Indiana’s Unlikely & Undeniable Hoosier Hero, Francis Vigo
On December 13th, 1747 Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo was born in Mondovi, aPiedmont town in Northern Italy. Young Giuseppe’s travels would eventually take him to New Orleans as a soldier in the Spanish Army. He left the Spanish Army in the 1760s or 70s but didn’t leave the United States. Instead, he began answering to the name Francis Vigo and moved to St. Louis, where he opened a fur trading business in 1772.
At some point after moving west, Vigo met George Rogers Clark, a respected Revolutionary War military officer who was referred to as ‘Hannibal of the West’, ‘Washington of the West’ or, most commonly,‘Conqueror of the Old Northwest’.
Technically, Vigo was a Spanish national and was therefore considered a neutral non-combatant in the war, but his heart bore allegiances that his passport did not. Around this time, he began spying for America and funneling vital information to Clark.
It was through this relationship that Vigo would ultimately make his way to Indiana.
In 1778, Clark sent Vigo to Post Vincennes to inspect the conditions and gather information. Vigo obliged, but was intercepted by Native American’s and handed over to the British, who had recaptured Vincennes for the Crown. Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton was suspicious of Vigo, despite his non-combatant status, and held him on parole. French citizens in the area ultimately got Vigo released by threatening to cut off supplies to Fort Sackville.
Upon his release, a still-skeptical Hamilton made Vigo promise not to do anything to harm the British on the way to St Louis. Vigo was a spy, not a liar. He agreed and remained true to his word. He traveled all the way to St. Louis without ruffling feathers, then doubled back to Kaskaskia to rendezvous with Clark. This debriefing is what prompted Clark to retake Vincennes in 1779.
It was this action that cemented Vigo’s status as an unlikely hero of the Revolutionary War, but he contributed in many other ways. He was a successful merchant and noted financier of the Patriot cause, exchanging currencies with Clark and other war figures, often at a great personal loss.
Following the Revolution, Vigo worked as a merchant and was a colonel in the Knox County Militia. In 1801, he was instrumental in creating the Jefferson Academy and was named one of the original trustees. The school still exists, though it is now named Vincennes University. In 1818, Vigo County, Indiana was established in his honor. There is also a statue of Vigo, fittingly located in George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.
Vigo died March 26th, 1836 with no blood-related descendants. Several decades later, his estate was awarded almost $50,000 for his efforts during the war – as per his will, the money was used to fund a bell for the Vigo County courthouse.
Even in death, Francis Vigo had Hoosier interests at heart.