Visiting 1814 sites on the Mississippi and upper Great Lakes

Guest post by Carl Benn

The bicentennial of a number of War of 1812 battles that took place on the Mississippi River and across the upper Great Lakes occurs this summer. Naturally, some are being commemorated by volunteer groups, museums, and heritage organizations, often within the context of larger programs and exhibits exploring the western frontiers of the Anglo-American confrontation. Their efforts are important. They provide opportunities for those who care about the past to share their expertise and enthusiasm with the public. They also allow museums and heritage sites to communicate their distinctive ways of interpreting the past, based, to a large degree, on material culture and a sense of place. In the process, their labors enhance historical understanding, enrich the cultural life of their communities, and engage tourists and other visitors to their localities.

Fort Mackinac

Fort Mackinac

At the beginning of the 1814 campaign two centuries ago, the British occupied Fort Mackinac at the head of Lake Michigan (having captured it in 1812) as well as the strategic fur trade village of Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River, far to the south in today’s Wisconsin. This vast region’s native population generally had allied with King George III. For many aboriginal people, the United States represented grave threats to their independence, well-being, and ways of life. After several years of low-level violence between natives and newcomers beginning around 1808, fighting escalated with the coming of the Anglo-American war in 1812.

British soldiers and sailors, local militiamen, and First Nations warriors along the Canadian-American border did far better in 1812 and 1813 in turning back the armies sent against them than most observers had expected. In the west, the capture of Mackinac not only gave the British control of the upper Great Lakes, but allowed them to supply native peoples along the upper Mississippi. They even continued to do so after losing control of Lake Erie in 1813 because they were able to utilize alternative communications links along old fur trade routes that ran northwest and north from Montreal and Toronto to Lake Huron and then to points west and south.

The first major move by the United States to reassert its authority on the Mississippi River in 1814 resulted in victory. On June 2, a force aboard a flotilla of gunboats from the American stronghold of St. Louis seized Prairie du Chien, meeting little resistance upon its arrival. Recognizing that the loss of the village could be fatal to their interests, the British dispatched an expedition south from Mackinac and, aided by hundreds of warriors, besieged and captured the newly constructed American fort there between July 17 and 21. Immediately afterwards, the famous Sauk war chief, Black Hawk, attacked and defeated American gunboats south of Prairie du Chien at Campbell’s Island on the Mississippi (near today’s Rock Island, Illinois). Meanwhile, to the north, British soldiers and First Nations warriors won a battle over a combined American army and navy force on August 4, 1814 that had sailed north from Detroit to retake Mackinac. The next month, the British and natives captured two schooners that their enemies had deployed to contest control of the upper lakes. The last major action on the Mississippi front that year occurred on September 5, when another flotilla of American gunboats came under attack at Credit Island (in today’s Davenport, Iowa). Again, Black Hawk was present as a senior military leader; the commanding officer of the opposing force was future president Zachary Taylor. The warriors won the battle, and Taylor retreated down the Mississippi. Thus, 1814 closed with the First Nations and the British retaining control of the northerly reaches of the Mississippi River and the upper Great Lakes.

One of a number of events planned by the ever-active Wisconsin Historical Society for this summer is a battle reenactment and encampment at Prairie du Chien on July 19 and 20 at its Villa Louis Historic Site. Farther north, there will be the recreation of the Battle of Mackinac two hundred years to the day—and at the same location—of the August 4, 1814 confrontation. This is just one of a wide range of programs at Mackinac State Historic Parks, where visitors also may explore a rich collection of fortifications and other heritage sites spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at the head of Lake Michigan. Across the border in Ontario, where the War of 1812 enjoys greater public interest than it does in the United States, several sites are offering programs this summer along with their regular exhibits, including Fort St. Joseph, located south of Sault Ste. Marie, the Nancy Island Historic Site at Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay, and the old Royal Navy base nearby at Discovery Harbour in Penetanguishene.

fort madisonBeyond special events, the museums and parks throughout the old western theater of the War of 1812 also interpret its course (and many other absorbing histories) for the enlightenment of visitors. One of the numerous examples of small sites is an early-1900s memorial to the 1814 Battle of Campbell’s Island, which in itself is an interesting cultural artifact that speaks to the sensibilities and aesthetics of the time of the war’s centennial a century ago. Not far away, a 1916 replica of a blockhouse stands on Arsenal Island in Rock Island, Illinois. It resembles one built one hundred years earlier at Fort Armstrong as part of the American effort to dominate native affairs on the Mississippi within a few miles of Black Hawk’s village of Saukenuk. Unfortunately, the blockhouse often is overlooked because of the greater attractions of the neighboring Rock Island Arsenal Museum. Alternatively, visitors may enjoy the nearby nature preserve of Black Hawk State Park in Rock Island along with its Hauberg Museum, dedicated to indigenous history. About ninety miles to the south is the reconstructed Old Fort Madison, in the Iowa city of the same name. That post came under native attack during the war—with Black Hawk present—and is a focal point for the reenactment community of the area as well as an attraction for both residents and visitors. Beyond these events and sites, other historical societies at the state, county, and municipal levels have been organizing lectures and events, presenting web content, and building awareness. By sharing the region’s War of 1812 heritage during the bicentennial years, these organizations look back to an important period in North American history when natives and newcomers confronted each other over the future of the upper Mississippi and Great Lakes regions. Combined with their programs and exhibits, there is much to explore for people wishing to “visit” the 1814 Lake Michigan and Mississippi River campaigns and the great range of other histories that these organizations preserve and interpret for everyone’s benefit.

bennCarl Benn is the author of numerous works on the War of 1812 and First Nations history, including Native Memoirs from the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a professor of history at Ryerson University in Toronto.