Tensions at Fort Madison (1813)

In 1805 Zebulon Pike scouted out the area where the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers meet (now the southeast corner of the state). The United States had decided that the best way to compete with English traders in the area was to build their own government-sponsored trading posts and forts. Pike's job was to find a good location.

Soldiers Build Without Permission

After he chose a spot, he asked the nearby Sauk tribe for their permission to build there. The Sauk said they must first talk with their neighbors and allies, the Meskwaki. But the scout left before getting an answer.

Three years later, without the Sauk's permission, a small group of soldiers from St. Louis arrived to build the new combination fort and trading post. The leader picked a different spot for the fort. He had never built a fort before, or he might have known that this new location—under a ridge—was not very good.

The Sauk and the Meskwaki were not happy to see the soldiers or the fort. Especially unhappy was Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk. But Fort Madison was completed anyway.

Indians Laugh at Cheap Goods

At first, business was brisk in the trading house outside the fort. The natives brought in skins and furs from deer, beaver, bear, raccoon and muskrat. They also brought lead mined from upriver, and feathers and bees' wax. In exchange, the government trading agency gave them swords, axes, tomahawks, knives and fishhooks, as well as blankets, fabric, ribbon and thread and beads. But the Indians laughed when they saw the government's goods because of their poor quality. The blankets were thin, and the knives and traps broke easily. The Indians could get much higher-quality goods from the English traders.


As time went on, the situation at Fort Madison grew tense. A number of small skirmishes occurred between the soldiers and the Indians, without much damage to either side. Finally, in 1813 the Sauk easily laid siege to the fort. From the ridge, only a few attackers were needed to keep the soldiers pinned in their barracks.

The commander of the fort sent to St. Louis for help. When none arrived, plans were made to evacuate. Secretly, the soldiers dug a trench from the fort to the river. In the night they escaped in their waiting boats to St. Louis—but first they set fire to the fort so nothing could be used by their enemy.

Fort Madison was not the only fort where tensions had turned to battles. Native Americans hadn't been given much say in whether forts should be built in their areas. And once the forts were built, they were supposed to trade their furs there, even though they could get better articles from the English traders. It was not an easy time in the Mississippi Valley.

But more forts were set up. In 1816 Fort Armstrong was built upriver, on Rock Island (across from present-day Davenport). Black Hawk talked later about the loss of that land:

We were very sorry, as this was the best island on the Mississippi, and had long been the resort of our young people during the summer. It was our garden (like the white people have near to their big villages) which supplied us with strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries, plums, apple, and nuts of different kinds; and its waters supplied us with fine fish, being situated in the rapids of the river. In my early life, I spent many happy days on this island. A good spirit had care of it, who lived in a cave in the rocks immediately under the placewhere the fort now stands, and has often been seen by our people. He was white, with large wings like a swan's, but ten times larger. We were particular not to make much noise in that part of the island which he inhabited, for fear of disturbing him. But the noise of the fort has since driven him away, and no doubt a bad spirit has taken his place!

The incident at Fort Madison was an early sign of more conflict that would come in the future. White settlers moving west wanted to farm the fertile soil of Iowa and Illinois. The Sauk and Meskwaki wanted to keep the land for hunting. Because there were many, many more white settlers than Native Americans, the white farmers would win the struggle over the Indian hunters. Twenty years after the attack on Fort Madison, the Sauk tribe was forced to leave their home on the Rock River and move west into Iowa.


  • Ginalie Swaim, “Tensions on the Mississippi: Fort Madison,” The Goldfinch 6, no. 2 (December 1984): 11.


Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.