In 1805, General James Wilkinson, Governor of the new Louisiana Territory and commander of the western army, chose Zebulon Pike to lead an expedition to explore the upper Mississippi. A major focus of Pike’s trip was to locate the headwaters of the Mississippi River (he failed), but he was also asked to identify locations for forts (he fared better at that). One of the locations he recommended was at a place with a trading post known as Le Moine Factory. When the fort was finally built a few years later, it was initially called Fort Belle Vue, but the name was soon changed to honor then President James Madison.
The Sauk and Meskwaki didn’t take kindly to the construction of the fort, however. They believed it violated their territorial integrity under the Treaty of 1804. Black Hawk led an unsuccessful assault against it, but the Sauk and Meskwaki continually harassed the soldiers who lived there.
During the War of 1812, the Sauk and Meskwaki had better luck. A weeks-long siege that began in July 1813 convinced the soldiers to abandon the fort. They set it on fire as they escaped down the Mississippi for safety. About all that remained of the fort was a stone chimney, which remained standing for years. That’s how the area earned the nickname “Lone Chimney”, although the Native Americans called it Po-to-wo-nock for “the place of fire.” The fort was originally located about where the Sheaffer Pen parking lot is now (Avenue H between 4th and 3rd).
The land remained under the control of the Sauk and Meskwaki for a while after that, until they were forced to cede it in the aftermath of the Black Hawk War. In anticipation of the treaty, Peter Williams made the first land grab in 1832, but, he jumped the gun. Soldiers came down from Fort Armstrong to force him out. When Williams resisted eviction, the soldiers tied him to a tree and destroyed his cabin, then took him across the river to a prison at Commerce (Nauvoo). Williams wouldn’t give up, though. He returned in June 1833 and reclaimed the land after it was officially open to settlement. He didn’t have much time to enjoy his claim. Two years later he died along the Des Moines River.
N.C. Steele built one of the first boarding houses in Fort Madison, around 1836. It was a log cabin, just 12 feet by 16 feet. Steele built a clapboard addition for the guests. If you wanted to spend the night, you could expect to sleep on a square of canvas that was hung by a rope at the corners of each of four poles. Guests sometimes amused themselves by cutting all the ropes of one bed simultaneously, so the occupant would roll out onto the wood floor. If you got bored cutting bed ropes at the boarding house, you could visit one of many whiskey shanties along the riverfront, the purpose of which seems self-explanatory.
In 1836 Congress passed an act (back when they actually did such things) that called for a town plat and incorporation of Fort Madison; land sales followed soon after that. In the same year, residents of Fort Madison invited Black Hawk to the 4th of July celebration. Black Hawk lived nearby, in a home along Devil Creek two miles west of the city. He greeted the residents of Fort Madison as friends while defending the choices he made, but he focused mostly on reconciliation and looking to the future. He told those gathered:
“It has pleased the Great Spirit that I am here today. I have eaten with my white friends. The earth is our mother–we are now on it–with the Great Spirit above us–it is good. I hope we are all friends here. A few summers ago I was fighting against you–I did wrong, perhaps; but that is past–it is buried–let it be forgotten.
Rock River was a beautiful country–I liked my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. I fought for it. It is now yours–keep it as we did–it will produce you good crops.
I thank the Great Spirit that I am now friendly with my white brethren–we are here together–we have eaten together–we are friends–it is his wish and mine. I thank you for your friendship.”
The speech turned out to be a farewell for Black Hawk. He died three months later.
In 1839, the Iowa Territorial legislature picked Fort Madison as the site for a new prison. The Iowa State Penitentiary has grown quite a bit since that time, but the original 1840 cell house was still being used into the 1980s. It’s an imposing sight, with rough-hewn limestone walls set into a hill that rises away from the Mississippi. The prison houses Iowa’s maximum security inmates and was the site of many executions (the last one was in 1963; Iowa abolished the death penalty two years later). It houses about 800 inmates who will be transferred to a new prison that will probably open in late 2014.
Fort Madison grew pretty quickly thanks to milling (lumber and flour), the river trade, and the arrival of immigrants from Germany. By 1850, Fort Madison had 1,500 residents. Early village leaders passed strict blue laws to protect the Sabbath: it was illegal to sell goods, gamble, play any game, shoot guns, or run races for money on Sundays.
Aaron White and Joshua Owens operated the first ferry service. For the trip to Niota, Illinois, they charged 37 ½ cents for a man and a horse and $1 for a wagon and two horses. Ferries couldn’t cross the frozen river in winter, but the ice was usuall