By Ira Oliver Nothstein
July eleventh, 1940 marked the passage of seventy-eight years since Congress authorized the erection of "an arsenal for the deposit and repair of arms and other munitions of war" on Rock Island in the Mississippi River, between the cities of Rock Island and Moline, on the Illinois side, and Davenport on the Iowa side. The ultimate beginnings of this great and important institution, however, go back much further.
Twenty‑two years earlier (in 1840) Congress had in fact established an arms depot on the island, using buildings originally erected in 1816 for the use of Fort Armstrong, and had for five years maintained it as the distributing center of arms and ammunition for the military forces of the Northwest. This depot was discontinued with the outbreak of the war with Mexico and its supplies transferred to St. Louis; but the War Department kept in mind the necessity of having an extensive armory in the Middle West and well knew the appropriateness of Rock Island for this purpose.
Courtesy Rock Island Arsenal
Fort Armstrong in 1819
In 1854 the Secretary of War in his annual message assured Congress that the time had come to move one of the eastern arsenals to the Middle West, stating that this matter had heretofore received attention and had been the subject of frequent inquiries and that it probably p305 would have been done already if there had not been a feeling among some congressmen that the two eastern arsenals (at Springfield, Massachusetts and at Harper's Ferry, Virginia) were abundantly able to supply the needs of the whole country. This Secretary of War was none other than Jefferson Davis, who as a young officer of the United States Army had had firsthand acquaintance with Fort Armstrong on Rock Island, having served in the Black Hawk War in 1832 and having had personal charge of Chief Black Hawk when the prisoners taken after the Battle of Bad Axe were brought to the fort.a
When in 1853 and 1854 attempts were made to get Congress to permit the sale of the island to private investors and real estate dealers, the War Department was easily able to prevent this sale. When Secretary of War Davis referred the requests of the would‑be purchasers to the Quartermaster General, I. S. Jessup, for his opinion, the latter replied, in a letter dated January 27, 1854:
. . . The reserve is no longer necessary for works of mere frontier defence; but from its natural as well as artificial advantages, it is the best site in the whole country between the Alleghany and the Rocky Mountains for a national armory, and for an arsenal for the manufacture of wagons, ambulances, clothing, equipage and equipment for the use of the army.
Mr. Davis heartily agreed with these views and refused both then and later to sanction the sale of any portion of the island for private use, and it is undoubtedly due to his attitude that the War Department held to this same point of view until general public sentiment for military use of the island had been so crystallized that nothing could change it.
p306 Even before the island had been fortified in 1816, the War Department had recognized its importance and in 1809 had secured congressional action setting it apart from the public lands, to be reserved for military use for all future time.
We may well ask why this island, surrounded as it was at that early day by a savage wilderness, hundreds of miles from the nearest white settlements, should have made such a strong impression upon the young and struggling government in faraway Washington, D. C. What were those "natural advantages" which made it stand out from the thousands of other islands in the Mississippi River? One may answer these questions by saying that Nature seems to have been particularly kind to this spot when she made up the American continent.
Geologists tell us that this part of the country was submerged a number of times by the ocean and that it was covered by ice sheets of the glacial period at least three times. Between these up and down movements there were long periods when the climate became hot and moist — tropical forests grew up, flourished and decayed and were turned into coal measures. When all the settling and upheaving, freezing and heating were finished, the net result was a lovely prairie country interspersed with rolling forest lands. The soil was marvelously fertile, the climate was equable and healthful. The earliest travelers all remarked on the beauty of the wooded hills, the plentiful springs and streams and the cultivated appearance of the prairie lands. Grazing deer and buffalo usually kept the grass short, even as though it had been harvested by man.
Had the forces of Nature raised this part of the country p307 a little higher or left it a little lower, Rock Island of course would never have been formed. But instead of here creating a mountain or a lake they depressed it just enough to make it the natural drainage basin of the Middle West. A mighty river was marked out to run from north to south with many branches reaching enormous distances to the east and west, north and south; so that a traveler in a boat, starting at what is now called Rock Island could visit Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. By using short portages he could also reach Michigan, a good part of Canada, Hudson Bay, the whole St. Lawrence Valley, New York, and Vermont, in addition to most parts of Illinois itself.
In the channel of the great central river, at north latitude forty degrees and thirty minutes, Nature fashioned an island different from any other in its long course. Had it not been built of rock to within •three feet of its surface, or had it been raised •twenty feet higher or depressed •ten feet lower than it is, it could never have become the site of the arsenal. It seems as though the same kindly Nature planned to put this island just at north latitude forty degrees and thirty minutes so that it might be about even with the southern tip of Lake Michigan. It was, therefore, on the most direct east-west highway across the country, so that land travelers going east or west and seeking the shortest distance across the continent would strike the Mississippi at this point. On coming to the river and looking for the best place to cross they would find that p308 Nature had continued her generous mood and provided just here one of the few places where the river could be forded in low water, and where alone it was feasible at a later day to build the first railroad bridge across the Father of Waters.
At this crossroads of east-west and north-south travel, first by the buffalo which beat the first trail across the midwestern country over this island, then by the Indians who used the same trail, and finally by the white men who used the Indian's trail for their roads and railroad, it was logical that a great manufacturing and distributing center should grow up, where the needs of our army could be abundantly supplied.
Having thus provided an unusually suitable site for an arsenal, Nature added one more touch which made its appeal irresistible, by pushing up the river bed at the head of the island just the required number of feet to provide an immense water power, which she supplemented by the coal beds previously laid down under the rich soil nearby. Such are the chief "natural advantages" which appealed to the judgment of the United States military authorities back in 1809 when they set this island apart as a military reservation.
Long before the white man "came, saw and conquered," the Indians had discovered and gratefully possessed this spot. Indians, as has been well said, chose the location of their settlements just as carefully as the white men did after them. They took into consideration the advantages to be derived from any proposed site in regard to the abundance of game, the fertility of the soil, the convenience of the waterways and trails, and strategic importance. In other words, they p309 looked for a site which offered the best prospects of food, raw materials, transportation, markets and defense — just as the white man does. Therefore they preferred, after finding a fertile game country, to settle where there was a navigable stream, or a lake, a good trail, near a mountain or hill from which an outlook could be had over the surrounding country, and, if possible, near a ford or portage which would enable them to lay tribute on travelers and to intercept an enemy in time of war. At Rock Island they found all these advantages combined in an unusual manner. Consequently we find that this locality was always, during aboriginal times, thickly and permanently settled. Burial mounds, shell-heaps and other remains speak of a long history of human occupation.
