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Fighting Indians at Ft. Madison

Where the city of Fort Madison, in Lee County, now is, once stood a small fort, with three block houses.  The historic structure was close to the river, about a third of a mile from the present state penitentiary.  During its existence this fort experienced many stormy scenes.  When it was built, in 1808, the country round about was a wilderness.  Through the forest and up the river the Indians spread news that the government was erecting a fort within their territory and they consulted together to effect its destruction.  Attack after attack was made on the little garrison, until in 1813 the soldiers were forced to flee for their lives.  In 1817 only a tall chimney and a covered way were left to mark the site.

It was toward the last of September, 1808, that Lieutenant Alpha Kingsley, of the First Infantry, with a detachment of soldiers, landed at a point above the Des Moines Rapids, where he thought a fort might well be established.  Lieutenant Kingsley, while at Bellefontaine, had been ordered to ascend the Mississippi as far as the River Des Moines - or Le Moine, as it was termed - and fix on a suitable location for a fort.

So on November 22 he writes from "garrison at Belle Vue, near River Le Moine," to Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War, reporting that a place about twenty five miles above the Le Moine, had been selected.  Lieutenant Kingsley thought the location advantageous.  It was high, commanding a wide view, and near by was an excellent spring.

The elevated site caused him to speak of the spot as Belle Vue, meaning a fine or handsome outlook.  His plan was to build a fort in shape like a square, with two block houses at the corners of the river side, and a third block house set out a short distance from the rear side, so as to command the two corners here.  Thus the four angles were protected.  Between this block house and the wall of the fort stood a factory building and store house for trading with the Indians.  A high fence of pickets, called a palisade, surrounded the whole, block houses and all.

When Lieutenant Kingsley and men arrived at this point it was too late in the season to commence erecting the fort, so they went into winter camp.  They put up a palisade, inclosing their camp, and passed the winter in preparing timber.  The pickets for the palisade of the fort were of white oak, a foot or a foot and a half in diameter, and fourteen feet long.

Black Hawk and other Indians from the Rock River country visited the scene, to see what was going on.  Lieutenant Kingsley told them that he was about to build a trading post, where they might get all the blankets and whisky they wanted.  But the Indians knew soldiers would not be sent to do this kind of work.  The Sacs and Foxes were displeased because the government was planning a fort here, and they determined to destroy the structure.

During this winter the Indians took great delight in frightening the soldiers.  Some of the regulars had had no experience with Red Men, and were easily alarmed.  The company was a small one, and alone among a people whose intentions, since the treaty of 1804, were not particularly friendly.  Once a party of soldiers, while cutting timber, laid down their muskets.  Black Hawk and companions sneaked up quietly and seized the guns.  Then they gave a great yell.  The soldiers, frightened half to death, ran to get their arms-and could not find them.  The Indians thought this a fine joke and laughed as they gave back  the weapons.

Lieutenant Kingsley and his soldiers spent a rather anxious winter, and when early in the spring information came from various sources that the Indians were scheming to raid the settlements, and as the first step would try to wipe out the soldiers, all haste was made to erect the fort.  In two weeks the block houses were built and the pickets for the stockade set, the soldiers sleeping on their arms at night.  On April 14 the company moved into the new fort, where more security was afforded.  Then the garrison prepared for attack.

Quash-qua-me, the Sac chief whose village was at Commerce (Nauvoo), across the river from Montrose, Pash-e-pa-ho, who afterwards led the Sacs and Foxes against the Iowas, and Black Hawk, who possessed the medicine bag, conspired together to capture Fort Belle Vue, or Fort Madison, as it had been christened.  They decided to have their warriors dance for the soldiers, and thus get inside the stockade.  Then weapons, concealed under blankets, would be suddenly used, and the garrison massacred.

But a pretty Sac maiden, who was in love with an officer of the fort, heard about the plot.  She came weeping to the fort, and when asked by her sweetheart the reason for her grief she told him what the Indians were planning to do.

Quash-qua-me was one of the chiefs who had signed the treaty of 1804, at St. Louis, and was so trusted by the garrison that he was allowed to move about just as he pleased.  When, on the evening set by the Indians for the attack, he and several other chiefs appeared before the stockade they were admitted, one a time, just as usual.  Soon a great number of braves approached and began to dance before the gate.  Quash-qua-me gave a certain signal and they made a rush for the gate, expecting the chiefs within would help them to enter.

But instead of finding a clear path they stopped short right in front of a cannon which had been unmasked.  It was loaded with grape, and beside it stood a soldier with lighted match!

This upset their plans.  They saw that their plot had been discovered.  Turning to Quash-qua-me and the other chiefs, the commander of the fort bitterly reproached them for treachery.  He ordered some of the warriors to be searched, and the weapons disclosed beneath their blankets proved what had been arranged.  The Indians were allowed to depart, convinced that the white men could read their thoughts.

Still the Sacs and Foxes, and the Winnebagos from the north, hung around Fort Madison.  Black Hawk says that they used to annoy the soldiers by standing on boxes and stumps and looking over the pickets of the first camp, and doubtless they tried the same plan at the fort itself.

The factory building was finished in the winter of 1809-1810, the soldiers being allowed extra pay of ten cents a day and a gill of whisky per man for doing the work.  The use of a "factory building" is not stated, but it was a department of an army post in an Indian country.

