Digging into History at Fort Kaskaskia

Construction of Fort Kaskaskia
Construction of Fort Kaskaskia, from an interpretive sign

Research by the Center for Archaeological Investigation at Southern Illinois University helps reconstruct the history of Fort Kaskaskia. Around 1759, the French began building the fort to defend the village of Kaskaskia, but ended construction when they learned that they had lost the French and Indian War to Britain. Only the outer walls, barracks, and kitchen appear to have been built by the time the fort was abandoned in 1760. British soldiers arriving in 1765 described the fort as “uncompleted”.

Kaskaskia later became a temporary base of operations for George Rogers Clark during the American Revolutionary War. Recovered from the site of the French fort, a uniform coat button of the Kings Own 8th Regiment of Foot may have belonged to a prisoner of Clark, who captured thirty members of the regiment when he attacked Vincennes, Indiana, in 1779.

Lewis and Clark interpretive sign at Fort Kaskaskia
Lewis and Clark interpretive sign near Fort Kaskaskia

An American fort constructed nearby was probably established to support Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they prepared to embark on their historic expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory and find a river route through the West. A company of 80 US Army soldiers and an artillery company of 40 men were sent to establish a new Fort Kaskaskia on the bluff near the old French fort in 1802. Lewis and Clark recruited 11 men from the garrison for their expedition. The fort was used from 1802 to 1807, when it was abandoned following the return of Lewis and Clark.

US Army 2nd Infantry button, circa 1802
US Army 2nd Infantry button, circa 1802

The site of the American fort was unknown to historians until 2017, when it was discovered 300 meters to the north of the French fort by participants of the SIU archaeology field school. The Center for Archaeological Investigations has recovered Infantry buttons and other US Army artifacts.