"The Heart of the Best Part: Fort Des Moines No. 2 and the Archeology of a City," by David Mather

Mather, David. "The Heart of the Best Part: Fort Des Moines No. 2 and the Archaeology of a City." Iowa Heritage Illustrated 86 (2005), 12-21.

Available at: https://ir.uiowa.edu/ihi/vol86/iss1/5


In Mather's recounting of the archeology related to Fort Des Moines No. 2, many insights are provided to how the geographic space surrounding the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers changed over time. After a brief historical and geographical introduction, Mather delves into the difficulties initially experienced in attempting to locate 2nd Fort Des Moines. Shifting river beds, construction throughout the area, and other factors all made identifying and excavating the location incredibly difficult. However, archeologists were able to locate the fort near the intersection of West Market and SW 1st streets.


Under the layers of gravel and other construction materials, archeologists found a series of objects left behind in fireplaces and privies that help to determine the exact locations of buildings within the original fort. The article also provides a variety of maps, images of objects found, and other material many readers will find interesting.


"Picturing the waves of people and events that created Iowa and its capital city requires a shift in the modern mind, and the realization that their legacy remains with us under the buildings and roads we've built. It's a challenge to strip away the layer of our world that moves at 65 miles per hour. Highways are such convenient landmarks that they have quickly become ingrained in our geographic sense of place, whether in finding ourselves on a map or navigating to the next stop. The stretches of 1-35 and 1-80 neatly divide Iowa into four quadrants, within which the centrality of Des Moines is not a coincidence. The two interstates hug the city of Des Moines, and drop the tentacle of 1-235 inside. The gold dome of the Capitol welcomes visitors by this cross-town route, hut the highway swiftly passes over the Des Moines River, near the site of the original heart of the city—Fort Des Moines No. 2." (12)


"Fort Des Moines No. 1 (1834-1837) was located on the Mississippi River at a spot called the Des Moines Rapids (the Des Moines River blasted into the Mississippi with enough force that it created rapids, hearing its name, about eleven miles upstream on the Mississippi). Fort Des Moines No. 2, in central Iowa, wasn't named after the city; it didn't exist yet. Both forts, like Fort Atkinson in northeast Iowa, preceded the westward flow of EuroAmerican settlement. (Fort Des Moines No. 3 was established in 1901 in the southern part of the city.)" (12)


"It was constructed in 1843 to temporarily hold back the "official" frontier and maintain order during a threeyear interval in the forced relocation of the Sauk and Meskwaki, two tribes culturally and linguistically related." (12)


"A federal military post was to be built in this west-' ern tract, and in late October 1842, Captain James Allen of the U.S. 1st Dragoons traveled 90 miles up the Des Moines River from Fort Sanford, a cluster of rude log cabins on the left bank of the Des Moines River (in present-day Wapello County), to select a location. With him were Indian agent John Beach, the Sauk leader Keokuk and his son, three hunters, and a detachment of "dragoons" (mounted troops)." (13)


"Rivers were the best way to move people and materials quickly across the Iowa landscape until widespread use of railroads and automobiles. Rivers were sheltered lanes flowing between barriers of hills, creeks, rocks, sloughs, mudholes, swamps, and other obstacles. The water brought respite from prairie fires, and allowed floodplain forests to flourish, which in turn housed a supermarket of food and medicine for those who knew what to look for. Elk, bison, deer, and other game congregated here." (13)


"The centrality of the confluence of the Raccoon River with the Des Moines River was a major factor in Allen's choice of location for Fort Des Moines No. 2. In December 1842, he described the location in a letter to the War Department: "The soil is rich, and wood, stone, water and grass at hand. It will be high enough up the river to protect these Indians against the Sioux, and is the heart of the best part of their new country, where the greatest effort will be made by the squatters to get in. It is about equidistant from the Missouri and the Mississippi passing around the heads of many ugly branches of Grand River."" (13)


"Although Allen had suggested calling the new post "Fort Raccoon," the name lacked sufficient military dignity and so it was named Fort Des Moines No. 2. In May 1843, Captain Allen, 4 officers and 48 men of the 1 st U.S. Dragoons ended their seven-month stay at Fort Sanford, and traveled upriver by steamboat. They were soon joined at Fort Des Moines No. 2 by Captain J. R. B. Gardenier with 2 officers and 44 men of Company F, 1st U.S. Infantry, who marched overland from Fort Crawford near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin." (13)


"About two miles east of the fort, across the Des Moines River, stood the new Raccoon River Indian Agency (about one mile east of the present-day Capitol.) The agency administered over some 2,300 Sauk and Meskwaki living in four villages to the east (one 15 miles away, another by North River, and the other two closer to the agency). The agency granted licenses to at least three trading posts, where the Indians bought on credit a variety of goods, probably kettles, gunpowder, and lead; saddles and bridles; and calico, beads, blankets, ribbons, and Vermillion." (13-14)