In May, 1809, Captain Horatio Stark, of the First Infantry, was ordered from Fort Adams, Mississippi, to Fort Madison.  He reached the frontier post the last of August, and relieved Lieutenant Kingsley, who was glad enough to have the responsibility taken off his shoulders.  After Captain Stark's arrival the garrison numbered eighty-one.  Life at the fort was by no means monotonous.  The Indians were up to mischief, and an attack was likely to be made any night.  St. Louis, two hundred miles away, and Prairie du Chien, three hundred miles in the other direction, were the nearest points of importance.  If assistance was needed word must be sent to St. Louis.  A reply would not come for some weeks.

The Indians got bolder and bolder.  The winter of 1811-1812 was an uneasy one for the garrison under Captain Stark.  Lieutenant Kingsley had left, probably rejoiced to escape with his scalp whole.  During 1811 the Indians killed several whites near the fort itself, destroyed property of trappers and traders, and seemed ready to assail the garrison.  Ensign Barony Vasquez, with twelve men, was sent to the fort to reinforce the troops there, and Captain Stark was ordered to put the place in state for the best defense.  Before winter Captain Stark left and Lieutenant Thomas Hamilton was put in command.

September 5, at half past five in the afternoon, two hundred Indians-Winnebagoes, Sacs and Foxes-attacked Fort Madison.  John Cox, a soldier, was caught outside the stockade and was killed and scalped.  The Indians shot fire arrows onto the fort and threw blazing brands onto the roof, trying to set the woodwork on fire.  They burned some of the outlying buildings, slaughtered the live stock, destroyed corn, and all the time used arrows with lighted matches tied to them.

The situation of the garrison was desperate.  The soldiers took off their gun barrels and made them into syringes, through which they squirted water upon the flames.

Lieutenant Hamilton feared the savages would await a favorable wind and then fire the factory, so that the blaze would leap to the fort.  On the evening of the seventh he sent a soldier to burn this building before the Indians' opportunity should come.  The brave soldier accomplished his purpose and re-entered the fort in safety.  A few Indians attempted to occupy an old stable, but Ensign Vasquez turned a cannon against them, and, according to the report published in the papers of the period, "soon made their yellow jackets fly."

On the eighth the Indians gave up the attack and crossed the river.  Besides John Cox the garrison lost not a man.  Only one wounded.

The Indians, however, withdrew but for a short time.  In July, 1813, the post was attacked twice, and several soldiers were surprised and killed.  The first attack was on the morning of the eighth.  A party of Indians formed an ambush in the gully of a spring about a hundred yards from the southeast corner of the fort, and shot some soldiers who were after water.  On the sixteenth occurred the second surprise.  This time a corporal and three privates were the victims.

Lieutenant Hamilton had sent them to defend a small block house he had erected to prevent the Indians from again concealing themselves at the spring.  The guard was outside when the savages suddenly appeared.  When the corporal and his men tried to get into the block house an Indian thrust his long spear into the crack of the door so that the bar could not be thrown into place.  Then, while one Indian dug out the underpinning of the building, others forced the door.  "In less than ten minutes," says Lieutenant Hamilton, "all the soldiers were killed."

By this time the garrison, which numbered about one hundred men, was getting heartily sick of the fort.   The location was a bad one, because the Indians were able to conceal themselves in many a gully and ditch and could easily cut off any person who had ventured outside.  Lieutenant Hamilton, July 18, 1813, writes quite a letter to headquarters protesting against being obliged to risk his command in such a place and commenting on the reckless bravery of the Indians in storming the block houses.  He asks for fifty pounds of musket powder and one hundred shells for the cannon.  He adds a postscript saying that he hopes to hear within a month from the commanding officer at St. Louis, and trusts an order will come for removal of the garrison.

"If I do not hear from you by the 20th of August, and the Indians continue to harass me in the manner they appear determined to do,"  continues Lieutenant Hamilton, "I do not know but I will take the responsibility on myself, that is, if they will permit me to go away.  It is impossible for us to do duty long in the manner that I have adopted."

But Lieutenant Hamilton could not wait to get word from St. Louis.  Ere September began, and while he was thinking every day reinforcements or new orders would arrive, the savages settled around the fort in a regular siege.  The British urged them on to capture the stubborn garrison that had so long resisted them.  The War of 1812 was being waged, and the United Stares had little time to spare for Fort Madison.  Supplies destined for the fort were delayed.  Lieutenant Hamilton and his men were on the verge of starvation.  The war hoop kept them awake and on their feet day and night.  The Indians glided among the trees and through the gullies like shadows, shooting at the sentinels and sending bullets and arrows through the loopholes.  It was decided to abandon the fort.

A trench was dug from the southeast block house to the river.  On the night of September 3, the soldiers, creeping on hands and knees, filed through this trench, and into the post's boats moored at the river.  The Indians were keeping watch on the fort, but were completely deceived.  One soldier remained behind a moment to touch a torch to the buildings.  When the Indians saw the blaze the garrison was far down the river and safe.

This was the end of old Fort Madison.  As soon as the savages found the soldiers had fled they swarmed into the burning structure, but found little of value.

For a long time after this the Indians called the spot Po-to-wo-noc, meaning Place of Fire.  River men who passed up and down the Mississippi spoke of it as Lone Chimney.

Sourced:  Making of Iowa, Chapter 17
Contributed by Debbie Gerischer, a member of the IAGenWeb Iowa History Project

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