|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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