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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an item in the
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
Vol. 4 No. 3 (Oct. 1911), pp334‑339

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p334  Old Fort Belle Fontaine​a

W. T. Norton

Immediately opposite the city of Alton five miles directly south of it on the farther side of the Missouri river, with two broad rivers and a strip of bottom land intervening, can be seen all that remains of a frontier military post over which have waved the flags of three nations — France, Spain and the United States. It is the site of old Fort Belle Fontaine, famous in border annals, and, after the acquisition of Louisiana by the United States, its most important military post in the Mississippi valley. The post was established four miles above the mouth of the Missouri, with the evident intent of commanding both the Missouri and the Mississippi. Its first occupation may date back to as early a period as 1717, as there is a record of the establishment by the French, at that time, of a military post on the Missouri near its mouth, and Belle Fontaine seems the most probable point for its location. But if that was the case, it was subsequently abandoned. However, in the year 1768, five years after the founding of St. Louis, and the same period after the cession of Louisiana to Spain, a Captain Rios, a Spanish officer, arrived from the south to establish the authority of his sovereign in upper Louisiana. He selected this location on the Missouri as a strategic site for a fort, erected some log huts and a stockade, and named the post St. Charles in honor of his King. Whether it is the same site as that selected by the French in 1717 is an open question, with the probabilities favoring the sites being identical. But it seems that the Spaniards did not long occupy Fort St. Charles as a military post. In the year 1800 Spain conveyed back to  p335 France the same territory it had acquired from that country in 1763, and in 1803 Napoleon sold it to the United States. The French, in their second brief occupation of three years, changed the name of the post to Fort Belle Fontaine in tribute to a beautiful spring that gushed from a small cave in the side of the cliff of sufficient volume to supply the wants of a large garrison.

After its occupation by the Americans Fort Belle Fontaine came into greater prominence, and was always well garrisoned. Here various treaties were made with the Indian tribes, and here military expeditions were fitted out for the exploration of the western wilderness. It was from this point that Lewis and Clark started on their memorable expedition to the head waters of the Missouri, thence to the Columbia and the Pacific ocean. The explorers and their party of fifteen or twenty men were encamped the winter of 1803‑04 at the mouth of Wood River, in Madison county, on the Illinois shore, and directly opposite what was then the mouth of the Missouri, and in the spring of 1804 started on their toilsome journey up the turbid Missouri.

From Belle Fontaine on Sept. 23d, 1806, Gen. Zebulon Montgomery Pike started on his famous expedition up the Missouri and thence across the plains to the Rocky Mountains, signalized by his discovery on the following Nov. 15th of Pike's Peak, named for the explorer.

During the War of 1812 it was the point of rendezvous for campaigns against the Britain and their Indian allies. The records of the War Department give full reports of the selection of the old site of French and Spanish occupation, as the location of a frontier station two years after the Louisiana purchase had passed into the hands of the United States, from which I make such extracts as are essential to this narrative. The record says: "The occasion for the location of this military post was a stipulation in a treaty made at St. Louis, Nov. 3d, 1804, between William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana  p336 Territory, and the District of Louisiana, and the head chiefs of the Sacs and Foxes, by which the United States agreed to establish a trading house, or factory, at a point where these tribes can be supplied with goods at a more reasonable rate than they have been accustomed to procure them." In accordance with this agreement, in 1805, General Wilkinson, then commanding the army, was directed to select a site for the proposed factory and occupy the same with troops, and on the 10th of August he reported that he had encamped the troops at Cold Water, on a high, dry, narrow bottom of the Missouri, near a fountain of pure water, competent to supply a thousand men daily, where they are now engaged in the work of the cantonment and building of the factory." This point, he continues, is the site of the present village of Froisante,​b St. Louis County. The troops were six companies of the First Infantry, under command of Col. Thomas Hunt. From a rude drawing of the cantonment, made in 1807, on file in the War Department, it would appear to be located on a sandy bottom, beyond which was a bluff covered with timber. It was to this bluff that the cantonment was removed, four years later, on account of the unhealthiness of the original site. Four cannons were brought from St. Louis, in 1806, and mounted in the rear of the cantonment. Colonel Hunt died at the post in 1808, and was succeeded by Capt. James House, of the artillery, and later, in June, 1809, by Lieut. Col. Bissell, of the First Infantry. The new buildings erected on the bluff in 1809, included log barracks, a factory, an arsenal and a magazine of well-seasoned timber.

