Visitors Guide to
Old Fort Madison
Riverfront Park
Fort Madison, Iowa
319-372-6318 or 319-372-7700 ext. 275

Accessible Parking Nearby Accessible Picnic Facilities Nearby Interpretive Exhibits Iowa Historic Site

Fort Madison had its origins in Article 9 of the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis, a controversial agreement negotiated by the U.S. government with the Sauk and Fox that ceded nearly all tribal lands of Wisconsin south of the Wisconsin River as well as most of Illinois. In Article 9 the United States promised to establish a trading house or factory “in order to put a stop to the abuses and impositions practiced upon them by private traders.” The factories were officially intended through a series of legislation called the Indian Intercourse Acts to protect Native Americans from exploitation. The factories, usually accompanied by a fort, were also to provide protection for allied tribes and settlers from hostile tribes and foreign agents, spur the fur trade, and control the Native Americans by making them dependent upon government. In the 1804 treaty it was agreed that the United States could set up a trading post near the mouth of the Wisconsin River or on the banks of the Mississippi in the Iowa country, which ever was most convenient.

In August 1805 Lt. Zebulon Pike was sent on a mission similar to the one given Lewis and Clark – to explore the Mississippi River, look for its source, record his observations, selected three sites suitable for military establishments, and consider situations for the government trading post to be erected in the Sauk and Fox country. It was not until 1808 that the United States took action to carry out the treaty provisions of 1804 and Lt. Alpha Kingsley, of the U.S. First Infantry stationed at Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis, received orders proceed up the Mississippi River and select a good site for a fort as near as possible to the Des Moines River. On September 26 he selected the site for a fort initially named Fort Belle Vue. Instead of building the fort at one of the places recommended by Pike, it was placed on a flat area along the river bank that was surrounded by hills and wooded ravines. Kingsley’s choice for the location of the fort would prove to be decisive in its ultimate fate.

Kingsley had his men set up a picket fence around a winter camp of temporary cabins. By the first of December work began on a factory, storehouses, barracks, and other buildings of hewed timber with work expected to be complete by June 1, 1809. The Upper Mississippi Valley was becoming increasingly to the American presence in the region.  American laws prohibited with the native tribes without a license and wouldn’t issue licenses to British traders. The British ignored the American policy and continued to operate in the region as they had for many years. The British supplied the tribes with superior merchandise and were actively agitating the natives against the Americans. In the spring Kingsley heard of a rumor that the natives were planning to attack the fort. Fearing the inability to repel an attack, Kingsley pushed his men to complete construction and took up quarters in the fort on April 14, 1809, which was renamed Fort Madison after the newly inaugurated president.

Initially Kingsley planned to build the factory house inside the pickets, but the Sauk and Fox were clearly opposed to this and so the factory warehouses were located inside the fort and the store outside. When Captain Horatio Stark to take command of the new fort in August, 1809, the garrison totaled 81 men and the factory, under the supervision of John W. Johnson, employed 7 men as either interpreters or clerks that packaged furs for transport to St. Louis and New Orleans. Fort Madison and its factory weren’t welcome by all the natives, particularly the Ho-Chunk (who the European settlers commonly referred to as the Winnebago) a contingent of the Sauk led by Black Hawk. However, when the Ho-Chunk and Black Hawk were conducting raids in other areas the factory did a thriving business. Of the ten government trading houses which reported for the years 1807-1811 Fort Madison was one of six that operated at a profit. As a northern factory at was successful because it took in hatter’s furs which found a market in America and because the natives found additional occupations, in Fort Madison’s case the mining and smelting of lead. The southern factories bought up piles of deerskins, which could only be sold in Europe, and eaten by vermin in warehouses because of British interference with American commerce on the high seas in their efforts to starve out Napoleon, a major cause of the upcoming War of 1812.

By 1811 the temperament of the Native Americans in the Northwest and Louisiana Territories became increasingly hostile towards the Americans. Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader, was attempting to form a confederacy of all of the native tribes west of the Appalachian Mountains that would put up a united front against the continued encroachment of American settlers on tribal lands. Tecumseh was able to bring a significant number of Sauk and Fox to his cause after a visit to the Fort Madison area in January of 1812. To these were added the Ho-Chunk who wanted to avenge the losses they suffered in the Battle of Tippecanoe the previous November. In February and March the Ho-Chunk turned upon Fort Madison, killing a few people around the fort and bottling up the small garrison and trading agents at the trade factory before moving on to Fort Dearborn, located on Lake Michigan at present day Chicago.

