Many years ago it was claimed that Thomas Jefferson, from an elevated overlook above Harper’s Ferry “extolled” the beauty of the scenic view. The view is much the same today as it was two hundred some years back.
Sketch of the original Fort Armstrong
The dramatic, history-changing events that have occurred there connect with the place and the people who came there. Important events, one to another.
Following the traitorous raid on the arsenal committed by John Brown and his fellow zealots in 1859 thought began to stir throughout the government and military such property must be secure even though in the wilderness that was America yet at the time.
Serious upheaval occurred with the secession of Southern states from the Union and in April, 1861, the arsenal/armory fell into Rebel hands. An exchange occurred eight times during the Civil War. Should there be a new site chosen for a replacement? It needn’t be as scenic or even as remote communication-wise. But it did have to have considerable waterpower.
In the early to mid-1800’s the Mississippi River was the western boundary of the United States but thinkers realized that it was about to rapidly change westward. Some already had a place in mind—strategic, mighty waterpower, a connection with other vital points on the map of several decades of trade ... A Great Bend in the Great River where the turn of the current below a rapids where the current ran east-west to confuse the pilots of enemy ships, etc. The “Big Rock,” as it was called early on, had been a rendezvous since before history was written. Native Americans ... trading pelts, goods, corn, fish, whatever was important.
And then came the French trappers whose stout vigor brought a new perspective to the local tribes, making trade more interesting especially when they came in winter seasons to sing rollicking or mournful ballads and give the Indian women a new romantic outlook.
When the British arrived during the French-Indian (English) War in the 1760’s, they had an entirely positive way of doing business. They’d give the Indians goods in advance—trinkets, blankets, whiskey, whatever and would wait for the pelts, the furs, the Indians had yet to gather. The British extended credit which the natives thought pretty remarkable and the island at the Great Bend where this took place was then forever called “Credit Island” which it is yet today more than two hundred years ago. It, along with other imposing “islands” in the muddy waters of the Mississippi took on long-lasting names also and the stream of individualists eventually became as constant as the water power soon to be harnessed.
The “Big Island” was so-called because a couple of its sides were thirty feet in height, a fact that didn’t escape the military men who saw them ... It would be an impossible cliff to scale if a fort were placed there sometime. Keep that in mind.
As time passed and during the Revolutionary War, certain barges ran aground at the Big Island and otherwise, firing them, the western-most battle of the Revolutionary War took place between a scattering of British and Colonials, or so it’s said, to add another short chapter to the multi-storied Great Bend. It was in 1780, allegedly, that it took place.
The “Big Island” came to official attention of the U.S. Military in 1805 when Lt. Zebulon Pike (yes, that Pike) was exploring the Mississippi valley, making notes of what assets and trials needed to be seen. And spying on the British actually, to scout what they and the Indians were doing. After all, suspicion ran steadily that the Brits could still take over the Colonials though freed from the Crown at the end of Revolutionary War ... And, yes, the War of 1812 did occur.
Warrior, Black Hawk, was in the thrall of the British and would be. He lived on the Illinois side of the river across from the Big Island in a large Indian village at the mouth of the Rock River, a city of Native Americans that had to be watched.
With Pike’s dispatch noting the location of Big Island, it wasn’t long before Congress took notice of it and in 1809 legislation was passed saying that it should be kept from public sale, reserved for government use in future. This resulted from a treaty, 1804, which relieved the rock island and area from local Indian control, it going to federal hands. President Thomas Jefferson read the treaty, not yet seeing it as a replacement for Harper’s Ferry! Several treaties the first quarter of the nineteenth century and just after, had clauses and claims injurious to both whites and Indians but they are too lengthy to include here. They do, however, bring attention to the Rock Island as it came to be called. It would become an excellent fortification there at the mouth of Rock River with the Indian metropolis situated there also. Then there would be Ft. Edwards (Warsaw, IL) at the Des Moines, confluence, Ft. Madison, upriver, Ft. Clark of the Illinois River (Peoria), Ft. Crawford at Prairie du Chien a most strategic point at the end of the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, a grand portage from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, Ft. Howard at Green Bay and into the end of the Great River, Ft. Snelling (the Twin Cities).
It was an ambitious plan to build all those forts which could serve the frontiersmen, Native Americans, fur trappers of all nation’s and settlers trying a new idea.
Ft. Dearborn at Chicago on the Lake with Ft. Sheridan later above it, and, of course, Ft. Armstrong on the Rock Island.
Ft. Armstrong was named for Revolutionary War officer, John Armstrong, heroic, and who served as Secretary of War under President Madison.
Brigadier General Thomas Smith was in charge of construction of Ft. Armstrong. He had a detachment from the U.S. 8th Infantry which immediately on arrival began the fort.