From 1809 to 1815 Fort Belle Fontaine was the headquarters of the department of Louisiana, which included Forts Madison, Massac, Osage and Vincennes. During the War of 1812 it was frequently threatened by marauding bands of Indians, in pay of the British, but was never attacked. For the twelve years following 1815 the garrison of Belle Fontaine was of varying strength. Its abandonment  p337 was finally decided on to erect a larger and more permanent fort nearer St. Louis. A new site was finally selected at Carondelet and the troops at Belle Fontaine were removed to the former point, and began the erection of what is now Jefferson Barracks. The last return to the War Department from Belle Fontaine is dated June 30, 1826, at which time the garrison consisted of four companies of the First Infantry, under command of Maj. S. W. Kearney. Ten days later the fort was abandoned as a military post, although a small arsenal of deposit was maintained there until 1834. In 1836 the government disposed of its interests to certain citizens of St. Louis. The land surrounding Belle Fontaine contained 500 French acres, and was purchased by General Wilkinson for the government for $2,750.

A late visit to the site of the old fort enables me to give some particulars of its present aspect, and such reminders of its former occupation as still remain. Starting from Alton and crossing the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, thence following the line of bluffs on the south bank, and crossing Cold Water Creek, the writer came first to an old abandoned block house in the midst of a beautiful grove, such a house as was common on the border in the early days. This may be all that is left of the old village of Froisante, spoken of in the War Department record. A hundred yards farther on he suddenly found himself in the midst of an old cemetery, on the bluff, strewn with rocks and mortar, the debris of old tombs. All the tombs were in a more or less ruinous condition. They were built of masonry, about two feet above the ground, and upon them rested the memorial tablets. Most of the inscriptions were illegible, but some could be deciphered. On one stone the inscription was perfectly legible. It read; "In memory of Maj. Russell Bissell, of the U. S. Infantry, who died at Cantonment Belle Fontaine Dec. 18, 1807."​c

 p338  Another inscription, and a pathetic one, read: "In memory of the infant child of Col. Zebulon M. Pike, who died Nov. 23d, 1806." Pike's Peak was discovered by the explorer Nov. 15th of that month, just eight days prior to the death of his child, of which affliction he, doubtless, never heard until his return, the following year after his captivity by the Mexicans. History tells of Col. Pike's promotion after his return and formal thanks tendered him by the government, but says nothing of the bereavement which greeted him on his arrival home. Such are the lights and shadows of an explorer's life. This inscription indicates that Col. Pike's family was domiciled at Belle Fontaine during his absence.

I have seen it stated that Gen. Pike himself was buried at Belle Fontaine, but I found no confirmation of it there. He was killed at the battle of York, now Toronto, during the war with England, on the 27th of April, 1813, in command of the American Forces, and it is not probable his body was brought back west for burial, nearly a thousand miles, during those troublous times, but it may possibly have been transferred after the war.​d

Near the old cemetery on the brow of the bluff, 125 feet above the river, is the old parade ground of the cantonment, stretching back in a level plain, now a field of grain. The present farm residence is near the bluff line of the parade ground. One wing is a part of the old buildings (officers' quarters). It is built of solid stone, with walls two feet thick. This relic must be over one hundred years old and is still well preserved. Along the verge of the bluffs are ruins of several other stone buildings, all facing the parade grounds, where the heroes of the frontier wars of a century ago drilled in battle array. Some rest in the old cemetery yonder, others lie in still lonelier graves on the battlefields of the border.