When the first recorded expedition of white men came down the Mississippi River — that of M. Jolliet and Father Marquette with their crew of five Frenchmen, in 1673 — it is not unreasonable to suppose that it was near here that they saw the first Indian settlement since they had left the upper reaches of the Wisconsin.1
While it is almost unthinkable that so admirable and valuable a vantage point had at any time remained unoccupied while Indians had access to it, unquestionable history as to its permanent occupation does not p310 begin until the united Sauk and Fox tribes moved into the Illinois Country from Green Bay. These Indians, the most uncompromising and independent of all the native tribes with whom the French conquerors came in contact, were forced out of their Green Bay location about 1680 and began to fight their way to the Mississippi. In a few decades they had driven the Illinois, including the Peoria, to the south and east of the Illinois River and had made themselves masters of northern Illinois and of the eastern half of Iowa, also forming an alliance with the Potawatomi, Menominee, and Winnebago.
It was about 1722 when they completed their conquests. By that time they were settled about where we find them at the outbreak of the Black Hawk War. Their main village, or capital, was at the foot of the Watch Tower, between the Rock and Mississippi rivers, i.e., on the great trail that led to Detroit around the southern end of Lake Michigan and crossed the rivers here. Their smaller villages were located mostly along the Mississippi from Rock Island to the present site of Galena, where they early developed the lead mines and smelted the ore. At one time they had as many as twenty furnaces in operation, and supplied lead for the French, the English, and the American armies in succession.
Rock Island was their natural fortress in time of war. Here they placed their women and children and their movable possessions in times of danger. The council lodge, athletic field, and the home of the chiefs were located near the Rock River, where the bulk of the population (estimated to have been as high as 10,000 souls at times) lived. The island was on ordinary p311 occasions used by the Indians as a place of recreation and was also venerated as the abode of a Good Spirit who was believed to manifest himself sometimes in the form of a great white swan. Here they came to gather wild nuts, fruits and berries in season and to worship. Where the trail crossed the island the British traders used to set up their temporary trading establishments at the same place where later on the American fur traders, George Davenport and Russel Farnham, were permanently located. The French and other traders usually set up their stands on the next island below Rock Island which thence got its name, Credit Island.
As soon as the French had become masters of the Illinois Country and could spare some men, they established here a small military post in order to keep an eye on the Sauk and Foxes, to foster trade, and to keep open the communications with the French settlements •three hundred miles to the south.
Joseph la Malgue, Sieur Marin fils, captain and chevalier of the military order of St. Louis, was stationed here from 1738 to 1740, and was in command, after the death of his father, during 1752 and 1753 and again in 1755. So successful was this arrangement in tying up the Sauk and Foxes with the French regime that we find some of these Indians fighting with Villemonde in western Pennsylvania in 1755, helping to defeat Braddock, in the army of General Montcalm during the campaign down Lakes Champlain and George, helping him to capture Fort William Henry in . But French control of the West was drawing to a close. In 1760 the French garrison at Green Bay, Wisconsin capitulated and started its retreat down the Mississippi Valley towards New Orleans, under the command p312 of Louis Liénard, Sieur de Beaujeu de Villemonde, a brother of the hero of Braddock's defeat. It was late in the year, and when they reached Rock Island they found themselves stopped by the freezing of the river. In consequence, Villemonde and his remnant consisting of four officers, two cadets, forty-eight soldiers, and seventy-eight militia, spent the winter of 1760‑1761 as the guests of the Sauk and Fox nation in their great village at this point.
Scarcely were the British certain of victory in the war, before their agents had penetrated the Illinois Country and early in 1760 they had already selected the Sauk capital at Rock Island as their central trading point for all the Indians belonging to the Illinois nations, thus recognizing its importance as a trading and military center.
Though the British were now the owners of the country, they were too few in numbers to take over both the police work and the development of the trade opportunities. Consequently they employed French traders and even French officials, who were familiar with the country and with the work among the Indians, to supplement their own efforts, and thus the natives really had more contacts with the French than with the English. For the next twenty-five or thirty years the Indians hardly knew who were their masters, for besides the French and the English, the Spaniards were reaching out from Louisiana for the Indian trade and were hoping that in the confusion of the reconstruction, Spain might grasp the French possessions. Then, as the American Revolution developed, a fourth element entered into the picture. The "Bostonians," as the English called the rebellious colonists, "explored" the possibilities p313 of keeping the Indians from aiding the English, and sent their agents to the Sauk and Foxes to form an alliance of friendship. Thus the Indians, torn between their loyalties and their greed, did just as white people would have done under the same circumstances. They became divided into factions as to their sympathies, but they sold horses and lead and corn indiscriminately to the highest bidders. Many an expedition of the white men would have failed if the Indians had not supplied food and horses for their use. Thus, for the section of the country of which we are now speaking, the Rock Island Indians were even in their time maintaining a sort of arsenal.
In July, 1778, the American government sent agents to the Sauk and Foxes, who succeeded to some extent in pledging them to keep out of the British expeditions. After the coming of George Rogers Clark, messengers were sent to all the tribes of the old Northwest, inviting them to come to Cahokia to join with him in treaties of peace. Large numbers came and signed peace treaties, but evidently not all the members of the tribes considered themselves bound by these agreements. Among the Sauk and Foxes we find a so‑called "British party" whose leader was the young and gifted Black Hawk War, and on the other hand an "American party" led by La Cassee. It was this latter party, and especially its leader, who turned the scales in favor of the Americans in the Upper Mississippi Valley both in 1779 and in the War of 1812, and saved the Northwest to the United States. Owing to Cassee's efforts the American revolutionists were enabled to obtain lead for bullets from the lead mines. The British captain, Emanuel Hesse, reported confiscating fifty p314 tons which was being shipped to the Americans down the Mississippi. After the War of 1812 the British Commander, in his report, laid the blame for the British defeat at St. Louis and Cahokia at the feet of the Rock Island Indians, some of whom marched with the British force but held back during the attack and obliged the commander to retreat without accomplishing his objectives. Thus was lost the last chance of the British to retake the Illinois Country.
