Early St. Louis

8.15.2011

FELIX ST. VRAIN

Killed while Agent to the Sac and Foxes
Joshua Pilcher temporarily assigned to his Post


Felix was the son of Jaques Marcellin Ceran deHault deLassus de St. Vrain of Bouchaine, of the northern region of France.  He descended from an ancient and aristocratic family of the region, his own grandfather having been Knight of Grand Cross of the Royal Order of St. Michael until they fled during the "Reign of Terror."  They first lived at Gallipolis, Ohio, where they sought to establish a French colony, but remained there only a short while before moving to the Upper Louisiana territory in 1793.  There the Baron de Carondelet granted the grandfather permission to establish a new settlement at New Bourbon where he was then appointed as a civil and military commander, serving in this capacity until the transfer of Upper Louisiana to the United States.

The father of Felix St. Vrain, Jaques, was an officer in the French navy, and married Marie Felicite Dubreuil in Nouvelle Bourban, Missouri on 02 May 1796.  Mary was the daughter of Louis Chauvet Dubreuil and Susanne de Saintous de Baoyonne, and the mother of four sons - including Felix who was born 23 Mar 1799. 
Described as a tall and slightly built man with black eyes and hair, he is said to have been young and inexperienced with the Indians, and had obtained the 1830 appointment as agent to the Sac and Fox nations through his family's position and political influence. During the months leading to the appointment, there had been a great deal of intertribal conflict, political unrest, and rumors circulating in the upper Mississippi region that had led to the dismissal of John Marsh, Wyncoop Warner, and then Thomas Forsyth.  Although Forsyth had been an agent for eighteen years and was considered one of the most knowledgeable in the way of the Indians, he had provoked and agitated William Clark who disapproved of his absence from the post during the course of time when the Sauk left their village in the fall for their winter hunt.  There also was a lack of respect on Forsyth's part toward Clark whom he deemed to be self-serving and dishonest.  Though his job performance had not been called into question, after Clark's written letter of complaint in April of 1830, Forsyth was dismissed from his duties by Secretary of War James Eaton.  Soon after, Senator Elias Kane suggested to Clark that Felix St. Vrain, the thirty-one year-old sawmill operator in Kaskaskia, might fill the position.
At the time of St. Vrain's appointment to the Sac and Fox, tension and conflicts had been intensifying.  At the heart of the dissension was the growing contention among the white settlers and the Indians, but also of concern was the warfare between the Sac and Fox who had become engaged in an on-going retaliatory warfare with the Sioux.  Of the most immediate concern, however, was the disputed treaty between the U.S. Government and the Sauk.  According to the U.S. government, the Indians had ceded a swath of land stretching from northeast Missouri through almost all of Illinois north of the Illinois River as well as a larger section of southern Wisconsin and included the village of Saukenuk which had been occupied by the Sauk nation since about 1750, and was considered sacred family ground.
When Felix St. Vrain informed Black Hawk that the land no longer belonged to them and that the government had ordered them to remove to the west bank of the Mississippi, Black Hawk gathered up his band and in part, said: "If some drunken dogs of our people sold lands they did not own, our rights remain.  We have no chiefs who are authorized to sell our cornfields, our houses or the bones of our dead.  The great Chief of the Long Knives, I believe, is too wise and good to approve acts of robbery and injustice …"
On the 15th of May, 1831 Agent St. Vrain wrote to William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, from Rock Island: "I have again to mention to you that the Black Hawk (a Sac chief*) and his party are now at their old village on Rock River."  He then suggested, "Would it not be better to hold a treaty with the Indians and get them to remove peaceably, than to call on the military to force them off?"
Governor Reynolds of Illinois did not see it that way.  He viewed it as an invasion and wrote to Clark detailing his intention to send out a militia of seven hundred men.  Clark immediately passed the letter on to the commander of the Western Division of the U.S. Army, General Edmund P. Gaines.  In his letter of May 28th he explained that the majority of the Sac and Foxes had complied and removed to their new village on the Iowy river - "all but two bands headed by two inconsiderable chiefs, who after abandoning their old village, have, it appears, returned again, in defiance of all consequences."
On the 29th of May Edmund P. Gaines then wrote Governor Reynolds that he had ordered six companies of regular troops from St. Louis, and that “I do not deem it necessary or proper to require militia, or any other description of  force, other than that of the regular army at this place and Prairie du Chein."
A year later, intertribal tensions still had not eased and the Sac and Fox had attacked a peaceful encampment of Sioux - who then retaliated by attacking a party of Fox who were traveling from Dubuque to Prairie du Chien and killed their chief, Kettle, and several of his followers.  The agency tried to intervene and force the Fox to surrender the principals involved to the government which only ignited further discord between Black Hawk and the agency as he strongly believed the retaliation had been justified, and was no business of the white man.