From the parade ground, which commands a splendid view of the surrounding country, and of the two great rivers of the continent, the bluff slopes steeply towards  p339 the Missouri, but between the bluff and the river is an almost level bench, some two hundred feet wide, on which are remains of other buildings. On this bench have been picked up many relics of former occupation — cannon balls, fragments of ordnance, etc. Directly in the side of the almost vertical cliff is a cave, with an entrance about five feet high, and extending back an indefinite distance. Out of this cavern still flows the splendid stream of clear cold water spoken of by General Wilkinson.

"For men may come and men may go,

But I go on forever."

The French here found their name for the cantonment — Belle Fontaine (beautiful waters) — which the Americans perpetuated.

But what of the original American cantonment of which Gen. Wilkinson reported that it was located "on a high, dry bottom of the Missouri." Well, that bottom has disappeared. Gen. Wilkinson had not added to his accomplishments a knowledge of the Missouri. That erratic stream, like the wind which "bloweth where it listeth," has a habit of flowing "where it listeth" over the adjacent landscape. Some time subsequent to the removal of the cantonment to the bluff, a flood swept over that "high, dry bottom," and the main channel of the river now flows over the original site. The Missouri respects neither history nor tradition, and regards not the works of man, but its murky flow, as it rushes past the moss-grown ruins on the bluff, serves to recall the fame of the intrepid explorers, who, here, over a century ago, first breasted its turbid water to win from the reluctant west the secrets of the wilderness.

And now, a suggestion: Would it be appropriate for the Historical Societies of Illinois and Missouri to unite in a memorial to the government to re-purchase the site of the old fort and the military cemetery adjacent, maintain them as a reservation, and restore, as far as possible, the old military cemetery? Surely the gallant heroes of the border who sleep there are entitled to this recognition.​e

Thayer's Notes:

a The recent history of the fort as well as some handsome photographs of the remains can be found on the page at FortWiki.

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b Froisante, spelled this way twice in our article, is a mystery. It isn't a properly spelled French word and wasn't then; Froissante, the correction that suggests itself, is an exceedingly unlikely placename; and neither spelling is otherwise attested in the area.

It's very tempting to correct it to Florissant, a place very close to the Fort; but that town still exists (see my map), and has not only been continuously occupied since at least the late 18c, but was until fairly recently the well-known western headquarters of the Jesuit Order and an important center of (St.) Philippine Duchesne's Sacred Heart Ladies — and our writer therefore, familiar as he is with the area, could not possibly have confused it with the scant remains he saw.

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c He was reburied by the Army in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in 1904: see this photo of his tombstone, where the inscription is also different, reading:

Revolutionary War


Russell Bissell

Capt. Payne's Co.

Died Dec 18, 1807

Æ. 52º

A modern Government-issue grave marker has also been added, reading:





US Inf

Rev War

Indian War

Dec 18 1807

In addition to the photographs of the grave markers, the page also includes a summary of his military career.

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d Such are the wonders of our modern world, that information that was difficult to find when our paper was written is almost instantly available today. Zebulon Pike is buried in New York State, at Sacketts Harbor Military Cemetery.

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e Seventy-five years after this article was written, the author's hope was finally realized: the Fort Belle Fontaine Historical Society convinced St. Louis County to buy and preserve the land, which in 1986 became a county-owned park, provided with historical markers and landscaped to receive visitors; an annual reënactment is also held in September. Excellent information on the park and its history can be found at GreatRiverRoad.Com.

As for the fort's burial ground, the thirty-three graves were moved in 1904 to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery; Pike's infant child, a boy, was given a new headstone: see his page at Find-a‑Grave; the other old tombstones, as stated in our article, were unreadable and a memorial "to the unknown soldiers who died while in camp between 1808 and 1826 at Fort Bellefontaine" was also erected at Jefferson Barracks.

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Page updated: 26 Oct 18