|The Illinois County was already occupied by settlers, most of whom spoke Algonquian and Siouan languages before the French and English arrived. (Map by Jacques Nicolas Bellin, 1755)|
After winning the French and Indian War in 1763, the British controlled forts at Detroit and in what is now Indiana and Illinois.
The Illinois County of Virginia (1673-1778) was a political and geographic region, part of the British Province of Quebec, claimed during the American Revolutionary War on July 4, 1778, by George Rogers Clark of the Virginia Militia as a result of the Illinois Campaign. The Virginia-based local government lasted only six years. Illinois County was extinguished when Virginia ceded its claims to the Northwest Territory to the United States in 1784.
After the American Revolution started, those British bases became a threat to Virginians rather than a source of protection. The British repeated the tactics used by the French in the French and Indian War. Delivery of guns and ammunition to Native Americans enabled them to attack backcountry farms and settlements, with the greatest impact on Kentucky County Virginians. The General Assembly had created Kentucky County in 1776 to counter efforts by Richard Henderson and the Transylvania Company to split that territory off from Virginia.
The British built a new fort on the Wabash River at Vincennes in 1777, enhancing the supply route. The Virginian response to the threat to western settlement during the American Revolution matched the British response in the French and Indian War - capture the supply bases to cut off supplies to the Native Americans, as Fort Duquesne was captured in 1758.
George Rogers Clark, the ranking militia officer in Kentucky County, traveled back to Williamsburg. He convinced Gov. Patrick Henry and other key officials that a military response was necessary. The cost concerned the officials in Williamsburg, but Clark got two sets of orders from Governor Henry.
His public orders authorized him to defend Kentucky, but the secret orders allowed him to launch an attack west into British-held territory. Clark desired to seize Detroit but started by capturing easier targets with no British forces to defend them.
|Governor Patrick Henry provided secret orders in 1778 for George Rogers Clark to attack Kaskaskia and Vincennes. (January 2, 1778)|
Clark gathered about 175 men to form the Illinois Regiment, recruiting from Carolina to Fort Pitt. In a private letter signed by Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and George Wythe, he was assured that his recruits would be granted a bounty of 300 acres of land in addition to standard pay.
He managed to move by boat downstream from Louisville on the Ohio River by marching cross-country to Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River. The few British officials at Kaskaskia were surprised and offered no resistance. The Roman Catholic vicar there championed the American cause, and the French residents welcomed Clark's force. The residents at Cahokia and Vincennes were equally supportive, and in July 1778, the British lost control of the territory south of Detroit.
|George Rogers Clark obtained supplies in Virginia, then traveled to Kentucky and seized control of the future Northwest Territory in 1778-1779.|
In December, Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton brought a handful of regular British troops from the 8th Regiment of Foot, Detroit militia, and Native Americans from Detroit and quickly recaptured Vincennes. He chose to upgrade Fort Sackville there rather than attack Clark at Kaskaskia. Because getting supplies to Vincennes was so tricky, Hamilton sent most of his men back to Detroit.
Clark made a middle-of-winter march to recapture Vincennes before Hamilton could strengthen defenses there. Clark led an expedition of nearly 175 men, including French allies recruited at Kaskaskia, 180 miles east through the flooded wilderness, through swamps with water at times as high as their shoulders.
|In February 1779, the Virginians marched from Kaskaskia to Vincennes through prairie and forests flooded by seasonal high waters.|
Clark wrote later in his memoirs:
In the spring, we knew that Governor Hamilton would be at the head of such a force that nothing in this quarter could withstand his arms, that Kentucky must immediately fall... We saw but one alternative, which was to attack the enemy in their quarters... the enemy could not suppose that we should be so mad as to attempt to march eighty leagues through a drowned country in the depths of winter, that they would be off their guard and probably would not think it worthwhile to keep out spies that... we might surprise them.
|Kentucky County was exposed to raids by Native Americans, which the British supplied from Detroit and other forts.|
Hamilton was caught by surprise and lacked adequate manpower to defend the fort. After a brief resistance, he surrendered.
|George Rogers Clark recaptured Fort Sackville at Vincennes and imprisoned Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton in 1779.|
Clark had Hamilton and the British officers taken 1,200 miles east to Williamsburg. He was imprisoned as a common criminal rather than treated as an officer captured in War. Hamilton was treated harshly because Governor Thomas Jefferson and top Virginia officials thought he was responsible for Native American raids in the backcountry where settlers were scalped. Because the British provided resources for the raiders, Hamilton was called the "Hair Buyer."
Clark lacked the resources to attack Detroit, and the British occupied the fort until 1796.
The Virginia General Assembly asserted its claim to the captured territory by creating the Illinois Country in 1778.
In 1781, it authorized the officers in the Illinois Regiment to identify a 150,000-acre parcel north of the Ohio River where land grants would be awarded for service in that regiment. General Clark was given over 8,000 acres, officers received over 2,000 acres each, and privates were granted just 108 acres each. Clark's Grant of 150,000 acres, including 1,000 acres designated for creating the town of Clarksville, ended up within the state of Indiana.
|The General Assembly created Illinois Country on December 9, 1778, after George Rogers Clark captured Vincennes and brought Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton to Williamsburg as a captive.|
During the 1783 peace negotiations that ended the American Revolution, American control of the territory was acknowledged. The Northwest Territory was ceded to the United States of America in the Treaty of Paris. The western boundary was drawn from Lake of the Woods, then by a line to be drawn along the Middle of the Mississippi River until it shall intersect the Northernmost Part of the thirty-first Degree of North Latitude.
The British refused to evacuate forts, citing that the Americans were violating the treaty by refusing to allow British lenders to collect on debts owed by Americans. British forces left the fort at Detroit only in 1796, after the British and their Indian allies were defeated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, many tribal leaders signed the Treaty of Greeneville in 1795, and the US Senate ratified the Jay Treaty in 1796.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.