It was a bitter turn of fate that the Americans, knowing nothing of the debt they owed to the efforts of La Cassee and his party, should send a punitive expedition of 350 men under Colonel John Montgomery to the Sauk village in 1780, where they drove out 700 Sauk warriors, who offered little resistance, and burned their capital to the ground. This was the westernmost battle of the Revolutionary War, and was perhaps the first occasion on which the American flag was seen at Rock Island.
By the treaty of 1783 with Great Britain the United States was placed in possession of the future arsenal island. The natural right of the Indians to the Illinois Country was duly recognized. In a treaty with the Sauk and Foxes, made at Fort Harmar on January 9, 1789, the Indians were given the privilege of remaining and hunting on the territory ceded by Great Britain as long as they should "demean themselves peaceably and offer no injury or annoyance to any of the subjects or citizens of the said United States." Successive purchases of the territory were made from the same Indians before they were required to move to areas farther west.
That part of Illinois in which Rock Island is located was purchased in a treaty made with six chiefs of the p315 Sauk and Foxes at St. Louis on November 3, 1804. The treaty contained a clause which said that the Indians should have the privilege of living and hunting upon the land just sold as long as it remained unsold to settlers. Black Hawk and his party always contended, however, that it had not been the intention of the Indians to include the island and their village site at the Rock River in this sale, and after he learned what the white men's claims covered he ever after refused to touch a penny of the annual payments made by the government for the same. The larger part of the tribe, however, accepted the white men's interpretation of the treaty, and abandoned the locality in 1829 when requested to do so by the government agent.
In August, 1805, Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike was sent up the river from St. Louis with an exploring party to learn more about the Mississippi River and adjoining territory, noting sites for forts, smoking the peace pipe with the tribes along the river, and checking up on the operations of the British traders who had not ceased their activities on this side of the border.
At the outbreak of the War of 1812, a British agent, La Guthre, came to get recruits from among the Indians. He brought two boatloads of goods and set up his store on Rock Island, with the British flag flying above it. This was the last time a foreign flag was raised on this spot. Black Hawk and some members of his tribe enlisted and fought with the British in the East. Early in 1814 he returned to the Rock River village. In May of that year Governor William Clark took a force of 190 soldiers in five barges from St. Louis to Prairie du Chien. At the mouth of the Rock River he was attacked by the Sauk war party, but drove them off and took p316 some prisoners, who were released on their promise not to fight against the Americans.
A second expedition, consisting of 110 soldiers and 21 civilians under Captain John Campbell, left St. Louis early in July to carry reinforcements to the fort at Prairie du Chien. The force landed at the Sauk village to spend the night. Next morning as they were slowly working their way up river against a strong wind they were attacked by Black Hawk and his British band at Campbell's Island, the next island above Rock Island, and were badly defeated.b
After this disaster another and larger expedition was fitted out, the object of which was to punish the Indians at Rock Island and to establish a fort at or near that place. The detachment was under the command of Major Zachary Taylor (afterwards President of the United States) and consisted of 334 officers and men. In the meantime a British detachment, accompanied by about 1,500 Indians of various tribes, had arrived with several large guns. When Major Taylor came opposite the mouth of the Rock River on September 4, he was fired on by the British guns, which had been mounted on Credit Island; and the Indians in their war canoes and from the thick undergrowth along the islands and river banks attacked his boats on every side. The Americans hardly dared to open the portholes to fire back at the enemy. The result was that to save the expedition from utter destruction the officers decided to allow their boats to drift back down the river. In preparing for this battle the Sauk and Foxes had placed all their women, children and movable goods on Rock Island for protection — the last time they were able to use it for this purpose.
p317 In September, 1815, the Eighth United States Infantry, under the command of Colonel R. C. Nichols, was sent up the river from St. Louis to establish a fort at or near Rock Island. The expedition was obliged to spend the winter at the mouth of the Des Moines River on account of an early freezing of the Mississippi. In the spring, under a new commander — Brigadier General Thomas A. Smith — and with an additional rifle regiment, the expedition continued its progress up the river and arrived at the mouth of the Rock River early in May. After examining the country carefully, General Smith fixed upon the west end of Rock Island as the best site for the fort. The troops were landed there on May 10 and at once began to cut timber for the buildings of the fort and for a temporary breastworks for the protection of the garrison and the stores.
Black Hawk with his associate chiefs was at this very time in St. Louis in answer to an invitation from the United States government to negotiate a new treaty. This time he signed a document which in effect confirmed the treaty of 1804. In consequence of this absence of the chiefs, there was no response when General Smith sent messengers to the Sauk village, the day after he landed on the island, to invite the Indians to a council.
General Smith soon left with the rifle regiment and proceeded up the river to reoccupy the fort at Prairie du Chien and to establish a fort (now called Fort Snelling) in the vicinity of St. Anthony's Falls.
Colonel William Lawrence, who was left in command of the Eighth Infantry, at once began the construction of the fort, which was named Fort Armstrong, in memory of the Secretary of War who had just died. p318 The interior of the structure was •270 feet square. The lower half of the •twenty-foot high walls was built of stone and the upper half of timber, both stone and timber being taken from the island. Walls were built only on the south and east sides — the north and west sides were the rock cliffs which dropped twenty feet down to the river bed. Along the edge of the cliffs a strong wooden fence was constructed. At each end of the high walls there was a two‑story blockhouse in which cannon were placed. Against the walls were constructed the barracks, storehouses, and hospital two stories high and twenty feet wide, with the roofs sloping inward. The powder magazine was built of stone, partly underground near the southeast corner. On the west side stood the large two‑story house built for the commandant, his household, and his office staff. Along the north side were houses for the officers, the surgeon, the interpreter, the Indian agent, the blacksmith and the servants, one of whom, Dred Scott, afterwards became nationally known on account of the United States Supreme Court decision affecting his status as a slave.
