U.S. Army Opening Up the West

11/19/2019  |  By Jean M. Peiton

(From information researched by Dr. Eugene Watkin, PhD in American History)

In 1808, a small garrison of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry headed up the Mississippi River from what is now Saint Louis. Brigadier General Zebulon Pike had scouted the area from 1805 to 1806 following the Louisiana Purchase. But it wasn’t until 1808, following William Henry Harrison’s Treaty of Saint Louis, that any other U.S. military presence was in the area. They were dispatched to the area to set up a government factory outpost, as established under Article 9 of the 1804 Treat of St. Louis.

Harrison, who at the time was the Governor or the Indiana Territory, agreed to opening the trading post in exchange for land which is now Illinois, Wisconsin and part of Missouri. He met with representatives from both the Fox and Sac Nation and they struck the deal. However, there were branches of both the fox and Sac Nation that felt the treaty was not in their favor and vowed to never honor the agreement.

Colonel Thomas Hunt, who was assigned the mission, left St. Louis with 63 officers and enlisted men. Hunt died early into the expedition and his leadership role fell to his second in command, Lieutenant Alpha Kingsley. Having reached the unique east to west portion of the Mississippi River in late August, Kingsley chose the location with its high bluffs and sheltered cove to establish Fort Belle Vue, a temporary fortification, before the onset of winter. They began building Fort Madison in April of 1809, amidst a threat from the Sac and Fox Nation due to a poor hunting season, cultural misunderstandings and English influence. The name change was in honor of James Madison, the newly elected President of The United States.

Once the fort was up and running, the local natives realized that the factory post was acting as it had claimed to be, a sort of frontier store where they could trade furs, lead and other natural commodities for trinkets, firearms, metal implements and whiskey. The local tribes around the area got along well with the garrison and the tradesmen at the fort. Blacksmiths and other trades offered the indigenous tribes goods that they otherwise went without.

When the War of 1812 finally engulfed the area, Fort Madison was primarily attacked by war tribes of the Winnebago, also known as the Ho-Chunk and Menominee, which were from what is now modern-day Wisconsin. There was a small disgruntled group of Sac warriors, led by Chief Blackhawk that joined with the sieges that were leveled at not only the fort, but the peaceful tribes that traded there. The first siege laid against the fort occurred prior to the official beginning of The War of 1812, resulted in the deaths of soldiers stationed at the fort. It wasn’t until September of 1812, that the Shawnee leader Tecumseh unleashed a theatre wide defensive, attacking Fort Wayne, Indiana; Fort Harrison, Indiana and Fort Madison, all within a few hours of each other. Fort Madison weathered a four-day siege carried out by approximately 200 Winnebago and Sac warriors. Private John Cox was killed and the outbuildings, including the factory trading post were destroyed, ending Fort Madison’s role as a trading post.

Used as a forward intelligence gathering outpost until November of 1813, the decision was made to abandon the fort due to the ongoing encounters with hostile tribes resulting in six more casualties. The fort had run out of food, which was due in part to misuse of government funds by the U.S. contractor, William Morrison. With the soldiers unable to hunt or forage outside of the fort’s walls, the decision was made to burn the fort and withdraw to St. Louis.

The indigenous, tribes began referring to the location as Potowonok, meaning “Ring of Fire.” It wouldn’t be until the newly established Iowa Territories were opened to settlers that the area would be inhabited by Anglo-Saxon immigrants. The pioneers were drawn to the location by the “lone chimneys” seen standing along the banks of the Mississippi River as steamboats began moving up and down stream.

The legend of the fort resulted in the City of Fort Madison. Incorporated into the Iowa Territories in 1838, the city became the home of The Iowa Territorial Prison. This territorial prison is still standing to this day, encased in the walls of what is now referred to as Historic Iowa State Penitentiary, housing inmates from 1838 to 2015, when the 177-year-old institution closed, making it the oldest continually used penitentiary in the United States.

The community was home to Sheaffer Pens, which were invented and produced there until 2007 and continues to welcome cowboys to town every September, for theTri-State Rodeo, a nationally qualifying rodeo.

With its newest festival Riverfest, rocking out on the banks of the Mississippi River in the first week of August and many more festivities and unique attractions, visitors to the area can join into all of the festivities. They can also visit Old Fort Madison, a period specific replica of the original Fort Madison which stands in tribute to the Army’s 1st Infantry and the servicemen who lost their lives there while expanding our nation ever westward to the Pacific Ocean.

You can access more information at visitfortmadison.com or by downloading Tourburst© a downloadable app, through either iTunes of Google Play stores for use on any smartphone. Visit the City of Fort Madison, Iowa online today and plan a trip to the place where Iowa began.

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