Sunday, July 24, 2011

Frontier Forts of Iowa

All of this heat has opened more time to read, so I’ve just finished another recent (2009) University of Iowa Press Bur Oak book, “Frontier Forts of Iowa.” Edited by William E. Whittaker. this is a compilation of articles by Whittaker and others subtitled, “Indians, Traders, and Soldiers, 1682-1862.”

And it’s related to Lance Foster’s “The Indians of Iowa” and other stuff I’ve been reading and rereading lately because all of Iowa’s frontier forts were related in one way or another to American Indians --- as trading posts, as control posts, as defensive posts and as posts in use only long enough to prod Indians deprived of their land out of Iowa.

Frankly, it’s not a book that starts promisingly for structural reasons. The aggravating decision to include references within brackets inside the text is made doubly-aggravating in the opening chapters by constant references, also in brackets, to other chapters in the book.

It’s a little like starting down a road into which potholes have been intentionally dug. The temptation is to turn around and back out rather than soldier on.

Fortunately, these annoyances smooth out after a few chapters and the rest is smooth and informative reading.

About 50 forts are mentioned, some only in passing. None lasted long. And some cannot be located definitively primarily because they were transitory. Since the book includes forts in view from Iowa, as well as on Iowa soil, the range is broader than it might otherwise have been --- various forts at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and Warsaw, Illinois, for example.

Fort Des Moines II (1843-46) probably is the most familiar to central Iowans (although everyone has heard of Fort Madison, too). Erected at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers in downtown (more or less) Des Moines as the Sauk and Mesqwaki were being forced west, this really wasn’t much of a fort --- not even defensive features since attacks were neither expected nor did they occur.

Fort Des Moines II followed Fort Des Moines I, along the Mississippi, and preceded Fort Des Moines III, which dates from 1901 and remains in fragments south of Army Post Road in south Des Moines.

The founders of Fort Des Moines II wanted to call it Fort Raccoon, but wiser heads prevailed and it was named Fort Des Moines instead. As the author of this chapter points out, we could easily have ended up with a capital named Raccoon City had common sense not prevailed.

I was most interested in a brief segment devoted to Fort Sanford (aka Sac and Fox Agency, 1842-43, not to be confused with the agency at Agency, a couple of miles northeast) downstream from Ottumwa right along the river at the base of a bluff formation still called Garrison Rock.

This “fort” actually consisted of eight log buildings no longer in use by their owner, the American Fur Company, which by then had moved upriver as the Sauk and Meskwaki had. Of course there’s no trace of the fort now, but at least I know where it was and the next time I’m down that way plan to look it up.

Whatever the case, despite its somewhat rocky start, this is a book that anyone interested in Iowa frontier history, or Iowa trivia, will enjoy.

1 comment:

Ed said...

I have this book on my shelf. I think it is several books deep in my to-read pile.