The commissary department was built outside the fort to the east. The man in charge of the department at the beginning was George Davenport, an ex‑soldier who had served in the American Army during the War of 1812. He traveled all the way back to Cincinnati, Ohio that fall and brought his young bride to live in his log cabin and thus established the first home in what was later to be known as Rock Island County. Later the interpreter, the blacksmith, the Indian agent, and other persons connected with the work at the fort and with the Indian trade erected houses outside the fort near Davenport's, and a village grew up, which p319 was known as Rock Island Village. Large stockades were built about the land side entrance to the fort to enclose the stables, blacksmith shop and storehouses, and also about Davenport's residence. A large plat of ground was enclosed on the south side of the fort in which fine vegetable gardens were maintained. Still farther south a cemetery plot was laid out and enclosed. When the fort was completed, it was given a coat of whitewash, and travelers of that day expressed themselves as greatly impressed with the solid, imposing and well-kept appearance which it presented.
The Indians soon became accustomed to the presence of the fort in their former "pleasure garden" and refuge. They even came bringing gifts of meat and vegetables for the soldiers, and friendly relations between them and the garrison seem to have prevailed until the beginning of the Black Hawk War, in 1831. Much of the credit for this must be attributed to the humane and sympathetic attitude which distinguished both George Davenport and Antoine LeClaire. The latter, Indian interpreter who was best known and longest in the service of all those stationed at Rock Island, was the son of a French father and his Indian wife, the granddaughter of a Potawatomi chief. He had been specially trained for this service by the United States government, and was highly gifted as a linguist. Upright, devout, shrewd, and amiable, he was probably the best friend the Sauk and Foxes ever had among the Americans, though Davenport was a close second. LeClaire, like Davenport, spent most of his life in this locality and became the founder of the city of Davenport, Iowa.
The garrison varied in size from year to year. In the beginning 600 soldiers were stationed there. This number p320 was soon reduced to 100. From 1819 to 1823 only 100 men were kept at the post, and for the rest of the time, until 1836, there were 200 men in the service, except during the time of the Black Hawk War, when larger numbers were temporarily located there.
In 1815 the government had settled the Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi in Illinois and designated the line mentioned in the Ordinance of 1787 as the southern boundary of their territory. This line was to run straight east and west through the lower tip of Lake Michigan, but as yet it had not been surveyed. In 1819 Sullivan and Duncan ran the survey and the end of their line struck the Mississippi River at a point just opposite the upper end of Rock Island. The Indians objected to this sign of advancing white civilization and soon removed all the markers left by the surveyors. A resurvey, consequently, had to be made; and in 1821, Flack and Bean ran a new line which failed to coincide with the first, and its end struck the Mississippi in what is now the west end of the city of Rock Island. Its location in Rock Island is plainly visible, as Ninth Avenue of that city is laid out along this old Indian boundary line. This survey is of more than local interest as it was the first survey in northern Illinois and is still the base of land surveys for •a hundred miles north and south of it.
George Davenport, who came as the head of the commissary department, resigned that position after a year but continued to reside on the island as a fur trader and farmer. His busy acumen and his sympathy for the Indians made him highly successful and he became a very wealthy man. The United States government soon established the post office of Rock Island p321 Village in the little settlement on the island and Davenport was its first postmaster. The nearest post office to Rock Island at this time was at Clarksville, Missouri, from which place the mails were carried once every three months by Peter Williams who was also a Methodist preacher, and who is known to have preached to the people on the island in George Davenport's house as early as 1819. This was probably the first religious service ever held in northern Illinois.
In 1824 Davenport formed a partnership with Russel Farnham,2 the remarkable explorer and world traveler, and in 1826 they built a house on the mainland. This house was later known as "the house of John Barrel," in which the first court was conducted after the organization of Rock Island County in 1833, and it was also the first post office of the little town of Farnhamsburg that grew up about it, and was the forerunner of the city of Rock Island.
Owing to the frequent relocation of Indian tribes, of peace councils to settle tribal quarrels, and of additional purchases of land by the government, many treaties were consummated on the island by the officers of the fort and the Indian agent. Nine treaties appear in the records of one year between June 9 and August 4, some of them with tribes as far away as the Teton and the Cheyenne. For about fifteen years the commanding officer of Fort Armstrong and the Indian agency located there were the central government to which some 40,000 Indians of the Northwest looked for guidance, for protection, and for the payment of their annuities.
In the winter of 1828 the first white squatters appeared p322 in the neighborhood of Rock Island. The land was not yet surveyed and was not open for entry. But these men, attracted by the rich cultivated fields of the Sauk and Fox Indians and the protection afforded by the fort, took up claims in the very limits of the Sauk village, even appropriating to their own use the Indian houses during the absence of the owners.
Friction that developed out of this unauthorized occupation eventually led to the Black Hawk War. As a means of reducing the trouble as much as possible the government proceeded to have the country adjacent to the island surveyed for settlement, and notified the Indians to remove to their lands west of the Mississippi. A large number of the Sauk and Foxes had moved even before this, and many others now left the locality. But Black Hawk and a considerable group who were particularly attached to him decided to remain, and this group offered the resistance which led to the Black Hawk War. The events of this bloody affair have been so often and so fully described that we shall pass them by at this time and shall confine ourselves to the mention of those events which had special connection with the island itself.3
In 1831, when matters had reached a very serious crisis, Governor Reynolds raised a force of 1,600 mounted volunteers and marched to the site of the present city of Rock Island, where he camped under the guns of Fort Armstrong directly opposite. This was the largest military force raised in Illinois up to this time. The commandant at Fort Armstrong, Captain John Bliss, had all the settlers on the frontier brought to the island p323 for protection. Meantime General Edmund P. Gaines had come from St. Louis by steamer with the Sixth United States Infantry. The united military forces moved on the Sauk Village at the Rock River which they found deserted and which they thereupon burned. A few days later Black Hawk appeared and signed a treaty in which he promised to remain on the other side of the Mississippi.
