Iowa Article: "Fort Des Moines (1834-1837): An Archeological Test," by Marshall McKusick

McMusick, Marshall. "Fort Des Moines (1834-1837): An Archaeological Test." The Annals of Iowa 42 (1975), 513-522. Available at: https://doi.org/10.17077/0003-4827.10960


McKusick, a long-time University of Iowa professor (1960-1996) and State Archaeologist of Iowa (1960-1975), investigated the location of the initial Fort Des Moines near Montrose. The article opened with a relatively quick description of the formation of Iowa, as well as the military history as it related to the founding of the fort.


The Mississippi River rapids that began immediately below the eventually fort site figured prominently in the location choice. Fort Des Moines rose at the head of the rapids, providing a safe harbor to river traffic ascending and descending the river. The twelve-mile stretch of churning water proved a “major navigational hazard for boats on the Mississippi” due to low-depth and consistent subsurface obstacles. The United States Army Corps of Engineers sent a young lieutenant, Robert E. Lee (yes, that Robert E. Lee), to sound the channel and create a map of the rapids. The document he produced, dated 1837, included detail on the buildings of Old Fort Des Moines.


Using the Lee map, as well as Lee County histories and other documents, McKusick set out to determine the site of the original fort. Natural and artificial changes to the river, as well as local misnomers, complicated his search. He provided incredible detail as to his specific archeological work (please read the linked original article), and why finding any foundations proved a difficult task: “The presence of the modern town and miscellaneous construction activities complicate the search for the fort location. I remain convinced that there are significant artifacts and fort ruins still preserved in the vicinity of the fort well. The barracks may lie on the alignment projected by Lee’s map, and if this is the case the exploratory trenches were in the parade ground, and did not cross the barracks. The other two possibilities have been tested. I hope my notes on the search for Fort Des Moines spurs someone to make a full historical study, based upon the unpublished correspondence in the National Archives. The map should be consulted if construction is undertaken in the vicinity of the traditional fort well.” (522)


McKusick’s work at the Old Fort Des Moines site, as well as many others throughout the state can help us better view the past.



“The lands west of the Mississippi opened to settlers in the year following the Black Hawk Purchase of 1832. The area which subsequently became Iowa was administratively governed as part of the Michigan Territory from 1836-1838, and as the Iowa Territory from 1838-1846, at which time statehood was approved.” (513)


“To protect the western frontier of the Michigan Territory, the War Department decided to establish a new military post on the west side of the Mississippi as a center for military operations and explorations. The military post was named Fort Des Moines because of its position at the head of the rapids on the Mississippi River which began just below the present day townsites of Nauvoo, Illinois, and Montrose, Iowa. The rapids continued south twelve miles to what is now Keokuk, Iowa, above the junction of the Des Moines River into the Mississippi.” (513)


“The fort site at the rapids was strategically significant as a boat landing, and travelers usually stopped before entering the dangerous rapids, or upon safely navigating them upstream. The landing was at the head of a trail which paralleled the rapids on the west or Iowa side.” (513)


“During the American Revolutionary War period a small outpost manned by French Canadians was situated at or near the landing to keep British traders from going west up the Des Moines River.” (513)


“In 1799 the landing was part of the Spanish land grant, given to Louis Henore Tesson.” (513)


“At the time of Fort Des Moines was established in 1834 there were some white settlers in the area known as Cut Nose Village - and a few Indians may have been in temporary residence.” (514)


“Lieutenant George H. Crossman began construction of the fort in the fall of 1834, and was joined by Lt. Colonel Stephen W. Kearney, with a full garrison. The soldiers were the 1st Dragoons, companies B, H, and I, and numbered about 150 men.” (514)


“Dragoons were mounted on horseback for mobility, but were trained to fight on foot once a military action commenced. They were intermediate between infantry and cavalry.” (514)


“The choice of a building-site by a steamboat landing was made in order to facilitate supplying the garrison. No stockade was built because there was no threat of Indian attack. The post was a headquarters for patrols and expeditions into the largely unexplored Indian country to the west.” (514)


“The fort location was low and unhealthy, and both officers and men were frequently sick.” (514)


“An 1834 plan by Lieutenant Crossman shows details of the fort design: two of the buildings from the plan are shown here as emphasis.” (515)


“Robert E. Lee, who later commanded the Confederate Army in Virginia, was a lieutenant in the 1830s, attached to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The turbulent, shallow, twelve-mile Des Moines Rapids was a major navigational hazard for boats on the Mississippi, and the Army Corps of Engineers assigned Lieutenant Lee the task of taking soundings and mapping the channel. Lee’s map, dated 1837, included the location of the Fort Des Moines barracks, stables, and other buildings, and shows the location of the fort well in the center of the parade ground surrounded by the barracks and smaller buildings.” (516)


“The territory was increasingly being settled and the dragoons were garrisoned further west, the fort being abandoned in 1837. Several early settlers and a former soldier continued to live in the area and some stories about the fort were incorporated in various Lee County histories with varying degrees of reliability. The settlement grew up around the fort, an officer reporting, ‘A town has been laid off at this place, and lots have been sold, which takes in part of our garrison.’” (518)


“The commodious quarters used by Colonel Kearney became a hotel named River House but the fate of the other buildings is unknown.” (518)


“There is a tradition, not mentioned in the county histories, that the fort well was in the town and eventually it was marked by a small monument and bronze plaque. Given the well location and street alignment I decided to attempt the relocation of Fort Des Moines.” (519)


“The river bank in the Montrose area changed a great deal after Lieutenant Lee mapped the river in 1837. A canal through the rapids completed in the 1870s became obsolete and in 1913 the Keokuk Lock and Dam created a substantial backwater reservoir, flooding the rapids and inundating the low shore line upstream.” (519)


“The fort location was confused when a small riverside park was established nearby. Without regard to historical accuracy, the bronze plaque identifying the fort well had been taken down and reet by the park pump. The original concrete monument is still in place by the railroad and was used as a base point on the map.” (519)


(Significant detail in article of archeological study, and difficulty in finding the fort when compared with other Iowa forts and buildings of the time-period.)


“The presence of the modern town and miscellaneous construction activities complicate the search for the fort location. I remain convinced that there are significant artifacts and fort ruins still preserved in the vicinity of the fort well. The barracks may lie on the alignment projected by Lee’s map, and if this is the case the exploratory trenches were in the parade ground, and did not cross the barracks. The other two possibilities have been tested. I hope my notes on the search for Fort Des Moines spurs someone to make a full historical study, based upon the unpublished correspondence in the National Archives. The map should be consulted in construction in undertaken in the vicinity of the traditional fort well.” (522)


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