Jean-Baptiste Cardinal and the Affair of Gratiot’s Boat:
An Incident in the American Revolution

William L. Potter (formerly Extended) Publication Series, no. 1

Robert C. Wiederaenders

72 pages, 2 maps | 1999

The Revolutionary War in the Old Northwest was more than the exploits of Col. George Rogers Clark and Lt. Governor Henry Harrison and Buyer Hamilton. This was a vast expanse where Indian alliances, bold strokes and intrigues won and lost vast domains of primeval forest.

While there were British forts here, the population of Europeans was overwhelmingly the sons of the Ancien Régime: Canadian Frenchmen. These were people of the fur trade. If they spoke a second language it was more likely an Indian tongue than English. They knew the Native people here; they knew the terrain.

During the war, neither the British nor the Americans were ever certain of the loyalties of the French in the Old Northwest. Being confidants of the Indians and expert guides, large numbers of these Frenchmen did play pivotal roles in the war. Not knowing the language of the principal combatants and even illiterate in their own mother tongue, they were not well represented in the documentary record.

The incident of Jean-Baptiste Cardinal and Gratiot’s boat is a noteworthy exception. Here is a story where there is a wealth of documentation, much of which was unpublished until now.

Indeed the strength of Wiederaender’s work is that he has assembled, presented, translated,and interpreted such a large number of diverse sources regarding one Canadien’s role in a chapter of Midwestern Revolutionary War history. This work proves that patient, persistent, and exhaustive sleuthing can reconstruct some of the elusive stories of the French participation in the war.

Beyond the importance as a model for research, this work deserves attention simply because it is an intriguing story. Wiederaenders has sorted out the fiction that accumulated over two centuries. He has also added new and thought-provoking interpretations ofthis incident on the upper Mississippi and ofthe British and Indian assault on St. Louis.

About the Author

Robert Charles Wiederaenders, a retired church archivist, received a graduate degree from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago after graduate studies in history. He was a long-time member of the Center for French Colonial Studies and a member of the board of the Dubuque Historical Society. He died in 2012.


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