History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/1/11

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Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike - History of Iowa.jpg
LIEUTENANT ZEBULON M. PIKE
Explored Eastern Iowa in 1805


THE year after the departure of Lewis and Clark the Government fitted out another expedition to explore the upper Mississippi and its valley. Zebulon M. Pike, a brilliant young officer, was placed in command.[1] On the 9th of August, 1805, the expedition consisting of twenty soldiers, embarked in a keel boat seventy feet in length from St. Louis, under command of Lieutenant Pike. They carried provisions for a journey of four months and expected to explore the Mississippi to its head waters. By the 20th of August they had ascended the river two hundred and thirty-two miles above the mouth of the “Riviere des Moines,” as Pike writes it. He describes it as coming in from the northwest at a point where the Mississippi is three-quarters of a mile wide. He says:

“We here arrived at the foot of the Rapids des Moines, which are immediately above the confluence of the river of that name with the Mississippi. Although no soul on board had ever passed them before we commenced ascending without delay. Our boat being large and moderately loaded, we found great difficulty. The rapids are eleven miles long, with successive shoals extending from shore to shore across the bed of the river. The channel, which is a bad one, is on the eastern side at the first two falls. It then passes under the edge of the third, crosses to the west side and ascends that side all the way to the Sac village. We had passed the first and most difficult shoal when we were met by William Ewing, an agent of the United States residing at the Sac village to instruct the Indians in agriculture. A French interpreter and fifteen men of the Sac nation came with Mr. Ewing in their canoes (with a United States flag) to assist me over the rapids. Taking a part of my load and putting two pilots in my barge, we soon reached Ewing's house at the village.”

The next morning the chief men of the Sac village assembled and Lieutenant Pike explained to them the object of his expedition. The country here is described as hilly on both sides of the rapids, the soil fertile. On Thursday, August 22d, a number of islands were passed; the river was wide and full of sandbars. After ascending twenty-eight miles, Lieutenant Pike thus describes the country on the western shore:

“The channel of the river passes under a hill which rises up perpendicularly to a height of about sixty feet. On the summit is a level platform of about four hundred yards. In the rear of a small prairie of about eight or ten acres suitable for gardens. This would be a very good place for a garrison. Directly under the rocks is a limestone spring, which would supply a regiment of men with water. The landing is bold and safe, and a road could easily be made up the hill for teams. Black and white oak timber are here found in abundance. The hill continues for two miles, and gives rise to five springs in that distance. The view from this hill across the river east is very beautiful, showing broad prairies as far as the eye can reach, occasionally interrupted by groves of trees.[2] We remained here nine hours and saw traces of Indians. We learned that the largest Sac village was about two and a half miles eastward on the prairie, and that this point was about half way between St. Louis and Prairie du Chien.”

On the 25th, the explorers landed on a prairie from which Lieutenant Pike writes: “There is a beautiful view for at least forty miles down the river, bearing S. E.” The next day they passed the mouth of the Iowa River and camped at night on Grant's Prairie. Pike thus describes the river and vicinity:

“The Iowa River bears from the Mississippi S. W., and is one hundred and fifty yards wide at its mouth. In ascending the Iowa thirty-six miles you come to a fork. The right branch is called the Red Cedar from the great quantity of that wood found on its banks. It is navigable for bateaux nearly three hundred miles. It then branches into three forks called the 'Turkey Foot.' Ten miles up the Iowa from its mouth is a village of the Iowa Indians. From the Iowa to Rock River we generally found beautiful prairies on the west side, and in some places very richland covered with black walnut and hickory timber. A short distance above the mouth of Rock River we came to the great rapids of the Mississippi, which extend up the river a distance of eighteen miles.[3] These shoals are continuous chain of rocks, reaching in some places from shore to shore. They afford much more water than the Des Moines rapids, but the current is swifter and more difficult to ascend.”

