Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Fort Johnson (1814), and Cantonment Davis (1815-1816), Warsaw, Illinois.

Nestled high upon a bluff within Warsaw, Illinois, and overlooking the former confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers lies a large residential yard dotted with a few evergreen trees. Hidden within the sod of this tranquil setting are remnants of two American military posts dating to the War of 1812 period. These military posts are known today as Fort Johnson and Cantonment Davis[1].

There are letters from William Henry Harrison Sr., the future 9th President of the United States, dated 1807, the Governor of the Indian Territory (1801-1812) requiring all settlements to have a small fort or blockhouse constructed.
Established in the late summer–early fall of 1814 to defend what was then the western frontier of the United States against the British and their Indian allies, Fort Johnson was constructed by future president Zachary Taylor under the watchful eye of Sauk leader Black Hawk, who were hiding on a nearby hill. Fort Johnson was a U.S. Army post and stockaded fort about 100 feet square with two timber blockhouses, a stone powder magazine, and several barracks and quarters.

The commander of the fort, James Callaway, was the grandson of Kentucky legend Daniel Boone. Despite its initial association with these historic figures, the fort would last only a matter of weeks before it was destroyed and abandoned by the same soldiers who had labored to build it. Almost exactly one year later, the site hosted the winter encampment of a large contingent of soldiers charged with the establishment of several forts along the upper Mississippi River. This camp, christened "Cantonment Davis," served as the soldiers’ home and base of operations until June of the following year. The location is identified in the May 13, 1816, treaty with the Rock River Sauk as the place where all property “plundered or stolen from the citizens of the United States” by the Sauk since the Treaty of Ghent be returned. 

Little, however, has been written regarding the fort and the cantonment, with the few contemporary accounts—be they civilian, military, British, or American—even occasionally contradicting one another. A brief background of the two military posts is therefore presented below, which establishes the occupation length of each and estimates the number of military men that may have been present. A history of the then-undiscovered Fort Johnson and Cantonment Davis can also be found in Talbot (1968). The personal letters of Captain Callaway are published by Wesley (1927).

Fort Johnson
In early September 1814, just a week before the British navy bombardment of Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star Spangled Banner,” Brevet Major Zachary Taylor led a retreating group of army regulars and militia down the Mississippi River after their defeat at the Battle of Credit Island. Stopping at the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers, they established Fort Johnson upon a high bluff overlooking that strategic juncture. 
Upper Mississippi Valley, September 1814, with locations mentioned in the text.
While there is some debate as to the number of soldiers originally with Taylor on his Credit Island expedition and therefore initially present at Fort Johnson, citing the September 3, 1814, edition of The Missouri Gazette, states that Taylor was accompanied by 430 militia and rangers. The newspaper article actually reads “Eight barges containing about 400 rangers and militia left Capeau Gray on the 22nd.” In October 1814, other newspapers were circulating a similar article, which reported that “the Major’s command consisted of about 400 men, including regulars, rangers, and militia.” Taylor, however, in his September 6, 1814, account of the battle, recorded that the American forces consisted of “334 effective men, officers, non-commissioned officers and privates.” Taylor’s use of the word “effective,” in addition to referencing the number of men available to fight, may also imply that there could have been nonmilitary personnel associated with his Credit Island expedition. In any case, as Taylor should have known the number of men in his command, 334 is believed to be the number of Americans taking part in the Credit Island battle. Of this total, 40 soldiers belonged to the 7th Regiment of Infantry. Taylor, perhaps in an attempt to vindicate himself regarding what would be his only military defeat, later wrote that his force of men was “principally” of the militia. This statement is generally corroborated by Callaway, who wrote his wife that there were “about forty five Regular Troops” at the fort during its construction with members of the militia and rangers comprising the remaining men.

Three Americans were killed during the Credit Island battle and eight were seriously wounded. On September 10, 1814, just five days after the battle, a barge with the sick and wounded arrived back in St. Louis. As such, there would have been approximately 323 soldiers initially present at Fort Johnson. 

In a letter dated September 25, 1814, Captain James Callaway wrote his wife that “we have the fort finished” and that he was ordered to remain at the fort with “fifty of my own men and fifty of Capt Whiteside’s company.” He further writes that “we have not more than ten Days of provisions for the troops” and that if provisions “does not reach this place against the last of this month that the post will be evacuated.” Those provisions never reached “this place,” and in October 1814 Callaway dismantled and burned the fort, abandoning the frontier of west-central Illinois and embarking for Fort Cap au Gris (aka: Cape au Gres or Capo Grey) near Troy, Missouri.

