The Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous, held in Vincennes, Indiana, a charming town on the banks of the Wabash River full of historic attractions and living history, always feels like a homecoming.
Which it is for myself, as I spent several years living and working there. But it’s not just me. I see the same spirit in the re-enactors, the merchants – even the crowd itself. It had been about seven years since I found myself near Vincennes in May, and I was itchy for it weeks before the event. And I wasn’t disappointed. Meeting up with people I hadn’t seen in half a decade was like coming home. As was seeing the faces that travel the re-enactor’s circuit, many of which I last saw the last time I was here. Vincennes has always been a crossroad for history. And it’s a crossroads still.
Held on Memorial Day Weekend, right when the weather turns hot and muggy, the activities spill out from the historical site into the town itself.
Vincennes breathes history. From its earliest native American roots, still visible in a couple of impressive mounds on the outskirts of town (as well as some smaller ones still visible around town), to its beginnings as a French fur trapping settlement, to the American Revolution, and its later history as a river town, Vincennes has witnessed more than its share of history.
Let’s run down a partial list. Vincennes was the first capital of the Indiana Territory, had the first Catholic and Presbyterian churches in Indiana, the first newspaper in Indiana, the first masonic lodge in Indiana, first bank in Indiana, first post office and sheriff’s department in Indiana, the first European settlement in Indiana, home of president William Henry Harrison, the site that he staged his troops for the Battle of Tippecanoe, and the site of his famous meeting with the Indian leader Tecumseh. Plus the birthplace of Red Skelton, which the locals will not let you forget.
The event remembered in the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous is the taking of Fort Sackville in the Revolutionary War. In the winter of 1779, George Rogers Clark and his group of of Kentucky volunteers, marched through the icy Wabash River bottoms to take the British fort at Vincennes. There was a strategic advantage to holding the fort to be sure, but another important benefit to the war effort was that it became proof of success which George Washington could use to persuade the French to join the conflict.
And it gives a legion of merchants, re-enactors of living history and those who like brats and buffalo burgers, a reason to gather in the balmy midwestern heat for a couple days each year. The reenactment of the battle is of course, nothing close to authentic since the fort is long since gone, but instead more of a demonstration of military tactics of the period. Still impressive all the same. The merchants and entertainers, while not always authentic to the time period, are certainly abundant. And it’s all held more or less, on the site of Clark’s victory over the British.
George Rogers Clark National Historic Park in Vincennes is the home of one of the last classical memorials created by the United States government, built of granite and encircled by sixteen fluted Doric columns, under a dome of glass. Inside it’s just as breathtaking, with a bronze statue of Clark by Hermon Atkins MacNeil, surrounded by marble wainscoting and murals of the events of Clark at Vincennes. The view from the top of the stairs includes the cathedral and old burial ground, and the Lincoln memorial bridge crossing the Wabash.
Best of all though is the acoustics at the top of the stairs, against the walls of the memorial. At the end of the official activities on Saturday evening, when the troops have all been fed, an unadvertised treat awaits those who linger. Gradually, members of the various fife and drum corps make their way to the memorial for an impromptu jam session of sorts, where the drums ricochet off the building and the fifes swirl around on top, in a deafening cacophony of military music.
Situated adjacent to the old, downtown area of Vincennes, and a short walk from the other historic sites in town, a visitor is able to wander freely after hours, and take part in a variety of events. At the ball in the yard of William Henry Harrison’s home, Grouseland, there were at times pushing a hundred people, some in period dress, some just wandering in off the street, following the calls of dances two hundred or more years old. The various historical buildings were open for candlelit tours, and what was supposed to have ended for me at five in the afternoon, finally wrapped up with much sadness about ten.
Which I might add, was better than some of the times when I was more involved with the after hours activities. There was the year for instance, when I nearly slept on the grass, under the stars someplace in the vicinity of the encampment, with the smell of wood fires and the sound of music being played around campfires wafting in and out of my brain. As I said, it was a sort of homecoming for me as well, and my old home was staggering distance from the site. But I digress …
Mark your calendar for next year – Memorial Day weekend, Vincennes, Indiana, two days of historic attractions, roasted dinners, dancing, baking heat and usually a thunderstorm or two. Look for me on the steps of the memorial, just about sundown.