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The far too farseeing French in 1702, in furtherance of their design of dominion in North America, despatched a detachment of about thirty men from Kaskaskia under the temporal command of M. Juchereau de St. Denis and the spiritual direction of fiery Father Mermet to establish a trading post, mission and fort, as near as convenient to the mouth of the Ohio River to guard the southern access to this vital means of travel. The result of this expedition was the establishment of Fort Massac, the site of the future little city of Metropolis, Illinois.
Consider the map as it is today, showing Metropolis and the surrounding country, and see the fine position that Fort Massac had in the day of its establishment: It was about thirty-six miles above the mouth of the Ohio, quite far enough up to be out of the reach of any flood of that great torrent and also to be beyond the convenient call of marauding expeditions which might be making the Mississippi their route north; it faced to the south the mouth of the Tennessee River and was not far from where the Cumberland and Wabash rivers joined their courses to the Ohio, and thus it had fine trading advantages. Therefore it is not to be wondered at that for a time the new post flourished mightily. Juchereau traded and Father Mermet preached to satisfied savages and Frenchmen.
Of Father Mermet’s work it has been said that his gentle virtues in everyday life and his fervid eloquence in the spiritual rostrum made him beloved and respected by all.
At early dawn his pupils came to church dressed neatly and modestly each in a deerskin or robe sewn together from several skins. After receiving lessons they chanted canticle; mass was then said in presence of all the Christians, the French and the converts the women on one side and the men on the other. From prayers and instructions the missionaries proceeded to visit the sick and administer medicine, and their skill as physicians did more than all the rest to win confidence. In the afternoon the catechism was taught in the presence of the young and old, when every one, without distinction of rank or age, answered the questions of the missionary. At evening all would assemble at the chapel for instruction, for prayer and to chant the hymns of the Church. On Sunday and festivals, even after vespers, a homily was pronounced; at the close of the day parties would meet in houses to recite the chaplets In alternate choirs and sing psalms till late at night. Saturday and Sunday were the days appointed for confession and communion and every convert confessed once in a fortnight. The success of this mission was such that marriages of the French immigrants were sometimes solemnized with the daughters of the Illinois according to the rites of the Catholic Church.
Tradition says that the site of Massac had been used by de Soto for a palisade in 1542, but whether this is true there is no positive evidence to prove. Juchereau’s settlement consisted of a palisaded fort, a trading house, several log cottages and the chapel which Mermet christened “Assumption,” and this name was applied to the entire settlement for some years. The name “Massac” did not originate until half a century later. For a time, indeed, the point was known as the “Old Cherokee Fort.”
Juchereau was removed from Massac and went to the southern waters of the Mississippi, where he found many large “fish to fry” which need not be described in this chapter, and the good Father Mermet was taken back to Kaskaskia. Deprived of its mainsprings in this fashion, the little post began to languish and shortly came to grief because of rising disaffection among the surrounding Indians. The place was abandoned by the French fleeing for their lives and leaving behind them thirteen thousand buffalo skins which were eagerly seized by the Indians from whom they had been purchased at the rate of munificence usual to those days. Tradition has it that the post was reestablished by adventurers shortly after its abandonment and was used as a trading centre pure and simple, but the once lively little foundation of Juchereau and Mermet was not again conspicuous in the events of that border until the French and Indian War of 1756-63.
During this time it was a rendezvous for the French on the Ohio River and was their last defense in the campaign of the English which finally wrested La Belle Riviere from the lilies of France. In 1756 French soldiers landed here in force, threw up earthworks and erected a stockade with four bastions mounting eight cannon. Henceforth in French records the site was known as Fort Massac. In 1763, by the terms of the Treaty of Paris, Massac became an English possession together with all of the rest of the French strongholds in North America, but it was not until the spring of 1765 that the troops of France finally marched out from the fort. The English during the thirteen years that they held the Illinois country never occupied the point with troops.
The event in which Fort Massac played a part, which was to have the greatest influence in its section, took place, however, not during its French and Indian days, but later, when the American colonies were asserting their independence of the Mother Country. All of the Illinois country was held then by His Majesty’s troops, but it was common information that the French inhabitants of the conquered country were not extraordinarily well disposed to their rulers and that the garrisons of the English strongholds here had been largely reduced to aid the fight on the eastern seacoast. Accordingly it entered the head of one George Rogers Clark, a daring border man of twenty-six years, Virginian by birth, that it would not be an impossible task to take from the English by force the country which they had in this manner seized from the French. June, 1778, saw him landing at Fort Massac, then ungarrisoned, with a small body of men, and this same day probably saw the American flag unfurled for the first time west of the Ohio River, as it is confidently believed that Clark brought a copy of the new standard with him. From Fort Massac the expedition set out and achieved the ends, which its commander fore visioned with many deeds of daring. It opened the gates to American settlement of all the northwest country of the United States.
Fort Massac was not occupied by troops until 1794, when, in view of probable collision with Spain and France, Washington despatched Major Thomas Doyle, of the United States Army, to rebuild and occupy the post. This was done and for some years it was of importance. In 1797 about thirty families had settled in the neighborhood. Captain Zebulon Pike being in command of a garrison of eighty-three men. At different times General Anthony Wayne and James Wilkinson occupied the fort as their headquarters. In 1812 it was garrisoned by a Tennessee volunteer regiment, but at the close of that conflict the fort was evacuated once more.
In 1855, according to an account of Governor Reynolds, of Illinois, Fort Massac was in good condition. The walls, 135 feet square, were strong and at each corner was a stout bastion. A large well of sweet water was within the fortress and the walls were palisaded with earth between the wood.
The site of old Fort Massac is today a State park and the Illinois chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution have restored the old fort as far as possible to the form that it bore at the time of the Revolution. It is additionally interesting as being the sole survivor of that long line of forts with which the French hoped to hold the Ohio River.