Illinois Genealogy Trails 

Fort Massac
Fort Massac

River Side View of Fort Massac replication
photo by John Stanton 30 Jun 2010, from

In 1757, after years of intermittent use for trading purposes, the French constructed a fortification to block British expansion into the Mississippi River basin. The fort was named in honor of the Marquis de Massiac, a French naval minister. The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 marked the fort passing into British hands. In 1778 as a prelude to his march on Kaskaskia, George Rogers Clark and his men landed at the mouth of Massac Creek and advanced to the fort which they found abandoned. Under orders from President Washington, the fort was rebuilt in 1794 and garrisoned to guard American interest on the lower Ohio River. A customs port was opened, as was a post office. Zebulon Pike, for whom Pike's Peak is named, served here as a Lieutenant. After the War 1812, the post was no longer needed and it was again abandoned. In 1908, in recognition of its historical importance, the site was dedicated as Illinois' first state park. Archaeological excavations in the 1930's, 1960's and 1970's provided information which ultimately resulted in a reconstructed fort from the American period.
Dedicated in 1973, the reconstructed fort was not placed on the original location to the west in order to preserve the site's integrity.

The fort has also gone by the names of Fort Ascension and Fort de L'Ascension.

"Fort Massac must be Saved!"
The Coalville Times. (Coalville, Utah)
August 08, 1902
Transcribed by K. Torp

Fort Massac earthworks
Fort Massac Earthworks, south view

This is the slogan of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the members of which are determined that the historic stretch of land near Metropolis, Ill. shall be converted into a park. Although the fact is not generally known or recognized, Fort Massac is stronger in historical interest than any spot in Illinois or on the Ohio river. For more than 350 years it has been the abiding place of white men. Here the first pale faces who ever laid eyes on the territory now known an Illinois refugees from De Soto's scattered forces pitched their camp; here the first sermon ever delivered on the Ohio River was preached; here the flag of the American colonies was unfurled for the first time in Illinois; here George Rogers Clark rested and rendezvoused during his operations between Kaskaskia and old Vincennes' here Blenner has set and Aaron Burr plotted and planned; here Mad Anthony Wayne once commanded a garrison; here was the scene of intrigue and conspiracy and murder and massacre - for by turns Fort Massac was occupied by Indians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, the English and Americans.

The site belonged to the late Judge W.H. Green of Cairo, and it is understood that his son, Reed Green, greatly favors the plan of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It is probable that some action will be taken by the next Illinois legislature.
The fort occupied a commanding point on the Ohio, high above the flood mark, and on a bend where one may see for miles up or down the stream. Ex-Gov. Reynolds in 1855 visited the place when it was a United States fort, and he thus describes it "The outside walls were 135 feet square, and at each angle strong bastions were erected, with earth beneath the wood; a large well was sunk in the fortress, and the whole appeared to have been strong and substantial in its day. Three or four acres of graveled walks are made in exact angles, and are beautifully graveled with pebbles from the river. The site is one of the most beautiful on La Belle Riviere, and commands a view that is charming."

At this day only the earthworks and the well remain and the entire site is overgrown with trees.
Though the early records are somewhat obscure Fort Massac was established by the French government in the latter part of the seventeenth century. It became one of the chain of forts, beginning at Fort DuQuesne, built subsequently and intended to be used by the French in defending their claims to the Northwest territory.
It seems that southern Illinois, or the territory now known by that name, was a hunting ground for the Indians. Especially was it prolific in buffaloes and their pelts furnished the most important articles of barter in the extensive transactions between the French traders and the Indians. La Harpe and Charlevoix say that the French in 1700 established a trading post at Fort Massac for the purpose of securing buffalo hides. The neighboring Mascoutins and other Indians were not long in learning of this and an active trade soon began.

Father Mermet, a Jesuit priest, located there upon invitation of the traders and engaged in mission work among the Indians. Five years later because of a general quarrel among the Indians the trading post was broken up. Father Mermet and the traders fled, leaving behind among other belongings 13,000 buffalo hides which they had collected for shipment to Canada. It was while here that the first sermon ever delivered on the Ohio was preached by Father Mermet. He went from Fort Massac to Kaskaskia, died there in 1718, and was buried in that historic village.

After the fort had been abandoned by the traders it fell into disuse, though being occupied occasionally by traveling bands of soldiers during the war between France and England.
George Rogers Clark stopped there during his historic conquest of Illinois when he captured Kaskaskia with 156 men and also took possession of Old Vincennes.

In 1758 when the French evacuated Fort Du Quesne, the garrison floated down the Ohio to Fort Massac and rebuilt the old fort under the direction of a young engineer named Massac. In 1794 George Washington ordered the fort rebuilt on more permanent plans, and it was occupied regularly by a United States garrison unti later the close of the war of 1812. It is somewhat interesting to note that Zebulon Pike, who discovered the Rocky mountain peak which bears his name, was at one time a member of this garrison.

Mad Anthony Wayne and Gen. Wilkinson occupied the fort during the French crisis under Genet's ministry up to 1814. Aaron Burr made it one of the points where he directed his southern conspiracy, and it was here that he formed the "entangling alliance" with Gen. Wilkinson. Mrs. Blennerhasset, wife of Burr's accomplice, stopped here on her way south to join her husband. It was while here that she first learned of the gigantic enterprise in which her husband was involved, which swept away a fortune and rendered her a wanderer in the dead of winter.

Theodore Roosevelt, in his "Winning the West," states that the fort was named for the French engineer, M. Massac. While Whitelaw Reid was minister to France, however, he made inquiry as to the personal history of M. Massac, and no record of such a person could be found. A.N. Starkes, formerly of Metropolis, and at one time a member of the staff of the librarian of the library of Congress, made extensive research through the records there of the history of Fort Massac, and in his opinion the name Massac is a corruption of the Indian tribe name, Mascoutin.

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