The following year, however, Black Hawk again appeared with his warriors, and the alarm and excitement of preparation for war were revived throughout the settlement. The settlers were gathered in greater numbers than before on the island, seeking safety behind the stockades. When the fear of attack from the Indians was at its height General Atkinson arrived from St. Louis with his regulars and reinforced the garrison at the fort. In a few days, the Indians, who had been camped on the Rock River, moved up the river towards Prophetstown, and the military forces, which had by this time been assembled, set out after them. Governor Reynolds had hurriedly raised a force of 1,800 mounted volunteers. It has been said that no other military action in the West ever brought so many persons of note as this one. Among the officers and soldiers in the campaign were the following: the future presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor; Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederate States of America; two of his foremost generals, Albert Sidney Johnston and Joseph E. Johnston; Generals Robert Anderson, William S. Harney, Edmund P. Gaines, Henry Atkinson, and Philip Kearney; three United States senators, Edward Dickinson Baker, James Semple and Orville H. Browning; six governors p324 of Illinois, John Reynolds, Joseph Duncan, Thomas Ford, Thomas Carlin, John Wood, and William L. D. Ewing; judges of all grades up to that of the Illinois Supreme Court and many other notables, such as the Reverend Peter Cartwright, Levi D. Boone, a descendant of Daniel Boone, and Colonel William S. Hamilton, a son of Alexander Hamilton.
This notable expedition set out on May 10, 1832 from the Watch Tower, and for nearly three months followed the elusive Indians through the wilderness, with brief engagements at Old Man's Creek, Indian Creek, Kellogg's Grove, Pecatonica, Apple River Fort, Wisconsin Heights, and finally at Bad Axe, where Black Hawk was defeated and his band almost annihilated.
Meantime President Jackson, wishing to end the war as soon as possible, ordered General Winfield Scott with nine companies of regulars from the Atlantic coast to proceed to Illinois. General Scott left Fortress Monroe on June 28 and reached Chicago in eighteen days. As the expedition was passing Detroit several cases of Asiatic cholera appeared among the troops. Five companies were landed at Fort Gratiot, of whom all but nine men died. General Scott with his staff went directly to Prairie du Chien, the rest of the force were to follow after a short period of quarantine. When the soldiers reached Dixon's Ferry they were informed of the defeat of Black Hawk and were told to proceed to Fort Armstrong, where they camped near the mouth of the Rock River in order not to endanger the troops camped on the island.
On August 26 cholera again broke out, and General Scott, who had arrived in the meantime, actively participated in fighting it. The disease was carried from p325 the camp at the Rock River to the island. There were at this time from 1,200 to 1,500 returned regulars on the island, besides remnants of Black Hawk's following of men, women, and children. About three hundred cases of the disease developed and fifty proved fatal. To avoid further contagion the soldiers and the Indian war prisoners were placed in small encampments on the Iowa side of the river. By September the disease was checked and the Indians were summoned to appear for the negotiating of a treaty. On September 21, 1832, a treaty was signed with the Sauk and Foxes, providing a reservation for them on the Iowa River, and turning over •about 600,000 acres of land in Iowa to the United States. After a trip to Washington and Fortress Monroe where he was imprisoned for a short time, the old chief, Black Hawk, was brought back to Fort Armstrong, where in a formal and impressive way he was paroled to Keokuk on August 2, 1833. He died on his farm in Iowa in October, 1838.
In 1825 the Secretary of War had informed the Commissioner of the General Land Office that Rock Island was necessary for military purposes, and directed that it be reserved from sale. These instructions were renewed in 1835. In the same year Congress authorized two examinations of various sites for a proposed western armory, one by Commissioners William McRee, G. W. Talcott, and Roswell Lee and the other by Major J. Smith, United States Engineers.
A flood of settlers began pouring into the northern Illinois country after the removal of the Indians. Towns of considerable size sprang up on both sides of the river near Rock Island, Stephenson (1835) — later called Rock Island — on the Illinois side, and Davenport (1836) on p326 the Iowa side of the river.
The island was abandoned as a fort on May 4, 1836, and was then used as the headquarters of the Indian agent, General Joseph M. Street, from 1836 to 1838, when the agency was transferred to the Sauk and Fox reservation in Iowa. Colonel George Davenport served as local Indian agent until 1840.
In 1838 the government decided to establish an armory in the West and sent Captain William H. Bell to make a selection among the various sites proposed by the previous commissions. Captain Bell reported favorably on locating the armory on Rock Island. His main argument in its favor was the fact that buildings were already available and more could be rented in the nearby towns of Stephenson and Davenport if needed. The presence of about a thousand persons living in the two towns would assure a supply of workmen. Good landings on the river at both towns and on the island, the productiveness, health and beauty of the country, and the availability of both water power and coal were other advantages urged.
In 1840 the government established its armory in the old buildings of the fort and maintained the same until 1845. This was evidently intended to be only a temporary solution of the problem, for in 1841 Congress passed an act authorizing a thorough examination of the whole western country "for the purpose of selecting a suitable site on the western waters for the establishment of a national armory." In its report the military commission could not make up its mind in regard to recommending any one place above the others. As a result Congress took no decisive action at this time, but:
The subject was not forgotten. Debates in Congress when bills p327 were introduced for the sale of the island, and letters and reports from the War Department . . . when efforts were made by various parties to get possession of the island, recommended in the strongest terms that the island should under no circumstances be relinquished by the War Department, because it would eventually be required by the Government as a site for a great armory and arsenal for the Mississippi Valley.4
Efforts of private individuals to gain a foothold on the island began in 1838, and these caused more or less trouble to the government until the last of them was removed in 1863.
When Congress failed to take any action in regard to erecting a new armory in the West, public interest in the project also declined. It was an era of speculation in public lands, and some of the less public spirited citizens of this and other parts of the country fastened greedy eyes on the •900 acres of beautiful woodland lying like a great park between the two growing cities. Those who were more interested in the public good hoped that at some time in the near future the government might again revive the project of an armory, or in case that should not be the outcome, they hoped that the government would at least set aside the island and its old fort, surrounded by the graves of hundreds of brave soldiers who had died there in their country's service, as a national monument.
In 1853 a railroad company, assuming that it could rely on an old law which would enable it to have some of the land condemned in the interests of public service, laid tracks across the lower end of the island and began the erection of bridges and embankments. Though the War Department endeavored to halt this p328 movement, it was overruled by a decree handed down by Judge John McLean of the United States Supreme Court. The success of the railroad company encouraged others to try to pre‑empt valuable parts of the island. In spite of repeated warnings to leave the island, various interests continued to encroach upon it and at the height of the struggle for possession — about 1854 — an inventory made by the government custodian showed that the following unauthorized private property had been erected on the island up to that date: two dams, constructed out of materials taken from the island, two saw mills, one sash and blind factory, one two‑story factory, two shingle shops, two dry houses, one office, two lumber yards, one steam planing mill, one grist mill, two stables, twelve dwelling houses, a few other small buildings, six construction shanties, grading and quarrying, and an almost total destruction of the original growth timber.
