IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
FIGHTING INDIANS AT OLD FORT MADISON
Two years after Lieutenant Pike returned to St. Louis the government erected a trading post, or factory, as it was called, for the Sauk and Fox Indians. To protect this post a small fort with three blockhouses was built near-by. You remember that the British fur traders had gained great influence over the Indians of the Upper Mississippi Valley. President Jefferson thought that a fort in this region would help the Americans gain control of the fur trade.
Instead of building the fort at one of the places recommended by Lieutenant Pike, it was placed at the present site of Fort Madison, Iowa. Perhaps you have seen the stone chimney, which marks the site of this old fort. The well which the soldiers dug and used may still be seen, but nothing else remains to remind us of the time that Indians and soldiers fought in this part of Iowa.
Early in the autumn of 1808, Lieutenant Alpha Kingsley came up the Mississippi with a company of soldiers to erect the fort and trading house. He had been told before he left Fort Belle Fontaine, above St. Louis, to select the best place he could find near the mouth of the Des Moines River for the post. The location he picked was really not very good, for high bluffs at the rear made it possible for the Indians to look down into the fort. Wooded ravines near-by also made good hiding places for the red men.
When Lieutenant Kingsley and his me arrived at this point they built some cabins for winter quarters and surrounded them with a stockade. During the winter months the soldiers were busy getting out logs form the surrounding timber for the fort and cabins. As they had no horses nor oxen, the men dragged the logs on sleds from the timber to their camp.
When the Indians heard what was going on, they did not like it. They wanted a trading post but no fort on their land. Black Hawk and some of his band came to the scene to complain to Lieutenant Kingsley. The Lieutenant tried to explain to Black Hawk that the government wanted to keep a few soldiers there as company for the traders. But the Indians were displeased.
While the soldiers worked, they kept their weapons close at hand. On one occasion when the soldiers were busy cutting down trees Black Hawk and some of his companions sneaked up and seized the guns. Then the Indians gave a loud shout. The soldiers, badly frightened, ran to get their muskets, but the Indians had all of them. Black Hawk thought this was a great joke. He and all the Indians had a big laugh as they gave back the weapons.
The soldiers spent an anxious winter, for they did not know when the Indians might decide to make an attack. In the spring Lieutenant Kingsley hears a rumor that the Indians were about ready to swoop down on the post. By hard work the soldiers finished the blockhouses and the stockade so that they moved into the fort on April 14, 1809. Before this the post had been called Fort Belle Vue, but now it was renamed Fort Madison in honor of President James Madison.
All winter long the Indians had been plotting how they might capture the fort and kill the soldiers. In the fall they had stopped at the trading house to get supplies for the winter hunt. Game was scarce that winter, and this made the Indians all the more discontented. Spies kept them informed as to what the soldiers were doing, and they made many plans to attack the fort. Finally Black Hawk proposed a plan which the Indians decided to try.
He proposed that when they came back with their furs in the spring they would ask to give a dance within the stockade. At a given signal the warriors would remove their weapons from under their blankets and kill the soldiers. They they would rob the store and help themselves to the garrison supplies. But an Indian who was a friend of one of the soldiers told him about the plot. When the Indians came, the soldiers were ready.
When Pashepaho asked permission for the braves to give a dance inside the fort, Lieutenant Kingsley refused. As Black Hawk and his warriors outside crowded up to the gate they found a loaded cannon facing them. Beside it stood a soldier ready to fire. It he had touched the match the Indians would have been blown to pieces. Black Hawk was so angry at the failure of his plot that he took a war party in many canoes to fight the Osages three hundred miles away.
In August, 1809, Captain Horatio Stark came up the river to take command of Fort Madison. At that time there were eighty-one officers and men at the fort, and seven persons working in the trading post. During the two years following the arrival of Captain Stark the Indians made no further attempts to capture Fort Madison. From time to time certain officer and men went back to St. Louis and others took their places.
Trouble began again after the defeat of Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811. Some Winnebagoes and Sauks and Foxes who had joined Tecumseh in distant Indiana came back to the Mississippi River country seeking revenge. Several times small groups swooped down on Fort Madison. Once a corporal was killed outside the fort and later a sentinel was shot.
The Indians grew bolder and bolder. Captain Stark sent to St. Louis for help, and Ensign Vasquez arrived with twelve men. Later Captain Stark was called away, and Lieutenant Thomas Hamilton was put in command of Fort Madison.
In September, 1812, two hundred or more Winnebagoes, Sauks, and Foxes surrounded the fort. One soldier, John Cox, was caught outside the stockade, and killed. The Indians burned some of the outlying buildings, and killed live stock. They then began to shoot burning arrows onto the roofs of the barracks. The soldiers were forced to make squirt guns out of their musket barrels to put out the fires. Fearing that the Indians would set fire to the trading post and thus burn the fort, Lieutenant Hamilton had the soldiers slip outside and burn the trading post one night when the wind was calm.
Once when several Indians crept into an old stable and began to fire out of it, Ensign Vasquez made "their yellow jackets fly" with a shot or two from the cannon. After five days the Indians gave up the attack and crossed the river. Only one soldier had been killed and one wounded, but several Indians had been seen to fall.
But this attack was only a beginning. Twice in July, 1813, the Indians suddenly appeared. On the second visit they caught a corporal and three privates in an outlying blockhouse. Before they could escape they were killed and horribly mangled by the savages.
By this time Lieutenant Hamilton and his men were getting desperate. Many soldiers were sick, and supplys - firewood, powder, and shells - were running low. The Lieutenant sent a report to St. Louis explaining the dangerous situation and asking for supplies, but before a reply could be received Indians in overwhelming numbers attacked the fort.
There was nothing to do but surrender or try to escape. Lieutenant Hamilton set part of his men to work digging a trench to the river. On the night of September 3, 1813, the soldiers carried the remaining supplies down the trench to the boats. The las man to leave the fort set fire to the buildings. Before the Indians realized what was happening Fort Madison was in flames, and the soldiers were safely on their way down the river. For years a tall chimney remained marking the site of the first fort in Iowa. The Indians called this spot Potowonock - the place of the fire.
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