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The Solitary Life of a Soldier at Old Fort Madison
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The Solitary Life of a Soldier at Old Fort Madison

Much like military occupations in foreign lands, Fort Madison was on the cusp of enemy territory. The Louisiana Purchase may have stated that the land belonged to us. The treaty, however, did not include a “buy in” from the Native Americans. Along with the region’s hostiles, there was no map charting a specific and detailed course. The native population knew the lay of the land, the soldiers did not. There were no satellites to show where a perfect location was for the regiment. There was no aid from night goggles. There were no inoculations available to prevent the spread of disease and no antibiotics to ward off infections.

The length of time it would take the soldiers to navigate the Mississippi would, in and of itself, have been terrifying. Going upstream, fighting the rapids and raging waters that made up one of the world’s most massive watersheds. The banks hosted no towns, there may have been villages of Native Americans close to the river, but imagine the isolation as you headed upstream. The strangeness would have been both awe inspiring and terrifying.

Documented through military records and through stories of soldiers and Native Americans, was the wariness and curiosity of both parties. The natives wondered why we came. It was easily recognizable that these were soldiers who were armed, the soldiers moved about as though fearing the territory and expecting harmful intent. The structures that the soldiers built were obviously meant as a fortress. The Army told the Native Americans that they were building a factory trading post, where goods would be available for trade. To the lifelong local population, the fort instilled fear. Why were the soldiers here, and what did they want? The Natives may have spoken a different language and lived a different way, but they knew the history of the white man. They knew that they had swept through other Native American lands and taken it from the local tribes. They knew what the intentions were.

The fort would fall under attack off and on throughout its short history. Many times the only things that saved Fort Madison from annihilation were friendly natives who had worked as scouts or those local natives whose lives seemed to have improved with the appearance of the “whites”. These natives would warn the soldiers of eminent attacks. Not all of the Indians were unhappy with the fort being on their lands. The Native Americans did like certain aspects of the goods being traded to them. They wanted the metals so they could create stronger hunting and gathering tools, as well as weapons. They liked the blankets, the beads and the iron cookware. Many of them even craved the distilled alcohol they could purchase. It is common knowledge that historically the immigrating white population used disease, alcohol and misfortune to gain a firm foothold on native lands.

With no amenities that were common in Colonial America, most soldiers had no way to tell time, except through the bugle calls and regimented life they led. Their life was hard and the discipline was strict. It was not uncommon for soldiers to be flogged for inadequacies or noncompliance. The Iowa State Penitentiary was not the first strong hold for imprisonment either. Old Fort Madison had accommodations available for wayward soldiers and Native Americans that were taken into custody. The military commander on site would have ruled with an iron fist. Dissemination in the ranks was not tolerated. Justice was handed down quickly and firmly. It was the wilderness after all, the 1st Infantry Regiment had to maintain a strong hold in order to keep order.

This strong hold only held for 5 short years, however. The fort was first built in 1808, following the Pike Expedition that followed the Mississippi upriver from the Saint Louis area. The garrison chose to not build the fort where Zebulon Pike had recommended. They felt it was an unsafe location and made the decision without proper authorization to continue upstream. They passed the Indian villages of Quashquame, where the Fox, Sauk and other local natives were encamped and chose the location were modern day Fort Madison now stands. There rational was that it was protected by the bluffs. They thought it would aid in keeping the fort safe. This proved to be a fallacy. The bluffs and ravens offered cover to the natives. They could creep up close to the fort and launch attacks with little to no warning. The natives attacked multiple times and laid the fort under siege often. The soldiers could not hunt, they could not forage for food. Things were gloomy for anyone posted to Fort Madison.

The War of 1812 bought upon the last siege of the fort. With little to no food and things looking desperate, the commanding officer decided to retreat back to Fort Bellefontaine. The soldiers set fire to Fort Madison and escaped down the Mississippi River, under the cloak of darkness.

In total, there were 22 known casualties at the fort. The causes of death ranged from disease to being killed in action, even drowning in the river. Cholera and dysentery took many lives. The first soldier to parish was Sergeant Samuel Keeley. He passed on October 12th of 1808 from disease. The last recorded death was Private John Pointer. His cause of death is not known. He died on August 31st of 1814 while troops were moving through the area. His body was buried at the ruins of Fort Madison in September of that year.

The location of the 22 graves is unknown. Fearing desecration of their graves, the soldiers who retreated from Fort Madison are noted to have “masked” the graves from the Native Americans. Many of the North American Native tribes were known to believe that they could consume the bravery of their fallen enemies by eating parts of their remains. Native Americans were also known to horribly disfigure and scalp fallen soldiers, wearing the scalps and appendages as adornments on their bodies, as evidence of their success against their enemies. Because of this, no one knows where the bodies of the soldiers lay.

Somewhere within the historic district of Fort Madison are the unmarked graves of servicemen from the Army’s 1st Infantry Battalion. It has been reported that on quiet nights, you can hear the soldiers marching, leading many to believe that the downtown area is haunted by these very same soldiers who lost their lives defending our country in Fort Madison, where Iowa began.

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