"Finding any physical traces of Fort Des Moines No. 2 has been an ongoing detective story. In archaeology, as in other fields of study, today's questions build upon previous findings. In looking for the old fort, archaeologists had to first go back to basics, the written records. But as noted by archaeologist Christopher Schoen (of the Louis Berger Group, Inc.), "The historical maps for Fort Des Moines No. 2 do not all provide the same information about the locations of the structures and features of the compounds. Artistic illustrations and reconstructions of the fort's layout, while capturing the essence of the fort, may contribute additional errors." Only one map of Fort Des Moines No. 2 appears to have been created before it was abandoned." (14)


"The historical sources all agree on the general location of the fort at the confluence of the two rivers. Although that may seem straightforward, correlating that information with the realities of a modern city is daunting. Many landmarks that we take for granted today— bridges, parks, and buildings—simply did not exist in the 1840s, and even natural landmarks must be considered with caution. Indeed the Raccoon still flows into the Des Moines—but not exactly where it used to. Because of frequent flooding, the confluence of the rivers was moved about a quarter-mile to the south in about 1914. The old confluence was filled in, leveled over, and eventually covered by the growing city." (15)


"A breakthrough occurred in 1985. Archaeologists from Brice, Petrides and Associates started digging a small test trench under the current-day pavement near the corner of West Market and SW 1st streets. Within the first few inches, they encountered railroad ties (likely from the first track laid there, in 1866) and fragments of cedar blocks and brick (both used as early street paving). The next layer was about three feet of unsorted fill (soil and cinders). Below this layer were several inches of gravel. Experts knew that only the fast-moving waters of a great flood could have deposited that much gravel, so the gravel layer probably dated to 1851, the year of the first major flood historically recorded in the eastern half of Iowa. Below the gravel, archaeologists found the remains of a brick and limestone fireplace and a layer of ash that extended beyond the hearth. Amidst the ash were several significant artifacts, including clay pipes, buttons from a dragoon uniform, and two pennies, one dated to 1830 and the other 1840." (15)


"Set within their context—three feet under the surface and amidst other artifacts in the fireplace ash—the 1830 and 1840 coins are goldmines of information, because, simply, they could not have appeared there before 1830. We know that Native Americans living in the area before the fort was built in 1843 lacked the technology of making bricks. By association, then, the coins date the ash layer (and its artifacts) to the fort era, just as the flood-deposited gravel dates that layer to 1851, and the railroad ties to 1866 or later." (15-16)


"Archaeologists have concluded that the fireplace was part of one of the officers' quarters in the "Des Moines Row." In 2000-2001, about 600 feet diagonally from this fireplace, excavation exposed the remains of two more fireplaces, made of bricks identical to the earlier one. These two fireplaces are believed to be on the ends of Barracks No. 1 and No. 2 in Raccoon Row." (16)


"One of Schoen's favorite successes was connecting a thimble, 41 straight pins, a hook and eye, and 30 or so buttons made of glass, shell, bone, wood, and metal with an individual who shows up in fort documents, Josiah Moffit Thrift. Thrift was the garrison tailor from 1843 to 1844. These sewing artifacts suggest, as Schoen writes, that Thrift probably "operated his shop in the west half of Barracks No. 1," which " appears to have been the easternmost barracks and its placement would have made it conveniently located for officers as well as enlisted men. It is likely that Thrift was quartered in the west half of the barracks building during 1843 and at least the first half of 1844."" (17)


"That same year (1846), the town of Fort Des Moines (population, 127) was platted, five blocks north from Elm (now today's Martin Luther King Parkway) to Locust and seven blocks west from the Des Moines River to SW 8th. The town encompassed the former fort, and the fort's log structures were now used for housing and businesses by the residents of the new community, including Josiah Thrift, who set up his own tailor's shop. According to Gourley, the town's first two newspapers, post office, and school may have occupied former Raccoon Row barracks. Early entrepreneurs Hoyt and Lampson Sherman both lived or worked in former fort buildings, and the first city or county7 treasurer and the first recorder used them as homes." (18)


"The community was formally organized as a town in 1851, with Rev. Thompson Bird the first "president" (mayor). The town of Fort Des Moines lay west of the Des Moines River. A rival community, the town of Demoin, was platted on the east bank of the river in 1847, encompassing the area where the civilian contractors and the Raccoon River Agency personnel had resided. In 1857, the two rival towns joined together and were incorporated as the city of Des Moines. That same year it became the capital city. By 1860, the population was 4,000. " (18)









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