Most of the excitement about the approaching Lewis and Clark Bicentennial focuses on the journey by explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi before setting out on the Missouri River in 1804 to open the American West. But in the summer of 1778, William Clark's brother, George Rogers Clark, first established the American claim to the West by taking the British fort at Kaskaskia.
At Kaskaskia, he also held a council of American Indian tribes that secured their neutrality in his ensuing victorious campaign against the British and made the later journey by his brother and the Corps of Discovery possible.
This week, re-enactors are set to retrace Clark's steps in Southern Illinois. Re-enactors from Capt. Joseph Bowman's Company of the Virginia-Illinois Regiment will set up camps at Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site Saturday and Sunday, at Fort Massac State Historic Site Sunday, at Vienna City Park June 30, at Carbondale on July 1, at Murphysboro on July 2, at Chester July 3 and back at nearby Kaskaskia July 4.
Clark, 150 frontiersmen and 20 settlers left for Kaskaskia from Redstone and Fort Pitt on June 26, 1778, with secret orders from Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry to attack Kaskaskia and other posts in the Illinois Country that were supplying Indians fighting on behalf of the British.
The soldiers were reinforced at the Falls of the Ohio. They hid their boats when they reached the mouth of the Tennessee River and began a six-day march to Kaskaskia. According to one account, they walked single file to prevent detection. The American Indians referred to the contingent as the Long Knives.
They surprised Kaskaskia on July 4, taking the British fort, Fort Gage, without firing a shot. Clark offered "all of the privileges of American citizenship" to the French inhabitants of the town.
He sent Bowman to Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher and St. Phillip to make the same offer. Clark then gathered Indian tribes from as far as 500 miles away in a council that won their neutrality. Bowman later was named the head of government in Cahokia. The fort there was named for him.
The taking of Kaskaskia was the westernmost action of the Revolutionary War and established a claim to the American West, said Dr. Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University.
"Virtually no one had lived in this area other than traders and Native Americans. The British had never been able to get any settlements going. The Americans were the first one to claim what had been claimed by the French," he said.
Later, Benjamin Franklin would pursue that claim in Paris.
In addition to the encampments, historic markers will be placed at Indian Point south of Vienna, at Eagle Point Bay near Goreville, at Route 13 and at Airport Road west of Carbondale.
At the camps, visitors will be able to walk through and talk to the re-enactors about life in 1778. The Illinois Regiment History will be read, muskets will be fire and there will be a fashion show of period dress. Demonstrations will be given from 1 to 6 p.m. on the days of the encampments.
The Cache River Basin Vineyard & Winery, 6 miles south of Vienna on Route 45, has bottled a commemorative wine with George Rogers Clark's name on the label. Owned Jack Dunker has named it Revolutionary Red. Clark had red hair.
One of the historic markers will be placed near his winery. It is a rededication of a 1913 Daughters of the American Revolution marker commemorating Clark's first campsite on the way from Fort Massac to Kaskaskia.
335-6611, extension 182