ARSENEAU: The history of Four Flags revisited

Niles is proudly the City of Four Flags. This is represented on our City logo, on our street signs and on the logos of many businesses and organizations. Proud Nilesites can list these four nations: France, England, Spain and America. I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit this history.

Niles counts France as the first flag. In the 1680s, French Catholic Jesuits organized a mission here on the eastern bank of the St. Joseph River. Both France and Britain were competing to establish colonies across North America. The French government realized the location’s strategic importance and in 1691, ordered the construction of Fort St. Joseph, a trading post with a small military garrison. For a time, France held power through most of North America. Fort St. Joseph ranked 4th in volume of furs traded among all posts in New France during the 18th century.

In 1761, Britain came to power after defeating France in the Seven Years’ War (also called the French and Indian War). Britain was now the dominant European power on the continent and its flag became the second to fly over this region. It is interesting to think about how the outcome of this war changed the course of our history. If France had won, we would likely be speaking French instead of English.

The British quickly ran into trouble as their way of working with native people differed considerably from the French. Business arrangements and diplomatic alliances were no longer honored. In 1763, a group of native people allied under the Odawa leader, Pontiac, coordinated simultaneous attacks on several Forts. At Fort St. Joseph, about 15 British soldiers were killed and the commander, Ensign Francis Schlosser, was taken prisoner. After Pontiac’s rebellion, England never regarrisoned Fort St. Joseph, though trading activity continued.

The third flag accounts for a short chapter in the area’s history. In 1781, St. Louis was under Spanish control. Captain Eugene Poure, a French man living under Spanish rule, led an expedition of about 65 French men and 60 Native Americans allied with Spain to Fort St. Joseph.  They plundered the fort, claimed the area for the Commandant of St. Louis, Don Francisco Cruzat, and returned to St. Louis the next day. Spanish rule only lasted a day yet it adds another flag to the story.

After the Spanish raid, Fort St. Joseph was essentially abandoned. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the American Revolution. The Old Northwest Territory (including present day Niles) became part of America. Yet the British did not immediately withdraw from this area. The local population consisted of a mix of British military personnel, traders, a few American soldiers, Native Americans, and French Canadians.

Much of the trade business moved to the Bertrand area. American settlement did not happen until the 1820s and the founding of Carey Mission. The Village of Niles was established in 1829. The American flag is, of course, our fourth flag.

Of course, this narrative leaves out a very important part of the story, that of the people who have occupied this area for thousands of years. No flag represents the people who lived here before any Europeans arrived, or for the Miami or Potawatomi who lived alongside the French and the British. It neglects the story of Leopold Pokagon, who successfully negotiated for his people to remain in the region.

Pontiac’s Rebellion placed Fort St. Joseph under native control and effectively ended British military control in a more dramatic shift in power than the so-called Spanish raid. No flag accounts for this episode of Niles history. As we endeavor to be more inclusive in interpreting history, we need to acknowledge this gap in information.

As a last point, lest we dismiss the Spanish raid as a relatively unimportant event in Niles history, consider this. In 1781, Benjamin Franklin, who was serving in France as our first ambassador, wrote to our first Secretary for Foreign Affairs Robert L. Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, serving as ambassador to France, writes from his post to Robert R. Livingston, America’s first Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

“I see by the newspapers that the Spaniards, having taken a little post called St. Joseph, pretend to have made a conquest of the Illinois country. In what light does this proceeding appear to Congress?”

Our little Fort caught the attention of Ben Franklin and for a time, was national news. 

Christina Arseneau is the Niles History Center director. She can be reached at by phone at (269) 845-4054 ext. 4010 or by email at HCdirector@nilesmi.org.

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