On Saturday, August 31st, Lieutenant Pike writes:

“We saw an encampment of Fox Indians on the west shore of the river, on a beautiful eminence, which appeared to be an old town. It is about ninety miles above Rock Island by the river.”

At 12 o'clock the next day the explorers arrived at the “Mines of Spain.” Lieutenant Pike writes:

“We were saluted with a field piece by Monsieur Dubuque, the proprietor. There were no horses to take us to the mines, which were six miles west of the river, and it was impossible for me to make an inspection of them from the river. I therefore proposed ten queries, which Dubuque answered. The substance of his answers was, that the mineral lands were supposed to extend twenty-seven leagues in length and from one to three leagues in width. The ore yielded about 75 per cent, and from 20,000 to 40,000 pounds were annually formed into pig lead. From the first Reynard (Fox) village to the lead mines the Mississippi became narrower, but the navigation became less difficult. The shores consist in general of prairie, which, when not immediately bordering the river, can be seen through the skirts of forest that in some places line the banks. The timber is generally maple, birch and oak, and the soil very excellent.”[4]

On the 2d day of September the explorers reached Turkey River. The country is described as follows:

“From the lead mines to Turkey River, the Mississippi continues about the same width; the banks, soil and productions are entirely similar. Between the Iowa and Turkey rivers we found coming in from the west the Wabisapenkum (Wapsipinicon) river; it runs parallel with the Red Cedar, and has scarcely any wood on its banks. We next came to theGreat Macottite (Maquoketa), and a little higher up the little river of the same name. The two streams approach each other, but present nothing remarkable excepting some lead mines, which are said to exist upon their banks. The Turkey River empties in on the west, bearing from the Mississippi about S. W., and is about one hundred yards wide at its mouth. Half a league up this river, on its right bank, is the third village of the Reynards, where they raise sufficient corn to supply all of the permanent and transient inhabitants of Prairie des Cheins.”

Lieutenant Pike in writing of the Indians of this region says:

“It is surprising what a dread the Indians in this quarter have of the Americans. I have often seen them go around islands to avoid meeting my boat. The traders have impressed upon the minds of the savages the idea that we are vindictive, ferocious and very warlike people. They seem to fear us.”

On the 4th of September, the explorers had reached Prairie du Chien, and from there Lieutenant Pike took a small boat to the mouth of the Ouisconsin (Wisconsin) River. He landed on the west shore of the Mississippi River nearly opposite the mouth of the Wisconsin and ascended a high hill. Here he found a level plateau commanding a fine view of the surrounding country. He held a council with the Puant (Winnebago) Indians. One object of the expedition was to meet and confer with as many of the tribes of the upper Mississippi Valley as he could reach in order to establish friendly relations with them. It was hoped that the way might thus be opened for treaties with them, which would enable the whites to establish settlements in this newly acquired territory. In this he was quite successful, for he was an officer of excellent judgment and in every way well qualified for the important mission intrusted to him.

Before leaving this point, Lieutenant Pike selected a site for a military post three miles from the mouth of the Wisconsin, on a hill called “Petit Gris.” He writes:

“The Ouisconsin River is the grand source of communication between the great lakes and the valley of the Mississippi, and is the route by whichall the traders convey their good to the Mississippi River and the regions tributary to it as far down as St. Louis.”

He describes the settlements and villages along the valley of the Mississippi at this time, September, 1805, as follows:

“The village of Prairie des Chiens was laid out in 1783 by M. Giard, Mr. Antoya and Mr. Dubuque. It consists of eighteen dwelling houses, on two streets. Sixteen were on Front Street, and two on First Street. There is a marsh or pond in the rear of the village, and behind the marsh are eight more houses. Some of the houses are framed, but most of them are built of small logs let in mortices, made in uprights joined close, daubed with mud on the outside and white-washed within. There are eight houses scattered in the country within a distance of five miles. On the west side of the Mississippi there are three houses on a small stream called Giard River,[5] making in all thirty-seven houses which contain on an average ten persons each, making a population of three hundred and seventy. During the fall and spring, when the traders gather in, there are at least six hundred people here. Most of the men have Indian wives, and more than half of the young people under twenty years of age are half-breeds.”

