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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Rock Island Arsenal: Origin

The Rock Island Arsenal has long been a seat of the locale known as the Quad Cities Area.  Those few acres of land, nestled in the topographical ribbon that is the Mississippi River, bear the origin of the area's settlement and are literally at the center of the community to this day.  However there were more than a few players vying for the vast tracts of land that surrounded this geographical speck.  The first of course were the Native Americans.

The Sauk (also Sac) and Meskwaki (also "Fox") tribes were prevalent in the area, and a large Sauk village was located just five miles downstream of the island, right where the Rock River finally spills into the Mississippi.  Sauk leader Black Hawk fondly recounts the island as a summer hotspot for both tribes.

"It was our garden, like the white people have near their big villages, which supplied us with strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries, plums, apples, and nuts of different kinds.  Being situated at the foot of the rapids, its waters supplied us with the finest fish.  In my early life I spent many happy days on this island.  A good spirit had charge of it, which lived in a cave in the rocks immediately under the place where the fort now stands.  This guardian spirit has often been seen by our people.  It was white, with large wings like a swan's, but ten times larger."

"Sauk & Meskwaki Indians" by Karl Bodmer

History on the Mississippi

Unfortunately, the land would soon be viewed as important by many different nationalities and for numerous reasons.  The first mentions of the island predate the American Revolution and describe a "big island" at the bend of the Mississippi past the "upper rapids."  This was found in documents from French and French-Canadian traders, who were the first in the area seeking to earn their riches trading furs and seeking the easiest route with which to do so.  Also called "voyageurs," they would travel in "North Canoes" that measured up to 20 feet in length and could carry upwards of a ton of cargo in addition to the eight men required to propel and steer such a vessel.

By 1763, France had been pushed out of the region thanks to the French & Indian War, one of many early conflicts in American history that remains covered in a thick layer of dust.  Those results brought in a new trading partner, the British, though some French remained behind and continued to make their living with the victors.  The local tribes didn't seem to care so long as the trading remained good and their European partners kept providing them with the customary gifts that often accompanied trades to grease the wheels of good relations.  As the name of the previous conflict suggests, Native Americans took sides in more than a few conflicts between European nations.

"Voyageur canoe" by Frances Anne Hopkins -  Licensed under Public Domain

By 1783 the American Revolution was over and the Treaty of Paris had been signed, ceding massive areas of land from the British to the newly founded United States of America.  Known as the Northwest Territory, it included the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota. Much like the defeated French in the previous decade the British couldn't quite give up their profitable trade with the Native Americans.  In fact, they outright refused.  From Canada they continued business on a much larger scale than the vanquished French, all the while undermining their American competition.  As if that weren't enough, they also began to provide arms and ammunition to local tribes who began to organize in order to halt the steady Westward flow of white settlers.  Battles took place, as they would countless times in the century to follow, but it mattered little.  There was no stopping Manifest Destiny.  Even if the Native Americans tried to settle peacefully with the government, a treaty would be drawn up to establish lines that ultimately involved Native Americans sacrificing some of their homeland.  It would last until settlers pushed past those boundaries, a new treaty would be drawn up, and the leapfrogging boundaries would continue to push the Native Americans out of any land they ever knew as home.

Boiling Point

In 1800, Spain quietly "gave" back to France 828,000 square miles of land with more than a little coersion applied by Napoleon Bonaparte, who had visions of extending his empire to the new continent.  President Thomas Jefferson, alarmed at the prospect, began to acquire as much land as possible to help thwart the efforts of the "Little Corporal."  To hedge those efforts he even began secret negotiations with France to purchase the land recently ceded to them by Spain.  Treaty after treaty was being signed with various tribes of Native Americans and each one added to the mass of the rapidly growing nation.  Napoleon, in an effort to raise some much needed finance, eventually sold the desired land to Jefferson in 1803 in the famous "Louisiana Purchase."  The lone holdouts in this string of successes were the Sauk and Fox tribes.  Not only were they not interested in selling their land, they wouldn't even attend meetings with the whites.  Jefferson viewed their land as essential since it included the Mississippi River from Prairie du Chien, WI all the way down to St. Louis.  Something had to give.

The Louisiana Purchase ensured that the "Mighty Mississip" was no longer the westernmost border of the United States; now it was an important artery of transportation for trade and travelers alike.  Americans officially owned the land as of March 10, 1804 and that created some tricky political situations for the Native Americans.  In September of that year, things got even trickier when Sauk hunters killed three white men who had settled illegally on tribal land.  It was the worst possible action for the two tribes.  The deaths panicked the whites, who were now demanding protection from the government, and also struck the fear of retaliation into their own people, who were forced to abandon their southern-most villages and move north of the Des Moines River.

