Save Fort Madison!

 Thank you for responding to my plea for help for Fort Madison. It was gratifying to see how far the message spread, hitting listservs I never knew existed, generating responses from across the country (one from Australia!).   Today, Veterans Day, 200 years after Fort Madison was founded in 1808, is an auspicious day to start this campaign.  Many of you wanted more information, others already want to start contacting people. Here are more details about the fort, what is happening, and what our next steps are. If you know of others who would be interested, have them contact me ( If you want no part of this, let me know and I won’t bug you again.  A. Why is Fort Madison Important?  Fort Madison- Iowa's Most Important Historic Site. Fort Madison, built by the U.S. Army in 1808 and abandoned in 1813, is arguably the most important historic site in the state of Iowa.   1. It was the first U.S. fort on the Upper Mississippi River. After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, vast areas along and west of the Mississippi were now legally under U.S. control, however, Great Britain still threatened to take over the Mississippi River trade. To counter this threat, the U.S. government built three forts to assert control over the Mississippi. Fort Belle Fontaine was erected in St. Louis in 1805 to protect the mouth of the Missouri. In 1808 Fort Madison was built to control the Upper Mississippi near the strategic Des Moines Rapids, and Fort Osage was built along the Missouri near Kansas City to control the western Indian fur trade.   2. It was the Location of the only War of 1812 battle west of the Mississippi. Native Americans of the region were displeased with the new fort, feeling that it was an unnecessary military provocation that threatened their established trade networks. Many Indians were aligned with the British, who still effectively controlled trade from the Mississippi to the Great Lakes. Several skirmishes occurred early in the fort’s history. After the War of 1812 broke out between the U.S. and Britain, British-allied Indians such as the Sauk, Winnebago, and Meskwaki attacked Fort Madison. Several soldier and Indians were killed. After the allied Indians held the fort under siege, it was abandoned and burned in September, 1813.  3. It was the location where Black Hawk rose to prominence. Black Hawk was probably the most famous and infamous Indian leader of the nineteenth century. While he is better known for his alliance with Tecumseh during the War of 1812 and the subsequent Black Hawk Uprising of 1832, Black Hawk first rose to prominence during the 1813 siege of Fort Madison, where he demonstrated a willingness to change strategies and tactics in order to defeat a better-equipped military force.   4. It was the location of the only real military battle in Iowa. Iowa does not have a rich tradition of military battlefields. Other than Fort Madison, no other fort has ever been attached by Indians. The only other military “battles” were the bloodless 1837 Honey War with Missouri and the Civil War Battle of Athens, neither of which involved fighting or resulted in casualties in Iowa.  5. The oldest U.S. military cemetery in the region was located at Fort Madison. Soldiers killed in early skirmishes with Indians were probably buried outside the fort. During fighting in July 1813 four U.S. soldiers were killed, and were almost certainly buried in the parade ground of the fort, since soldiers could not leave the walls of the fort to bury them outside. Given the excellent preservation of the fort, there is a good chance that these graves still exist.  6. It has great symbolic meaning to Native Americans, especially the Meskwaki and Sauk. The defeat of the U.S. military at Fort Madison meant that Iowa would effectively remain under Indian control for two decades. The Sauk and Meskwaki (Fox), who controlled the Mississippi and eastern Iowa, benefited the most. It was not until 1834 that the U.S. built another military fort in Iowa, Fort Des Moines in Montrose, not far from Fort Madison. Fort Madison, along other Indian successes in the War of 1812, emboldened Native Americans and showed them that resistance, or the threat of resistance, could be used against the expanding United States. It was only after Black Hawk’s uprising was crushed in 1832 that military resistance by Indians east of the Mississippi ceased.  7. Fort Madison is well preserved. Although it is hidden under blacktop parking lots, the foundations of Fort Madison are largely intact. Emergency excavations of part of the fort by Marshall McKusick in 1965 demonstrated that the fort foundations were buried by silt and historic fill, and that the heat of the burning fire carbonized and therefore preserved much of the fort that collapsed into the foundations. Future excavations, using techniques not used by McKusick during his rushed salvage excavation, could determine important information such as the spatial layout of the fort, the location of activity areas, establish the extent of Indian presence within the fort, the diet and comparative wealth of officers and soldiers, and the position of soldiers and Indians during the siege.    B. Why is Fort Madison in Danger?  A lack of institutional memory- there are no villains. The location of the original Fort Madison had been known or suspected by settlers in the 1830s and later residents of the City of Fort Madison. A large monument was built in the early 20th century to mark the fort location; this monument still stands next to U.S. Highway 61. In 1965 the Sheaffer Pen company was building a water line across its parking lot, where the fort was long rumored to have stood. When the construction crew encountered fort-period material, they asked the Iowa State Archaeologist to excavate the new utility line, and provided financial and logistical support. Marshall McKusick’s excavations showed that the fort was deeply buried under silt and historic fill and largely intact. Because of Sheaffer’s cooperation, the fort location was confirmed, a wealth of new historical information was obtained, and Sheaffer was able to build its waterline.   Sheaffer later sponsored efforts in the 1970s to have the fort listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of Sheaffer’s demonstrated commitment to preservation of the site, Fort Madison was considered to be a success story for historic preservation. In 1983 the reconstructed Fort Madison was built a few blocks west of the original fort, much of the volunteer labor supplied by inmates at the penitentiary.  