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Frontier Forts of Iowa

Indians, Traders, and Soldiers, 1682–1862

William E. Whittaker

Publication Year: 2009

At least fifty-six frontier forts once stood in, or within view of, what is now the state of Iowa. The earliest date to the 1680s, while the last date to the Dakota uprising of 1862. Some were vast compounds housing hundreds of soldiers; others consisted of a few sheds built by a trader along a riverbank. Regardless of their size and function—William Whittaker and his contributors include any compound that was historically called a fort, whether stockaded or not, as well as all military installations—all sought to control and manipulate Indians to the advantage of European traders, governments, and settlers. Frontier Forts of Iowa draws extensively upon the archaeological and historical records to document this era of transformation from the seventeenth-century fur trade until almost all Indians had been removed from the region.

The earliest European-constructed forts along the Mississippi, Des Moines, and Missouri rivers fostered a complex relationship between Indians and early traders. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1804, American military forts emerged in the Upper Midwest, defending the newly claimed territories from foreign armies, foreign traders, and foreign-supported Indians. After the War of 1812, new forts were built to control Indians until they could be moved out of the way of American settlers; forts of this period, which made extensive use of roads and trails, teamed a military presence with an Indian agent who negotiated treaties and regulated trade. The final phase of fort construction in Iowa occurred in response to the Spirit Lake massacre and the Dakota uprising; the complete removal of the Dakota in 1863 marked the end of frontier forts in a state now almost completely settled by Euro-Americans.

By focusing on the archaeological evidence produced by many years of excavations and by supporting their words with a wealth of maps and illustrations, the authors uncover the past and connect it with the real history of real places. In so doing they illuminate the complicated and dramatic history of the Upper Midwest in a time of enormous change. Past is linked to present in the form of a section on visiting original and reconstructed forts today.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

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1. Forts around Iowa

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pp. 1-11

Perhaps President Jackson intended his advice to Black Hawk to be avuncular, but it was also the victor taunting the vanquished. Even if it was tactless and blunt, Jackson’s assessment was accurate; in the nineteenth century Europeans spread across North America like leaves in a young forest. The elimination of foreign rivals after the Louisiana Purchase and...

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2. Historical Tribes and Early Forts

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pp. 12-29

How did Indians obtain these European-made items? Trade versions of Jesuit rings, found at several of the earliest historical midwestern sites, may have been obtained through Native middlemen and not necessarily through direct trade with Europeans (Alex 2000:212–213; Mason 2006). The same river and overland exchange networks that prehistoric tribes used to...

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3. Cementing American Control, 1816–1853

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pp. 30-41

While American soldiers in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century engaged in many tasks seemingly unrelated to military duty, the army’s assignments during this period paved the way for the Euro-American settlers who settled all of Iowa by the early 1850s. This was by no means an orderly transition. It was an era of dispossession for Native Americans, as treaty...

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4. Native American Perspectives on Forts [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 42-54

In the mythical John Ford cowboy and Indian movies — typically located somewhere in the dry Southwest— a lonely log stockade stands in the middle of a vast landscape, a secure base for cavalry troops led by John Wayne. Mounted heroes come boiling out like heroic blue and yellow bees to rescue desperate white settlers from an unprovoked attack by feathered...

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5. Fort Madison, 1808–1813

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pp. 55-74

Editor’s note: Fort Madison is perhaps the most significant historic archaeological site in Iowa. It was the first U.S. military post in the Upper Mississippi, and the scene of a major War of 1812 battle west of the Mississippi. It was the only fort in Iowa to ever be attacked by either foreign or Indian forces. The attack of the fort was a turning point in the life of Black...

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6. Fort Shelby, Fort McKay, and the First Fort Crawford, 1814–1831

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pp. 75-84

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, is one of the Upper Midwest’s oldest Euro- American cities. The confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers made Prairie du Chien a strategic spot for explorers, fur traders, lead miners, and homesteaders. Prairie du Chien was a focal point for many aspects of midwestern history: the arrival of the French, the influence of the...

