Iowa History Project





Fort Madison was the first fort built in what is now Iowa.  After its destruction twenty years elapsed ere another military post was established west of the Mississippi in this section.  In 1834 Fort Des Moines was built about where Montrose, Lee County, is.  There have been two forts bearing the name Des Moines.  The one in Lee County was the first.

This Fort Des Moines was erected by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Kearny, who had with him three companies of United States dragoons, as the cavalry of those days was called.  Lieutenant Colonel Kearny and his command arrived at the site in the latter part of September, 1834.  By spring the fort was ready for occupancy.

The Black Hawk Purchase was being settled, and the soldiers were needed as a protection from possible outbreaks by the Indians.  The presence of the troops also exercised a quieting influence on the rough characters who might have stirred up trouble.

Some of the officers stationed here afterwards became famous.  One of the captains was Nathaniel Boone, son of the celebrated Daniel Boone, of Kentucky.  E. V. Sumner and Jesse B. Brown were the other captains.  The dragoons wore great epaulets and their swords were so tremendously long that they trailed on the ground behind.

The soldiers did not remain long at Fort Des Moines, for in October, 1836, they were ordered to withdraw.  By the next summer the fort had been abandoned.  The colonel's house became a hotel and was named the River House.

The second Fort Des Moines was located where the city of Des Moines now stands.  It was built in 1843, and at first was christened Fort Raccoon.  In May, 1843, the steamboat Ione landed troops at the mouth of the Raccoon River.  A fort was erected on the ground at the angle formed by the meeting of the Raccoon and the Des Moines Rivers.  the commanding officer was Captain James Allen.  He had under him a company of dragoons and a company of infantry.

The soldiers were stationed here to watch over the Indians until settlers were permitted to occupy the territory.  The rights of the Indians to the land were looked after, and settlers were not allowed to cross the border into the New Purchase, or west of Redrock, until the time appointed.  The last soldier left the fort in June, 1846.  By this time Sacs and Foxes had been removed to Kansas.

When the Winnebagoes were quartered in Iowa, and had a reservation in the Neutral Ground, along the Upper Iowa River, soldiers were stationed among them.  The post was called Fort Atkinson, named after General Atkinson, a commander-in-chief prominent in military operations in the Upper Mississippi Valley.  The fort was on the right bank of the Turkey River, about fifty miles from the Mississippi at McGregor.  A town bearing the name now stands on the site.  Fort Atkinson was abandoned in 1856.

Where the city of Fort Dodge is once stood Fort Clarke.  Fort Clarke was established in the summer of 1850, and garrisoned by Company E of the Sixth Infantry.  Brevet Major Woods was in command.  The troops were a protection to the settlers, who were pressing toward the northwest.  In 1851 General Winfield Scott ordered the name changed to Fort Dodge.  In 1853 the soldiers withdrew.

Before Iowa became a State, Council Bluffs also was a military station.  There are reports to the effect that in 1838 two companies of infantry were set up the Missouri on a steamboat, and disembarked where Council Bluffs now is.  The presence of the Pottawattamie Indians in Southwestern Iowa seemed to render a military force necessary.  A block house was erected beside the Bryant Spring.  The troops were not required in the reservation, and in a short time they abandoned the fort.  Two Roman Catholic priests, Fathers De Smet and Verreydt, who were in charge of a mission for the Pottawattamies, moved into the buildings left by the soldiers, placed a wooden cross over the barracks, and used the structures in mission work.  The Pierce street school building, a half century later, was built over the old burying ground of the fort and mission.

There are reports of another fort in this vicinity.  It was called Fort Fenwick and Fort Croghan.  In the spring of 1842 Captain John H. K. Burgwin was dispatched up the Missouri with a detachment of soldiers to establish quarters among the Pottawattamies.  He selected a site for the post in what is now the southeastern portion of Council Bluffs.  High water in the spring of 1843 made the garrison temporarily abandon the fort and take a new position on the west side of Little Mosquito Creek.  The water covered the valley of the Missouri bottoms.  When it subsided the soldiers returned to Fort Croghan.  By the fall of 1843 the Pottawattamies no longer needed protection from outsiders, and the troops withdrew to Fort Leavenworth.

During the military operations in Iowa a number of men afterwards distinguished in the service of their country came within the borders.  Jefferson Davis was stationed at Fort Armstrong, on Rock Island, and on several occasions traversed sections of eastern Iowa.  Robert E. Lee was in Southeastern Iowa on a surveying trip.  He was then a yong lieutenant.  Winfield Scott, the great leader in the Mexican War, was in command at Fort Armstrong.  We have read of the treaty he concluded with the Sacs and Foxes, where Davenport now stands.  Zachary Taylor was stationed at Prairie du Chien, and served elsewhere along the frontier, and was up and down the river many times.  A report sent by him to the war department in 1814 is dated at Fort Madison-at that time but a ruin.

