EDITOR'S NOTE: The next time you're walking down Second or driving down Sixth, you'll see them. Emblazoned in white letters on a green background, held up by a metal bar on street corners, are the names of early residents who lived in this fledgling riverfront town hundreds of years ago. But who were the people behind the signs — and why do our streets still carry their names? In our series "Remnants of History," we'll do some digging to find out.
Nowadays, men like Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are synonymous with success in business.
But back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the big businessman here in Indiana's first city was Francis Vigo.
The namesake of Vigo Street was born in the Mondavi region of northern Italy in 1747. As a young man, he made a living as a mule driver over the Pyrenees mountain range into Spain.
“That may mean he was a smuggler. Smuggling was a widespread enterprise at the time,” said local historian Richard Day. “Or he may have been a legal muleteer, we don't know.”
It's said that Vigo experienced some “family problems,” though the specifics also remain a mystery, that led him to join the Spanish Army, Day said.
He was discharged in the 1770s and set his sights on America, eventually getting involved in the fur trade and winding up at the recently created post of St. Louis around 1774.
Several years into Vigo's extremely lucrative life as a fur trader and not long after the settlers of Vincennes — where Vigo had a vested business interest — pledged their allegiance to George Rogers Clark, British Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton recaptured the strategic Fort Sackville.
This development was unbeknownst to Clark, who hadn't heard from his subordinate in charge at Vincennes, Capt. Leonard Helm, for quite some time, Day said. Clark grew concerned that something was awry, so he turned to Vigo to carry messages along to Helm.
And Vigo was captured along the way.
“As the Indian scouts of Hamilton are ferrying him across the river, he eats the messages from Clark,” Day said. “When he arrives, Hamilton is very suspicious of him, but Vigo says, 'I am a Spanish citizen and Spain is not at war with England, therefore you can't hold me as a prisoner.'”
Hamilton releases him on one condition: That Vigo gives the British commander his word that he won't do anything on his way back to St. Louis that's contrary to British interests.
“So Vigo gives him his word, takes off back down the Mississippi River, paddles right past Clark and goes up to St. Louis,” Day said. “As soon as he gets there, he turns right back around and goes back down to Kaskaskia and tells Clark that yes, indeed, the British have recaptured Vincennes, but the French over there are still pro-American.”
With all this reliable intelligence from Vigo, as well as a loan of about $8,000 worth of trade goods to supply his troops along the way, Clark embarks on his successful campaign in 1779 to recapture Vincennes.
Vigo's role in that historic event earned him a permanent home within the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. In May 1936, about a month before the Clark Memorial was dedicated, a statue sculpted by John Angel was placed along the banks of the Wabash, said park ranger Jason Collins.
“We get a lot of questions about the statue,” Collins said. “When you're walking up the steps to the memorial, if you look off to the right, you can actually see his head, and that leads to a lot of questions about who he is and what his connection is to the Clark story.”
LIVING IN HIGH STYLE
At the end of the Revolutionary War, Vigo decided to move to Vincennes, which he envisioned as being the future capital of the western territory, Day said. He married an American woman named Elizabeth Shannon and used his business know-how to get involved in a big industry: bringing supplies to Indiana's first city from Pittsburgh and supplying the troops here at Fort Knox.
And along those journeys, Day said, Vigo traveled in style.
“He's described as having a really nice keelboat that had a silver service in it,” he said.
Vigo was also a go-between with the Native Americans, Day said, and had several followers and clerks throughout the region, including in St. Louis, Cape Girardeau and New Madrid, so his influence stretched pretty far.
“He's the big business guy, the big boss, the big merchant here in Vincennes with these connections to all these other places in the midwest,” Day said. “He does very well.”
Historical records tell us that Vigo had a tavern permit at a location on Broadway Street between First Street and the Wabash River, Day said, and he also built a two-story frame house in the country called Belle Fontaine on Monroe City Road as well as another home here in town on the corner of Second and Busseron streets, where the Riverfront Pavilion is now.
“It was a two-lot house on the corner toward Second and then in the back there at First and Busseron was where he had his garden,” Day said.
One of the things Vigo is known for, Day added, was the introduction of the tomato to Vincennes.
“He was known to serve tomato juice at his table,” Day said. “In fact, it was suggested that his statue should be holding a tomato.”
Throughout his life in Vincennes, Vigo owned land all over what's now Knox County. He became involved with the Church of St. Francis Xavier and Jefferson Academy, eventually serving on the board of trustees when Vincennes University was founded, and played a role in the early days of the Vincennes Library Company, too, which was interesting, Day said, as Vigo couldn't read or write.
Vigo County was named after him as well during his lifetime.
In his later years, however, Vigo's business interests and health both declined. He died in 1836 and after a big funeral that just about everyone in town attended, Day said, Vigo was buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, where his wife had also been also buried about 17 years before.
THE VIGO STREET MYSTERY
Vigo was certainly a man of many accomplishments, but why was he deemed worthy of a street name?
“The simple answer is we don't know,” Day said. “Sometimes streets were named because a particular person lived on it, but we don't know that he ever lived on Vigo. Perhaps it was just named in his honor.”
There was a story that surfaced some 100 years or so after his death, Day said, that one day while Vigo was still alive and officials were surveying the area, he came along and stuck his Osage orange walking stick in the corner at Fourth and Vigo, thereby marking the street's spot.
For many years, it's said that an Osage orange tree grew there from that stick, though it was eventually cut down and replaced with a bronze marker encased in red brick that can still be seen today.
“That was supposedly where the Francis Vigo tree stood," Day chuckled. "But I highly question that story."