It would be of square hewn timbers with dovetailed corners. It would have three blockhouses and a monitored roof which provided lookout stations (Pickets were used on the frontier to guard against surprise attack). The blockhouses were two stories high, the second floor set on a diagonal with the first to make difficulty in getting in. One “block” had a basement as a storage room. Buildings on the outside walls were barracks, store house, with walls about them twenty feet high with two rows of loopholes cut into them from which muskets were shot. There were buildings outside the walls such as stables, blacksmith as well as infirmary and other essential rooms for all military posts. It was quite efficient and with many more details too long to include here. A stone built magazine stood in the courtyard, 7 ft. by 20 ft. with four foot thick walls to enclose any explosion that might occur. (The magazine at Ft. Chartres down river near Kaskaskia, still stands.)
Ft. Armstrong was sited at the western end of the Rock Island with two of its walls above aforementioned cliffs to make scaling walls almost impossible. Here the river has turned to flow east-west so there are two channels, the southern one called for years, Sylvan Slough. The site provided a grand look out, the Indian city, traffic up or down current, the shores, what possibly the British might be up to still with the Indians, and so forth. The enemy and methods of containing them had changed in the past couple of decades.
General Thomas Smith’s “expedition” included about a thousand men. Eight hundred of which were U.S. regular army with about one hundred laborers. At the time it was one-tenth of the nation’s army!
Numbers of soldiers at Ft. Edwards were far less, fewer than a hundred and where threat was small. At Ft. Crawford, Prairie du Chien, soldiers double in numbers than at Ft. Armstrong, the Wisconsin-Fox waterway a vital strategic portage, the river, life’s blood flowing there—trade. That wilderness was filled with rich, natural resources besides the millions of pelts ... Lead, zinc, other minerals, corn, grains, “made” products. That all led to unlicensed trappers who poached or stole from legal traders in the lonely, forested frontier where the only law was a clear conscience.
We think little today of a fortress-dotted river valley that appeared to have grown up only in the Far West. But fortresses grew nearby, too. It must have given the few settlers, even the soldiers, a sense of security knowing the imposing forts were not far—as the crow flies, at least. During the Black Hawk War small individual neighborhood forts grew about the countryside like at Elizabeth and at Crane’s just north of present day Lanark, Galena, Dixon, etc.
A description of Ft. Armstrong ended in this way, in part: “The body of the buildings are lined with Piazzas on both sides and the whole combines some degree of taste and elegance worthy of imitation at all other military posts in this part of the country...”
“Taste and elegance” didn’t mean, however, that there weren’t problems at the remote wilderness posts although the Inspector General in his annual visits tried to make the best of it, remembering the isolation, the challenges of few exchanges with other humans, to keep a positive attitude so far from “civilization.”
General George Croghan, a hero in the War of 1812, had duty as Inspector for nine years throughout the Mississippi River valley, a practical man, sympathetic to the soldier. In his notes in 1826 he wrote this: “The men at Ft. Armstrong displayed an excellent deportment at so isolated a post where lack of challenge could erode discipline more than anything.” Croghan attributed that to “lack of whiskey.”
Then post commander, Major J.H. Vose allowed only a gill of whiskey a day from the post’s sutler, a gill being four ounces. A sutler was a trader who dealt in personal items, trade goods, trinkets and so forth.
The gill was divided into two rations; one given for breakfast, the other two ounces at supper. A soldier must get permission to buy other amounts, other times from the sutler. Those amounts hardly quieted the boredom and isolation of the remote station to which the soldier had been assigned unless the lonely soldier could buy more than the allowance!
Besides boredom, drunkenness and desertion were the two most frequent reasons for punishment in those hard times. If a soldier even an officer went off without leave for more than a year it was considered desertion and a sentence would be given.
Desertion, however, was risky business because out in the wilderness alone, the soldier might be taken by Indians, shot, scalped, mutilated and killed. That occurred in 1820 when a soldier went out alone to hunt and was discovered a week later. The post commander suspecting it to be a Winnebago from the Prophet’s Town up Rock River. He took five chiefs hostage until the culprit was delivered.
Furloughs were often given to nearby forts to relieve boredom and to have conversation with new people. Or they’d be sent to Galena or Dubuque to the lead mines where conversation would be different than at the isolated fort. Winter was especially difficult with the rivers frozen and no traffic on them by boat or foot. Mail carriers or those carrying dispatch were the only faces other than fortress residents one saw. A gill of whiskey could hardly cure the tedium. Until “civilization” began to arrive in the form of settlers. And the sutler, Col. George Davenport who began that work at Ft. Armstrong with an interpreter, Antoine LeClaire. They helped change history at the Rock Island.