The trespassers all seemed to have powerful friends on important committees in Congress, and whenever confronted by the authority of the War Department they managed to escape eviction by one means or another. However, Uncle Sam often seems to be too easy a mark for the schemers within his household, and by the time he was ready to build his arsenal he had to pay out the sum of $237,492.20 to get rid of his unwelcome guests by satisfying their numerous claims.
At least twice — in 1850 and 1854 — lobbyists in Washington almost succeeded in securing government action towards placing the island on sale with the rest of the public lands, but on each occasion the plotters were foiled and their efforts proved fruitless.
The old grey fort stood empty of occupants and unchanged p329 from the time of the removal of the arms depot in 1845, to 1855. A government custodian living in a house on the island, was in charge of the historic structure. Then on Sunday, October 7, 1855, while the custodian was absent in Rock Island, fire broke out and destroyed most of the buildings of the old fort, two of the blockhouses alone remaining undamaged. The custodian then urged the Quartermaster General to try to persuade the War Department to have a company of infantry stationed on the island in order to control the ever-grow horde of squatters, who were now erecting houses on every available vacant plot and cutting the second growth timber everywhere. The idea seemed to be favorably received, and it looked for a while as if the government might make the island a recruiting rendezvous, but time slipped around and nothing was done. Two more abortive attempts were made (in 1858 and 1859) to force the island into the Public Lands Department, but public sentiment was so strong against any such move that the efforts were killed almost at their inception.
The rumblings of the coming Civil War were now heard throughout the land. Most men still believed, however, that conflict could be averted. But when Virginia seceded, and the arsenal at Harper's Ferry was taken by the southern government, many a northern statesman remembered that Jefferson Davis had advocated the location of one of the eastern arsenals at Rock Island, Illinois, and regretted that his advice had not been followed.
On March 24, 1861, a joint resolution of the Iowa Senate and House called on all legislators of that State to use their utmost exertion to procure the establishment, p330 at the earliest possible time, by the government of the United States, of an arsenal and armory on the island of Rock Island. The officers of the State of Illinois addressed a letter to the Secretary of War urging the location of an armory upon Rock Island. These petitions were supplemented by appeals prepared by committees of leading citizens of the cities of Rock Island, Moline and Davenport.
A bill was introduced in the Thirty-seventh Congress to establish at Rock Island an armory and arsenal. It reached its third reading, but the hand of politics halted it. Other localities in the West also desired to have the arsenal and Congress had to compromise by dividing the "plum" into three parts. On July 11, 1862, a bill was passed providing for the establishment of three small arsenals, one at Columbus, Ohio, one at Indianapolis, Indiana, and one on Rock Island.
On May 6, 1863 a committee of officers, consisting of Majors F. D. Callender and C. P. Kingsbury, and Captain T. J. Treadwell was appointed to select sites on the island for the arsenal buildings and to determine upon the materials to be used in construction, etc. The committee selected the lower end of the island, near where the fort once stood, as the site of the principal storehouse, and recommended that its front should be on the prolongation of a line drawn from the southwest corner of a wooden building — one of the remaining blockhouses of the old fort — and that it should be placed at a point on this line •300 feet distant from the wooden building. Two sites for a magazine were suggested.
Major C. P. Kingsbury was commissioned, July 27, 1863, to assume the duties of constructing the buildings p331 recommended by the above committee and to command the arsenal. In a few days Major Kingsbury made his arrangements to move, and was soon at his new post of duty. When he arrived at Davenport, Iowa, he found there much of the excitement and activity of a military center. This city had been selected as one of the places where the troops raised in Iowa were gathered and drilled for service. There were five military camps on the bluffs overlooking the island and thirteen regiments of infantry and cavalry were mustered in, equipped and drilled here during the course of the war. On the same bluffs there was at this time also a special military stockade in which were kept the 278 Sioux warriors, together with some squaws and children, who had been captured after the Sioux massacre in Minnesota, and many of whom had been condemned to death.
When Major Kingsbury visited the island to begin the work of building an arsenal, he discovered a state of affairs which he had not anticipated. There, deep in the central part of the island, were hundreds of soldiers and workmen, busily engaged in building a military prison. In July, the same month and year in which Major Kingsbury had been appointed as commandant, the War Department had suddenly decided to use the island for a prison for Confederate soldiers as well as for an arsenal. Captain Charles A. Reynolds, assistant quartermaster in the United States Army, had charge of the construction of the prison. He had selected that portion of the island where are now located the commandant's house, the pumping station and the older shop buildings of the arsenal. The prisoners' barracks were placed on the north side of the island. •About twelve acres of ground had been surrounded by a stockade p332 •twelve feet high with guard walks and shelters around the upper part. Within the rectangle there were 14 rows of one‑story frame buildings, running east and west, with 6 buildings, •100 feet by 20 feet in size, in each row. Against either side wall of these barracks were rows of double-decked bunks for sleeping. A kitchen occupied one end of each building, which could accommodate 120 persons. A ditch some distance from the outside fence was the dead line, beyond which no prisoner was allowed to go. One old Union soldier was in charge of each barrack, and the stockade was always manned by watchful sentinels.
Courtesy Rock Island Arsenal
Rock Island Barracks About 1864
The first prisoners, taken at the Battle of Lookout Mountain, arrived on December 3, 1863; and they kept coming until there were about 10,000 men confined at one time. Prisoners were exchanged as often as possible, and men from the border states who had been drafted into the Confederate Army, were given the privilege of gaining their liberty by enlisting in the Union Army for service in the campaign against the Indians.
The winter of 1863‑1864 was one of the severest this part of the country had experienced for many decades. Zero weather prevailed for weeks at a time, and, in spite of the abundance of fuel and extra supplies of blankets, many of the southerners were far from comfortable. To add to the unhappiness an epidemic of smallpox broke out, and though hospitals were erected for their care outside of the prison walls, many died from the dread disease, then not so well understood and under control as at present.
