Thursday, October 18, 2018

Fort LaMotte (1812-1817) and Fort Foot (1813-?), Palestine, Illinois.

This area reminded Frenchman John LaMotte of Palestine (Israel's West Bank and Gaza Strip today), the land of milk and honey. While a member of the René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (or: René-Robert de La Salle) exploring party, he became separated from the group, traveled down the Wabash River, and first gazed upon the region in 1678. Other French settlers came during the 18th Century. John's property was known as the LaMotte Prairie.
There were two Fort LaMottes. When the first settlers moved into this area, they would have constructed a blockhouse for their safety. 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.

The first American settlers arrived on LaMotte Prairie in the Palestine area in 1809. Palestine was chartered in 1811, making it one of the oldest communities in the state of Illinois.

The earliest benchmark we have of defense on LaMotte Prairie is in the John Tipton papers. Tipton was part of Spire Spencer's mounted rifle corps, the Yellow Jackets. They were from Harrison County, Indiana. They protected the west flank of Harrison's army as it moved from Vincennes up to Tippecanoe and protected the barge going up the Wabash River with heavy supplies.

Tipton kept a diary and noted they crossed LaMotte Creek on September 28, 1811, and saw a blockhouse on the prairie. This was day two of the Tippecanoe campaign. So there was a settlement in Palestine at least before September 28, 1811. The blockhouse was burned on September 21, 1812.

Then, in 1812, the westward-moving Americans began constructing Fort LaMotte, a fort built by Baptists at Palestine, Illinois, for protection from hostile Indians. It was a durable, sturdy stockade enclosing approximately 100 feet x 100 feet with a single blockhouse in one corner, a commander's cabin, two lean-to shelters, and a water well. 

The pioneers farmed the adjoining land but stayed within easy reach of the protective walls. It was the site of the Battle of 'Africa Point' [1] in the War of 1812, one of the few battles of the war in the Illinois Territory. During the War of 1812, 26 families lived in Fort LaMotte, and 90 rangers were under the command of frontier officer Captain Pierce Andrews.

Settlers' families only "Forted" during Indian scares. One of the undesirable "agonies" of the time was moving to and from away from the Fort in responses to succeeding alarms. They also had to move their livestock, pets and personal belongings -- back and forth. The life of settlers on the frontier was one of constant peril and alarm.

Considering frontier conditions, Fort LaMotte occupied a vital position nearby, two common travel routes. One route was by the Wabash River, and the other was by an old buffalo trail used by Indians and whites, which had existed far back in time. That was "The Vincennes Trace." There was another related trail, sometimes called the same name, between Vincennes and the Mississippi, but it has possibly been referred to by other words more often. The two trails merged into one at Vincennes, extending with branches again, far into the south. Buffalo crossed the Wabash at about the site of the Clark Memorial Bridge, some of the beasts going west and others taking a fork going north towards salt licks around Danville on the Vermillion River and tempting prairie grasses all along their path to Lake Michigan for the Buffalo. The only reminder of "The Vincennes Trace" is in Chicago, where a street on the old path is named "Vincennes Avenue." In this connection, a short street in Palestine called "Vincennes Avenue" may also stand in tribute to the old buffalo road.

Fort LaMotte was in use through 1817. After the War of 1812 ended in 1815 and the Indian threat diminished, the fort's inhabitants became the nucleus of Palestine.

The exact location of Fort LaMotte has never been marked. However, the approximate location has been well established. It was on farmland east of Leaverton Street, Palestine's current eastern corporate boundary, and it was a short distance east and slightly south of that end of East LaMotte Street. LaMotte Street must have been given its name because it led to Fort LaMotte, although no record supports this speculation.

Platted in 1818 by Joseph Kitchell and Edward Cullom, the settlement served as the Crawford County Seat 
until 1843. The town's growth lagged until a United States Land Office opened in 1820 and operated until 1855. Settlers from as far as Chicago came here to file on Homesteads.

Young Abraham Lincoln passed through Palestine in 1839 with his family in emigrant wagons. At Palestine, on the Illinois side of the Wabash, Lincoln remembered seeing a large crowd around the United States Land Office and a traveling juggler performing sleight-of-hand tricks. The Lincoln family stayed overnight, then moved on to Decatur, Illinois.
The Lincolns crossed the Wabash River from Vincennes, Indiana, to Palestine on the Illinois side, known as "The Vincennes Trace." Looking west across the Wabash River towards Illinois.
The Land Office continued to give prominence to Palestine. Robert A. Kinzie (the son of John Kinzie) came in 1831 to purchase 102 acres for $127.68, an area that became the nucleus of Chicago. Augustus C. French (1808-1864) served as a Receiver in the Land Office from 1839 to 1843. A native of New Hampshire, he was the first "Yankee" to be elected Governor of Illinois. Chosen in 1846, French was forced to stand for re-election under the new Constitution of 1848 and won.

The railroad came through Palestine in the 1870s, bringing increased traffic and trade. The village grew and prospered. In addition to the railroad, Palestine possessed a depot, roundhouse, a busy train yard, a river port and a grain mill.


As Fort LaMotte filled with settlers quickly, a second fort was completed in the spring of 1813. William Eaton and other pioneer families desiring more room moved a few miles to the Northwest. They established the "LaMotte Station," or as written in territorial papers, "Fort Lemot," which was constructed on a site at IL-33 (East Main Street) at the west city limits. It's unknown when Fort Lemot became known as Fort Foot.

The family trait of the Eatons was large feet which led to the name of Fort Foot.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] Battle of Africa Point - On April 18, 1813, during the fortification phase of Fort LaMotte, two barrel coopers, Isaac Brimberry and Thomas Kennedy, went up 'Africa Point,' a knoll surrounded by swamp on the Wabash River, to procure some wood suitable for making barrels. They came across Indian canoes pulled on the shore of the river. Brimberry and Kennedy reported their sightings to the Fort LaMotte commander, Captain Pierce Andrews.

Andrews sent up a squad of skirmishers with the timber party to keep an eye on the Indians. The rangers divided themselves into two groups, a six-man party going in advance while the others stayed back and acted as a reserve. On 'Africa Point,' the advance group was ambushed and fired upon by the Kickapoo Indians. During the ensuing battle, the American party retreated, suffering 4 dead and 2 badly wounded who escaped back to the fort. Upon hearing rifle fire, the rear guard also fell back to the defense. Five Indians were killed.


  1. Most of the forts (including the 2nd Fort LeMotte) are described as enclosing 100 square feet. That is 10' x 10'. Given the pictures, the buildings & shelters within, and the numbers of troops & others that were contained in these forts, that seem way too small.

    1. It does seem way too small, but the time-period documents, for many settlement forts say 100x100 sq. ft.

  2. Seems to me if I remember right when Robert Kinzie sold his land he felt guilty about how much he charged. Wasn't long and land would skyrocket in price.


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