A statue on Vincennes’ Wabash River front provides a clue about the source of a prominent place name in western Indiana. The figure represented, however, emerges riddled with contradictions.
Integral to the cause of the American colonists, Francis Vigo was European-born. One of several trustees chosen when Vincennes University was founded in 1806, Vigo never himself learned to read or write.
A wealthy fur trader who bankrolled the American Revolution and whose magnificent home was used by Governor William Henry Harrison until his own mansion was built, Vigo died indigent, the federal government finally compensating his heirs forty years later.
A native of Mondovi, Italy, Vigo enlisted in the Spanish army, with which he traveled to Cuba, then New Orleans. Upon receiving a discharge, Vigo became involved in the lucrative fur trading business along the Mississippi, settling eventually in St. Louis, and becoming a business partner of its Spanish lieutenant-governor, Fernando de Leyba.
Vigo also befriended revolutionary George Rogers Clark, supporting his militia with supplies and backing Clark’s relatively worthless paper money with his own hard currency.
Vigo’s key moment in history came quite by accident: while traveling to Vincennes to furnish the Americans there with provisions, Vigo was taken captive by Indians acting under orders of the British, who’d just recaptured the pivotal post.
Held prisoner for several days, Vigo was released on the condition that he do nothing to undermine the British cause on his way back to St. Louis. Vigo complied with the request, then journeyed 50 miles farther south to Kaskaskia, where he briefed Clark on the British occupation-Clark’s cue to stage the surprise attack in February 1779 that recaptured Vincennes and ultimately opened up the entire Northwest Territory.