To provide access to the mainland, the city of Rock Island at its own expense, erected a wooden wagon p333 bridge, which was afterwards purchased by the government.
While all the excitement was going on in the prison area, Major Kingsbury was busy on the lower end of the island trying to get the arsenal plans translated into buildings of stone. On September 1, 1863, ground was broken for the first arsenal building, now commonly known as the "clock tower building," and officially called "Storehouse A" at that time. It was located, as stated above, with reference to one of the remaining blockhouses of the old fort, and lumber sawed from the logs of this blockhouse was used to make the window frames in the basement of the new building, thus incorporating the old with the new historic era.
It was not until April, 1864 that the cornerstone of the building could be laid, because no stone was delivered until that time. Major Kingsbury encountered all manner of hindrances in putting his plans into execution. The United States currency was depreciating so fast that the prices of materials and labor went up by leaps and bounds. Laborers and mechanics were hard to get at any price. Strikes occurred on the railroads and steamboats bringing materials to the island; and these strikes were responsible for the inception of the idea of building a canal from Hennepin on the Illinois River to the mouth of the Rock River, to provide transportation from Lake Michigan independent of the railroads. The first meeting in favor of this project was held on January 19, 1864 in Davenport, Iowa, and the canal was finally completed in 1907, though coal was hauled over it as early as 1895 to the mouth of the Rock River. It reduced the water distance to Chicago from 610 to 190 miles, and cost $7,224,408.77. p334 This is said to have been the first canal built entirely by the United States.
The War Department was not satisfied with the idea of having only a small arsenal at Rock Island, and when General A. B. Dyer became Chief of Ordnance he ordered the building operations suspended pending the preparation of new plans which were to be made with the intention of putting up one of the finest and most extensive arsenals in the world on Rock Island, and which reached their fruition under Major Kingsbury's successor, General Thomas J. Rodman.
Beginning in April, 1864, a detachment of soldiers was stationed at the arsenal property to guard it. This was especially necessary as Major Kingsbury had to be away a great deal while distributing and receiving arms and accouterments for the volunteer troops of Iowa and Wisconsin. The war ended before the arsenal building was finished, but all the frame buildings used for prison purposes up to that time were now turned over to the arsenal and served to store the vast quantities of war supplies which were turned in at the close of the conflict.
In two well-kept national cemeteries on the island are the graves of 1,961 Confederate soldiers and more than 400 Union soldiers, which remind visitors of the terrible days of our Civil War.
Courtesy Rock Island Arsenal
Confederate Cemetery, Rock Island
General Rodman, the inventor of the famous Rodman gun, and one of the most gifted men in the army, was selected to succeed Major Kingsbury. He arrived on August 3, 1865, and after a nine day examination and study of the island he went back to New York City to discuss a more adequate plan for the development of the arsenal, with the Chief of Ordnance. p335 During this conference the present arsenal may be said to have been born. On returning to his post General Rodman spent the time until February, 1866 in making a map of the islands with plans for the great block of ten stone shops, ten storehouses, officers' quarters, magazines, laboratories, connecting railways, roadways, main avenue, water power plant, new railroad bridges, moving of the railroad, etc., all of which were later made realities (with the exception of some of the storehouses, which for various reasons have never been built). Each of the stone shops consists of two parallel wings, •60 by 300 feet, •90 feet apart and connected in front by a building •60 feet by 90 feet, all with three stories and a basement except in the center shop in each row which is only one story in height and has a basement. The walls of all the buildings are of stone •three feet thick at the bottom. The floor are supported on masonry piers and iron columns. Roofs are of slate supported on wrought iron frames, and all peak covers, flashings, valleys, gutters and downspouts are of heavy sheet copper. The buildings were designed to last for centuries and probably will.
Courtesy Rock Island Arsenal
One of the Ten Shops Planned by General Rodman
Courtesy Rock Island Arsenal
Shop "M," Rock Island Arsenal
Before building operations on the new shops began, the first building on the lower end of the island was completed, though not until 1867. It is now used as the headquarters of the engineer corps working on the improved •nine‑foot channel of the Mississippi.
The new buildings, erected on the central part of the island, where the prison had been located, were not fully completed until 1893, due in part to lack of interest on the part of Congress, which often failed to make the necessary appropriations to continue the work. The total cost was probably about $6,500,000. p336 Only $211,000 had up to this time been appropriated for furnishing the buildings with machinery. The approach of the Spanish-American War was necessary to arouse Congress to make the required expenditures to put the building into condition for service.
General Rodman lived long enough to carry through the great task of persuading the railroad company to move its tracks to a more suitable location on the island and to consent to help build a new million dollar iron bridge in place of the old wooden structure. He also began the development of the water power, a most difficult undertaking, owing to an agreement which made it necessary to supply power to the company that had built the dam for industrial purposes, in return for the relinquishment of its property rights in the dam. The dam had to be reconstructed so that it would supply power at points •about a mile apart, for that was before the use of electric generators, and the power had to be generated where it was to be used. Up to the time of his death, June 7, 1871, a total of $440,506.35 had been spent on the water power development; and it cost as much more before the wheels were able to deliver power to the arsenal shops.
Major D. W. Flagler, who was appointed to command the arsenal following the death of General Rodman, carried on the great building project with marked success during the fifteen years of his service. Under his administration eighteen buildings large and small were completed, also the water power dam, wingdam, power house, and mechanical transmission line, a sewer system, water mains, water tower and tank, pumping station, fire fighting equipment and housing, bridges, arsenal railroad and sidings, and the draining of a p337 •fifty‑acre swamp. The first shop was put into operation in 1873, and for years the only manufacturing done was that of fabricating wood and metal parts for use in the construction of buildings, and for making shop fixtures and machinery. The first stores made for the Army were leather goods — harness, saddles, etc. — and accouterments were repaired. Two hundred and eighty-eight thousand pounds of old horseshoes, with all damaged arms, left over from the Civil War, were converted into iron columns and trusses to be used in the construction of buildings. From 1871 to 1875 five smaller arsenals were closed and the stores concentrated at Rock Island. On November 30, 1872, the great new railroad bridge was completed and opened to the public. In 1897 this bridge was replaced with a heavier and wider structure, which still serves its purpose.
When Major Flagler was relieved in 1886, the arsenal had been brought up to a point where its manufacturing facilities were adequate for the needs of the country only while at peace.
