Francis Vigo – Italian American Patriot
Francis Vigo Monument in Vincennes, Indiana
Italians have been contributing to the St. Louis area almost from the time of the founding of the city by Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau. One notable person was Giuseppe Maria Francesco (Francis) Vigo. He was an Italian American patriot who played a very significant part in securing control of land north of the Ohio River for the American forces during the Revolutionary War.
Francis Vigo, as he was known, was born on December 3, 1747 in Mondavi, which is about 30 miles south of Turin in Piedmont. At the time of his birth Mondavi, in the province of Cuneo, Piedmont whixh part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. He played a significant role in ensuring that the Northwest Territory, as Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were called, remained under the control of the Americans during the Revolutionary War. He was fluent in Italian, Spanish, French and English.
As a soldier for Spain he arrived in the New World first arriving in Cuba and then serving in New Orleans. While in New Orleans, he became enamored with the trade of furs from the upper Mississippi. After he concluded his military service, he made his way up the Mississippi River and settled in St. Louis in 1772, which had been founded as trading post in 1764. In St. Louis he became a successful fur trader and merchant. He established a successful business that specialized in buying and exporting furs. His firm also sold supplies to newly arrived settlers and those heading further west. He was one of the organizers of the first Catholic Church in St. Louis.
During the Revolutionary War, Colonel George Rogers Clark was sent west to secure the Northwest Territory. In order to do this he had to take Fort Sackville from the British in the town of Vincennes in the Indiana territory. When Clark arrived in St. Louis he lacked the funds to supply his men with the weapons, clothing and other supplies that would be needed for the expedition. Vigo secured the necessary funds by using his personal fortune as collateral. In addition, he supplied the expedition with the necessary supplies from his warehouse.
Vigo’s participation was not limited to supplies and financial support. In the winter he went to Vincennes to scout out the British defenses. While there he was captured by the British and held prisoner for several weeks. French settlers in Vincennes convinced the British that he was not a threat because he was a foreign national and he was released.
He headed back to meet Clark and he reported that there were only 80 men defending the fort. However, Clark still did not have the men to attack the fort. Vigo recruited French volunteers in St. Louis to join Clark. With this force, Clark attacked the fort on February 23, 1779 and the British were completely taken by surprise and the fort fell.
With the fall of Fort Sackville in Vincennes, American gained control of the Northwest Territory, primarily Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. This area remained in American hands for the duration of the war. For his service Vigo was promoted to Colonel in the militia of St. Louis which was organized to protect the city.
After the Revolutionary War, he moved to Vincennes, Indiana and is buried there. During his lifetime, Vigo was not compensated by the American Government for the money he loaned Colonel Clark. It was fifty years after his death on March 22, 1836 that the American government recognized the loan. However, he did not have any living heirs to collect.
Francis Vigo is buried in Vincennes, Indiana where he settled after the Revolutionary War. There is county in Indiana named after him. In 1934, artist John Angle was given a commission to create a statue of Vigo. It was dedicated on May 4, 1936 on the grounds of the Colonel Rogers Clark Memorial overlooking the Wabash River in Vincennes.
At one time Berra Park on the Hill was named Vigo Park after Francis Vigo. In the 1960’s the park was renamed in honor of the longtime Hill Alderman Louis (Midge) Berra.
Francesco Vigo is one of a long line of Italian Americans who have helped to make to make the United States the great nation it is today. Many of them have a St. Louis connection.