In April of 1832, it seems likely that St. Vrain had gone to St. Louis in hopes of dissuading the government from interfering, but they remained intent on making an example of the "murderers of the Menominees."  It can be speculated then, that when St. Vrain boarded the boat with General Atkinson to return to Fort Armstrong, a small band of Winnebagos might have been of the opinion that St. Vrain was not acting in their best interest, and was in fact betraying them.  As a result, St. Vrain had been ambushed along with other members of his party and brutally killed on the 24th of May in what came to be known as the St. Vrain Massacre.
Months earlier, Joshua Pilcher had been in Washington D.C.  Prior to his arrival, he had prepared and sent an extensive report to the government and had detailed the trading operations.  He had noted each trading post and which tribes had traded where and with which of the five agencies.  In addition, he had also summarized the history of the Missouri River fur trade between 1803 and 1827, and noted that those traders who intended to move over the Santa Fe Trail would be in constant danger of Indian attack, then suggesting the army establish a post about half way between western Missouri and the great bend in the Arkansas, opposite Mexican territory.
Pilcher's reports had been printed and circulated, and by the end of 1831 his name had been well known to the politicians, army officers and businessmen in both the east and west.  No doubt, his trip to Washington was in hope of receiving an appointment as Upper Missouri Agent to replace Doughtery, whom Pilcher believed was unfit for the position.  Although he failed in persuading the government to release Doughtery from his post, upon the death of St. Vrain, Pilcher was temporarily appointed by William Clark to that post. Despite Clark's assurance to Secretary of War, Lewis Cass, and Senator Thomas Benton's recommendation that Pilcher was well-suited for the position, Joshua did not receive the permanent post.  Instead, Marmaduke S. Davenport was appointed.
On January 6, 1834, Congress passed a bill that provided for the relief of St. Vrain's widow and children. The following year, upon the resignation of Jonathan L. Bean, Joshua received an appointment as sub-agent for a portion of the Sioux, high up the Missouri.  He was later nominated by President Van Buren as Indian agent to the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Ponca Indians and was thereafter appointed as Superintendent of Indian affairs following the death of William Clark.
For further information on the St. Vrain Massacre, please see my sources - many of which are in my Google Library.  As always, comments, suggestions and opinions are welcome.

NOTES:

It should be noted that many earlier accounts, including that of Stevens' 1903 publication, stated that St. Vrain was killed by a Chief "Little Bear" of the Sac tribe and that this chief had adopted him as his brother.  This information, however, is not  correct as Perry Armstrong noted "There were no Sauk Indians within fifty miles of Kellog's Grove when St. Vrain was killed, and the Foxes had nothing to do with this massacre ... There was no chief called Little Bear in either the Sauk or Fox nation at that time, if, indeed, at any time. The idea that St. Vrain had been adopted by a Sauk chief as a brother, when he had only been their agent a little over a year, during which time bad feelings existed between the Indians and the white people, is too preposterous to be thought of as a fact."
*Black Hawk was not a chief among the Sac (also spelled Sauk), but was at the time an elderly warrior whose followers during the three-month war were referred to as a British Band due to their allegiance to the British agents whom they trusted more than their American counterparts.
Although St. Vrain's death is listed as May 24th, his headstone indicates the date of death as May 22nd.

PHOTOS:

Map of 1832 - depicting the various forts, villages, towns and battles relative to the Black Hawk War.

St. Vrain Headstone - photographed by Anonymous and contributed to Find A Grave 31 Oct 2008, edited for the purpose of this work by P. Davidson-Peters.
SOURCES:
Adam W. Snyder and his period in Illinois History, 1817-1842 by John Francis Snyder, E. Neeham, 1906.
Americans of Gentle Birth & Their Ancestors, Vol. 1, ed. Mrs. H.E. Pittman, Baltimore, 1970.
Antique Dubuque, 1673-1833 by M.M. Hoffmann, Telegraph-Herald press, Dubuque, 1930.
Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America by Kerry A. Trask, Macmillan, 2007.
The Black Hawk War: Including a Review of Black Hawk's Life by Frank E. Stevens, 1903.
Delassus-St. Vrain Family Collection, 1544-200, Missouri Historical Society Archives.
Forty Years Among the Indians and Eastern Borders of Nebraska by Rev. Samuel Allis, Proceedings and Collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society, Vol 2; 1887.
Historic Rock Island County: history of the settlement of Rock Island County from the earliest known period to the present time: embracing references of importance, and including a biography of Rock Island County's well-known citizens by John Reynolds, Felix St. Vrain, William Clark, Edmund P. Gaines; et al; Kramer & Co., Rock Island, Ill, 1908.
The Indian tribes of the upper Mississippi Valley and region of the Great Lakes as described by Nicolas Perrot, French commandant in the Northwest; Bacquevile de la Potherie, French royal commissioner to Canada; Morrell Marston, American Army officer; and Thomas Forsyth, United States agent at Fort Armstrong, Volume 2, ed. by Emma Helen Blair, The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1912
Iowa, the First Free State in the Louisiana Purchase: From its discovery to the admission of the state into the Union, 1673-1846 by William Salter, A.C. Mc Clurg & Co., 1905.
Joshua Pilcher, Fur Trader and Indian Agent by John E. Sunder, University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
Memories of Shaubena: With incidents relating to the early settlement of the the West by Nehemiah Matson, D.B. Cook & Co., 1878.
Sauks and the Black Hawk War: with biographical sketches, etc. by Perry A. Armstrong, H.W. Rokker, 1887.

1 comment:

Patricia Glass Field said...

Wow Patti! That was very informative and interesting. Thank you for taking the time to research all the sources. Take care.