"Old Fort Des Moines," by Harry Herndon Polk

Polk, Harry H. "Old Fort Des Moines." The Annals of Iowa 36 (1962), 425-436. Available at: https://doi.org/10.17077/0003-4827.7643


In a wide-ranging recounting of early Des Moines and Polk County history, Harry H. Polk related a variety of information related to early settlement of the area. Starting with the history of Euro-American exploration of Iowa, Polk then moved through the commissioning and decommissioning of First Fort Des Moines, as well as the establishment of Second Fort Des Moines. The article includes a variety of specific detail, especially as it pertains to Second Fort Des Moines.


The voyage of Lieutenant Allen on the steamer 'Agatha' up the Des Moines River, the establishment of the post, as well as the relation of specific challenges faced by the Dragoons all stand out as particularly of interest within the article. Polk also makes note of Inkpaduta's attack on Spirit Lake in 1857, making reference to the initial attack taking place by a set of burial mounds (something I have not encountered in years of previous research).



"The first white men to set foot upon soil watered by the Des Moines River were Father Marquette and Louis Joilet. Paddling down the Mississippi River in a canoe, they landed on June 25, 1673 on the west bank of the Mississippi River near the mouth of the Des Moines. It is also recorded by Ceneral Sibley that in May, 1798, a young man by the name of Faribault with three others were sent by the Northwest Fur Company to a point called "Redwood" on the Des Moines River, 200 miles from its mouth which places it somewhere near the Raccoon Forks. These men traded with the Sioux that winter and in the following spring dropped down the Des Moines River in canoes and delivered their cargoes of furs to the agents of the company at its post on the Mississippi River. " (425)


"One hundred sixty-one years after the arrival of Marquette and Joliet, the first Fort Des Moines was established by the War Department in 1834 on or near the spot where Keokuk and Montrose now stand. Shortly after its establishment. Lieutenant Colonel Kearney, the post commander, for the want of a better name, designated it as "Detachment Hdqs. of the 1st Regiment of Dragoons, Michigan territory." Colonel Kearney frequently urged the War Department to give it a name and finally President Monroe's Secretary of War, Mr. Cass, in his own handwriting penned these few words on the back of the request; "Let the post be called Fort Des Moines and let it be a double ration post." (425-426)


"Colonel Kearney was directed by the War Department in 1835 to reconnoiter the Des Moines River and Raccoon Forks, and accordingly he set out on a mounted expedition with three Companies of the 1st Dragoons, Company G, commanded by Captain Turner; Company H, by Captain Nathan Boone, son of Daniel Boone and Company I, commanded by Lieutenant Albert Lea, after whom the city of Albert Lea, Minnesota was named. On their arrival at the Raccoon Forks, Lieutenant Albert Lea was ordered to descend the river from Raccoon Forks to its mouth by canoe and report his findings. Lt. Lea had made a dugout from an old cottonwood tree, and taking one soldier and two Indians, departed on his journey down the river. In his report he says, "I find this river to be 80 to 100 yards wide, shallow, crooked, filled with rocks, sandbars and snags. Yet it is certain that keel boats may navigate it." Although Col. Kearney most vigorously opposed the location of a post at Racoon Forks, the War Departinent, by order of General Scott, assigned Captain James Allen of the Dragoons to select a site at or near the Agency buildings which were located some three miles below the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon. In his report to the War Department dated December 30, 1842, he says, "I have selected a point at the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. The soil is rich and wood, stone, water and grass are at hand. It will be high enough up the river to protect the peaceable Indians from the Sioux and in the heart of their best country. It is about equadistant from the Missouri and Mississippi. It will also be about the head of keel boat navigation on the Des Moines River." Consequently ( by Order No. 6, Hdqs, 3rd Military Department, Jefferson Barracks ) on February 20, 1843, Captain Allen was directed to establish a temporary post at or near the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. On the 29th of April, with a small detachment of Dragoons, he left Fort Sanford, 65 miles west of Fort Madison, and proceeded up the river." (426-427)


"There was a little Trading Post at this time at Red Rock in Marion County. The stone in this house was quarried from these bluffs. On this particular day of which I speak, six or seven men were sitting out in front of the Trading Post smoking their com cob pipes and trying to decide if it was worth while "carrying on" in this country. They had just about decided to take the back track for home, when suddenly, a shrill steamer whistle startled them and in a moment or two they saw a little stern-wheeler rounding the bend packed with soldiers. It was the steamship "Agatha." As it came to its mooring, Capt. James Allen, 1st Regiment Dragoons, U. S. Army, came ashore and told the little group that he and his command were en route to Raccoon Forks to establish a Military Post. Needless to say, the six or seven men stayed on at Red Rock. The "Agatha" tied up to take on water and fuel wood." (427)