Under Colonel Thomas G. Baylor, who succeeded Major Flagler, Congress made hardly any appropriations for the continuation of the building program, and hardly enough to keep in repair what had been constructed. Being incapacitated for service in 1889, Colonel Baylor was then relieved and Colonel James W. Whittemore carried on the work until 1891. Owing to lack of appropriations no new work could be undertaken. However, in 1890 one change was made — a small electric generator was installed, and the shops were lighted with electricity. In 1891 two more arsenals, located elsewhere, were combined with Rock Island. General A. R. Buffington, who followed as the next p338 commandant, while not able to expand the institution on account of lack of public interest in the work, spent five years in building up its inner strength and putting it into the best possible shape for any emergency that may arise. Some of the shops were still without furnishings or machinery. The hospital was housed in a drafty, frame building, formerly a part of the Confederate prison. Congress did not even provide a telephone system for the arsenal buildings. Such was the situation in 1897, when Colonel Buffington was succeeded by Captain S. E. Blunt.
Up to this time about $9,000,000 had been expended on the plant, the landscape development, the various bridges, and the maintenance of the whole. Yet only one shop and part of another were fully fitted out for production. When the Spanish-American War broke out, telegrams from Washington began to pour into the Commandant's office asking for equipment of all sorts in such enormous quantities that it could not possibly have been supplied unless forty‑six manufacturing firms in the Tri‑Cities and elsewhere had lent their aid. The experience roused Congress, and tardy appropriations were made to equip the shops more fully and to install automatic machinery. Electric power generators were installed in 1901, and the shops were heated in winter for the first time; a good hospital building was erected in 1907, together with some other long-needed structures. When Colonel Blunt was succeeded by Lieutenant Colonel F. E. Hobbs in 1907, interest had again begun to wane, and during the next four years only one building was provided for; and no provision was made for keeping the machinery up‑to‑date. The training schools for soldier-craftsmen, and a p339 chemical laboratory were begun during this period.
When Lieutenant Colonel G. W. Burr assumed charge of the arsenal in 1911, the Taylor system of shop management was introduced in modified form, also many safety devices and important improvements in the relations between the workmen and the shop managers.c During the six years of Colonel Burr's service hardly any appropriations were made for new buildings until the very end, when America's entrance into the World War made it absolutely necessary to make up for lost time. The calling out of the National Guard in the 1916 troubles with Mexico started the wheels turning again at full capacity. Apprentice courses for young men still in school were introduced. When war was declared against Germany in 1917 there began the greatest construction project ever witnessed on the island. Thirty-three new buildings were authorized, a new proving ground, embracing •12,500 acres near Savanna, Illinois, •sixty miles from Rock Island, was provided and equipped at a cost of $1,500,000. The monthly disbursements reached a total of $3,000,000. Enlargements, improvements and new construction continued throughout the war, much of it too late to be of service in that great emergency.
In 1918 Colonel L. T. Hillman succeeded Colonel Burr. Now, for the first time all the original shops and two new ones were fully equipped with machinery. The number of employees had risen to 13,400 at the time of the signing of the armistice, and 200 outside firms supplied various parts of needed military equipment.
Limited space forbids telling more of the romantic story of the arsenal's development. Colonel H. B. Jordan p340 succeeded Colonel Hillman in 1919, and was succeeded in turn by Colonel D. M. King in 1921. At his death in 1932, Colonel H. W. Schull took up the work, and after him came Colonel A. G. Gillespie, 1934 to 1938, and in command at present is Colonel Norman Ramsey. These latter commandants have been mostly occupied, except the last, in "tapering off" the activities of the World War period, in continuing the excellent management, in storing and reconditioning the vast quantities of war material on hand, and in preparing the great plant for whatever emergency may arise. At this writing greatly increased activity again prevails at the arsenal, more than 5,000 men and women being employed in the shops and offices. The property is valued at over $24,000,000. There are 110 buildings large and small, together with the best of equipment of all sorts, not counting the buildings at the Savanna proving ground. Paved roads on the island add up to •14.25 miles, and railroad trackage amounts to •15.3 miles, water mains to •12.8 miles and sewers to •7.6 miles. Aside from wages and raw material costs, the United States has spent on this great institution about $38,000,000, and it, no doubt, has here one of the finest arsenals in the world.
Courtesy Rock Island Arsenal
Clock Tower Building, Rock Island Arsenal, 1919
1 The location of Peouarea, the Illinois Indian settlement which the party discovered on June 25, is an extremely controversial subject. See a discussion of the various locations which have been suggested as the result of the study of Marquette's narrative and various maps in Laenas G. Weld, "Joliet and Marquette in Iowa," The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. I, no. 1 (Jan., 1903), 3‑16. It is certain that the landing took place somewhere between the Wapsipinicon and Iowa rivers. Rock Island, with its great east-west trail, is about halfway between the mouths of these two rivers, and the place where they "saw upon the water's edge, human footprints and a well beaten footpath leading to a beautiful prairie" could well have been opposite the island, where Davenport now stands. Two leagues and a half north from the Mississippi at this point would bring them close to the Wapsipinicon River. The further fact that Franquelin's Carte de la Louisiane (1684) places Peouarea on a stream that corresponds to the Wapsipinicon, seems to throw the weight of evidence in that direction.
2 See Orrin S. Holt, "Russel Farnham," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 9, no. 3 (Oct., 1916), 284‑91.
3 For a short sketch of the Black Hawk War see John H. Hauberg, "The Black Hawk War, 1831‑1832," Illinois State Historical Society Transactions, 1932, pp90‑134.
4 D. W. Flagler, A History of the Rock Island Arsenal (Washington, 1877), 35. A considerable number of these letters and reports are quoted in full by Major Flagler in his history. See pp36‑52.
a A very good account is given by Milo Quaife in The Northwestern Career of Jefferson Davis, J. Ill. S. H. S. 16:1‑19.
b The details of the Campbell and Taylor expeditions both are given in Bruce E. Mahan, Old Fort Crawford and the Frontier, pp57‑62; with sources cited in the footnotes.
c For good details, see Gen. Burr's obituary (Association of Graduates of the Military Academy, 1925).
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Rock Island Armory
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