History: Fort Madison's Fort


History: Fort Madison's Fort

Keeping Iowa History Alive

Fort Madison Archaeological Site
Written by Brenda Knox

Fort Madison on the Mississippi

The archaeological site of Fort Madison is currently listed as one of the most endangered historical sites in Iowa.  In the last several months, the State Archaeologist of Iowa, Bill Whittaker, has been visiting Lee County to publicize the need for protecting and preserving the site.  Located on the property that was once Shaeffer Pen, the property is currently in the possession of a group of developers who wish to add new businesses to Fort Madison.  They were apparently unaware of the historical significance of the property when they purchased it at auction nearly two years ago. The new owners, according to spokesman Doug Abolt, say that there is no danger to the archaeological site, and that nothing has changed since Shaeffer Pen owned it.  However, another of the owners, Brad Randolph, a Fort Madison City Councilman, stated that he was unaware of the significance of the property when he invested in it.

When workmen digging for new water pipes at the Shaeffer Pen Company discovered charred timbers approximately 10 feet down in 1965, the work was immediately halted, and the State Archaeologist was called in.  At the time, Dr. Marshall McKusick supervised a partial excavation, and discovered many artifacts beneath several of the building’s foundations.  A stir of excitement occurred in Fort Madison; many residents were able to observe the excavation of part of the Fort.  History came alive to many observers.  The idea to rebuild a replica of the Fort was also first talked about at this time, and a flurry of papers, newspaper articles, and articles for historical magazines were written about Fort Madison.

It is disheartening, then, to know that prominent members of the Fort Madison business community do not know, today, the historical significance of their town’s namesake.  Fort Madison on the Mississippi is the only national battlefield site in Iowa.  New evidence suggests it is the earliest military gravesite in Iowa.  It is also the only place in Iowa where United States soldiers fought and died in battle against a foreign power, during the War of 1812.  These were the soldiers of the 1st Infantry of the United States Army, and four of the men were veterans of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Fort also was the birthplace of the first white children in Iowa, daughters born to Captain Horatio Stark, his wife Hannah in 1809, and to Lieutenant Thomas Hamilton and his wife, Catherine, in 1810.

Fort Madison was the first U.S. Army post on the western side of the Mississippi River.  It was part of a system of so-called “factory forts,” built to facilitate trade, and to cultivate goodwill among the Indian tribes of the Upper Mississippi.  A factor (business agent), John Johnson, was hired to carry out trade.  Sauk and Fox natives brought tons of furs to trade for cheaply manufactured American products such as blankets, hatchets, kettles, muskets, etc.  More importantly, they brought lead.  Lead had been mined in the region for years, and a man named Julian Dubuque was exploiting the labor of Sauk and Fox women and children, a little further up the river, in this lucrative trade.  The natives learned how to mine for the lead ore, and smelt it into hardened pools of raw metal, called lead pigs.  This material proved to be very valuable, and was brought into the Fort in huge amounts, then shipped to Saint Louis.

From the beginning, the idea of armed, uniformed soldiers stationed above the confluence of the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers did not sit well with the natives.  They had agreed to a trading post, not an army fort, during negotiations for a treaty in 1804.  Four minor chiefs had inadvertently given the “Great White Father” in Washington the rights to over 300 million acres of land, with the promise that he would send them an agricultural agent, trading posts, and an annual payment of $1,000 to the tribes of the Sauk and Fox.  Tricked, and outsmarted, they were ready to negotiate better trades with the British.

While the fort was being constructed in the winter of 1808-09, braves would peer over the walls at the men, sneak up behind them, and steal weapons and tools left leaning against the trees.  While many natives appeared friendly, and traded at the fort’s factory, trouble was brewing.  They were being supplied with much better trade goods by agents of the British, who lived freely among the tribes, wintered with them, and took native wives.  These men were gathering intelligence for the British, already planning to take back the Upper Mississippi.  A young brave named Blackhawk was influenced by a Scottish agent named Robert Dickson, and his beautiful and persuasive Sauk wife, to recruit braves to begin attacking Fort Madison.  In the spring of 1809, a company of about 200 braves offered to do a dance for the soldiers, intending to gain entry to the fort and slaughter the inhabitants.  Warned in advance by a friendly native, Lt. Alpha Kingsley met the braves at the gate of the fort, with a demonstration of his cannon.  Seeing how the scattershot decimated the bushes and trees along the river, the natives retreated to camps across the river to make a better plan.

In the years before the outbreak of the War of 1812, several men were ambushed while hunting alone, or while cutting firewood.  The Sauk and Fox treated them as they treated all of their enemies in war, cutting the bodies into pieces and leaving them in the forest.  As agents of the British, the braves who carried out the attacks were rewarded by the British for the deaths of soldiers.  They were, by no means, representative of their tribal governments, but free agents, whose very culture praised their war exploits.  Many friendly natives continued to trade at the Fort, including Keokuk’s tribe, and that of Quashqueme, from the area that is now Davenport. In fact, John Johnson, the factor, married one of Keokuk’s daughters, and over the short time the Fort was active,  they welcomed three baby girls, and lived in a cabin just outside the Fort’s walls.  Also living just outside of the fort’s walls was the blacksmith, Alexander Willard, who had journeyed all the way to Oregon with Lewis and Clark.  Evidence suggests that the entire family lived at Fort Madison for some of the time, as he had a family of six children by 1815.  

