Sunday, June 19, 2022

Early Days at Fort Armstrong (Rock Island)

Fort Armstrong at Rock Island.

In the beginning, there was Rock Island, situated in the middle of the Mississippi River between what would become and Iowa and Illinois. The Indians believed a good spirit inhabited the cave at the island’s edge. “He was white, with large wings like a swan’s,” said Black Hawk, “but ten times larger.”

The Sac and Fox used the island as a garden in the summer. They gathered strawberries, blackberries, plums, apples, and various nuts. Fish were abundant. They would often sit along its shores, catching catfish, carp, crappies, and perch. All the time, they were careful not to disturb the island’s spirit.

Saukenuk, the main village of the Sacs, stood opposite the north side of the island, at the foot of the rapids between the Rock River and the Mississippi.[i] Behind it sat a bluff where the tribe’s cornfields ran parallel to the Mississippi. The Fox village stood three miles away, opposite the lower end of the island.

It was a virtual paradise that satisfied all the Indian’s needs.


The Eighth United States Infantry, under the command of Colonel R. C. Nichols, set off from St. Louis in September 1815 with orders to build a fort at or near Rock Island.

The expedition wintered at the mouth of the Des Moines River, about 140 miles from their destination. The troops constructed crude huts to keep warm that winter and named the post “Cantonment Davis.” The following year, Fort Edwards[ii] was built in present-day Warsaw, Illinois. Colonel Nichols was arrested for an undisclosed reason and sent to Nashville during the winter. Colonel William Lawrence assumed command.

Brigadier-General Thomas Smith arrived at the cantonment with a regiment of riflemen in April 1816 and took charge of the expedition. They arrived at Rock Island on May 10, 1816, and commenced building Fort Armstrong.

Smith only stayed long enough to build an abatis to protect the troops. When that was done, he headed up the river to reoccupy Fort Shelby at Prairie du Chien and to build another fort at the Falls of St. Anthony (now Fort Snelling).

The Eighth Infantry spent the better part of a year erecting Fort Armstrong. “The interior of the fort was 400 square feet,” reported the Congressional Serial Set. “The lower half of the walls were of stone and the upper half of hewn timber. At three of the angles—the northeast, southeast, and southwest—blockhouses were built, and these were provided with cannons. One side of the square was occupied by the barracks and other buildings. These were built of hewn timber.” The roofs sloped “inward as protection against their being fired by the Indians.”[iii]

The Sac and Fox appeared friendly, but there were occasional scares. One day, a small party of Indians came over to the island to dance and perform for the troops. A few days later, a larger party of warriors came over while the soldiers cut timber. They danced near the entrance to the camp, then tried to make their way to the Colonel’s tent.

Chief Keokuk
(from a drawing by George Catlin
Letters & Notes. 1903)
Another band of warriors led by Keokuk appeared on the island’s south side. The soldiers didn’t take any chances. They rolled out the cannons, and soon, 600 men, all armed, faced the Sac warriors.

The Indians got the idea and left.[iv]

Living at the edge of the world was never easy or entirely safe. Major Morrill Marston[v] voiced frequent concerns about life at Fort Armstrong in 1820.[vi]

“I have had a hard time of it here this winter, in consequence of the hostility of the Winnebago and the smallness of my command,” said Marston. “I have been able to keep my own scalp on my head, but two of my poor fellows have not been so fortunate. Yesterday Sergeant Blattenberger and Private Rigg were shot, scalped, and otherwise mangled in a most shocking manner by a party of that nation.”[vii]

Here’s another report of the two killings, possibly from a letter written by Major Marston but unattributed. 

“With the greatest sorrow, I must inform you of the fate of 2 of my fellow soldiers, viz. Jno. [John] Blattenberger and [Clement] Atlee Rigg, formerly both of Lancaster. On the 28th of last month [1820],[viii] about 9 o’clock in the morning, they went out to cut tanners for the cannon. They were surprised by a strolling party of the Winnebago Indians.”

The soldiers found them about a mile from the fort, “murdered and scalped in the most horrid manner. We conveyed them to the fort when a detachment of infantry was immediately ordered out in pursuit of the Indians. Yet, none of them have been discovered.”[ix]

Two Winnebago warriors named Che-Wa-Cha-Rah and Who-Rah-Jin-Kah were later caught and tried for the murders.

Jacob Hough, a soldier at the fort, testified that Blattenberger and Riggs went out to cut timber for ramrods. When they had not returned by evening, the alarm was sounded. The following day, Hough and Andrew Peeling searched for them. They found the soldier’s bodies about three-fourths of a mile from the fort. “They were shot, scalped, and one of them (Blottenberger) had been cut in the left side with an ax.”[x]

Je-Ro-Gha, a Winnebago warrior, testified he was with the two prisoners near Fort Armstrong that morning. “The warriors crept up within eight to ten yards and fired. They ran up to the soldiers, scalped, and he believes struck one of them with an ax.”[xi]

The all-white jury deliberated for a half-hour before returning a guilty verdict. Che-Wa-Cha-Rah and Who-Rah-Jin-Kah were sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead. The two warriors were detained in the Belleville jail, pending their execution. The Edwardsville Spectator said the warriors were in perfect health when sent there. However, they were in such bad shape a short time later that Colonel Leavenworth began an investigation.

Che-Wa-Cha-Rah and Who-Rah-Jin-Kah said they had no fire and no bedding but were forced to sleep on the cold floor with only a blanket to keep warm. Their daily ration was a piece of cornbread, the size of a small biscuit and half that of meat. At one time, they received no food or water for three days.

The paper didn’t report Leavenworth’s finding. They did say that when the Winnebago chief, Cah-Rah-Mah-Ree, came to visit his warriors, he could not believe how they were treated. I came here to see justice,” said the old chief, “but I find none.” He walked away in disgust.[xii]

[i] It’s uncertain where the name Saukenuk came from. In 1837, artist George Catlin referred to the village as Saug-e-nug. Perry Armstrong is thought to be the first to use the name Saukenuk in his book, The Sauks and the Black Hawk War published in 1887. (Historic Rock Island County. 1908. P. 11)

[ii] Fort Edwards was named for Ninian Edwards, who served as governor of the Illinois Territory from 1809 to 1819. In October 1812, Edwards gathered 350 mounted rangers and burned several Kickapoo villages along the Sangamon River, then advanced on the tribes around Peoria Lake. Unfortunately, several of the villages he attacked were friendly to the Americans.

[iii] Congressional Serial Set. 1878. P. 43-44.

[iv] Most of the information for this section was taken from the Congressional Serial Set. 1878. P. 42-46.

[v] Born Micajah, Marston changed his name to Morrill in 1819. He was commissioned as a first lieutenant at the outbreak of the War of 1812. The following year in 1813, Marston was promoted to captain. He was breveted a major for his gallantry in the defense of Fort Erie. When the war ended, Marston was transferred to Prairie du Chien, then to Fort Armstrong as commandant. (Historical Collections of the Essex Institute. 1861. Vol. III. P. 182)

[vi] Stephen Kearny visited Fort Armstrong in 1820. He noted it was “capable of resisting any attack from Indians.” The Indians there were the “most warlike and powerful on the river.” Kearny said the Sacs could muster 1,000 warriors and “considered the most efficient of any Indian warriors, being better armed, mounted and equipped.”

[viii] In May, a soldier named Jacob Hough testified the attack occurred on the morning of March 21. Edwardsville Spectator. May 22, 1821.

[x] Edwardsville Spectator. May 22, 1821.

[xi] Edwardsville Spectator. May 22, 1821.

[xii] Edwardsville Spectator. May 22, 1821.

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