The sharp smell of black powder from booming muskets mingles with the tantalizing sizzle of turkey legs basting over an open fire at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. Children flex their muscles in a friendly tug-of-war and a woodcarver creates spoons out of wood chunks while the poignant strains of a bagpipe float across the Wabash River.
Each Memorial Day weekend, Vincennes, Ind., (pop. 18,701) celebrates its Colonial past and the historic contributions the city has made to the state and nation during the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous.
“It’s like stepping back in time,” says Ellen Harper, a lifelong resident of Indiana’s oldest continuously occupied city. “We are where it all began. And, if it hadn’t been for what happened here with George Rogers Clark, we would probably now be Canadians instead of Americans.”
Col. Clark and his American troops captured the frontier settlement from the British during the Revolutionary War. Founded as a French trading post in 1732, Vincennes also served as the territorial capital prior to statehood and is home to the state’s first Catholic parish (1732), first newspaper (1804), and oldest bank (1838). The town abounds in monuments to its past, and last year drew nearly 35,000 people, plus about 500 military and frontier re-enactors, to its 26th annual rendezvous.
“At the rendezvous, you not only get to see history coming alive but you get to hear it and smell it and taste it,” says Frank Doughman, chief ranger at the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park and a re-enactor for about 17 years. “The re-enactors are authentic down to their buttons. They go the whole nine yards to be as close to the Revolutionary War era as possible.”
The re-created battles take place on the French Commons at the park. The park also includes the George Rogers Clark Memorial, a Greek-style granite monument that stands upon the spot at which the British Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton surrendered Fort Sackville on Feb. 25, 1779. The victor, Clark, had marched his army of 170 frontiersmen more than 150 miles from their base on the Mississippi River, fording streams and rivers in bitterly cold weather to surprise the British. Clark’s buckskin-clad woodsmen raised enough American flags that Hamilton thought he was being overwhelmed by the ragtag troop during the two-day siege. Clark’s nearly bloodless victory at Vincennes helped secure the fledgling nation’s claim to the Northwest Territory, which included the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
“It was a very decisive battle for our country,” says Junior Fischer, one of the rendezvous’ founders. “We want to keep our history alive and help make other people aware of it.”
To showcase its illustrious past, Vincennes has a “Mile of History” on or near the banks of the Wabash River. Seeing the grounds along the Wabash dotted with white tents and campfires at the rendezvous, listening to storytellers recounting days gone by, and getting a whiff of stew being cooked over an open fire is “an awesome sight,” Harper says. In a world that moves so quickly, that is filled with the hustle and bustle of modern life, it is nice to stop and pay homage to the past and look forward to the future, she adds.
“Vincennes is a quaint farming community that has kept in touch with its history,” she says. “We want to remember where we came from and why we are here.”