Relations with Great Britain had been becoming increasingly belligerent. The United States was irritated by the failure of the British to withdraw from American territory along the Great Lakes, their backing of the tribes on the frontier, and trade policies that interfered with American commerce with continental Europe, which was controlled by Napoleon. The British also claimed the right to force any British sailors they found serving on American merchant ships back into service with the Royal Navy. By 1812 they increasingly began to include many American sailors in this practice as well. This practice of impressment became a major grievance. On June 18, 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain. The commander of the region, Lt. Colonel Daniel Bissel stationed at Fort Bellefontaine, received word of the war on July 12 and two days later wrote a letter to Lt. Thomas Hamilton at Fort Madison that war had been declared and to put his fortification into the best possible state of defense and to exercise vigilance. Captain Stark was convalescing in Ste. Genevieve, MO at the time as he found that his health didn’t agree with conditions at the fort. During the month of July the fort was attacked twice but in such small numbers as to be easily repulsed, but at the loss of several soldiers who has been surprised and caught outside the fort. On September 3rd Captain Stark departed Bellefontaine with reinforcements but they wouldn’t arrive in time for the first major engagement at the fort 

On September 5th a band of over two hundred Ho-Chunk accompanied by some Sauk under the command of Black Hawk attacked the garrison, scalped a soldier, burned the boat and cargo of a trader and two government boats, killed some cattle, and burned the homes of several nearby settlers. For three days they besieged the fort, trying to burn it down with flaming arrows and burning chunks of wood thrown from the cover of the nearby ravines. Lt. Hamilton prevented the buildings from catching fire by converting old musket barrels into “syringes” or “squirts” to keep the roofs wet. It was believed that the enemy was only waiting for a favorable wind to sweep flames from the factory and thus set fire to the whole establishment. Accordingly he decided to burn the factory down under conditions favorable to the garrison. By the 9th the warriors had moved on with the American casualties being one dead and one wounded. The garrison speculated that many natives must have been killed, as they saw many fall. In a later account Black Hawk claimed that only one Ho-Chunk was killed and one wounded. The destruction of the factory cost the government $5,500 worth of pelts and other goods. Hamilton, Vasquez, and the garrison were complimented on defending a fort so badly situated and reports of their deeds were printed in books and newspapers across the country.

After the siege Hamilton felt the fort should be evacuated. Lt. Colonel Bissell at first disagreed believing that it would be cowardly to leave after the fort had been “gallantly defended.” Bissell did agree that Fort Madison’s location left the garrison vulnerable and eventually agreed with Hamilton. Their superior, Governor Benjamin Howard, overruled his subordinated because he thought that an evacuation would make the Americans seem weak in the eyes of the Ho-Chunk and Black Hawks Sauk. The Americans would continue to hold out through most of 1813 with reinforcements bring the garrison to varying levels of between 80 and 100 men. The garrison would make improvements to their defensive position and fend off occasional raids, keeping vigil night and day. The garrison at Fort Madison was finally defeated by a most unlikely foe, the U. States government contractor that supplied the rations to the post. The failure to supply the post forced Hamilton to evacuate sometime in November. Under cover of darkness, the men of the garrison slipped away downriver in boats, having set fires as they departed, which left the fort engulfed in flames. All that was left to be seen of the fort were chimneys. Hamilton and the garrison arrived safely at Bellefontaine on November 25, 1813.

Only the partly open cellars of some of the buildings marked the site when the town of Fort Madison was settled in 1833. In 1965 part of the cellar of the middle blockhouse was uncovered by chance in the parking lot of the Sheaffer Pen Company. Excavations at the fort site by the Office of the Iowa State Archaeologist uncovered remains of two blockhouses, officers' quarters, and enlisted men's barracks. In 1983 the city of Fort Madison received the first of two government grants to reconstruct a full-scale replica of Old Fort Madison. Replicas of major buildings (except the guardhouse, tail blockhouse and kitchens) were fabricated from oak timbers by inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary, who volunteered to assist on the project. After completion at the prison, the log structures were dismantled and re-erected in Riverview Park at a point near the actual site of the historic fort. Today, visitors can visit the reconstructed fort and watch living history demonstrations. Authentically garbed historic interpreters perform such duties as baking bread to military drill and musket firing as well as hands-on activities. Throughout the year, several special event weekends are conducted to enhance the living history program at the fort.

Visiting Old Fort Madison
     Visiting Hours
May, September, and October: Open weekends only, 9 am - 5 pm
          June - August: Wednesday - Sunday:
9 am - 5 pm
Admission, children 5 and under are free. Group rates available by reservation only with groups of 10 or more. To book a group tour call 319-372-5472 or 1-800-210-TOUR.

Location: Old Fort Madison is located in the downtown area of Fort Madison in Riverfront Park off of Avenue H (US-61) just west of the Fort Madison-Niota Bridge that crosses the Mississippi River.

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