Major Taylor's Battle

After the capture of Fort Shelby by the British, Colonel William McKay left for Macinac and Captain Thomas G. Anderson was in command. The British had great influence with the northwest Indians, and it is not to be wondered at as they made the Indians believe that the Americans would drive out the Indian, while the British wanted the Indian to retain his lands. In a letter dated August 21, 1814, Colonel R. McDonall, British commandant, wrote Captain Anderson: "Assure them (Sacs and Foxes) that great efforts are being made by the king in their behalf, and that the ministry are determined to make no peace till the lands plundered from the Indians are restored. To attain this purpose, great reinforcements of troops are coming out."

On August 14th, Lieutenant Duncan Graham with six men and an interpreter, left Fort McKay for the Sac village near the mouth of Rock River, his mission being to enlist the Sacs in an expedition to bring up an American gunboat which had been abandoned at a point a short distance above the unoccupied Fort Madison.

On August 21st, the British at Fort McKay were apprised by the Fox Indians that a third American expedition was on its way up the Mississippi River from St. Louis, and Captain Anderson, commanding Fort McKay, sent a dispatch to Lieutenant Graham at the Sac village on Rock River, requesting him to learn all about the Americans and to inform him. At this time there were about 800 braves at the Rock River village. Graham returned to Fort McKay, and on the 27th was again sent to the Sac village near the mouth of Rock River. This time he had with him a company of British soldiers numbering thirty men, also one brass three-pounder and two swivels, his object being to annoy and harass the American expedition and if possible defeat them and drive them back to St. Louis.

The American expedition was formed at Cap au Gris, and consisted of eight large fortified keel boats, carrying a detachment of 334 soldiers, and started on August 23d. It was commanded by Major Zachary Taylor, afterwards President of the United States. On the afternoon of September 5th, the American fleet arrived at the mouth of Rock River. Lieutenant Graham on his return to the Rock River village found that the Indians now numbered about fifteen hundred, several bands of Winnebagoes and Sioux having joined the Sacs and Foxes, who he said "would stand by us to the last man." Graham wrote that he would take his position on Rock Island at the rapids, which was the best place for defense that he knew on the Mississippi. On September 5th the British soldiers moved their guns and planted them on the west side of the island at the narrowed part of the channel, about where the present bridge rests on the island. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon the American fleet appeared in sight of the British. A storm of rain, thunder and lightning came on which compelled the American boats to land at the small Willow Island, about sixty yards above Credit Island (now Suburban Island, Davenport). Here the Americans decided to pass the night. Large numbers of Indians appeared on the Illinois and Iowa shores as well as on Credit Island, but not a gun was fired. Early the morning of the 6th the British and Indians crossed the Mississippi River to the Fox village on the west bank and went as quickly as possible through the prairie to the beach opposite the American boats, where they had a close view of them. Lieutenant Graham selected the Sioux to guard the cannon be-cause he said "as they promised they would rather be killed to the last man than give up the guns." The British planted their guns on an elevated spot, where they commanded a view of the Willow Island as well as the upper part of Credit Island. This place is about where the dam commences that leads to Suburban Island. The night before Graham had cautioned the Indians not to fire without orders from him, but a Sauk warrior during the night shot a corporal on one of the American boats commanded by Captain Whiteside. At daylight Major Taylor ordered his men to attack the Indians and drive them from the Willow Island, where they had appeared in large numbers. The American soldiers charged the enemy, who retreated, wading to Credit Island. Major Taylor then ordered Captain Nelson Rector to drop his boat down to Credit Island and rake the island with artillery and drive the Indians off. Rector did so, the Indians re-treating unto cover.

Of Rector's charge an early writer said-"Captain Rector was dressed richly, with a splendid military uniform and a large red feather in his hat. Thus equipped, he drew his sword and walked deliberately on an open sand beach, a short distance from the enemy, and ordered his company to follow him. Many Indian guns were fired at him, which he disregarded as if they were popguns. He escaped, but it was miraculous, as he was alone in advance of his company."

Captain Nelson Rector was a brother of Lieutenant Stephen Rector, who on July 19th so heroically rescued Lieutenant Camp-bell and his ill-fated boat's crew at Camp-bell's Island.

At this time, about 7 o'clock, the British guns began to play on the American boats. The first shot passed through Lieutenant Hempstead's boat. Lieutenant Graham in his report dated September 7th said: "In about three-quarters of an hour the largest of their boats, which was ahead of the others, after having about fifteen shots through her, began to push off, and dropped astern of the rest, and made her way down the current. The others soon followed her. We kept firing at them along the bank as far as the ground would permit us to drag the guns, but they soon got out of our reach." The engagement lasted about one hour. Major Taylor in his report said: "I was compelled to drop down about three miles before a proper place presented itself for landing, as but few of the boats had anchors sufficient to stop them in the river. Here I halted for the purpose of having the wounded attended and some of the boats repaired, as some of them had been injured by the enemy's artillery." The landing was on the Illinois shore.

The British and Indians had no losses, while the Americans had eleven men badly wounded, three mortally. Taylor's fleet re-turned to St. Louis. An early writer said: "I saw in the harbor at St. Louis the boats that were in Taylor's battle at Rock Island, and they were riddled with the cannon balls. I think the balls were made of lead-at any rate they pierced the boats considerably."

This was .the third American expedition up the. Mississippi River in the year 1814, all ending in defeat and disaster. The British and Indians had possession of the country until December 24th, when the peace of Ghent ended the war.

In his autobiography, Black Hawk says: "The British landed a big gun and gave us three soldiers to manage it." Writers of Western History have differed regarding Taylor's engagement, some accepting Black Hawk's version, have credited the battle as solely an Indian victory, saying the Indians were reinforced by only three British soldiers and one cannon. Others have said that there were present a large number of British soldiers. Neither Taylor or Graham knew who was in command of the other party, and nowhere was I able to learn the details, until during the winter of. 1906 and 1907, I found in the Canadian archives the correspondence between the British officers relating to the part they took in this early western event. From these archives. I learned that Black Hawk had a company of British soldiers with three cannons. That the cannon were first planted on the Island of Rock Island two years before the erection of Fort Armstrong, on ground afterwards occupied by Fort Armstrong and that Suburban Island as early as 1814 was known as Credit Island.

Early Settlements of Rock County 

 

Source: Historic Rock Island County, pub. Kramer & Company, Rock Island, Illinois, 1908

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