Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Search for Fort Sturdivant.

In 1998, Ron Nelson and Gary DeNeal local historians in Hardin County, Illinois researched the former location of Sturdivant's Fort using surviving early 19th-century land ownership records. The former site of the Sturdivant Gang fort (aka Sturdivant's Castle) is now on private property where it is located in the undeveloped backyard lot of a residential house, just north of the present-day water tower in Rosiclare. Nelson and DeNeal got permission from the owner to investigate. 

To locate Sturdivant's Fort, we started with what was known. As late as 1876, the ruins of Sturdivant's Fort could still be seen. Dr. Daniel Lawrence of Golconda, Illinois a visitor to the historic site noted that all that existed of the once imposing fortress was a dilapidated blockhouse but what remained revealed it had formerly been a substantial log structure. Dr. Lawrence also discovered numerous bullet holes in the old logs. Eventually, the fort ruins were torn down. 

Early authors mentioned that it was somewhere on a high bluff overlooking the Ohio River near the present town of Rosiclare, Ill. One of the first sites we checked was Jack's Point, just south of the mouth of Big Creek. The name "Jack's Point" brought to mind the stories we had heard of "Bloody Jack" Sturdivant. Could this point be named for him? This site was rejected after abstracting deed records for the north shore of the Ohio River revealed Roswell Sturdivant's land. It was in Section 33, which placed it just north of Rosiclare. Jack's Point was in Section 27. The contract for deed states that this property, containing 95 acres on the bank of the Ohio River, was sold by Amos Chipps to Roswell Sturdivant for $2,000 on November 17, 1820.

The legal description was "beginning at the mouth of the spring branch on the Ohio River, then up the branch with a line run by Lemuel Harrison between William Jackson & John Morris to a hickory ash and hackberry marked T, thence south 55 west until it strikes the old section line, thence with the said line to the southwest corner of said fraction, thence east with the surveying line to the Ohio River, thence up the river with its meandering to the mouth of said spring branch, it being Range 8, Township 12 and Fractional Sections 33 and 34, containing the aforesaid 95 acres more or less."

The Sturdivant Fort was attacked three times (once in 1822 and twice in 1823) by officers of the law in an effort to clean out this nest of criminals.

After the attacks on Sturdivant's Fort, a deed was brought into the county courthouse on Sept. 13, 1824. One Samuel Omelvany claimed he had purchased this property from Roswell Sturdivant on Oct. 7, 1820, for $1,000. The deed was signed by Roswell Sturdevant and attested to by Merrick Sturdevant and James Steel. It seems from the dates on the deeds that Roswell Sturdivant sold this property to Samuel Omelvany before he ever owned it.

With the deed, we located the exact property of Roswell Sturdivant. Amos Chipps had sublet the contract for deed to Edmund Searcy on January 26, 1821, who paid Chipps $1,700 and was to collect the balance from Sturdivant when due. When the payment came due, Sturdivant refused to pay Searcy, claiming that Searcy could not produce the deed. Then Amos Chipps told Searcy that James Ford was holding a mortgage on the property and the deed. Ford was brought into court and forced to sign his interest over to Searcy for five shillings (about $7), Ford claiming he did not know the boundaries of Chipps' part of the property. Searcy won the case and Sturdivant evidently paid what he owed.

The abstracting of the property with the above deeds proves Sturdivant's property lies along the high bluff in Section 33 just north of the present Rosiclare water tower. This property is today owned by Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Fowler. The fort site encompasses their entire yard. Fortunately, when their home was built, it was built far enough away from the bluff that it did not destroy the fort site.

We visited the Rosiclare bluff several times during the month of March in 1998. We also studied old maps, aerial photographs, soil and water conservation maps, Ohio River U.S. Corps of Engineers maps, etc. On April 6th, we again visited the Rosiclare bluff. This time we went house to house, interviewing each homeowner. We finally came to the Fowler property. We were already convinced from the abstract that the fort had been on their property. Now we wanted to look for ourselves. What would be left after nearly 200 years?

The Fowlers graciously allowed us permission to view their property. The east side of the house, facing the river, immediately revealed irregular elevations in the soil, easily detected as the foundation of a large house. Around the house-site were long elevated mounds similar to what is found on Civil War battlefields. We walked around the yard, and with my dowsing rods, we were able to mark with red flags the perimeters and the layout of the fort. 

What was found was that the loghouse in the stockade of the fort was approximately 60 x 60 feet. In comparison, the Old Slave House in Gallatin County, Illinois, is 50 x 50 feet. There were six rooms, three on each side, separated by a 4-foot wide hallway running east and west. The front two rooms, facing the river, measured 20½ x 28 feet. The back four rooms were of equal size and measured 17 x 28 feet. There was an extension on the northwest corner of the house, 18 x18 feet. Extending from the corners of the log house were four corridors approximately leading to the corner blockhouses. There was a palisade surrounding the perimeter of the house. There was also an outer perimeter palisade encompassing the entire property. From documents, we know that the house was 1½ to 2 stories high."
We were standing on the very site of the counterfeiters' den. It was here that men lost their lives pursuing a life of crime. It was here that William Rondeau was almost killed. It was here that men of principle came head to head with the unscrupulous. Who really won?

