indiana's most historic city

Updated on May 10, 2015
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Go see, explore, take photos, and write it up! I love exploring places that I see on the Rand McNally Road Atlas or by serendipity.

Vincennes, Indiana: a brief history

Few would argue that Vincennes is not the most historic city in the state of Indiana. It is the state’s oldest city, found in 1732, and any visitor today is constantly reminded of the city’s history. Before the waves of European colonists and explorers arrived the area was inhabited by Native Americans who built burial mounds. The Wabash, Miami, and Shawnee tribes inhabited the area: the mounds seen today are attributed to an earlier culture known as the Vincennes culture, a Mississipian people. The European presence in the area began as early as 1702 when French Canadiens established a successful but short-lived fur trading post. The location sat on the old Buffalo Trace and buffalo hides were the biggest source of trade for the outpost. In 1732 the French revisited the area led by Francois-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes, and reestablished another trading post along the Wabash River in an effort to deter the natives from trading with the British. It was an isolated outpost roughly midway between the New Orleans and French Canada with navigable water ways so its existence was tenuous at best but it eventually survived on enough settlers, trappers, and traders. The largest threat came from the incursion of English colonial trappers from the east who competed for Native American allegiance and cooperation. By 1763 the territory, then New France, was ceded to Britain following the French and Indian War. When the Americans won control of the area in 1779 it was later organized into the Northwest Territory in 1787. When Indiana became a territory in 1800 Vincennes was a logical place to establish as a capital city. It didn’t last long however, and Corydon took over in 1813 because it was more centrally located in the territory.

Vincennes, Indiana, c. 1876

Map of Vincennes, c. 1876.
Map of Vincennes, c. 1876. | Source

Fort Knox II

No longer standing Fort Knox II was built in 1803. The story of the fort is told by and interpretive trail with posts and markers. It is part of the Vincennes State Historic Sites and is free and self-guided. It was at this fort in 1811 where the then territorial Governor William Henry Harrison mustered the troops for preparation leading to the famous Battle of Tippecanoe, one the most decisive and well known battles between the United States and the Native Americans, specifically the Shawnee led by Tecumseh.

Vincennes, Indiana historic sites

A
George Rogers Clark National Historical Park:
George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, 401 South 2nd Street, Vincennes, IN 47591, USA

get directions

B
Grouseland, Vincennes:
Grouseland Drive, Vincennes, IN 47591, USA

get directions

C
Basilica of St. Francis Xavier:
Basilica Of St. Francis Xavier, 205 Church Street, Vincennes, IN 47591, USA

get directions

D
Vincennes State Historic Sites:
State Historic Site, 114 North 2nd Street, Vincennes, IN 47591, USA

get directions

E
Old French House and Indian Museum:
North 1st Street & Seminary Street, Vincennes, IN 47591, USA

get directions

F
Fort Knox II, Vincennes:
Fort Knox Road, Vincennes, IN 47591, USA

get directions

G
Pyramid Mound (southern side of Wabash Avenue):
Wabash Avenue, Vincennes, IN 47591, USA

get directions

See Wikipedia for coordinates and exact location.

Indiana history quiz

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George Rogers Clark National Historical Park

The crown jewel and logical starting point of any historic interest in the city begins here. The park commemorates Colonel George Rogers Clark’s victory over the British here and the capture of Fort Sackville in 1779. The marble rotunda is the largest Memorial Monument west of Washington D.C. Dedicated in 1936 it bears some resemblance to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Clark’s victory over the British virtually doubled the territory of the United States and secured claim to the Northwest Territories and the historical park interprets this event nicely while underscoring the historical significance.

History timeline of Vincennes

year
event
person
1702
trading post established on Wabash River
Sieur Juchereau
1732
Vincennes founded
Francois-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes
1763
British empire takes over Vincennes
Lt. John Ramsey
1779
United States takes over
George Rogers Clark
1798
Vincennes population reaches 2,500
 
1800
Vincennes becomes Indiana territorial capital
Gov. William Henry Harrison 1801- 1812
1816
Indiana Statehood
 

George Rogers Clark National Historical Park

The beautiful memorial at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park
The beautiful memorial at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park | Source

Grouseland

Also known as the William Henry Harrison Mansion and Museum, Grouseland was built in 1804. Home of Indiana’s first territorial governor and the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison, who was in turn the son of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Federal style Grouseland was allegedly the first brick building in the territory and it great personal expense to Benjamin Harrison. Because of its isolated location at the time of construction everything had to be imported and it was Harrison’s intention to build a great mansion to elevate his prestige. It served its purpose well and remained the home of Harrison until 1812. The Harrison family owned the house until the 1840s.

Grouseland

Grouseland, Vincennes, Indiana. Home of William Henry Harrison
Grouseland, Vincennes, Indiana. Home of William Henry Harrison | Source

Old Cathedral (Basilica of St. Francis Xavier)

Although the current structure dates to 1826 a cathedral-church has stood on the spot since 1732. The current structure is the fourth building to occupy the ground and a beautiful colonial classical revival mix. The crypts within contain the remains of fours bishops and the cemetery has 4,000 graves. It remains an active parish and is the historic center of Catholicism in the city.

Old Cathedral, Vincennes, Indiana

The Old Cathedral, c. 1826.
The Old Cathedral, c. 1826. | Source

Old French House and Indian Museum

This may seem like a small unassuming house and it is in many respects but its characteristics architecture is something you’re not likely to see in this part of the country. Built in 1806 the house is a great example of French Creole architecture more often seen along the Mississippi River valley. Unique to this type of architecture is the posts on stilts technique. The cottage was the home of Michel Brouillet (1774 – 1838), a French fur trader who played an active role in the local area history having acted as interpreter and spy for William Henry Harrison. The cottage also serves as an IndianMuseum because Brouillet was a trader with the Indians and spoke their language and traces four periods of Native American history from the mound culture to the time of contact with Europeans. The house sits on what was once an Indian settlement.

Fort Knox II

Old Fort Knox II
Old Fort Knox II | Source

Pyramid Mound

Actually a loess hill rather than a man-made mound, Pyramid Mound possibly served the purpose of an Indian cemetery and archaeological evidence suggests that there was native American activity among the many natural mounds such as this one in the area dating to the Late Woodland period (500 – 1000 CE) of the Vincennes culture.

Pyramid Mound

Pyramid Mound is actually a naturally formed loess hill.
Pyramid Mound is actually a naturally formed loess hill. | Source

Vincennes State Historic Sites

A number of buildings make up this unassuming and interesting representation of early Vincennes including the Old State Bank built in 1838, a Greek Revival building. It was the state’s first bank chartered in 1834. The red TerritorialCapitalBuilding was active from 1805 until1813 while the town served as the territory’s capital. It’s also considered the oldest government building in the Midwest although it was originally purposed as a tailor shop. Other buildings include the replicas of the Elihu Stout Print Shop, the Jefferson Academy, the predecessor of Vincennes University, and the 1830s era log cabin which is the site’s visitor center.

Vincennes State Historic Sites

The Old State Bank, chartered in the 1830s.
The Old State Bank, chartered in the 1830s. | Source
The old Territorial Capitol of Vincennes State Historic Sites.
The old Territorial Capitol of Vincennes State Historic Sites. | Source

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