By Carol Hoffman
Southern Illinois Tourism
The first fort at Massac was built by French Marines starting on Ascension Day in 1757. The historic forts built at Massac, and its scenic location on the Ohio River, are why it was chosen to be Illinois' first state park.
The French government had plans to build a fort on the Ohio River as early as 1745. But the funds were not appropriated for the fort and it was not until the French government really needed the fort that money was appropriated at the beginning of the French and Indian War or the Seven Years' War.
In 1757, the French Governor Kerlerec of Louisiana requested that a fort and trading post be built at or near the mouth of the Ohio River. The orders were sent to Major Bathelemy Macarty, Mactique, the Commandant of Fort de Chartres, to establish a fort on le Belle Riviere. Fort de Chartres was the French governing fort of the area and is located near Prairie du Rocher Illinois, above Chester. Le Belle Riviere was the French name for the Ohio River, Kerquis Riviere was the French name for the Tennessee River.
The French wanted to establish a military presence on the Ohio River. They feared the English would encourage their allies, the Cherokee and Chickasaw, to raid the French supply routes to Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) and other posts north. During this period the rivers were the major supply routes in the New World. The crops produced on the fertile farm lands around Fort de Chartres were sent east to the Ohio Country and south to New Orleans. The French wanted to protect their supply routes on the Ohio River and control the river traffic from the Mississippi. This wilderness outpost was established to guard the interior of New France and the main artery to the French territory.
Monsieur Capitaine Charles Philippe Aubry, sieur de la Gautraye, was sent by Major Macarthy to build a fort on the Ohio River. Capitaine Aubry selected a site 13 leagues from the Mississippi and two leagues down from the Tennessee River on the northern, or Illinois, side of the Ohio. (One French league is 3.45 nautical miles or three land miles.) The bluff they selected was 70 feet above the river. The river traffic could not pass the fort without beings seen during the day or during the night.
Capitaine Aubry was accompanied by 150 Frenchmen and 100 Native allies. The construction of the fort began on the feast day of Ascension. Fort de l'Ascension was completed 30 days later on the 20th of June 1757. The fort was described as a square with four bastions and a curtain of two rows of tree trunks joined and set against a banquette (dirt works). The fort had eight cannons and housed about 100 men.
After the fort was completed, Capitaine Aubry left a captain, a lieutenant, an ensign and about a hundred marines to defend the fort. He then took about 40 marines and 40 Native allies to look for British troops along the Tennessee River. After traveling about 60 leagues, the Native allies abandoned Capitaine Aubry and his men. The French soldiers continued another 60 leagues into British territory before returning to Fort de L'Ascension without meeting any British forces. In August, Capitaine Aubry returned to Fort de Chartres to inform Major Macarty of his campaign. Capitaine Aubry returned to Fort de L'Ascension in September and in November the fort was attacked by Cherokee Indians. Capitaine Aubry and his men defended the fort. There is no record of any other attack on Fort de L'Ascension /Massiac.
In 1758 the Marquis de Massiac became Secretary of the Marines. The Department of the Marine was in charge of New France and Louisiana. It is believed that the name of Fort de L'Ascension was changed to Fort Massiac in 1759 in honor of Marquis de Massiac. In 1759, Major Macarty ordered repairs to Fort de L'Ascension. The original fort was constructed with wood such as cotton or willow and did not withstand the humid climate. The fort was strengthened by terracing and surrounding it with a ditch. In the ditch were placed pickets, which were sharpened posts that were planted at an angle pointing outward. The stockade walls were constructed of parallel timber and erected several feet apart with earth or stone between the timbers. This was a common style of military architecture that defended against fire and artillery.
Canada was lost to the British by the end of 1760. The war continued for a few more years with British forces not reaching Illinois until 1765. In December of 1763, Neyon de Villiers, the successor to Major Macarthy at Fort de Chartres, reported to his superiors in New Orleans that he had reduced the garrison at Fort Massiac to 15 men and one officer. He had all the serviceable artillery, which consisted of five pieces of cannon sent to Ste. Genevieve, in Spanish territory. In 1764 the remaining French soldiers returned to Fort de Chartres and the fort was abandoned. Before the British arrived in 1765, the abandoned Fort Massiac was burned by the Chickasaws. When Captain Thomas Sterling of the Forty-Second or Black Watch Regiment arrived at Massiac, he found the fort destroyed. The British regiment did not rebuild Fort Massiac, but continued on to Fort de Chartres. Later British and American forces changed the pronunciation of Massiac to Massac.
It was not until after the American Revolution, in 1794, that the first American fort was built on the same site at Fort Massiac.
Today, Fort Massac State Park is a reminder of days gone by, a journey through the course of American history. It is the perfect place to relax in soothing natural surroundings and explore life as it was lived when our country was young.
The historic site is a replica of the 1802 American fort that was on site. The historic fort area contains 2 barracks, 3 block houses, officer quarters, well, stockade along with a fraise fence. The site also has the archaeological outline of the 1757 French Fort.
Fort Massac State Park is located on US 45 at the entrance of Metropolis, Illinois. The park currently offers camping, picnicking, hiking, boating, fishing and hunting, as well as hosts many special events. In addition to the reconstructed fort, there is a visitor center with a video presentation highlighting the area's diverse historical significance.
The unique Fort Massac Encampment is held for two days each October. This re-creation of the lifestyles and atmosphere of the late 1700s attracts more than 80,000 people. Several times throughout the year the park puts on living history weekends, where visitors can experience the past for themselves. (check with the park office for specific dates) There is an antique car show every June, in conjunction with the nationally known Superman Days in Metropolis.Copyright 2013 KFVS. All rights reserved.