On the 9th of September the explorers reached the mouth of the Upper Iowa or Oneota River, which is near the northern limits of the present State of Iowa. Lieutenant Pike extended his journey up the Mississippi, stopping wherever Indian camps or villages were found, to confer with the inhabitants and assure them of the friendship of his government. On the 22d of September, he reached the mouth of St. Peter Rover, near which he found a large Sioux village. Here he met Le Petit Corbeau, head chief of the Sioux nation and several other chiefs with whom he negotiated an important treaty by which the United States secured a grant of one hundred thousand acres of land in that vicinity. Proceeding up the river two hundred and thirty-three miles farther, he landed at the mouth of Pipe Creek and erected a fort in which to leave a part of his men and stores, while with a smaller party he extended his journey farther north. Theriver was now liable to freeze and Lieutenant Pike remained in camp until December 10th, building sleds and light canoes with which to pursue his explorations northward.

By the 8th of January, 1806, Pike with a corporal of his command reached a trading post on Lake Sable, in latitude 47°, kept by a Mr. Grant, for the Northwest Fur Company. This English company had extended its trade into this region in 1766 and from a small beginning in this section had built up gradually an immense concern. Its operations now extended from Hudson's Bay to the great lakes, up the St. Lawrence River, to the source of the Red River of the North, all of its tributaries west to the Rocky Mountains, including the territory since formed into the States of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana. From here Pike, with a small party, proceeded to the head waters of the Mississippi, which point he reached on the first day of February, 1806, arriving at Lake La Sang Sue at half-past two p. m. It was a proud moment for the young commander when he stood upon the shores of the lake from which the mighty Mississippi River takes its rise.

On the 12th of the month Lieutenant Pike, in company with the agent at the post, Mr. McGillis, ascended another fork of the Mississippi to its source in Red Cedar Lake, about thirty miles northeast of Leech Lake. They were now within six miles of the source of the Hudson Bay waters. On the 18th of February the lieutenant began his journey southward, accompanied by several Sauteur warriors.

He had been successful in establishing peaceful relations with all Indian tribes he had met, some of whom were the most fierce and warlike savages of the west. By the 7th of April, the ice having disappeared from the rivers, he started on his homeward journey, arriving at St. Louis on the 30th of April, after an absence of nearly nine months.Previous to the explorations made by Lewis, Clark and Pike very little was known of the regions of the central west, drained by the two greatest rivers of North America. The reports of these explorers, who had only examined the country along the great water courses, awakened a deep interest among thoughtful Americans in the country recently acquired by Jefferson, known as Louisiana. The only people who had penetrated this unknown wilderness of woods and prairie were French missionaries who sought to convert the savages to Christianity; and the hunters and trappers who cultivated the friendship of the Indians in the interest of their traffic. Neither of these classes made homes, cultivated the soil, or left marks of civilizations in their track. Hardly a trace of their wanderings for more than a hundred years within the limits of Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska were found by the first actual settlers who came to the country to make permanent homes. No record even of the discoveries of the missionaries, hunters and trappers survived.

Thus a hundred and fifteen years passed from the time Marquette and Joliet discovered Iowa, before Julien Dubuque and his companions made the first white settlement within its limits. It was forty-four years later that the Indian title to any portion of its soil was relinquished. For the first half century after the new American Republic was established, it was the prevailing opinion that there was little country west of the Mississippi River valuable for agricultural purposes, and that portion of our possessions could be best utilized as permanent homes for the various Indian tribes which were being dispossessed of their lands east of the Mississippi. It was believed that having there an almost unlimited range, they could subsist largely upon game and fish, in the regions bordering upon an unexplored country marked upon the maps as the “Great American Desert.”

