Iowa History Daily: James Allen, Fort Sanford, and the Start of Des Moines

Iowa History Daily: On May 17, 1843, Captain James Allen led Company I of the 1st United States Dragoons up the Des Moines River toward a posting at 2nd Fort Des Moines, future site of Iowa’s capital city. Abandoning the short-lived Fort Sanford just south of modern day Ottumwa, Allen would serve as commander at Fort Des Moines from 1843-1846.

An 1829 graduate of West Point, Allen first passed through the lands which became Iowa while accompanying Henry Schoolcraft on an expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1832. Assigned to the 1st United States Dragoons in 1833, Allen worked as an engineer on a project to improve the harbor at Chicago.

Transferred to First Fort Des Moines, Montrose, in 1842, overseeing the brief life of Fort Sanford near the United States Indian Agency (now Agency, Iowa) served as Allen’s first task in Iowa Territory. Drawing troops from Fort Atkinson in northeastern Iowa, Allen and company occupied the former fur trading post of Pierre Chouteau Jr. and John Sanford on tall stone outcroppings overlooking the Des Moines River (today the site rests inside the Garrison Rock Resource Management Area).

A small post featured only eight cabins already on the site when the Dragoons arrived. Monitoring the western movement of the dispossessed Sauk and Meskwaki, as well as dissuading overly-eager pioneers jumping boundary lines, provided the bulk of the Dragoons work in modern-day Wapello County before the abandonment of the fort in 1843.

A brief stay of three years awaited Allen (1843-1846) as commander of Second Fort Des Moines at the confluence of the Des Moines and Racoon rivers. Although the fort proved short-lived, the city of Des Moines grew out of the fort’s location (today near the Principal Park home of the Iowa Cubs where MLK crossed the river). While at 2nd Fort Des Moines, Allen led a significant expedition across northwestern Iowa and into Dakota Territory.

Allen also recruited a group of Latter Day Saints from their camp at Mt. Pisgah to fight in the Mexican-American War before his death on August 23, 1846. Allen’s body made one final journey, this time to Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, where he became the first officer laid to rest in the significant military cemetery. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


9 views0 comments