While the exact length of time Fort Johnson was occupied is not recorded, a reasonable estimate can be constructed utilizing three primary sources: (1) Captain Callaway’s letters to his wife; (2) the journal of Captain Thomas Anderson, who was the British commander of Fort McKay in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, during the fall of 1814; and (3) an October 20, 1814, letter from 7th Regiment and District Commandant Colonel William Russell in St. Louis to Secretary of War James Monroe.

The Battle of Credit Island[2], which was fought near present-day Davenport, Iowa, and from which Taylor’s U.S. forces were retreating, occurred by American accounts on 4–5 September 1814 and by British accounts on 5–6 September of that year. Given that both Taylor and Callaway agree on the dates, the American timeline will be followed herein. In a letter dated September 6, Callaway writes his wife “we are on our return from Rock River and at this place we have to build a fort” indicating that the troops had already arrived at the mouth of the Des Moines River where the fort was to be constructed. As mentioned previously, on September 25 he wrote his wife that the construction of the fort was finished and included a sketched map of the fort, but went on to note that the fort had only 10 days of provisions left, or enough to last until October 5. After that date, if additional supplies were not obtained, Callaway noted that he believed the fort would have to be abandoned. In the same letter, Callaway continued to express hope that the provisions would arrive in time, telling his wife “I expect to be Relieved in twenty or twenty five Days,” which would be approximately October 15–20, 1814. Therefore, based on Callaway’s letters, the troops arrived at the proposed location of the new fort on September 6, with construction completed by September 25. Immediately following, Taylor took most of the men and continued on to St. Louis, leaving Callaway in charge at Fort Johnson. Taylor arrived in St. Louis on October 1, which suggests that he left Fort Johnson around September 29th.

While 20 days may seem like an exceptionally quick time to build a fort, this was evidently not unusual for American forts during the War of 1812. Captain Anderson, describing the construction of Fort Johnson in his 1814 journal, relates, “The forts they build are constructed in such a manner, that three or four hundred men knock up one in the course of three weeks.” This suggests that Brevet Major Taylor was likely at Fort Johnson with his 323 men from at least September 6 through September 25 (i.e., the length of time of fort construction stated in Callaway’s letters), plus a few more days. As previously noted, Taylor then took all but 100 of the men and returned to St. Louis, arriving there on October 1. The population of the fort over the rest of its short existence (about 18 days) was therefore approximately 100 soldiers, with most, if not all, composed of militia and rangers, as opposed to the regular army.

Callaway does not record the exact date of the fort’s abandonment, but it can be reasonably estimated to be within a day or two of that event. In his history of the fort/cantonment, Talbot, appearing to quote directly from Peck (1850), states, “It is reported that in ‘Late October (about the 22nd) of 1814, citizens of St. Louis were astounded to learn that the troops at Fort Johnston [Johnson] had burned the blockhouses, destroyed the works, and retreated down the river to Cap au Gris.’” Peck’s actual sentence, however, reads, “And in the month of October, the people of St. Louis were astounded with the intelligence, that the troops stationed in Fort Johnston, had burnt the block-houses, destroyed the works, and retreated down the river to Cape au Gres.” No mention of a specific abandonment date is listed in Peck’s account, but he was likely referring to the October 22, 1814, edition of The Missouri Gazette, which mentions the arrival of the Fort Johnson troops at Cap au Gris.

Wesley also had earlier championed the October 22 date for the abandonment of Fort Johnson: “The supplies evidently failed to arrive, for the post was evacuated and burned about October 22.” While Wesley also does not cite a source for the October 22 date, he too was likely referring to the October 22, 1814, edition of The Missouri Gazette mentioned above. The Missouri Gazette was a weekly newspaper published on Saturdays, thus October 22 presumably refers to the date of the newspaper’s publication, not the date of the fort’s abandonment.

British Captain Thomas Anderson, writing in his 1814 journal, does provide a somewhat more specific date for the abandonment: “Three Sauk canoes arrived, bearing each a flag. They bring word that the American fort, at the foot of the Riviere des Moines Rapids, was abandoned about the 20th of October. The Americans had burnt the fort, and proceeded to the Illinois.”

