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Vincennes: A Visit to Indiana’s Oldest City
Friday, May 20, 2011

By Nelson Price

For the second Spring Pilgrimage in a row, the Society of Indiana Pioneers’ motor coach was filled to capacity. This time, the destination on a sunny May 20, a Friday, was Vincennes, the state’s oldest city, a town so historic it already had a deep heritage when it served in the early 1800s as the capital of the Indiana Territory.

Bob Dora, Vincennes native & Pioneers Board member, chatting with Richard Day, dressed as the Sieur de Vincennes.

Renowned Vincennes historian Richard Day was the guide for the Pioneers, and he donned and doffed a series of vintage costumes as he served as an escort to an array of historic sites. They included the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, the oldest Catholic church in the state, and Grouseland, the restored, Federal-style residence of William Henry Harrison when he served as governor of the Indiana Territory.

In addition to the Pioneers aboard the motor coach, who departed from Indianapolis, other Pioneers living in the Vincennes area joined the group upon arrival. Everyone enjoyed a luncheon at Pea-Fections, a bistro on the historic city’s Main Street. At the bistro, the Pioneers were also joined by Richard Day, who wore a powdered wig, a three-cornered hat, and a French colonial uniform. He was re-enacting the Sieur de Vincennes, the French-Canadian fur trader of the 18th century for whom the town is named.

Costumed guide shooting musket in front of the George Rogers Clark Memorial.

Other costumed re-enactors met the Pioneers at the next site, the George Rogers Clark National Park. With a replica of a vintage musket, a costumed guide demonstrated ways in which frontier fighter and Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark and his ragtag forces were able to convince the British to surrender Vincennes, which they had captured during the conflict. The surrender of Vincennes (which the British had renamed Fort Sackville) in 1779 is considered a pivotal event of the war and in drawing boundaries for the new United States.

Pioneers ascended the 33 steps that led up to the George Rogers Clark Memorial, the largest memorial west of Washington, D.C., that honors an individual. Inside the memorial, dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, the Pioneers marveled at a sequence of enormous murals depicting the surrender of Fort Sackville and other historic events in Vincennes.

That was followed by a tour of the Basilica (often called the “Old Cathedral”) by Richard Day, whose family has worshiped there for generations. Built in 1826, the Basilica has historic stained glass windows and, in a subterranean area, the crypts of four Catholic bishops.

The Pioneers re-boarded the motor coach for a brief driving tour of the Vincennes area that enabled views of the original Gimbel’s store (retailer Adam Gimbel lived in Vincennes before moving to New York) and just before reaching the state boundary with Illinois, a carving depicting the move of 21-year-old Abraham Lincoln and his family from Indiana.

Historic plaque at the Old French House in Vincennes.
The Old French House at Vincennes

The Pioneers disembarked to tour a historic home known in Vincennes as the Old French House. Filled with 200-year-old furnishings, it was built circa 1806 and served as the home of a French fur trader. The site also includes the French and Indian Museum, which features displays of arrowheads, mastodon bones, and other historical artifacts.

Then, the Pioneers were divided into two groups for ease of touring several sites. They included Grouseland, built in 1803-04 and is believed to be the first brick home in the Indiana Territory. Gov. Harrison modeled it after Berkeley, the plantation in Virginia where he had grown up.

Grouseland, home of William Henry Harrison

Grouseland has been restored in spectacular fashion, but it survived a series of indignities. After 1848, when the historic home left the possession of the Harrison family, Grouseland became a hotel and was even used as a barn. Animals were stored inside the once-elegant house; it was threatened with demolition until being rescued and restored by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Among the outstanding features of the home is a free-standing stairway. Many of the furnishings are 200 years old, although not all originally belonged to the Harrisons. Among the original family artifacts are silver serving pieces in the dining room.

Buildings, left to right: First public school known as the Jefferson Academy (gray/white building);
Territorial Capital (red building); Print Shop (white building).

While some of the Pioneers toured Grouseland, others visited replicas of three structures that were crucial to town life in early Vincennes. They were a print shop (the first newspaper in the Indiana Territory – a weekly known as the Indiana Gazette – was published in 1804); the territorial capitol where legislators initially met, and Indiana’s first public school.

Known as the Jefferson Academy, the school was considered “public” – even though Catholic priests served as teachers – because attendance was open to any student, according to Richard Day. As Richard escorted the Pioneers through the three structures, he quickly changed into various vintage costumes, donning the attire of an early school teacher, a newspaper editor-printer, and a lawmaker.

After savoring the early Indiana history, the Pioneers boarded the motor coach and enjoyed a boxed dinner on the return trip to Indianapolis.