During two weeks in the early fall of 1812, coordinated attacks by natives fell on forts throughout the upper Midwest.  The garrison at Fort Dearborn was ambushed, Fort Detroit fell, Fort Wayne was under siege, and ambush attacks took place in Ohio, as troops were mustered to help.  Fort Madison was attacked as well, by combined forces of Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, and Potawatami braves.  Evidence of a large conspiracy among these British allies is apparent by the timing and strength of the combined attacks.  And, they were very successful.  The Fort’s boats, cabins, and gardens were burned, the livestock killed, as all of the residents hunkered-down inside the Fort’s walls. Lt. Vasquez’s wife, Emilie, spent the entire time huddled in a corner with her baby daughter.  However, over the course of four days, 50 soldiers defended Fort Madison against over 400 native enemy forces, firing cannons, muskets, and fighting the fires that erupted on the roofs of the buildings.  Fort Madison did not fall.  When reinforcements arrived some three weeks later, a further outbreak of guerilla attacks occurred, and 4 men of Nathanial Boone’s rangers from Missouri were killed, and buried inside the fort’s walls.  The men were so pinned down that they could not bury these men at the cemetery above the fort, on the bluff, for fear of being killed.  They also could not gather firewood or food.

The winter of 1812 was brutal.  The men received very few supplies, and no pay from the army.  The river froze solid, and many weeks of below-zero temperatures were recorded.  The entire fort was put on half-rations.  Among the people who died of starvation or disease were several soldiers, and the baby daughter of Lt. Vasquez and his wife, Emilie.  Morale at the Fort was terrible, as some of the soldiers’ commissions had expired, but they had not been paid, and could not safely get to St. Louis.  Ambushes continued throughout the welcome spring, and men were attacked as they set about finding food and replanting the gardens. 

By this time, the Fort was such an important outpost for U.S. Army intelligence on the frontier, that it became crucial to the war effort.  Orders to abandon this troublesome outpost were rescinded.  Supplies were resumed, and back pay was finally released.  The men held on, gathering information from some of the traders, Frenchmen and natives, who plied the river.  However, the massive effort it took to fight the British in the east resulted in further interruptions of supplies, ammunition, and pay for the soldiers, who now numbered about 75, throughout the summer of 1813.  In repeated letters pleading for help, Lt. Hamilton, now in command, said he would have to abandon the outpost if he did not receive reinforcements and supplies.  He held out until November of 1813.

 Fort Madison was burned and abandoned by soldiers in the late fall of 1813, after holding out against almost insurmountable odds.  When they arrived in St. Louis, William Clark referred to them as “the survivors of Fort Madison.”  Their uniforms were in tatters, and the soldiers were completely re-outfitted to continue in the war effort.  (It is not known whether any of the officer’s families were on the boats that came into St. Louis.  The women and children may have been evacuated some time before, during the summer).  The remaining soldiers of the United States 1st Infantry, Lt. Hamilton’s Company, went by boat to Ohio, then on to New York, and fought to great acclaim in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, among other significant battles in the east, and in battles along the Canadian border. 

For many years, boatmen used the chimneys that still stood on the riverbank of the Mississippi as markers.  As the town of Fort Madison began to grow in the late 1830’s, everyone knew about Fort Madison, and could see where it once stood along the river.  When Blackhawk and his faction declared war on the United States in 1832, he mustered his troops by these burned-out chimneys.  However, as time passed, the town and industry along the riverfront grew, and people used the fort’s foundation stones in their building projects.  Eventually, a thriving factory was built over the site of the old fort. 

One wonders how people can forget about such a dramatic story, and how such an important part of history could be forgotten.  Even now, as the property containing the archaeological site is under question, historians are discovering important documents, such as the Fort’s orderly book, that will clarify much of Fort Madison’s history. Perhaps the fight to save the site of Old Fort Madison will result in it being recognized as Iowa’s only national battlefield, and the valiant men who fought to defend it will be recognized. ~Written and submitted by Brenda Knox

Correction to March Fort Madison on the Mississippi Article

In the March issue, Brenda Knox, our Donnellson Library Director, wrote an interesting article on the archaeological site of Fort Madison, which is currently listed as one of the most endangered historical sites in Iowa. Brenda received some corrected information from David Bennett, a volunteer at Fort Osage, in Sibley, MO as follows. “Amateur historian, David Bennett, an expert on the War of 1812 and the United States First infantry, came across my Fort Madison article on the web. He pointed out that the four men killed in the blockhouse died in 1813, not 1812. They were U.S. army 1st Infantry men, some of whom were recently recruited to reinforce the troops at Fort Madison. They were not members of Nathaniel Boone's Missouri Rangers, who did accompany some reinforcements in 1812 to Fort Madison. Also, he sent me a list of uniform acquisitions that we had not previously seen. New coats were sent in the summer of 1813, and pantaloons, shirts, and coveralls in April. Therefore, the men's uniforms would have been in pretty good shape when they evacuated in November of 1813. However, as they were still called the "survivors" of Fort Madison by William Clark, we wonder if they were visibly affected by the lack of food, as that was their main reason for leaving. Thank you Dave for pointing out these errors.

~ Brenda Knox


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