While we are dealing with forts and military events of early Iowa, we cannot pass over Fort Armstrong.  Although this fort was not within the limits of the present State, its history is shared by Iowa as well as by Illinois.

The attempt to build it brought on that battle in the river channel about midway between the present cities of Davenport and Rock Island, when Major Zachary Taylor and his soldiers were defeated and sent back to St. Louis.

The War of 1812 had broken out.  In acting as commander, Governor Clarke-the same Clarke who headed the Lewis and Clarke expedition in 1804-of Missouri, sent a force to take possession of Prairie du Chien and fortify it.  The troops, part volunteers and part regulars, left St. Louis early in May, 1814.  Lieutenant Joseph Perkins commanded, but Governor Clarke himself accompanied the barges bearing the troops.

When the Americans reached Prairie du Chien they found that Colonel Dickson, who was the British agent and Indian trader there, having recruited three hundred Sioux and Winnebagoes three weeks previous, had left with the Indians for the British army in Canada.  Priairie du Chien, although in American territory, really had been a British post until the arrival of the United States soldiers.

Colonel Dickson had stationed a few soldiers, called Mackinaw Fencibles, in the post, to guard it.  They surrendered at once.  Lieutenant Perkins was rejoiced at the easy victory.  He quartered his men in the Mackinaw Fur Company's trading house until a fort could be built.  Governor Clarke hastened back to St. Louis in great glee and announced the victory.  The people of St. Louis gave him a banquet and reception as a celebration.

However, hardly had the governor finished his tale of victory, and told of the building of the new fort - christened Fort Shelby - when, July 17, a force of British allies, made up of traders' clerks and Indians, appeared before Fort Shelby and demanded its surrender.  Lieutenant Perkins resisted for three days.  Then he capitulated.  Colonel Mackery, who commanded the attacking party, thanked Lieutenant Perkins for building such a nice fort.

"We like it much better than the old quarters." said Colonel Mackey, smiling.

So Lieutenant Perkins and his men, having given up their possessions, sorrowfully descended the river, and reached St. Louis August 6.

In the meantime affairs below Prairie du Chien, also, had not progressed favorably for the Americans.  General Howard, who had been absent from St. Louis, had come back and had decided to reinforce Fort Shelby.  He dispatched another expedition, under Lieutenant John Campbell of the regular army.  Three keel boats, carrying forty-two regulars and sixty-six volunteers, or rangers, set out from St. Louis about the first of July.  Captain Stephen Rector and Lieutenant Riggs commanded the rangers.  Contractors' and sutlers' outfits, in boats, and having women and children among the passengers, accompanied the troops.

Now, Captain Rector's boat was navigated by French rivermen from the old French settlement of Cahokia, a few miles south of St. Louis, in Illinois.  They were splendid sailors and soldiers.  When the troops reached the Rock River they landed for a rest and to spend the night before ascending the rapids that reach from Davenport to Le Claire.  The Sacs and Foxes from the villages nearby swarmed around, as friendly as could be, in appearance.  Black Hawk was in the crowd.

Within a few hours after the arrival of the Americans a Winnebago messenger brought word to the Sacs and Foxes of the capture of Fort Shelby by the British, and urged them to continue the work by attacking this expedition.  Black Hawk and the others laid their plans accordingly.  They did not want to hurt the Frenchmen, because they liked the French.

Therefore the Caholians began to be aware that the Sacs and Foxes were pulling them by the hands, secretly, in a down stream direction, as a sign that it was better to go back to St. Louis.  The French told Lieutenant Campbell trouble was intended.  He only laughed.

"Why," he said, "these fellows are all right.  See how friendly they are.  What would make them attack us?  You chaps are too easily frightened.  You're afraid."

Just as the Indians wanted it to do, the expedition, early the next morning, preceeded on its course, the Cahokians sticking to Captain Rector.  A terrible gale, blowing right against the barges, suddenly arose.  The inexperienced men had hard work to control their crafts, but the Cahokia voyageurs were in their element.  Finally Lieutenant Campbell's boat was blown ashore on an island about two miles above Rock Island and near the mainland.  The other barges were some distance ahead.