The time period counterfeit laws:
During the territorial days and early statehood of Illinois, counterfeiters became a severe problem. It affected everyone from the settlers to merchants and bankers. It was theft by deception. Along with the hopeful settlers, there also came villains who used their God-given talents of engraving to make fraudulent or counterfeit money. The counterfeiters may have descended from old-world European families. Some of these master craftsmen produced works of art, engraving upon gold or silver, ornate knives, firearms, watches, silverware, etc. Engravers were highly sought after and very much in demand in the printing business. Almost every picture appearing in the old newspapers was the result of a master engraver's work. These plates were engraved in brass or copper, as photographs were unknown at this time. The engraver was paid a small sum for each piece. To some engravers, the temptation to duplicate banknotes or coin molds became too great, and they soon found themselves manufacturing bogus currency, which was sometimes better than the originals. In so doing, these artisans moved into the realm of the criminal
This is an early 19th-century horse-powered ferry boat on the Ohio River typically used by counterfeiters and river pirates.
One such artistic group of counterfeiters was the Sturdivant family, who were operating in Pope Co., Illinois, and who also had ties in St. Clair County along the Kaskaskia River. Some of this family had evidently served in the Revolutionary War, helping to establish our country's independence. Many of the Sturdivant family came from the northeast, Connecticut and Massachusetts. One group came from Virginia and settled in Tennessee. Roswell S. Sturdivant and his brother, Merrick Sturdivant, claimed they came from "Robinson" [Robertson] County, Tennessee, though no records could be found of their presence in this county. Roswell is listed on the census of St. Clair County, Illinois, in 1820. Other documents proving that both Roswell and Merrick were in Illinois by 1818, and were probably here a few years earlier. One source also lists a Stephen Sturdivant in connection with the counterfeiters.

It seems the Sturdivants were involved in counterfeiting long before they came to Illinois, however, this is not to say that all of the Ohio Sturdevant's were considered outlaws, for it was said of James B. Sturdevant that he was "a hard-working and honest man," who had cleared and worked his own farm, as did his brother, Chauncey H. Sturdevant.

There were at least two operations in the counterfeiting scam. The first was the actual engraving and printing of the notes, the second the "passing off" these notes, or as it was called "passing the queer." The counterfeiter would sometimes sell these bogus notes at a discount. Some sources stated that Sturdivant sold $100 counterfeit for $16 legal currency.

There were two groups of people living side by side along the Ohio River, one who had a work ethic and respect for morals, and the other who spent their time habitually living outside the law. Legislators soon realized the problem counterfeiting was causing and passed laws to try to discourage the practice and punish the violators. On January 11, 1816, the law in the Illinois Territory set the penalty for counterfeiting at "death by hanging, without the benefit of clergy." Other penalties listed in this law ranged from death to paying "a fine of fourfold the amount of such note or bill" or beating with "not less than thirty-nine lashes well laid to the bareback" for such things as manufacturing or bringing paper into the Illinois territory to be used for counterfeiting, making or concealing plates used for counterfeiting, and passing or assisting others in passing counterfeit notes.

In 1818, Illinois received statehood. At its first General Assembly held at Kaskaskia, on February 27, 1819, the penalty for counterfeiting was lessened to a $500 fine and 75 lashes. In addition, the convicted felon would "be deemed infamous, and beheld incapable of holding any office, or giving testimony in any case whatever." 

This same penalty went for anyone found manufacturing or bringing paper into the state for counterfeiting purposes and making the counterfeiting plates. However, for passing or assisting in the passing of bogus notes or concealing money molds carried a penalty of a $500 fine plus "thirty-nine lashes to the bareback." If this fine was not paid, the person was to be committed to jail until the next term of court. If the fine was still not paid, the Sheriff was to sell the offender to the highest bidder for a term of servitude of seven years. Should the person sold try to run away from his master, his term of servitude would be increased. In 1821, this law was strengthened to include counterfeiting gold or silver coins with the same punishment as above.

New settlers were arriving who were willing to enforce these new laws and would not ignore the crimes of the counterfeiters. One such man was young Shawneetown attorney, John McLean, who evidently was one of the first to go after the Sturdivant gang. 

There is no evidence that anyone paid the price for the crimes of the Sturdivant Gang.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] The Sturdivant Gang was a three-generation family gang of counterfeiters, whose criminal activities took place over a fifty-year period, from the 1780s, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, with one branch of the family going to Tennessee via Virginia and a second family branch going to Ohio and finally settled on the Illinois frontier, between the 1810s to 1830s

1 comment:

  1. I am a direct descendant of James Sturdevant if Ridgefield and Norfolk, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. The father of his nefarious sons. His sons learned the counterfeiting business while living in Norfolk. While I searched this family in the late 1990s, I had put the research on hold for many years. The information that you have found on Roswell is interesting. As you have figured, the information on this family is few and far between. I’m getting back into this family with perhaps putting a book together- but I’ve been saying that for a while now. At any rate, your blog is interesting.


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