William H. Harrison by Remington Peale
Earlier that year, President Thomas Jefferson had charged Indiana Governor (and future 9th U.S. President) William Henry Harrison with acquiring as much land as possible.  Harrison was infamously well-suited to his task using almost any means necessary to procure new territory: liquor, threats, bribery, and broken promises were his tools of the trade.  The killing of white settlers by the Sauk put the tribe exactly where he wanted them.  It forced them to the bargaining table and put him in a position of strength.  Before he could act on his new bargaining chip, two Sauk village chiefs came to St. Louis to publicly condemn the killings.  They didn't want a few bad apples to spoil the relations of the many.  It isn't mentioned if the Americans accepted the apology, but their demands to present the murderers certainly are.  Shortly after returning to their villages with the demands of the Americans, Harrison sent falsely urgent messages to each tribe stating that if they didn't bring the murderers to St. Louis, he feared retaliation against the tribes.  He then traveled to St. Louis to meet with many other tribes, bestowing them gifts.  As if that weren't Machiavellian enough, he then lavished the rival tribe of the Osage with an even more impressive selection of gifts plus offers of friendship and protection.  In just under a fortnight, five leaders (minor chiefs) of the tribes, four Sauk and one Fox, brought one of the killers to St. Louis along with compensation for the victims' families, a common practice known as "covering the dead."  Pay the families of the dead, and if the payment is accepted, no revenge could be sought.  They were also there to make friends with the Americans and to arrange an alliance that might help protect them from the Osage.

Treaty of 1804: The Devious Deal

Harrison quickly reverted to his tried and true tactics.  He got the tribal delegates drunk, asked for land, and made promises of friendship and protection by the Americans as well as sweeping these unpleasant murders under the rug.  The shifty governor knew that the men present had no authority to make such an agreement.  A process was in place for such arrangements that involved much formality, in addition to feedback and participation from the tribes.  This was the equivalent of a back-alley fleecing.  When it was all said and done the Treaty of 1804 sold a massive plot of 52 million acres to the Americans, including both Sauk villages on the Rock River as well as the island known by then as Rock Island.  For this, the Native Americans would receive $2,234.50 in goods, annual payments of $1,000 in goods, an American to teach them how to farm, and the release of the prisoner brought to St. Louis.  If that doesn't sound like enough of a swindle on a massive scale, Harrison had only just begun.

Map of the territory acquired from the Sauk and Fox in the Treaty of 1804
 as prepared by Ernest Royce. In Wisconsin, the acquisition stopped
 at the Wisconsin River. Map by Karen Everingham.
The minor chiefs who had made the agreement were not unfamiliar with alcohol.  They had been trading with Europeans for over a century, after all.  However, it was a European custom to provide gifts during a trade to keep relations smooth.  Knowing this, the delegates may have thought the alcohol a gift from their "American father."  They must have been sorely surprised when the $2,234 they were to receive as payment for their lands was instead given to a well-to-do French trader as payment for expenses incurred.  The Frenchman, Pierre Chouteau, also served as witness to the signed treaty.  In a final insult, the freed Sauk prisoner was shot down while running from his captors.  Despite being skilled and friendly negotiators with the Europeans, the two tribes were double-crossed in every way imaginable by Harrison.  It was the beginning of some very bad blood and sowed the seeds for what would become the Black Hawk War.

Rise of Rock Island

Zebulon Pike
The Treaty of 1804 brought the fabulously named Lieutenant Zebulon Pike (after whom Pike's Peak is named) to Rock Island in 1805.  His expedition was charged with, among other things, gathering information about the river and to seek the best possible strategic locations for forts to help tame the newly acquired territory.  By 1809, Congress has passed legislation to set aside Rock Island as one of the sites for a federal military installation.  Needless to say that Pike's presence was not welcome on the "big island," as he called it, nor was that of any white man.  The Sauk and Fox had warred with many other tribes to establish their lands.  They were tremendous warriors and while they didn't engage in guerrilla warfare or raids against the whites, it wouldn't take long for them to find their opportunity for vengeance.

The War of 1812

Without going too much into the War of 1812 and what it meant for America, the Sauk and Fox saw it as an opportunity to fight against the Americans.  Allegedly, in an attempt to honor the scandalous Treaty of 1804, the Sauk warrior Black Hawk offered the tribe's allegiance at Fort Madison, but was refused.  This, combined with the Americans refusal to offer them credit, a privilege commonly offered by Europeans, made the Sauk more than receptive when the British came to trade.  Credit was extremely important to the Native Americans in order to purchase vital winter supplies.  For their kindness, the British sent a secret message to Black Hawk urging him to gather a war party and meet the British in Green Bay.  Throughout the War of 1812 the two were allies who supported one another while the Sauk and Fox also harassed targets of opportunity.  The Sauk and Fox, led by Black Hawk, enjoyed victories at islands both south (Credit Island) and north (Campbells Island) of Rock Island.  Even after the war, loyalty to Britain among their allied Native American tribes remained high.

An editorial cartoon encouraging Americans to fight

The recent absence of the defeated British and their forts, plus the continuing hostilities with Native Americans gave the Americans great incentive to locate forts at strategic points.  In 1816, 11 years after Pike had set foot there, Fort Armstrong was established on Rock Island.  It provided an important checkpoint in the Mississippi River, and was able to keep the military close to the problematic Sauk and Fox tribes, who were still angry at the Treaty of 1804 and its consequences.  It was the first permanent settlement in the area and because of the safety it provided, also allowed a hub of commerce and economy to gain a foothold.  The surnames of those earliest businessmen still dot the map today as local towns such as Davenport and LeClaire.  The fort also sent a signal to the French, English, & Canadians to remind them that this was now American soil, no matter how recently it became so.