The soldiers of the Campbell detachment thought they might as well improve their time by getting breakfast.  They were busy over their fires when, before the sentinels could give the alarm, the Indian warwhoop sounded and bullets and arrows fell like rain.  Those regulars not disabled rushed for the protection of the barge.

From their position in the rapids Captain Rector and Lieutenant Riggs, looking back, could see the smoke of the battle, although they could not hear the reports of the muskets and rifles.  The officers ordered their boatmen to turn the crafts and to make all haste to the rescue.  But the Riggs boar became unmanageable and was stranded.  Captain Rector kept on.

When he approached he saw that the Campbell party was about to be slaughtered.  Black Hawk and other warriors had shot blazing arrows against the big sail and into the sides of the barge, until fire was gaining great headway.  The ammunition of the soldiers was running short, and the bottom of the boat was slippery with blood from dead and wounded.  Then Captain Rector and his men did a brave act.

They threw overboard most of their provisions, and whatever else they could, to lighten the boat.  They themselves jumped over into the water on the side opposite from the Indians.  While some fired from their guns, the others pushed the barge right against the blazing craft of Lieutenant Campbell.  The living soldiers scrambled from the burning barge to the boat of the rescuers, the wounded being carried by the strong, and in spite of the tremendous shooting by the Indians and the heat of the flames the one barge, loaded to the gunwales, glided out into the stream.

Whooping in anger and disappointment, the savages leaped into the deserted boat and scalped the dead.

The Riggs barge also escaped, later in th day, and both parties reached St. Louis.  They were exhausted by fighting and by fatigue, but they considered themselves fortunate in being alive.

The place of encounter was christened Campbell's Island and has borne the name up to this day.  It is a short distance below Hampton, Illinois.

The regulars who were under Lieutenant Perkins at Fort Shelby were a portion of Major Zachary Taylor's command of the Seventh Infantry.  When the news of the second defeat, at Campbell's Island, was received at St. Louis it was decided to punish the Indians, and to build a fort on Rock Island.  Major Taylor was selected to lead a force against this point.  It was the intention to proceed above Rock Island some distance, and returning destroy the villages and corn on both banks of the Mississippi clear to the mouth of the Rock River.

Major Taylor, with 334 soldiers, forty of them regulars, set out about the middle of August from a point on the Illinois shore, above St. Louis, called Cape au Gris.  He had eight barges.  When the site of Fort Madison was passed Indians appeared on the banks of either side, or crossing the river in canoes behind the expedition.  The number of savages kept increasing, and when the boars reached Rock Island the sight of red coats showed the Americans that British regulars were helping the Indians.  Cannon were described.  Just above Rock Island the expedition halted for the night and anchored in the shallows near a willow island.  A fierce head wind, similar to that which annoyed the Campbell party, was blowing, and Major Taylor thought it best to wait until he could take counsel what to do.

During the night Indians swam out to the island.  At daybreak a soldier who stepped from a barge onto the sand was shot and killed, and in an instant the savages in the willows and the British cannon on the Illinois mainland opened a hot fire.

Major Taylor ordered his soldiers to charge the island.  This they did, driving the Indians helter skelter into the water and upon a smaller island down the stream.  But the cannon balls were ripping through the sides of the barges, the Indians were crowding the second island, ready to massacre any soldiers who might seek refuge from the artillery, and men on horse-back could be seen directing the operations on the mainland.  It was plain the cannoneers were experienced marksmen.  Major Taylor called a conference of his officers, and retreat was determined upon.

So a third time a baffled expedition entered St. Louis.

Finally, in May, 1816, the fort was erected on the north side of the foot of Rock Island.  It was named Fort Armstrong, in honor of the Secretary of War.  During its existence it was widely known structure, the white walls, rising high above the river, and surrounded by luxuriant foliage and picturesque scenery, looking like a castle.  Several times the Indians planned to seize the fort, but on each occasion their schemes were frustrated.  Both Keokuk and Black Hawk would have liked to capture the garrison.  Long ago, having done its duty through the Black Hawk War and the proceedings immediately following, it was abandoned.  Rock Island arsenal now occupies the romantic isle.

Some Iowa forts were called "fort" simply by courtesy.  They were not recognized as "forts" by the government.  Such was Fort Sanford, which stood near the place now named Garrison Rock, not far from Ottumwa.  It consisted of a few log cabins formerly occupied by the American Fur Company, and was occupied by a company of the First Dragoons from September, 1842, to the middle of May, 1843.  "Fort" Sanford was termed by the War Department "The Sac and Fox Agency", the soldiers having been sent to this point to prevent squatters from intruding on the Indian reservation here.  Captain Allen was the commanding officer.


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