City’s founder to be memorialized with bronze statue at riverfront this spring
By Bernie Schmitt
A bronzed statue of Francois-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes, will be unveiled in downtown Vincennes during the 2018 Spirit of Rendezvous weekend.
The statue honoring the city’s founder is the result of hard work and determination by Joy Biggs and the “Friends of Vincennes Heritage” committee, a group that was dedicated to raising the more than the $50,000 needed to make it happen. It was a dream that will become reality this Memorial Day Weekend.
“We’re very happy,” Biggs said. “We do call it a miracle. Of all the people in the community to be raising money, we were the underdogs.”
A timetable of events will be announced closer to the event, but the ceremonial unveiling of the statue is expected to be in the early afternoon on Saturday, May 26. It will be erected at the entrance to the riverfront walkway, adjacent to Patrick Henry Square.
The 6-foot tall bronze monument of Vincennes will sit upon a 2-foot tall granite pedestal, anchored by a 2-foot tall concrete ledge. The statue of the French marine officer will be holding his hat in one hand, and a “spontoon” (a European military pike [spear]) in the other, striking somewhat of a heroic pose along the banks of the Wabash River.
“I’d like to think that he’s just gotten out of his canoe and looking around his surroundings thinking that this would be a nice place for a community,” Bigg said.
We don’t really know what Vincennes looked like, said local historian Richard Day, but it is known what French soldiers wore in the early 1730s, the time Vincennes is said to have established a fort here. Historians have settled on 1732 as the year for Vincennes’ founding.
“We have a good idea of what the uniforms worn by French marines looked like then,” Day said. “We think we have a good representation of what a French officer would look like.”
Biggs and Day are pleased with sculptor Bill Wolfe’s third and final rendition of Vincennes. His first clay sculpture of Vincennes was displayed at the Knox County Public Library in 2015. It has been modified about three different times, Biggs said, but the final rendition is complete and it is on its way to the foundry to be bronzed.
Wolfe, who is most widely known for his statue of Larry Bird in Terre Haute, was delighted to have the opportunity to create the Sieur de Vincennes. The artist appreciates history and began working on the Vincennes statue long before the funding was obtained.
“I love local history projects, so I was elated when asked about this,” Wolfe said. “This is perfect for me. I love doing historical figures.”
He began work on the statue “right away,” without any advance money, having faith that funding and decision to go forward would occur.
“It took a few years, but it finally happened,” he said. “I’m happy to make the sculpture and happy all of it came to fruition.”
He said he’s been accused that he made Francois-Marie Bissot Sieur de Vincennes to look like himself, but that isn’t the case, he said. He had nothing to go by, so in thinking about it at 2 a.m. in his studio, he sat down with clay and said to himself, “OK, Mr. Vincennes, tell me what you look like.”
“I don’t think he looks like me,” Wolfe said. “If he does, it’s purely accidental.”
At first Wolfe had Vincennes sporting facial hair, believing that French soldiers on the frontier were not concerned with shaving daily. However, historians say that French officers were clean-shaven, and thus so will be Vincennes.
Wolfe will be on hand when the statue is unveiled in May. He says even though he’s enthused about a project, the true essence of what it means for people is revealed to him when a crowd gathers and he sees its reaction. Otherwise, he’s concentrating on getting the work done.
“When the crowds come it is somewhat of a nervous time for me,” he said. You don’t know if people will accept what you’ve done or gasp and question it.
“I hope this statue is something people will like,” he said. “I hope it’s a good representation of Sieur de Vincennes. I hope it’s worthy of his sacrifice and what he’s done.”
The quest to honor Vincennes’ founding father began in October 2013. Biggs was concerned that Vincennes’ legacy was not given the emphasis it should, and didn’t understand why there were monuments to other notables in Vincennes history, but not the city’s founder.
“One of the reasons as to why Vincennes had not been honored before was that there were no buildings left from that time period,” Bigg said. “We don’t need a building when a statue will serve as a permanent, visual reminder of the founder of Vincennes.”
Positive feedback from Mayor Joe Yochum led to Biggs forming a committee and putting together a presentation for City Council members and other groups. The clay form of Vincennes at the library sparked interest and generated initial excitement about the project. But as time went on, Biggs and committee members worried they would never achieve their fund-raising goals.
“We received most of our donations in this past year,” Biggs said. “Last January we only had $3,200. We now have over $62,000, and we may get more. Donations really picked up when people began to know about him.”
The Friends of Vincennes Heritage committee had major donations from the Bierhous family ($10,000); the Urban Enterprise Assocation ($10,000); and the McCormick Family Foundation ($5,000). Tom Dittman, a Vincennes native and retired Eli Lilly executive, helped the committee land $7,500 from the Lilly Foundation.
“We also have had many $1,000 donations and smaller amounts from individuals who are interested in seeing this done,” Biggs said.
It took $53,000 to commission the statue and to get it bronzed at an Indianapolis foundry. The granite pedestal is $6,000, and installations cost a little over $2,000. There may be other unexpected expenses, but Biggs believes they can be covered. Lighting for the statue may be considered later.
Biggs and the Friends of Vincennes Heritage are excited about the statue’s unveiling. Biggs said she knows of many individuals who are expected to travel to Vincennes for the event. And in that the ceremony will be during the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous, there will likely be hundreds gathered to see the statue of Vincennes.
“Without (Sieur de) Vincennes, neither one, George Rogers Clark or William Henry Harrison would have been here,” Biggs said. “Our history is not complete unless we start at the beginning, and Vincennes had a lot to do with the start of Indiana.”
Sieur de Vincennes established a fort at Vincennes to expand and protect the French fur trade, and thus French influence, in the lower Wabash Valley. The French were competing with the British for trade and territory, though the French had more amiable relationships with the natives. Vincennes figured prominently in those relationships.
“He seemed to be a charismatic man,” Biggs, whose ancestors lived and died with Vincennes. “He came from Lafayette (Fort Quietenon) in an attempt to extend the fur trade.”
Sieur de Vincennes was born in 1700 in Montreal. Francois-Marie Bissot was the third generation of his family in America. His grandfather, Francois, arrived in Canada from Normandy, France, in the 1630s. In 1672, Francois was given a grant of land call “the Seigniory of Vincennes” along the St. Lawrence River, near Quebec. From this the family took on the title “Sieur de Vincennes.”
When Francois-Marie Bissot was 18, he joined his father at Post Miami (Fort Wayne) as a cadet in the French military. He became Sieur de Vincennes upon his father’s death in 1719, and, like his father, became somewhat important with regard to the diverse cultural landscape of the North American frontier, especially with the natives.
In 1732, Vincennes convinced friendly Wea natives to follow him near Piankeshaw settlements along the lower Wabash, and with 10 or 12 men he built a fort they called “Poste de Vincennes,” on the eastern bank of the river.
Four years after Vincennes established the post on the lower Wabash, during a military expedition against Chickasaw natives near present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, he and around 20 others were captured, beaten, and burned alive on a pyre near present-day Tupelo.