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Cantonment Wilkinsonville

Cantonment Wilkinson, Pulaski County, Illinois

Cantonment Wilkinson (Helm) Site, Pulaski County, Illinois

Pic shows gentle slope toward Ohio, and a "grand chain of rocks" extending to Kentucky and making navigation difficult. This was a good place for military troops to watch the river. It was shallow enough that squirrels could hop across the river on rocks. 

This was the northernmost point of a crescent shape between present Paducah and Cairo. They could see movement on the river just past Paducah to the mouth of the Tennessee River. 

Lewis and Clark deliberately passed on the far side of this spot, likely wary of the motives of Wilkinson. Archeologist Mark Wagner has done extensive work on the cantonment.


Mark J. Wagner
Staff Archaeologist
Center for Archaeological Investigations
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
Last updated: 09/17/2008

The CAI has been conducting archival and archaeological investigations into Cantonment Wilkinson (1801-1802) for the past two years through funding received from the Library of Congress (2003) and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (2004). Cantonment Wilkinson was a large U.S. Army base located in what is now Pulaski County from January, 1801, to April, 1802. Cantonments essentially were large temporary camps that lacked stockade or fortification walls. At its peak, Cantonment Wilkinson was the largest military base in the country containing approximately 1,500 Infantry, Artillery, and Dragoon (i.e., cavalry) soldiers.

The cantonment had its inception in a late 1790s diplomatic crisis between the United States and France. The French had begun seizing American ships on the high seas and it appeared that all-out war was imminent. In response, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton developed a plan for a large American military base or cantonment in the Ohio River valley. Once the war started, troops from this Reserve Corps; would move into the Mississippi River Valley and capture the river and New Orleans and from the Spanish who were expected to ally themselves with the French. General James Wilkinson was put in charge of this operation despite rumors that he was a traitor in the pay of the Spanish. Wilkinson ordered smaller posts such as Ft. Massac to be abandoned and added their garrisons to the Reserve Corps.

The crisis ended in late 1799 with the signing of a treaty between the U.S. and France. Despite this, ardent federalists such as Alexander Hamilton still hoped for war and plans for the cantonment continued. The first troops arrived at Cantonment Wilkinson in early January, 1801, and immediately began constructing log huts for shelter. According to an 1803 traveler's account of the by then abandoned cantonment it contained 2 of 3 hundred logged houses… built for our army in regular streets as a post or place of arms. As this description indicates, the cantonment essentially was a large camp of huts and other buildings used by the Army. The camp lacked a stockade wall with the boundaries of the camp instead patrolled by sentinels. Other features of the cantonment included quarter master supply buildings, hospital, bakery, brick works, powder magazine, commanding officer's quarters, vegetable gardens, parade grounds, and a boat yard.

The cantonment reached its peak strength in summer, 1801, when it contained approximately 1,500 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians including laundresses, nurses, sutlers (i.e., peddlers), and boat men. During this same time a deadly illness struck the cantonment with a reported 70 soldiers dying from what appears to have been a combination of malaria and dysentery. These soldiers and the base commander Colonel David Strong, who died of an unrelated illness, were buried in the cantonment cemetery, the location of which is now unknown.

The majority of the troops moved to the mouth of the Tennessee River following Colonel Strong's death with Major Jonathon Williams, a grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin and the later founder of West Point and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, left in charge of approximately 70 soldiers including those sick who could not be moved. The 2nd Infantry troops at the mouth of the Tennessee River returned to the cantonment in the fall of 1801, raising the garrison strength to approximately 800 men.

Final abandonment of the cantonment appears to have occurred in April, 1802, following the election of Thomas Jefferson and his subsequent reduction in size of the U.S. Army. Following the departure of the last of the soldiers, approximately 200 Cherokee occupied the abandoned cantonment buildings for several years. These buildings appear to have gradually collapsed or been destroyed for their wood although scattered accounts exist that indicate the Cherokee burned the buildings. The last known account of still-standing structures at the abandoned cantonment dates to 1817. After that, the abandoned cantonment became the site of a small settlement named Wilkinsonville consisting of no more than a few buildings that appeared on maps throughout the early nineteenth century.

Work conducted by the CAI in 2003 succeeded in locating a field overlooking the Ohio River (which we subsequently designated the Helm site) that contained an extensive brick scatter that we interpreted as representing the plow-scattered remains of chimneys and hearths similar to those associated with early nineteenth century U.S. Army buildings at nearby Ft. Massac.

In addition, controlled surface collection of a small area of the site as well as the excavation of sixteen 1 x 1 m units recovered small quantities of early nineteenth century nails, window glass, olive green bottle glass, possible creamware ceramics, a lead pistol ball, and a French-made gunflint. The unit investigations failed, however, to locate any intact subsurface features, raising the possibility that all structural remains had been destroyed and that the site now existed only as an artifact scatter within the plow zone. Although we assigned two feature numbers (features 1 and 2), both proved to be natural root stains upon excavation. Although we failed to find any subsurface features, the age and types of artifacts recovered by the 2003 investigations led us to conclude that the Helm site indeed did represent part of the remains of Cantonment Wilkinson.