Eventually Sheaffer Pen was bought by BIC USA, which did not have local connections, and is headquartered in Shelton, CT. While it is impossible to say, it is likely that the Sheaffer Pen Company’s institutional memory about protecting the fort was not transferred to BIC USA, and most of the older workers and directors at Sheaffer who remembered the importance of the fort since retired. When BIC USA sold the property in 2007, the developer who purchased it might not have known that substantial portions of the fort remained intact under the parking lot, or he might not have known its true significance. Having invested a lot of money into the property, the new owner, a small-scale developer, cannot afford to sell the property at a major loss. It is for this reason that we are not publicizing his name, he is probably in a bad situation that is not his fault.  Attempts to get the Archaeological Conservancy to purchase the site has not worked yet. There is no legal way to force someone to preserve a site that is important, even if it is on the National Register. The probable soldier burials might be an obstacle to development, since human remains are legally protected, but it is not a permanent solution and is fraught with its own technical issues.  C. What can we do about this?  We must figure out a way to purchase the property and preserve it. We need a stable public or private ownership and preservation plan for the fort. If it continues to be treated as a commercial property it will soon be in jeopardy again. First, the public needs to be informed about the importance of Fort Madison and the threats posed to it. This public pressure will ensure that whoever buys the site knows that the nation is watching, and that preservation is the only real option. In addition, it is clear that people in Iowa need to realize the significance of Fort Madison, not just as a nuisance to be preserved, but as an amazing historic relic of U.S. history that needs to be celebrated. Instead of a drab parking lot, this spot should be a beautiful park with monuments explaining the history and layout of the fort, and a large memorial to the soldiers who died there fighting for the United States.  Once public appreciation for the fort emerges, the next step is to find funding for the purchasing of the property. Since the fort is of national significance, it may be appropriate for citizens to apply for federal funds to purchase and preserve the fort. Alternatively, citizens may also apply for state funds to save the fort. If this does not work, a capital fund drive will have to be undertaken (I think we all hope it does not come to that).   Finding funding will have to be undertaken by you. While I can inform the public about their options and the importance of the fort, as a University employee I am prohibited by law from lobbying state or national legislators. I can bring you together, but if you really want to save the fort, you will have to come together and talk to state and national legislators on your own.    D. What Now?  Wait, Write, and Raise Don't start writing letters just yet. For now, start contacting other citizens interested in saving the fort, and have them contact me ( We especially need people in southeast Iowa to participate.  Over the next few weeks I will e-mail you directly with specific newspapers and TV stations to contact. We want to make sure that something is being sent to all the regional media outlets instead of deluging the Fort Madison paper with lots of letters; this is a site of national importance, not just Fort Madison. These letters should hit on a few of the “Why is Fort Madison important?” points. Please write them in your own words, editors get suspicious when all the letters are identical.  The effort to raise money to save the fort will have to be led by people from southeast Iowa, with help from anyone else who has experience in this matter. They will have to form their own committee to speak directly with state and national legislators and solicit letters of support from the community as a whole. If you are interested in participating this effort, let me know. Again, once it gets going, I have to stay out of this part of the effort.   Thank you, and I am proud to have so many people looking after Fort Madison!   Bill Whittaker   Bibliography   Annals of Iowa 1897a Fort Madison. Annals of Iowa, 3rd Series 3:97–110. Beitz, Ruth S. 1962 Old Fort Madison: Where We Fled from Indians. Iowan Magazine 10:32–35; 53. Black Hawk 1882 Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak or Black Hawk. Edited by J. B. Patterson. Continental Printing, St. Louis. Originally published 1833. Gordon, Garland J. (editor) 1965 Fort Madison Excavations. Newsletter of the Iowa Archeological Society 37:2. Hansman, John 1984 Old Fort Madison: Iowa’s First Fort. Iowa Conservationist 43(5):20–23.  1987 An Archaeological Problem at Old Fort Madison. Plains Anthropologist 32(117):217–231. 1990a Old Fort Madison on the Mississippi 1808–1813. John Hansman, Fort Madison, Iowa.  1990b Everyday Life at Old Fort Madison. John Hansman, Fort Madison, Iowa.  1993 The Archaeology and Reconstruction of Old Fort Madison. John Hansman, Fort Madison, Iowa. 1996 Black Hawk at Old Fort Madison and Indians in Prehistoric Lee County. John Hansman, Fort Madison, Iowa. 1999 Physicians, Medicine and Surgery at Old Fort Madison. John Hansman, Fort Madison, Iowa. Jackson, Donald 1958 Old Fort Madison 1808–1813. Palimpsest 39(1). 1960 A Critic’s View of Old Fort Madison. Iowa Journal of History and Politics 58(1):31–36. 1966 Old Fort Madison 1808–1813. Palimpsest 47(1). Prucha, Francis P. 1964 A Guide to the Military Posts of the United States 1789–1895. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison. 1969 The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier 1783–1846. Macmillan, New York. 1995 The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. McKusick, Marshall B. 1965 Discovering an Ancient Iowa Fort. Iowa Conservationist 24(1):6–7. 1966 Exploring Old Fort Madison and Old Fort Atkinson. Iowan Magazine 15:12–13,50–51. ca. 1974 Fort Madison (1808–1813) Archaeological Evaluation of Architectural Evidence. Unpublished manuscript, Lee County File, Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa. 1980 Fort Madison, Iowa: 1808–1813. Research Papers 5(2):72–188. Compiled and edited by B. B. Williams. Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa, Iowa City. 2009 Fort Madison, 1808–1813. In Frontier Forts: Indians, Traders, and Soldiers in Iowa, 1682–1862. Edited by William E. Whittaker. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. In press. Van der Zee, Jacob 1913 Old Fort Madison: Some Scarce Materials. Iowa Journal of History and Politics 11:517–545. 1914 Forts in the Iowa County. Iowa Journal of History and Politics 12:163–204. 1918 Old For Madison: Early Wars on the Eastern Border of the Iowa Country. Iowa and War 7:1–40, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. 

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