As late as 1819, the St. Louis Enquirer, Thomas H. Benton, editor, said:

“After you get forty or fifty miles west of the Mississippi the arid plains set in. The country is uninhabitable except upon the borders of the rivers and creeks. The Grand Prairie, a plain without wood or water, which extends to the northwest farther than hunters or travelers have ever yet gone, comes down to within a few miles of St. Charles[6] and so completely occupies the fork of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers that the woodland for three hundred miles of each forms a skirt from five to twenty miles wide, and above that distance the prairie actually reaches the rivers in many places.”

When it is seen that a statesman and editor so intelligent and eminent as Thomas H. Benton, as late as 1819, regarded the northwestern prairies covering a large portion of Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas as uninhabitable except along the borders of the rivers and creeks, it is not strange that the early pioneers, hunters and trappers entertained a similar opinion. For many years settlements were confined exclusively to the borders of streams where timber grew and to the forest regions. The first farms were hewn out of the forests; but as the fields were gradually extended out onto the prairies and they were found to be productive, yielding immense crops, the fertility of the prairies had to be recognized and a new value placed upon them.

But as the woods covered but an insignificant fraction of the surface of the prairie regions, it was generally believed many years later, that the prairies remote from woods could never become thickly settled or valuable for farms. Fuel and fencing, it was supposed, could never be supplied to make farms on the great prairies habitable. So for generations after the prairie regions were known, the hardy pioneers toiled in the dense forests of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, hewing out farms among the sturdy trees which covered a large portion of the country. No more slavish toil can be found than that which the first settlers in these states patiently wrought to subdue the forests and remove the obstructing stumps from the rich soil. The natural meadows, unobstructed bytrees, waited long for the breaking plow of the pioneer; and were left as rich pastures for elk and buffalo and to feed the annual fires which swept over them unchecked, lighting the horizon with a lurid glow in the awful grandeur of their desolating march.

In 1806 the loyal American citizens of the Mississippi Valley were excited by rumors of a secret conspiracy said to be organizing under the leadership of the late Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr, to separate that region from the Union. It was reported that the scheme was to capture the adjacent Spanish provinces of Mexico and, uniting with them, found a western empire.

On the 5th of November the United States District Attorney for Kentucky made formal charges in the United States Court against Aaron Burr, and followed with a brief statement explaining the nature of the alleged conspiracy. Henry Clay appeared as counsel for Aaron Burr and defeated the attempt to have him held for trial. Burr had caused to be built at Marietta, Ohio, ten large bateaux and had collected a great amount of provisions and stores for a voyage. He had secured the coöperation of many prominent men in various parts of the valley, and after the failure to indict him, took active steps to carry out his plans. General James Wilkinson,[7] who was Governor of Louisiana Territory, was approached and there was evidence that he had for several months possessed some knowledge of the enterprise. Captain Tyler, with a force of men and boats, accompanied by Harman Blennerhassett, a wealthy Irish gentleman occupying an island near Marietta, finally began the descent of the Ohio River. Below Louisville they were joined by Burr. The authorities now became thoroughly aroused over the gravity of the situation.

President Jefferson issued a proclamation warning all citizens against aiding the conspiracy and directing thearrest of all concerned in the unlawful enterprise. Burr and his party were arrested near Natchez, his boats and military supplies were seized and he was taken before the Supreme Court and released on bail. The grand jury refused to indict him and Burr, failing to secure a discharge escaped. In attempting to make his way by night to Pensacola to find shelter on a British vessel in that harbor, he was captured and taken to Richmond, Virginia. He was there indicted, tried for high treason and acquitted.

With the arrest of Burr the whole scheme failed, although there is little doubt that several influential men were implicated. The mass of the people, however, were loyal to the Union and gave no encouragement to Burr's visionary scheme. Emigration now spread westward along the rivers and many of the more courageous and farseeing home-seekers pushed out upon the treeless plains of the Mississippi Valley.