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7. Fort Johnson, Cantonment Davis, and Fort Edwards, 1814–1824

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pp. 85-94

As you gaze out across the Mississippi Valley from the bluff top at Warsaw, Illinois, the strategic importance the area once held is overwhelmed today by the magnificent vistas. Nearly 200 years ago this spot afforded the U.S. military a commanding view of the mouth of the Des Moines River, the Mississippi Valley, and the foot of the Des Moines Rapids. This was a vital...

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8. Fort Armstrong, 1816–1836

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pp. 95-103

On May 10, 1816, the Rifle Regiment under Brigadier General Thomas A. Smith and the Eighth Infantry under Lieutenant Colonel William Lawrence arrived on Rock Island and began felling trees for a fort. The island, located in the middle of the Mississippi River and at the lower end of a 14-mile-long stretch of rapids, had been noted years earlier by Captain...

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9. Fort Atkinson, Nebraska, 1820–1827, and Other Missouri River Sites

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pp. 104-120

Before the 1840s, Indians, traders, and the military primarily accessed western Iowa from the Missouri River. Even after statehood the Missouri was a major route of transportation and trade until the maturation of the rail networks in the 1870s. The principal military and trading posts that served western Iowa before statehood were situated along the...

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10. The Second Fort Crawford, 1829–1856

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pp. 121-132

The War of 1812 eliminated all foreign military threats in the Upper Midwest, and the U.S. government turned its attention toward pacifying and removing Native Americans to make way for settlers. Military forts would no longer be built to withstand heavy cannon fire from English armies, but would instead be designed as logistical centers where large...

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11. Fort Des Moines No. 1, 1834–1837

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pp. 133-145

Fort Des Moines No. 1 stood on the right bank of the Mississippi River at the head of the Des Moines Rapids, at the modern-day town of Montrose. Beginning above the mouth of the Des Moines River, the rapids extended for more than 11 miles upstream. The rapids were a significant landscape feature until they were tamed by a canal in 1877. Subsequently, in...

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12. Fort Atkinson, Iowa, 1840–1849

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pp. 146-160

Situated on a steep bluff overlooking the small town of Fort Atkinson in northeast Iowa, the site of historic Fort Atkinson first impresses visitors with its scale. The stone buildings, the wooden stockade, and the parade ground outlined by stone foundations combine to provide a sense of what it was like to walk through the lonely frontier fort 165 years ago...

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13. Fort Des Moines No. 2, 1843–1846

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pp. 161-177

During a reconnaissance mission in 1835, Lieutenant Albert M. Lea, First Regiment U.S. Dragoons, recognized the military potential of the point above the mouth of the Raccoon River. About eight feet above the highwater mark and with a broad but lower floodplain across the Des Moines River, the spot was safe from floods. The Des Moines River at this...

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14. Other Forts of the Dragoon Era, 1837–1853

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pp. 178-192

In addition to the better-known dragoon-era forts, such as Fort Des Moines No. 2 and Fort Atkinson, several smaller forts stood in Iowa between the War of 1812 and the Dakota uprising. Many of these forts are not as well documented as other dragoon-era forts and have not been archaeologically...

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15. Northern Border Brigade Forts, 1857–1863

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pp. 193-206

In 1975 Marshall McKusick, then state archaeologist of Iowa, wrote a comprehensive history of the Iowa Northern Border Brigade, dispelling many myths in the process and providing solid archaeological evidence for at least one of the fort sites, the triangular fort located at Cherokee (McKusick 1975c). This fort had been built in 1862–1863 and was garrisoned...

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16. Visiting Forts

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pp. 207-219

Original buildings are found only at three locations: Iowa’s Fort Atkinson, Fort Dodge, and Fort Peterson. Fort Atkinson has three original buildings, several reconstructed structures, a museum within the fort grounds, and a city museum with many fort-related materials. Two other surviving frontier fort buildings in Iowa include a building moved to...

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 221


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pp. 223-258


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pp. 259-266

E-ISBN-13: 9781587298820
E-ISBN-10: 1587298821
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587298318
Print-ISBN-10: 1587298317

Page Count: 277
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: paper

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Subject Headings

  • Fortification -- Iowa.
  • Iowa -- Antiquities.
  • Frontier and pioneer life -- Iowa.
  • Indians of North America -- Iowa -- History.
  • Historic sites -- Iowa.
  • Iowa -- History, Military -- 19th century.
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