We returned to the cantonment site in spring, 2004, to excavate two test units for inclusion in a video documentary that SIU-TV is producing on the archaeology and rebuilding of nearby Ft. Massac. One of these units, which was placed in the area of an artifact scatter identified in the field the previous summer, encountered a large intact refuse-filled feature that contained large amounts of brick and other items (Figure 1). The recovery of a bayonet socket and pewter uniform buttons conclusively identified the feature as being associated with the 1801-1802 cantonment. Upon being notified of this discovery, IHPA provided funding for the complete excavation of the feature and analysis of its content. Hand excavation of the feature (feature 3) revealed that it was a large refuse-filled basin that had been repeatedly used for burning. The feature contained thousands of broken bricks, leading us to surmise that it may have been filled with brick shattered by the tornado that heavily damaged the post in early 1801 (Figure 2). The feature also contained large amounts of broken animal bone, broken ceramics, gunflints, uniform buttons, and other items. This feature may represent a trash pit intentionally dug by the soldiers to dispose of trash during the fall of 1801. A fragmentary order book for the post, now housed at Indiana State University, contains repeated orders for the soldiers to sweep the post of trash once a week. The trash was to be discarded at the edges of the post or, if there was too much, the soldiers were to dig pits and burn the trash.

Cantonment Wilkinsonville: Brewing treason

Cantonment Wilkinsonville: This short-lived military post (1801-1805) supplanted Fort Massac for a few years and the largest military outpost in the fledgling United States with an 800-1000 man garrison. The post consisted of over 20 log barracks, numerous support structures, a headquarters, a stone powder magazine and a log palisade enclosing the compound. About 400 acres were cleared with the site overlooking the Ohio River at the head of the Grand Chain of Rocks, about 14 miles above the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and near the old French Tannery. Little remains today of the post with the exception of about 70 unmarked soldiers' graves including that of Revolutionary War Lt. Colonel David Strong, commander of the post.

Good PDF: lewisandclarkroadtrips.com - Kira Gale

The purpose of the Cantonment was to strengthen the U.S. military presence in an area subject to the intrigues of the European powers and succession-minded Westerners unhappy with the policies of the young American Congress. The troop buildup at the post reflected Alexander Hamilton's wish to go to war with France and the build down occurred after President John Adams averted hostilities at a crucial time in American history. The Cantonment had hosted Generals William Henry Harrison and Wilkinson to settle Indian treaties. It is also ascribed to be the meeting place of General Wilkinson and Aaron Burr who conspired to carve a new republic out of the West.

Cantonment Wilkinsonville, near where British, French and Spanish territory intersected, in 1802 housed half the manpower of the fledgling American Armed Forces. Some 500 to as many as 1500 men were stationed here during the period of 1798-1805. General James Wilkinson was head of the US Military for the entire Louisiana District.

Gen. Wilkinson accepted the Louisiana Purchase for the US from France in 1803.

Trouble was a' brewing. Aaron burr was Vice-President under Jefferson during Jefferson's first term, in 1800. See more on Burr. Jefferson later wrote that he could not trust Wilkinson.

Then Burr had his famous shootout, and won. Burr came west, to an honorary dinner for himself in Nashville and a warm reception. Burr said he was mustering the necessities to fight a feared Spanish invasion. But the word spread that Burr really was planning to start his own empire, perhaps in what we now know as the western states, and perhaps to include some of Mexico.

Former US Vice-President Aaron Burr and Gen. Wilkinson in spring, 1805, met at Wilkinsonville, and likely discussed a coup that would have split the fledgling country. It would have put those troops and a large amount of what is now the southwestern U.S., into Spanish control. President Jefferson learned of the plan and closed the camp.

Search the internet for burr wilkinson conpiracy. The two had worked together 25 years earlier, in the office of another conspirator, Benedict Arnold.

Was Col. Wilkinson connected to Meriwether Lewis' sudden death in 1809? Author Kathryn Moore says very possibly yes.

Wilkinson eventually turned against his old friend, Burr, leading to Burr's impeachment and Federal trial on treason charges in 1807. The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme court presided. Burr was acquitted, but his life continued downhill afterward.

Cantonment Wilkinsonville, not a fort, near Grand Chain, Illinois, has few published historical references. Illinois' only acknowledgement that Wilkinsonville ever existed is a hard-to-see highway marker along Route 37 just south of Grand Chain.

A bound document containing a photocopy of all of the Cantonment Wilkinsonville research and the related bibliography/source/location information to date is available at the Cairo Library, the Cairo Custom House Museum, the Metropolis Library, and SIU-Carbondale Morris Library Special Collections.

NPS Col James Wilkinson 1797 good portrait, brief bio
US Army bio James Wilkinson's early life
NPS - Louisiana Purchase
Col Wilkinson & a big mansion in the Ohio river
"Proofs of the corruption of Gen. James Wilkinson"

Some historical references seem to confuse Fort Massac and Cantonment Wilkinsonville. Fort Massac is a state park in the west edge of Metropolis, also along the Ohio River. The two are separated by about 15 miles.

In 1803, St. Louis was only 40 years old when it became part of the US, with the Louisiana Purchase on April 30th of that year. Illinois was not to become a state for another 15 years. When Jefferson gave instructions to Lewis & Clark to explore the great Northwest, he referred to "leaving the United States," referring to the territory west of Cairo and St. Louis.