The first newspaper published west of the river was issued at St. Louis in July, 1808, called the Louisiana Gazette. Its proprietor was Joseph Charless and, as there was no print paper to be found in Louisiana at that time, the first numbers of the new journal were printed on cap writing paper. When the Territory of Missouri was organized the name of the paper was changed to the Missouri Gazette, and in later years became the Missouri Republican, afterward the St. Louis Republic. During this year the southern portion of Louisiana was organized into the District of Arkansas.

In 1805 General James Wilkinson was in command of the Military Department of the West, with headquarters at St. Louis. When he sent Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike on an expedition to the upper Mississippi River, he gave him instructions to select a site for a military post somewhere between St. Louis and Prairie du Chien and procure the consent of the Indians for the building of a fort. In Lieutenant Pike's report he says: “I have chosen a site on a hill forty miles above the river De Moyen rapids, on the west side of the river. The channel of the river runs on that shore; the hill is about sixty feet perpendicular, nearly level on top.”

In September, 1808, Lieutenant Alpha Kingsley was sent with a company of the First United States Infantry up the river to make a plat of the ground and begin the erection of the fort. During the fall and winter barracks and store houses were built and work pushed on the block houses and fort. In April of the next year it was garrisoned and named in honor of the new President, Fort Madison. It does not appear that the Indians had consented to the erection of this fort on the west side of the Mississippi, which was a direct violation of the treaty negotiated with the five Sac and Fox chiefs in 1804. By the eleventh article of that treaty the United States was entitled to build a fort in the vicinity of the mouth of the Wisconsin River; but the sixth article of the treaty provided that if any citizen of the United States, or any other white person, should form a settlement upon lands belonging to the Indians, such intruders should at once be removed. Notwithstanding this article, Fort Madison was built on lands belonging to the Sac and Fox Indians, without their permission, in clear violation of the treaty. It is not strange that the Indians complained of such an act of bad faith and hostility and under the lead of Black Hawk made an attempt to capture and destroy the fort.

Lieutenant Kingsley’s force at the time he built the fort, and up to August, 1809, when he was relieved by Captain Horatio Stark, consisted of seventy men. In September, 1812, the fort was under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Hamilton, who had about fifty men. On the 5th of that month a band of about two hundred Winnebago warriors made an attack upon the fort. Among these Indians was Black Hawk, then a young man. A lively fight ensued, lasting until the 8th, when the Indians withdrew after having burned several buildings in the vicinity.

In 1813 the fort was again attacked by Indians, who


Plan of Fort Madison, 1808 - History of Iowa.jpg
Plan of Ft. Madison, 1808.
  1. Block Houses
  2. Factory
  3. Passage-way
  4. Officers Quarters
  5. Barracks
  6. Guard-house
  7. Surgeons Office
  8. Gates
  9. Spring


Old Fort Madison, built in 1808 - History of Iowa.jpg
OLD FORT MADISON
Built in 1808


were defeated but several soldiers were killed. In August of that year a large force of Indians laid siege to the fort entirely surrounding it. The garrison, under Hamilton, made a brave defense until the provisions were exhausted and they were reduced to the verge of starvation. During the night of September 3d, Hamilton, ordered a trench to be dug from the block house to the river where the boats were lying. There was no prospect of reinforcements being sent to their relief. Starvation, massacre or escape were the alternatives confronting them. They chose to attempt the latter. The night was dark and cloudy with a fierce wind roaring in the forest surrounding the fort. The little garrison, crawling on hands and knees along the bottom of the trench in perfect silence, at midnight entered the boats without alarming the watchful savages. The last man to enter the trench applied the torch to the fort. A moment later the boats pushed out into the rapid current of the Mississippi, and before the Indians were awakened by the roaring flames of the burning buildings, the fugitives were beyond the reach of the rifle shot. They reached St. Louis in safety and the fort was never rebuilt. But the name clung to the spot where the ruins of the fort were long visible and later generations built a city on the historic site, giving it the name of Fort Madison.