An even more precise date of abandonment, however, can be estimated from a letter written from Colonel William Russell on October 20, 1814, to Secretary of War James Monroe: “I have to apprise you, that fort Johnson, recently built by Maj Taylor, up the Mississippi is evacuated, the troops and all the stores, have arrived here on yesterday.” Interestingly, an article relating to the abandonment of Fort Johnson was circulating among newspapers in November 1814. Usually titled “Fort Johnson Evacuated and Burnt” and dated “St. Louis, October 18,” the article begins “A few days ago the troops who were stationed at the new fort, [Johnson at the foot of the Rapids of Lamoin] arrived at Cape aux Grei, having burnt the Block houses and otherwise destroyed the works,” implying that the troops arrived in St. Louis before October 18, 1814. The “few days ago” likely refers, however, to the period immediately prior to the October 22, 1814, publication of The Missouri Gazette, where the article originally appeared, and not the October 18 byline published in the November 1814 papers. As the later articles in all likelihood misrepresented the actual return date of the troops, Russell’s October 20 letter will serve as the primary source regarding the date of their return.

While we now know the date of the troops’ arrival at Fort Cap au Gris, which was October 19, we still don’t know the date of their departure from Fort Johnson. This can be estimated by examining the rate of travel of Taylor’s retreat from Credit Island in 1814, as well as a journal kept by noted U.S. Army explorer and engineer Major Stephen Long in 1817.

Taylor’s troops left Credit Island, which is located at River Mile 480, around noon on September 5, following a 6-hour battle that began at daybreak. Traveling in keelboats, they stopped at least once about 3 miles south of Credit Island to attend to the wounded and repair the boats. They arrived at the Fort Johnson location, which is located approximately at River Mile 360, sometime on September 6. On the same day, both Taylor and Callaway wrote letters detailing the Credit Island battle. Interestingly, Taylor’s letter to General Benjamin Howard is dated “Fort Madison,” which had been burned late in 1813 or approximately one year before the Credit Island battle, while the locational reference in Callaway’s letter is less specific, other than to note that “at this place” the troops are to build a fort. Whether Taylor stopped briefly at the former location of Fort Madison to write his report or was simply referring to Fort Madison as a point of reference while writing his report from the yet unnamed location of Fort Johnson, is unknown. It should be noted that in his letter to General How-ard Taylor does not mention stopping again after repairing the boats; also Fort Madison is located approximately 22 miles upriver from the site of Fort Johnson. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Taylor’s men traveled approximately 120 miles downriver in slightly more than 24 hours, and presumably, the retreating soldiers may also have sailed at night.

Fort Cap au Gris is located approximately at River Mile 240, a distance of 120 miles downriver from Fort Johnson. In 1817, Major Stephen Long left Fort Edwards, which is located approximately one-half mile north of Fort Johnson, at 2:00 p.m. on August 11 in a skiff and “Arrived at Little Cape Gris about dark” on August 13. Long stopped sailing for about 5 hours the night of August 12 due to “an unfavorable wind accompanied by rain” and also stopped at “Burr’s Tavern” early in the morning of August 13. Other than these two layovers, Long appears to have continuously sailed for the two days and nights. Considering the rate of travel downriver by both Taylor and Long, Callaway and his men therefore should have easily made the journey downriver from Fort Johnson to Fort Cap au Gris in two days if they also sailed at night, suggesting they left Fort Johnson on October 17.

A reasonable estimate for the construction, occupation, and abandonment of Fort Johnson is therefore from September 6 through October 17, 1814, or a total of only 42 days.

