A shaky agreement had been established in what used to be the Northwest Territory of the fledgling United States in 1804. It was during this time, after the Louisiana Purchase, that the United States had forged an agreement that ceded a large tract of land from the local Sauk and Fox tribes. The region extended from approximately Moberly, Missouri east across the Mississippi River and points north towards Madison, Wisconsin. The territory from this point included roughly the entire space between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. This established an exploitable wariness among local tribes in the region; a particular fatal one in the War of 1812.
As the war had trudged on, the Americans had found themselves stretched thin in the old west. By June of 1814, the garrison at Fort Shelby in Prairie du Chien was at an increased risk for attack by the British and their allied Native cohorts. So threatened, was the Army, that they sent a plea for supplies and men which was received by Governor William Clark in Missouri. By Clark’s order, a relief and resupply expedition was organized to reinforce the ailing Fort Shelby. The expedition, led by LT John Campbell, was to traverse the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Prairie du Chien by keel boat.
Campbell’s expedition departed on the evening of 4 July 1814. He took around 100 total Soldiers and Militia in addition to a number of civilians. It took around two weeks for them to reach the mouth of the Rock River to the south of the Rock Island Rapids. On 18 July, Campbell’s expedition weathered overnight near the Sauk capital of Saukenuk. Campbell also entered into peace talks with the war chief Black Hawk at that time. He conveyed a wish for the local tribes to aid the Americans in resisting the British but could not guarantee any means to do so. While Black Hawk did not commit fully to the aid of the American cause, he did indicate that he was open to negotiations. However, this fell short of a guarantee.
Late in the night of the 18th and morning of the 19th, a party of Sauk arrived at Saukenuk from Prairie du Chien. They had brought kegs of black powder and word that Fort Shelby had fallen to the British. In addition, the British had requested the aid of the Sauk to fight against the Americans, with the black powder provided as down payment. Black Hawk agreed to these terms and proceeded to collect a war party to attempt to ambush Campbell’s expedition. A storm moving through the area had forced Campbell’s boat, which was loaded down heavily, ashore on an island giving the warriors a prime opportunity to strike.
Campbell had dispatched sentinels on the island, but the intense brush and wood cover made sight difficult in the storm. Before long, numerous warriors had launched their assault on Campbell’s boat. While the boats with the militia and contractors continued upriver, they intercepted a boat fleeing from Fort Shelby. It was then that the American’s learned of their loss. At the same time, LT Riggs and LT Rector both saw smoke from behind them and noted gunfire in the distance. They immediately turned around to provide aid to Campbell. Upon reaching Campbell’s boat, contractors and Soldiers both rapidly began their rescue of the people attempting to withdraw from the area. After a few hours, Rector and Riggs were able to get Campbell and the survivors onto their own boats and disengage the enemy. The expedition then fled back down river to St. Louis after having lost 16, including two civilians, and sustaining 21 wounded.
By the time the expedition had returned, MAJ Zachary Taylor was in St. Louis preparing an expedition to retake Fort Shelby. Taylor was mounting a larger force of 334 Soldiers and Rangers with the secondary intent of establishing a second fort down stream of Rock Island. However, upon Campbell’s return, Taylor had a third motive; the shelling of Saukenuk. Taylor’s expedition embarked on 23 August and was just north of the Rock River by 4 September. Unbeknownst to Taylor, a company of British forces were in the area as well, armed with a three-pound cannon. A storm once again beached the Americans, this time down river of Rock Island.
On the morning of 5 September, a number of Native’s waded from the larger island (modern Credit Island) to Willow Island. One of Taylor’s sentinels was killed as the opening shot. Taylor had described the attacking force as “a sea of [Natives] as far as the eye could see.” Intense gunfire made shoving off from shore difficult, but it was increased when the British artillery began to lay into Taylor’s ship to the north of the island. The precision and rapid attacks led Taylor to erroneously believe an entire British battery was in the area. LT Duncan Graham (then SGT) ordered the gun moved to follow the Americans until it was difficult to do so.
Taylor and his men regrouped downriver from the Rock River, where they buried their dead and accounted for their losses. It was decided at that point that Fort Shelby was a total loss, and that the Americans were not equipped to mount a counterattack with the Sauk in the area. Taylor aborts his primary objective for his secondary before floating back down to St. Louis. With the defeat at Campbell’s Island and Credit Island, the Americans ultimately leave the region until 1816, when they establish Fort Armstrong at Rock Island. The fort will serve as the headquarters for operations against the Sauk in the 1832 Black Hawk War, which ends in Black Hawk’s capture.
Fredriksen, John C. The United States Army in the War of 1812. McFarland & Company, London, UK. 2009.
Gilpin, Alec R. The War of 1812 in the Old Northwest. Michigan State University Press, Lansing, MI. 1958.
Collins, Gilbert. Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812. Second Edition. Dundurn, Toronto, Canada. 2006. pp64-65.
Quimby, Robert. The U.S. Army in the War of 1812: An Operational and Command Study. Michigan State University Press, Lansing, MI. 1997. pp733-752.
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