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The "Real" Wild West in Fort Madison, Iowa
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The "Real" Wild West in Fort Madison, Iowa

It is surprising that most people that have no real idea of the significance of Fort Madison, Iowa in our nation’s history. The town sits atop the location of the first US Military Outpost in the upper Mississippi River Valley. Not only is the location of Fort Madison one of the oldest settlements following the Louisiana Territory, it is the only site in Iowa where the War of 1812 was fought. This resulted in Fort Madison also being the oldest military cemetery in the state. There were more than 20 soldiers that perished while serving at Old Fort Madison. Their unmarked graves have been lost to posterity after the fort was burned to the ground following the War of 1812 Siege of Fort Madison.

On April 30, 1803, Thomas Jefferson, the author of The Constitution of the United States and our 3rd President, made what is possibly one of the greatest acquisitions in the history of our Country, the Louisiana Purchase. This monumental investment, at the whopping cost of $15 million, bought the territory, stretching from the Mississippi River to the disputed borders of Mexico & Canada and the Pacific Coastline. The United States more than doubled its size at the cost of approximately 4 cents per acre.

The Lewis & Clark Expedition, The Red River Expedition and The Pike Expedition struck out to explore the region and map out the vast area. After the explorations were completed, the United States set up a fur trading post at modern day St. Louis, Missouri. This location, Fort Bellefontaine was located where the Spaniards had originally set-up their fortress. They then set out to establish factory sites along the two major waterways in the area, Fort Madison on the upper Mississippi River Valley & Fort Osage along the Missouri River. These factories were to be secured locations where traders and The US Army could safely trade goods with the Native Americans.

The Mississippi River in 1808 was a much different waterway than it is today. This uncharted river spread far and wide across the valleys and flood plains of the area. Both the parties of Lewis & Clark and Zebulon Pike had proposed the location of the factory site at the mouth of the Des Moines River. They felt it granted easy access to the inner territory, where the city of Des Moines is now located. Upon close inspection, The 1st Infantry Regiment, which now is commemorated under the Old Guard or 3rd US Infantry, decided this area was unacceptable as a fort location. The soldiers moved upstream, past the Des Moines Rapids and the Native American’s village of Quashquame, located approximately where Montrose, Iowa & Nauvoo, Illinois are today. These dangerous rapids that placed a choke-hold on river traffic no longer exist, the river today has been forever changed because of the dredging and damming. The 1st Infantry Army continued on up the river, and decided on the location where the city of Fort Madison now stands. The protected hamlet had bluffs that they felt would protect the fort. At this location, they began the construction of Old Fort Madison. This fort would supply security and safety to the frontiersmen of the area from 1808 until 1813. The fort was designed to act as a factory site that traders could bring in goods to trade with the Native Americans in the area. The most prized items traded with the natives were metals such as iron and lead. The Native Americans had typically used flint or bones for their arrowhead, tomahawks and knives. This new metal that could be smelted and manipulated proved to make much stronger weapons. The Native Americans contributed their handmade wares, animal skins and pottery as items of trade.

The photograph included here shows the replica fort that was built to the exact specifications of the original fort. It stands in Riverview Park in Fort Madison, Iowa. The actual location of Fort Madison is just northeast of this location. There is a stone chimney monument that has been erected, paying homage to the fort and the soldiers who lost their lives there. From the approximate location of this monument, the original fort would have stretched across old Highway 61 and across the parking lots and campus of Sheaffer Pen.

The city of Fort Madison struggles with their heartfelt need to preserve this large part of history and the need to prosper and grow in modern times. Part of this historic location is currently being developed for commercial use. The city has obtained a grant from the National Parks Commission in order to develop a plan for a memorial to the US soldiers and the Native Americans who lost their lives during multiple scrimmages and the actual War of 1812 Siege of Fort Madison. Plans are in place to bring Ed Bearss, an Ambassador with the National Parks Department and a proponent for preservation of battlefields located within the Continental United States. The city is hoping that through grants and initiatives that this parcel of land can be purchased and fostered into the Old Fort Madison Replica Museum.

The Old Fort Replica offers travelers the opportunity to interact with the frontier life lived through interpretation. The memorial would offer the chance to remember the 20 plus soldiers who lost their lives.  There is a great deal more to this story of our soldiers' lives in this uncharted territory.  This article only grants a glimpse into how they came to be in this land.  The location the army decided to build in proved to have faults that were not anticipated and the story just grows more interesting as it goes along.  With no modern conveniences and little to no contact with the outside world, the soldiers stationed at Old Fort Madison battled with the native tribes and lost.  

What an unique opportunity, Fort Madison has a lot to offer.  Come see where Iowa began & learn about our nation's history when it was only 32-years-old.

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