Black Hawk described the founding of the fort and a skirmish in his Autobiography: Life of Black Hawk as dictated by himself.
"A party of braves followed to watch where they landed, but they did not stop until they got below the Des Moines Rapids, where they came ashore and commenced building a fort. I did not want a fort in our country, as we wished to go down to the Two River country in the fall and hunt, it being our choice hunting ground, and we concluded that if this fort was built, it would prevent us from going there. We arrived in the vicinity in the evening, and encamped on a high bluff for the night. We made no fire, for fear of being observed, and our young men kept watch by turns while others slept. I was very tired, and was soon asleep. The Great Spirit, during my slumber, told me to go down the bluff to a creek, that I would there find a hollow tree cut down, and by looking in at the top of it, I would see a large snake with head erect—to observe the direction he was looking, and I would see the enemy close by and unarmed. In the morning I communicated to my braves what the Great Spirit had said to me, took one of them and went down a ravine that led to the creek. I soon came in sight of the place where they were building the fort, which was on a hill at the opposite side of the creek. I saw a great many men. We crawled cautiously on our hands and knees until we got to the bottom land, then through the grass and weeds until we reached the bank of the creek. Here I found a tree that had been cut down; I looked in at the top of it and saw a large snake, with his head raised, looking across the creek. I raised myself cautiously, and discovered nearly opposite to me, two war chiefs walking arm in arm, without guns. They turned and walked back toward the place where the men were working at the fort. In a little while they returned, walking directly towards the spot where we lay concealed, but did not come so near as before. If they had they would have been killed, for each of us had a good rifle. We crossed the creek and crawled to a cluster of bushes. I again raised myself a little to see if they were coming; but they went into the fort, and by this they saved their lives. 
We recrossed the creek and I returned alone, going up the same ravine I came down. My brave went down the creek, and I, on raising the brow of a hill to the left of the one we came down, could plainly see the men at work. I saw a sentinel walking in the bottom near the mouth of the creek. I watched him attentively, to see if he perceived my companion, who had gone toward him. The sentinel stopped for some time and looked toward where my brave was concealed. He walked first one way and then the other. 
I observed my brave creeping towards him, at last he lay still for a while, not even moving the grass, and as the sentinel turned to walk away, my brave fired and he fell. I looked towards the fort, and saw the whites were in great confusion, running wildly in every direction, some down the steep bank toward a boat. My comrade joined me, we returned to the rest of the party and all hurried back to Rock River, where we arrived in safety at our village. I hung up my medicine bag, put away my rifle and spear, feeling as if I should want them no more, as I had no desire to raise other war parties against the whites unless they gave me provocation. Nothing happened worthy of note until spring, except that the fort below the rapids had been abandoned and burned by the Americans."
Cantonment Davis
One year later, in October 1815, Colonel Robert C. Nicholas and eight companies of infantry, totaling approximately 825 men, along with Colonel Stephen Byrd and an unknown number of his mounted militia, established a winter encampment, christened “Cantonment Davis,” amid the ruins of Fort Johnson. The mission was to erect a new, more permanent fort to the north of Fort Johnson’s former location, as well as to establish additional forts along the upper Mississippi River.

While the exact date of their arrival is unknown, Talbot reports that, based on the military correspondence of that time, the “forces began moving upstream about the 10th or 12th of October toward their appointed objective” and estimates their arrival to be around October 20, 1815. “A number” of the mounted militia, who were employed to drive cattle up the Mississippi River valley to Cantonment Davis, had arrived at and vacated the cantonment prior to October 29, 1815.

In addition to the personnel garrisoned at Cantonment Davis, the facility also served as a staging area for other troops as they moved upriver to establish other military posts. Brevet Brigadier General Thomas A. Smith and an unknown number of men (“part of his command” of 820 officers and men) arrived at the cantonment in April 1816 on their way to establish forts at Rock Island and Prairie du Chien. Smith and his men arrived at Rock Island on May 10, 1816, to construct Fort Armstrong. Newspapers of that time reported, “Gen. Smith with about 1000 regular troops, is erecting a fort on Rock Island.” Smith supervised construction at Rock Island for only a short time, arriving in Prairie du Chien in June 1816 to begin construction of Fort Crawford. 

Cantonment Davis’ primary mission, the construction of what would later be named Fort Edwards, commenced in the late spring of 1816 after Smith’s soldiers had continued on up the Mississippi River. The probable beginning construction date of Fort Edwards is June 1816, based on an excerpt from Major Stephen Long’s 1817 journal: “They [the fort works] have been wholly executed by the soldiery stationed there since June 1816.” As late as August 1817, the construction of Fort Edwards was still not completed.

Based upon the previously cited Stephen Long journal, the remaining Cantonment Davis soldiers likely began living at the site of Fort Edwards in June 1816. Thus, the maximum occupation span for the cantonment is eight months, from the end of October 1815 until sometime in June 1816. The population of the cantonment is more difficult to estimate and fluctuated throughout the life of the camp. From October 1815 until April 1816, however, at least 825 soldiers likely lived there, consisting mainly of regular army troops as opposed to the militia. That number may have nearly doubled in April 1816 when additional troops were staged at this location, with some leaving in late April or early May to construct forts Armstrong and Crawford. Others, such as the 100+ men of Major White Young’s company, may have remained until the construction of Fort Edwards began in June 1816.