"There the post was established and Capt. Allen reported to the War Department that he had named the new Post "Fort Raccoon," saying in his recommendations that "the place already has a great notoriety for a great distance as the Raccoon river. Raccoon Forks, etc." The Adjutant General of the Army, General Jones, replied "But Raccoon would be shocking, at least in very bad taste" and General Scott ordered that the name of Fort Des Moines be given to the post." (428)


"The following days were busy ones for all and with the completion of the stables, mounts for the Dragoons arrived. The officers' quarters, barracks for the men, and other necessary buildings were completed. It seems that one of the most perplexing problems to overcome was to find the proper material with which to construct the chimneys for the various buildings. The logs were easily obtained from the woods nearby, but the proper clay and lime was a different matter. A civilian by the name of Thillinger came to the rescue finding suitable clay in the nearby hills and a very excellent grade of limestone near Four Mile Creek, which when burned made splendid lime. Kilns were built and soon bricks were in production. By fall the smoke was coming out of the Post chimneys. This was the first brick industry in Des Moines. Raccoon Row and Des Moines Row came into being and then the families began to gather and the welcome voices of women and children were heard. As the summer neared its close. Captain Allen and Lieutenant Woodruff made a hurried mounted trip down the river to purchase draft animals, wagons, and supplies for the winter. The supplies were loaded on the wagons at Burlington and sent on up to the Fort. They also purchased a complete saw mill out-fit, employed mechanics to run the mill and again the little "Agatha" made her torturous trip up to Fort Des Moines." (429-430)


"With the start of spring there was quite an influx of white settlers, good and bad. The bad causing the soldiers much trouble, selling whiskey to die Indians and continually trying to jump claims in advance of the treaty. The necessity for watching these vagabond whites and at the same time endeavoring to restrain the restless instincts of the Sac and Fox gave Captain Allen and his troops much work. As the time for die termination of die treaty approached, the duties of the garrison increased. Hundreds of settlers were squatting along the boundaries ready to jump the minute the Indians left. In fact, many did not wait, but made raids over the line shooting one or more Indians. The shootings were followed by acts of reprisal. It was becoming more evident each day that the Indians were more and more disinclined to leave their country and many of them did not go until removed by force. This all resulted in the necessity of the Dragoons to be in the field constantly." (430)


"On August 29, 1845, Captain Allen wrote die War Department disapproving its intention of abandoning the Post at the expiration of the treaty and recommending that the garrison be continued at Fort Des Moines until the following spring. On his recommendation, the War Department decided to continue the troops at Fort Des Moines throughout that winter. However, on October 12, 1845, most of the Sac and Fox left the country peaceably for their new hunting grounds, on land set apart for them south of the Missouri. Captain Allen reported on January 1st, 1846, that between 100 and 200 Indians remained, and were causing considerable ti-ouble. The garrison then consisted of only three officers and 52 Dragoons, The Infantry had left for Jefferson Barracks on September 22,1845." (430-431)


"The order for the abandonment of the Post was dated at St. Louis, February 23, 1846. After rounding up the straggling Indians on March 8, 1846, Lieutenant Noble, with a detachment of 25 Dragoons, left for Fort Leavenworth with 110 Indians. On March 10, Lieutenant Grier, with the balance of the garrison, marched out of town and Fort Des Moines ceased to exist as a military post." (431)


"Ten years later in the vicinity of the mounds at Spirit Lake occurred the Spirit Lake Massacre. Early in March, 1857, news of this massacre, by a band of renegade Sioux, under the leadership of Ink-pa-du-ta filtered into Des Moines. Immediately the citizens organized a troop of cavalry to go to the whites in the northwest section of the State. Galling for volunteers to act as scouts to precede the troop, three men offered their services. They were Jefferson S. Polk, my father, Brax D. Thomas and W. A. Scott. These three men rode all night, frequently changing to fresh mounts at isolated cabins on the way, arriving in Fort Dodge only to find that the Indians with the captives had left the country and that the U. S. Cavalry was hot on their trail." (433)


"The Star was the first newspaper to be published in Des Moines, a little later followed by the Gazette. These papers were on the streets in 1849. Many grist and saw mills appeared in Des Moines and throughout the county, playing a most important part in the building up of the town and country. The first marriage occurred March 1st, 1846, John Beard and Mary Jane Wellman, the contracting parties." (433)


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