In 1815 the Government sent Colonel R. C. Nichols with the Eighth United States Infantry to build a fort on Rock Island. His command, in keel boats, ascended the Mississippi to the mouth of the Des Moines River, where the channel was obstructed by ice and the party was compelled to land and spend the winter in that vicinity. Early in the spring of 1816, General T. A. Smith arrived and took command of the expedition, which reached Rock Island on the 10th of May. The day following his arrival General Smith sent messengers to all of the Indian villages in the vicinity inviting the chiefs to meet him in council, but none of them came. The Indians understood the significance of a fort and garrison and regarded it as unfriendly but made no resistance. The island had long been a favorite resort for the Indians, where they camped among its beautiful groves and paddled their canoes along the rocky shores. It was one of the most beautiful places in the Mississippi Valley and they were reluctant to see it occupied by a military force of the whites.

General Smith at once began the erection of a fortress on a rocky elevation at the lower end of the island. When completed the interior of the fort was four hundred feet square. The lower half of the walls was of stone and the upper half was constructed of heavy timber. At the northwest, southwest and southeast block houses were built which were provided with cannon. On one side of the square barracks were erected of hewn timber with roofs sloping inward to protect them from the fire of the Indians and also that they might not furnish a safe lodging place for the enemy in case of attack. The northwest corner of the fort stood about two hundred feet from the bridge which now connects the island with the Iowa shore. The west end of the island was at that time covered with a dense forest of oak, black walnut and elm.

Colonel George Davenport, who came to Rock Island with the first troops, was the contractor's agent who furnished the supplies for the army. He made his permanent home on the island, where he was murdered on the 4th of July, 1845. Fort Armstrong was completed in 1817, and continued to be occupied by troops under various commanders until May 4, 1836, when it was evacuated. The last commander was Lieutenant-Colonel William Davenport, of the First United States Infantry.

After the evacuation of the fort, attempts were made by various parties to preëmpt and enter land on the island and to secure possession and title. Congress, by special acts, permitted George Davenport and David B. Sears to enter the tracts of land upon which they had made valuable improvements, but held the island as a Government reservation. Long litigation followed, but in the end the


Old Fort Armstrong, on Rock Island - History of Iowa.jpg
OLD FORT ARMSTRONG, ON ROCK ISLAND
Built in 1816


Government purchased a number of the claims, others were abandoned and, in 1862, the Attorney-General held that the island was a military reservation. In 1863 extensive barracks were erected by the War Department for the safe keeping of thirteen thousand Confederate prisoners.

By act of Congress of July 11, 1862, an appropriation of $100,000 for the construction of an arsenal on Rock Island was made. There have been additional appropriations from time to time for the enlargement of the works first contemplated. The total amount appropriated up to 1871 was $3,220,000.


  1. Lieutenant Pike became a distinguished American officer in the War of 1812. In leading an army against the British at York (Toronto), in Canada, April 27, 1813, he was mortally wounded and died soon after the capture of the fort and city.
  2. From the general description, distance from the rapids, and other circumstances, it is believed that the spot here described is what was known in early days as the “Flint Hills,” where the city of Burlington now stands.
  3. The city of Davenport was afterward built on the west shore of the river at the foot of these rapids. The cities of Rock Island and Moline occupy the east shore, with a National Armory on Rock Island, which divides the river. These, with the wooded bluffs rising from either side, form one of the most beautiful and picturesque landscapes to be found in the west.
  4. While here Lieutenant Pike met the Sac and Fox chief, Black Hawk, who had just returned from leading a war party against the Sauteurs.
  5. These houses were where North McGregor has since been built.
  6. A town on the Missouri River about twenty-five miles from St. Louis.
  7. General Wilkinson was a distinguished officer in the Continental Army in the War of the Revolution and the Indian War of 1794-6. In the latter year he became General-in-Chief of the army. He was appointed Governor of the new Louisiana Purchase in 1805.