Based upon a review of the available archival resources, the following can be deduced for the occupation spans and populations of Fort Johnson and Cantonment Davis:

1) Construction of Fort Johnson occurred from September 6th to 25th of 1814, carried out by approximately 323 members of the militia, rangers, and regular army. 

2) Around September 29, 1814, Major Taylor took approximately 223 soldiers and arrived in St. Louis on October 1, leaving Captain Callaway in charge of 100 members of the militia and rangers.

3) Callaway abandoned and burned Fort Johnson on October 17, 1814, arriving at Fort Cap au Gris on October 19, 1814.

4) Around October 20, 1815, Colonel Nicholas, with approximately 825 members of the infantry and an unreported number of militia, arrived at the deserted Fort Johnson location and established Cantonment Davis.

5) The militia, whose primary mission was to drive a cattle herd to Cantonment Davis to supply food for the winter, left the camp prior to October 29, 1815.

6) Additional troops under the command of General Smith arrived at Cantonment Davis in April 1816. The arrival of Smith’s men may have nearly doubled the camp’s population.

7) General Smith’s men left the cantonment in late April–early May 1816 to construct Fort Armstrong on Rock Island, eventually arriving at Prairie du Chien in June 1816 to begin construction of Fort Crawford.

8) The remaining cantonment soldiers, approximately 100 men, likely began living at the location of Fort Edwards in June 1816, bringing an end to Cantonment Davis.

Fort Johnson, therefore, had a population of approximately 323 soldiers for 24 days, decreasing to 100 men for the remaining 18 days. While precise dates and population numbers for Cantonment Davis are difficult to determine, at least 825 soldiers were at the camp for a minimum of six months, with a larger number staying there in April 1816. A contingent of around 100 soldiers continued to live at Cantonment Davis between early May 1816 and sometime in June 1816. The maximum total occupation span of the cantonment is therefore eight months. Nonmilitary personnel connected to either the fort or the cantonment could also include sutlers, officers’ wives, and officers’ servants and slaves, as well as washerwomen, nurses, and other camp followers, making the total population of each military post even larger.

Rediscovering Lost History
The initial search for Fort Johnson and Cantonment Davis' footprint began in 1983. More work at the site began again in 2003 targeting several spots before they found the footing of a limestone fireplace. To protect the integrity of the site, the location hasn’t been disclosed to the general public.

Archaeologists speculate that the camp used the foundation of Fort Johnson as a trash receptacle, later covering it with sand to conceal the garbage and level of the area.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] Cantonment - A camp or military quarters, usually large in size, where people are trained for military service. Also the winter quarters of an army.

[2] The Battle of Credit Island 1814 - Credit Island is an island in the Mississippi River on the southwest side of Davenport, Iowa within the Quad Cities area. The name was derived from the use of the island as an early Indian trading post. Credit could be obtained on the promise of hides and skins to be delivered at a later time - hence Credit Island.

The Battle of Credit Island occurred on September 4th and 5th of 1814, as American troops tried to take control of the Upper Mississippi away from the British and the Sauk Indians. For the Americans, Major Zachary Taylor led a force of more than 350 U.S. regulars and militia in eight gunboats, to relieve Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and evacuate the fort. The American force hoped to destroy the Indian village and crops on the Rock River, upstream from its confluence with the Mississippi River. When Taylor realized his artillery would not be effective from the gunboats and a large number of Indian warriors present would not permit him to disembark his guns, Taylor decided to feint movement upstream, as if his target was the Prairie du Chien. The Americans had just begun this upstream move on the afternoon of September 4, when a strong storm blowing downstream forced the Americans to stop for the night at Pelican Island. At least two of the American boats had poor anchors, and these boats tied off to the island.

At first light on September 5, a number of Indians had waded to Pelican Island from Credit Island, and an American sentry was shot and killed. The Americans disembarked a force and cleared the Indians from Pelican Island. At about this same time, the few British with a 3-pounder and two swivel guns abandoned their position watching the Rock Island rapids and moved downstream to the western bank of the Mississippi, where they had a clear view of the American boats. 

Taylor had one of his boats drop downstream to cover the channel between Credit and Pelican Islands, to keep the Indians from returning to Pelican Island. Shortly thereafter, the British began an artillery barrage, inflicting serious damage to the American boats. By one account, 51 of the 54 shots hit American boats. The barrage continued for only 45-60 minutes before Taylor recognized the need to retreat from his untenable position. The Americans retreated downstream. The Indian forces and the British were low on ammunition and supplies and did not pursue the Americans.

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