Sunday, July 15, 2012

Fort Madison Iowa


By Jacob Van Der Zee.

Artists rendition of Fort Madison in 1808
Beginning with the year 1804 the United States govern­ment turned its attention to the western country. William Henry Harrison, Governor of Indiana Territory and of the District of Louisiana and Superintendent of Indian Af­fairs, and later President of the nation, effected a treaty with the Sacs and Foxes whose tepee villages, seven in number, then overlooked the Mississippi River in the Iowa-Illinois country. In sending this treaty to the Senate for ratification President Jefferson favored it as "the means of retaining exclusive commerce with the Indians west of the Mississippi River - a right indispensable to the policy of governing those Indians by commerce rather than by arms."

The government promised to establish a trading house or factory among the Indians "in order to put a stop to the abuses and impositions practiced upon them by private traders." The Indians also consented to let the govern­ment set up a military post at or near the mouth of the Wisconsin River: since the land on the lower side of the river might not be suitable for that purpose, the tribes agreed that a fort might be built, either on the upper side of the "Ouisconsin", or on the right bank of the Missis­sippi in the Iowa country, as the one or the other might be found most convenient.


Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike, as has been noted, command­ed the first American army expedition up the Mississippi River in the summer of 1805. According to instructions he selected three sites suitable for military establishments and described a place which corresponds to the site of the city of Burlington. "Looking across the Mississippi from this eminence," read Pike's words, "you have an ele­gant view on an immense prairie, as far as the eye can extend, now and then interrupted by clumps of trees; and to crown all, immediately under the hill is a limestone spring, sufficient for the consumption of a regiment." He also se­lected a spot at or near McGregor, Clayton County, and reported that if "the annoyance of any European power who might be induced to attack it with cannon" were con­templated, the place was infinitely better than a location on the Wisconsin River just opposite.

Chief Black Hawk opposed Fort Madison from the start
Lieutenant Pike at this time also considered situations for the government trading post to be erected in the Sac and Fox country. Not until 1808, however, did the govern­ment take active steps to carry out the treaty provisions of 1804. At that time the United States maintained Fort Bellefontaine four miles above the junction of the Missouri with the Mississippi and Fort Dearborn on the site of Chicago, as well as some posts in the southern part of the Indiana-Illinois region. In the autumn of this year, Lieu­tenant Alpha Kingsley received orders at Fort Bellefon­taine to proceed up the Mississippi and fix on a suitable site for a factory and fort near the Des Moines River. On the 22nd of November, he wrote to the Secretary of War from his garrison "at Belle Vue, near River Le Moine," that he had nearly finished the construction of the factory, store­houses, and barracks. He expressed his belief that no place would prove more advantageous for the Indian trade, and said he hoped that by spring he would have the fort "so far advanced that it will bid defiance to the evil-minded savage, and at the same time ensure the respect and friendship of the better disposed."

One is not surprised to find many of the Sacs and Foxes in a state of alarm and consternation while these military measures were underway. One of the Sac braves, Black Hawk, always under British influence, later told how the American soldiers went about their work with weapons in hand, "acting as if they were in an enemy's country". To allay their fears the Indians were told that these were only houses for a trader who was coming there to live and sell goods very cheaply and that the soldiers would remain "to keep him company".  Despite remonstrances by the na­tives, the work went on: three blockhouses, two factory buildings, officers' quarters, two barracks, a guard house, and a surgeon's office were constructed within a high pal­isaded stockade overlooking the river and named Fort Mad­ison in honor of the President, though also frequently referred to as Fort Belle Vue, and sometimes called the Le Moine or Des Moines factory.

The construction of a fort at this point was certainly not a violation either of the letter or of the spirit of the treaty of 1804, as so many writers have asserted, for the Indians had consented to the stipulation: "at or near the mouth of the Ouisconsin  . . . .  or on the right bank of the Mississippi". The government merely exercised its right of choice. One faction of the Sacs and Foxes exclaimed loudly against the government's act of hostility, but Black Hawk and English traders from Mackinac (whose business was threatened) were no doubt the principal instigators of discontent. It was the recognized American policy to ex­clude British subjects from trade with the Indians, and hence also agents of the Mackinac Company.  British traders then overran the Upper Mississippi country, sold at high prices goods of the best quality, manufactured ex­pressly for the Indians, and poisoned the minds of their patrons against the American government's factors, who generally kept inferior goods - so inferior it is said that the Indians found in them a source of laughter!

Fort Madison and its factory received no glad welcome from the natives, and from the first was destined to pass no easy time. Considerable alarm reigned in the garrison during the winter of 1808-1809, and in the following spring, a plot to kill the soldiers and destroy the fort was frustrated. Later, when Black Hawk's Sacs and the warlike Winnebagoes absented themselves to wreak their vengeance elsewhere, the factory carried on a thriving business. Of the ten government trading houses which reported for the years 1807-1811 Fort Madison's gains were estimated at $10,000, recovered on hatter's furs and on lead which the Indians were said to dig and smelt, "succeeding remark­ably well ".

In January, 1812, the government factor wrote of Win­nebago robbery and murder, and added: "Every hour I look for a war party, and God only knows when it will end. I hope you will cause immediate relief by increasing our number of men at this post". The Indians, principally Winnebagoes who were for many years firebrands upon the American frontier, led by the ubiquitous Sac brave, Black Hawk, attacked and besieged Fort Madison during the later months of 1812. War between England and the United States had already broken out, and British subjects in the Mississippi Valley availed themselves of every op­portunity to fan the flame of Indian discord and hostility. The British band of Sacs and Foxes went around arrayed in British uniforms and armed with British powder and balls. It was difficult to defend this lone stronghold in the Iowa country: according to a contemporaneous account, "as from an eminence their parade ground could be swept by small arms, and it is almost surrounded by chasms to within ten or twelve steps of the pickets and block-houses, from whence the Indians threw upwards of 500 pieces of burning timber on the roofs of the houses; and when the attack commenced there was no spot about the fort that did not emit a continued sheet of fire from guns, fiery arrows and brands, and did not afford the brave fellows within an opportunity of doing much execution, except now and then knocking over such red skins as had the impudence to peep over the bank."

The garrison prevented the buildings from catching fire by using guns as syringes to keep the roofs wet. It was believed that the enemy was only waiting for a favorable wind to sweep flames from the factory and thus set fire to the whole establishment. On a calm evening, therefore, the commanding officer, it is said, "dispatched a soldier with fire to the factory; and in less than three hours that build­ing was consumed without danger to the garrison - during this day several Indians crept into an old stable and com­menced shooting out of it, but a shot from the cannon by Lt. B. Vasques, soon made their yellow jackets fly." In the destruction of the factory the government sustained a loss of $5,500 including peltries, bear skins, and other articles.

Existence at the fort became more and more precarious as the year 1813 wore on: the garrison, never more than one hundred men, spent night and day in ceaseless watch­ing, and the Indians, taking advantage of their superior po­sition and numbers, grew more and more insolent and bold. The only alternative to starvation was escape. This was affected by digging a short trench from the fort to the Mississippi River, creeping out on hands and knees to the water's edge, and after setting fire to the fort embarking safely in some boats, to the amazement of the unsuspecting besiegers."


Taken from - Iowa Journal of History & Politics.  April 1914.

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