Part III — Ironic wasn’t it? Jefferson Davis soon to be president of the seceding Confederate states, was Secretary of War from 1854-1857 under Franklin Pierce’s tenure and would decide whether or not the big rock island in the Mississippi in upper Illinois territory was to be reserved. It was government property and should be kept, he felt, in the reserve. As such, not for public sale. It had been government land since 1809 with legislation by Congress.
Davis was the most staunch supporter of saving the big island. In an 1854 question for his views, his response in part said this: “The water power at the place and the communications by water and by railroads projected or in course of construction concur with other circumstances in rendering Rock Island the most advantageous site in the whole western country for an armory or an arsenal of construction for the manufacture of wagons, clothing or other military supplies.”
Less than a decade later, Davis, by then President of the CSA, and at which time funds were made available to build an arsenal and for the Quarter Master corps to construct a prison barracks to contain Confederate soldiers.
It existed only from 1863 to 1865 and, it is believed, 12,292 Southern soldiers were incarcerated there in eighty-four barracks. The only reminder of that Civil War chapter in the story of the Rock Island is the large Confederate cemetery such as seen here in the photo. Other such burial plots of the Southern soldier are also extant in Illinois. It is but one example of “strangers in a strange land.”
Other contacts with Southerners was regular as the development of the island was carried forward throughout the years. In 1837, for instance, Lt. Robert E. Lee headed a surveying party at the “Upper rapids” at the Great Bend above the rock island. He would play a part in the capture of John Brown and his anti-slavery radicals in 1859 at the raid on the first federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Leaders often showed their abilities early in their careers, several historical figures appeared at the rock island and its long development to become well-known, such as Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, presidents, military men like Zebulon Pike, Winfield Scott, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and more.
Just five years following Congressional approval for keeping the rock island, 1809, work began on fortifying the many sites in the Illinois country and elsewhere that in 1816 several forts were constructed at strategic places on rivers and lakes where the enemy might strike. Some of them, like Ft. Armstrong at Rock Island was an almost impregnable defensive position and persisted for twenty years. Others in less vital places were kept only a few years.
That same year, 1816, two men appeared at the Rock Island where their entrepreneurship provided them employment, Antoine LeClaire, for instance, a Frenchman with Pottawatomie blood, served as interpreter for the commander of Ft. Armstrong and its Indian agent. His worthy sensitivity had him in such a job for many years prior to the military’s arrival at the Great Bend and after. LeClaire became a well-to-do land developer. Much of his property coming from the Indians, Sauk and Fox, with whom he mainly dealt. Those tribes presented him with 1,280 acres, two sections, and then more acreage as time passed. George Davenport purchased the Reserve from LeClaire at the Upper Rapids where D. laid out a town naming it LeClaire which it remains to the right as you cross the present day I-80 bridge into Iowa.
Antoine LeClaire became a wealthy land developer who lived in the city of Davenport which he, Davenport and a few other speculators had laid out in 1836. Because of their aggressive, progressive attitudes, Port Byron was plotted. In addition to Rock Island and Moline was accomplished, most of the meetings for all this work were held at Col. Davenport’s house on Rock Island. The two unusual men had arrived in about 1816 and both seeing needs, and the future, were driven to make the region a site for building up. Davenport became the post sutler at Ft. Armstrong, a merchant hired by the government to provide personal items, goods and supplies for the soldiers. The commissary had not progressed by then.
George Davenport did not become the wealthy merchant he was at the end of his life by being the post sutler although it was said one could if he was not honest!
Davenport, born in England, came to America as a young man and on arrival at the Rock Island came in contact with the native Americans who still believed the British were their best friends in trading. They extended the Indians credit. (See last week’s PDQ Me for Credit Island.) George Davenport also extended credit to the Indians who paid later with peltries, and other natural resources such as lead. Traders, sutlers, etc. Did a large business in lead.
Besides growing rich by trading with the Indians Davenport made another good move in 1824 when he became a partner with Russell Farnham whose good business head helped drive them forward together. The Village of Farnhamsburg was one of two plots that became the City of Rock Island. By 1826 Davenport and Farnham sold their trading business to John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Co., they were its local agency.
By the middle 1820’s, the early ‘30’s there had been a rapidly increasing traffic ascending the Mississippi, mostly, from southern Illinois and St. Louis, and inland going to the lead mines of Dubuque and Galena. The “Diggins” drew job seekers, the itchy foot and immigrants on their way to somewhere. George Davenport had set up trading posts all along the Big River, three on the Rock River and where ever there was travelers. See a need, fill it!
D&F also built an inn, tavern, stage stop at City Rock Island called the “John Barrel House” where many a governmental meeting was held and it became the county seat and where the first election there was held on the Illinois side of the River.
By 1833 George Davenport was wealthy enough to build an “estate” on the Rock Island, the military preserve of the fort. It was two-story constructed of clapboards, double hung windows and fancy frippery from the “eastern markets” to further set it apart. It had two one-story wings, two huge chimneys and a roof with columns at the front door.
It remains today where it was built though having passed through many stages of disrepair. In recent years it was restored again in the mode it should be.
It was in this island estate that George Davenport met a tragic demise on July 4, 1845.
His wife and family had gone to Rock Island (city) to attend the Independence Day celebration. He was alone when four men broke into the house. There were rumors afloat that there was $20,000 in gold hidden at the property. The robbers thought they could find it with the Davenports’ gone. The four, it turned out, were members of the “Banditti of the Prairie,” an area gang of thieves, counterfeiters, horse stealers, kidnappers and murderers, notorious throughout the Midwest, a kind of “franchise” but not beholden to anyone or each other.
They were only stopped by a large volunteer posse (in future).
During the confrontation they shot, stabbed and tortured the Colonel but finally, getting anxious for the time it was taking, they left with only $200.00, all they could find. Davenport died as a result of the mutilation. Hue and cry went up and they were captured, tried and sentenced to go to the gallows. But only three of them; Granville Young, brothers Aaron and John Long were to be hung on October 29, 1845. A crowd of 5,000 in the as yet small communities had gathered to cheer, pray and make noise. A band played. As Aaron Long was hung the rope broke and he fell to the ground. The sheriff gave him a stiff drink, re-tied the rope and hung him again! When his brother, John, was pronounced dead, his corpse was cut down and for whatever reason the body was sent in a barrel of rum to a physician who kept it in his office for many years. It had become a skeleton and a “wonder of nature” for all onlookers. The widow of the physician sent it back to Rock Island County following the death of her husband. It was displayed at the County House and then at Black Hawk State Park until put into storage. Finally on September 14, 1978 the murderer, Long, much ogled, was finally buried at Black Hawk State Park in the pioneer cemetery where a grave marker notes his sad exploits.
This is but one tragic, if colorful, chapter in the stories of our past. The human side of things.
During the next couple of decades several factories, manufacturers, squatters and businesses made use of the water power and site in general. No one seemed to contest their place on government property until the attack on Harper’s Ferry. Saw a need to move the federal arsenal elsewhere, say, to the midlands, away from the Mason-Dixon line as secession appeared a possibility. Argument for a move was strongly for the Midwest where now the market for guns/munitions was much more close and wouldn’t have to be transported so far. Besides the government already owned the property. As 1861 opened the Civil War, some drastic move had to be done and the “squatters” of all sorts must be moved from the Rock Island. Frontier days of forts and Indian treaties had passed, a modern day of steamboats and telegraph had made the Modern Day. The need now was serious and it was vital to protect the union.