Fort Madison (1808-1813)
Iowa's Most Important Historic Site.

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Fort Madison, built by the U.S. Army in 1808 and abandoned in 1813,  is arguably the most important historic site in the state of Iowa.


1. It was the first U.S. fort on the Upper Mississippi River.

After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, vast areas along and west of the Mississippi were now legally under U.S. control, however, Great Britain still threatened to take over the Mississippi River trade. To counter this threat, the U.S. government built three forts to assert control over the Mississippi. Fort Belle Fontaine was erected in St. Louis in 1805 to protect the mouth of the Missouri. In 1808 Fort Madison was built to control the Upper Mississippi near the strategic Des Moines Rapids, and Fort Osage was built along the Missouri near Kansas City to control the western Indian fur trade.


2. It was the Location of the only War of 1812 battle west of the Mississippi.

Native Americans of the region were displeased with the new fort, feeling that it was an unnecessary military provocation that threatened their established trade networks. Many Indians were aligned with the British, who still effectively controlled trade from the Mississippi to the Great Lakes. Several skirmishes occurred early in the fort’s history. After the War of 1812 broke out between the U.S. and Britain, British-allied Indians such as the Sauk, Winnebago, and Meskwaki attacked Fort Madison. Several soldier and Indians were killed. After the allied Indians held the fort under siege, it was abandoned and burned in September, 1813.


3. It was the location where Black Hawk rose to prominence.

Black Hawk was probably the most famous and infamous Indian leader of the nineteenth century. While he is better known for his alliance with Tecumseh during the War of 1812 and the subsequent Black Hawk Uprising of 1832, Black Hawk first rose to prominence during the 1813 siege of Fort Madison, where he demonstrated a willingness to change strategies and tactics in order to defeat a better-equipped military force. 


4. It was the location of the only real military battle in Iowa.

Iowa does not have a rich tradition of military battlefields. Other than Fort Madison, no other fort has ever been attached by Indians. The only other military “battles” were the bloodless 1837 Honey War with Missouri and the Civil War Battle of Athens, neither of which involved fighting or resulted in casualties in Iowa.


5. The oldest U.S. military cemetery in the region was located at Fort Madison.

Soldiers killed in early skirmishes with Indians were probably buried outside the fort. During fighting in July 1813 four U.S. soldiers were killed, and were almost certainly buried in the parade ground of the fort, since soldiers could not leave the walls of the fort to bury them outside. Given the excellent preservation of the fort, there is a good chance that these graves still exist.


6. It has great symbolic meaning to Native Americans, especially the Meskwaki and Sauk.

The defeat of the U.S. military at Fort Madison meant that Iowa would effectively remain under Indian control for two decades.  The Sauk and Meskwaki (Fox), who controlled the Mississippi and eastern Iowa, benefited the most. It was not until 1834 that the U.S. built another military fort in Iowa, Fort Des Moines in Montrose, not far from Fort Madison. Fort Madison, along other Indian successes in the War of 1812, emboldened Native Americans and showed them that resistance, or the threat of resistance, could be used against the expanding United States. It was only after Black Hawk’s uprising was crushed in 1832 that military resistance by Indians east of the Mississippi ceased.


7. Fort Madison is well preserved.

Although it is hidden under blacktop parking lots, the foundations of Fort Madison are largely intact. Emergency excavations of part of the fort by Marshall McKusick in 1965 demonstrated that the fort foundations were buried by silt and historic fill, and that the heat of the burning fire carbonized and therefore preserved much of the fort that collapsed into the foundations. Future excavations, using techniques not used by McKusick during his rushed salvage excavation, could determine important information such as the spatial layout of the fort, the location of activity areas, establish the extent of Indian presence within the fort, the diet and comparative wealth of officers and soldiers, and the position of soldiers and Indians during the siege.