Fort Armstrong

This model of Fort Armstrong is currently on display at the local Putnam Museum.

The fort was situated at the west tip of Rock Island giving it a superior ability to monitor each channel of the Mississippi River that swept around it.  Fort Armstrong, being on the very edge of the island, only required that the 8th U.S. Infantry build two walls to cordon off the area, which were partly formed by the forts barracks, blockhouses, and storehouses.  The 30-foot natural limestone bluffs that were the western bank of the island were considered an adequate deterrent to anyone wishing to assault the fort from that direction.

This map of the fort is in the same display as the above model at the Putnam Museum and lists out the different buildings.

The fort's construction, save for the limestone cliff, was fairly standard construction for the time.  The blockhouses used interlocking square timbers peppered with a more than adequate number of embrasures so that muskets could be fired by inhabitants and attackers outside the buildings.  The second stories of the blockhouses were also constructed at a diagonal to the first story to eliminate "blind spots" in the fields of fire of the occupants.  This is very similar to Spanish forts or castles which often used angled bastions to allow their cannons interlocking fields of fire.  It turns out that comparisons of Fort Armstrong to castles is not completely unfounded, as is relayed in a 1932 article from The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society that quotes one of Illinois Governor Thomas Ford describing the fort as such,

"Rock Island, was then in a complete state of nature, a romantic wilderness.  Fort Armstrong was built upon a rocky cliff on the lower point of an island, near the center of the river... (a traveler) on the voyage upstream after several days solitary progress through a wilderness country...came suddenly in sight of the whitewashed walls and towers of the fort, perched upon a rock , surrounded by the grandeur and beauty of nature, which at a distance gave it the appearance of one of those enchanted castles... so well described in the Arabian Nights Entertainments!"

1819 map of Rock Island.  Note the cleared area for the fort on the Western tip.

Illustration from "History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century"

Black Hawk would write about the construction of the fort decades later in his memoirs

"When we arrived we found that the troops had come to build a fort on Rock Island. This, in our opinion, was a contradiction to what we had done– 'to prepare for war in time of peace.' We did not object, however, to their building their fort on the island, but were very sorry."

Site of Ft. Armstrong Today

Today, the area is set aside as a park of sorts before one crosses the Government Bridge (a.k.a. Arsenal bridge), which connects the island, known today as Arsenal Island, to Davenport, IA and Rock Island, IL.

At the north end of the park, back to the Government Bridge, looking south toward Illinois.

Cannons rest pointed at the Mississippi adjacent to a replica blockhouse constructed in 1916 to commemorate Fort
Armstrong's centennial anniversary.
Shown here are many of the embrasures and the interlocking corners.
Here are the two cannons that protect the fort today.
Photo of the Westmost cannon (left in above photo) and taken with lower f-stop to
clarify the text on the muzzle which reads, "No. 189  REVERE COPPER 1218 lbs" and "T.J.R. 1863"
Photo of the Eastmost cannon and taken with lower f-stop to 
clarify the text on the muzzle which reads, "No. 324 H.N.H & Co 1239 lbs" and "T.J.R.  1864"
H.N.H. & Co. stands for manufacturer Henry N. Hooper of Boston, MA.

The blockhouse overlooking the Mississippi with the Centennial Bridge in the background.
Also located in this tiny historical plot is a fenced off area containing the graves of two surgeons who
were very important to the people living  in the area at that time.  Each grave is marked with a large boulder.

As the title states, this was the earliest infancy of the Rock Island Arsenal, and also of the entire surrounding Quad Cities area.  Fort Armstrong served an important role in the Black Hawk War and eventually the treaty that ended that conflict was signed there.  It would last a scant 20 years before being abandoned in 1836 - it was no longer needed as an outpost on the edge of the untamed countryside.  It would serve other purposes in later years, but it had already laid the groundwork for a government military installation and as the hub of a thriving community.  Not bad for an area barely larger than a football field. The coming decades would see the little island rise in importance as the location of the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi and as a military production facility for the largest conflicts the nation has ever seen.

-Written by Joel R. Kolander


Eaton, George. Images of America: Rock Island Arsenal. Charleston: Arcadia, 2014. Print.

Slattery, Thomas J. An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island. Vol. I. Rock Island, IL: Historical Office, U.S. Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command, 1988. Print.


  1. would like more local history like this!

    1. Thanks! You're in luck. I have a whole series of articles planned on the Rock Island Arsenal and its different historical aspects. This is the fourth article written so far on the Arsenal, the other three were posted in June and July of this year.

  2. Thanks for a well researched, well written, and informative piece.

  3. What an interesting article. I am as pro american as there is but it is really interesting to see specific information about how America hasn't alwayed live up to what I consider American ideals.

  4. What an interesting article. I am as pro american as there is but it is really interesting to see specific information about how America hasn't alwayed live up to what I consider American ideals.