Rock Island Arsenal

Summing up the history pertaining to the Rock Island Arsenal, located upon the Island of Rock Island, and lying conjointly, one might say, between the cities of Moline, Rock Island and Davenport, is no light task. In the data which contributes to the construction of this history, some of which has been incorporated verbatim, there are numerous dates and incidents which give rise to conflicting thoughts and deductions and the writer has been compelled, in some instances, to resort to comparisons upon which to base his judgments.

Since the advent of Colonel George Davenport, May 10, 1816, several histories of the Arsenal have been written, and a number of personal memoirs of well known pioneers have been printed. Of these latter, the reminiscences of the late Judge J. W. Spencer probably afford the most authentic report, and it is to be deplored that he did not pursue his work to the end that would dispel all doubts as to many transformations and conditions through which the Arsenal passed during the days of the early pioneers and the settlement of Rock Island County.

Starting at the beginning, the purposes and anticipations relative to old Fort Armstrong naturally present themselves; and as this celebrated fort was built on the Island of Rock Island, acquired through a treaty with the Indians in the year 1804, it will be proper to precede our account of it by a brief description of the island itself. Rock Island is situated on the Mississippi River, opposite the upper end of the City of Rock Island, and between it and Davenport on the Iowa side. It is about two and three quarters miles long by three-fourths of a mile wide, and contains an area of nearly a thousand acres. The base of this island is a mass of limestone, of the Hamilton group, which underlies this section of country. At its lower extremity this rocky exposure rises in an almost perpendicular wall to a considerable height above the water, and was the cause of its being called by its appropriate name-Rock Island.

This mass of light grey or whitish limestone, rising in the broad channel of the Mississippi, and crowned with its luxuriant covering of natural forest trees, was an object of great interest to the early explorers in this region, and its effect was greatly enhanced by coming in view of it unexpectedly, as the traveler was sure to do, in passing the bend in the river a short distance below. After Fort Armstrong was built on the lower point of this island, the view on ascending the river became still more picturesque, and it has been described as one of the most romantic and beautiful scenes in the whole western country. Mr. Henry C. McGrew, who published the first newspaper in Rock Island wrote a letter in 1870, in which he said:

"Although thirty-eight years have passed since I first landed at Rock Island, I shall never forget my first impressions of the place. It was a beautiful moonlight night in June; and, as I stood upon the deck of the steamer, as we rounded the bend below the village, and beheld old Fort Armstrong on the island in the river, with its whitewashed walls, pretty gardens and officers' houses, the scene was charming, presenting the appearance of some ancient castle. Then there was the village of Davenport on the opposite bank, with its white painted cottages, and on the east, Rock Island, encircled by the bluffs. The panorama inspired me with a feeling of happiness I shall never forget; and, coupled with the idea that I was on the outskirts of civilization, gave the whole scene an air of romance."

Governor Ford, in his History of Illinois, speaking of the arrival of the soldiers here during the first Black Hawk disturbance, in 1831, says:

"The volunteers marched to Rock Island the next morning, and here they encamped for several days, precisely where the town of Rock Island is situated. It was then in a complete state of nature, a romantic wilderness. Fort Armstrong was built on a rocky cliff at the lower point of an island, near the center of the river, a little way above; the shores on each side formed of gentle slopes of prairie extending back to bluffs of considerable height, made it one of the most picturesque scenes in the western country. The river here is a beautiful sheet of clear, swift-running water, about three-quarters of a mile wide. Its banks on both sides were inhabited only by Indians, from the Lower Rapids to the fort; and the voyage up stream, after several days progress through a wilderness country, brought the traveler suddenly in sight of the fort, perched upon a rock, surrounded by the grandeur of Nature, which, at a distance, gave it the appearance of one of those en-chanted castles in an uninhabited desert, so well described in the, Arabian Night's Entertainments".

The island was the favorite resort of the Indians long before it had ever been visited by the white man. "Here they loved to assemble for their summer pastimes, and to indulge in the simple amusements of their race; along these rocky shores was their favorite fishing-ground; the swift current which here pours down over successive chains of rapids, was the scene of many a dash and frolic in their light canoes; and here dwelt the kindly spirit whose protecting power preserved the Native American, and over whose subterrean abode none dared to walk but with the silent step of supreme reverence and awe." The estimation in which the SRX and Fox Indians held this island is well described by Black Hawk in the following language:

"This was the best island in the Mississippi, and had long been the resort of our young people during the summer. It was our gar-den, which furnished us with strawberries, blackberries, plums, apples, and nuts of various kinds, and its waters supplied us with pure fish, being situated in the rapids of the river. In my early life I spent many happy days on this island. A good spirit had care of it, who lived in a cave in the rocks immediately under the place where the fort now stands, and has often been seen by our people. He. was white, with large wings like a swan's, but ten times larger. We were particular not to make a noise in that part of the island, for fear of disturbing him. But the noise of the fort has since driven him away, and no doubt a bad spirit has taken his place."

The events which led to the building of Fort Armstrong on Rock Island are elsewhere fully described. The British band of Sacs and Foxes had been troublesome in this region all through the latter part of the War of 1812-14. The British had captured the fort at Prairie du Chien, and had not only provided the Indians of this locality with artillery, munitions of war, and men, but had left them at the close of the war with feelings of strong and bitter hostility to the Government. From Jefferson Barracks, below St. Louis, to the mouth of the Wisconsin, the Government had practically no established military post by which to enforce its authority or to afford protection to its citizens, whose duties might call them into this portion of the United States. The river was, moreover, a highway of the nation, which must be kept guarded by suitable. military stations along its banks. The situation at Rock Island was central, accessible, and in near proximity to the most dangerous body of Indians on the river; it was also nearly centrally located on the western border of that great tract of country which these Indians had ceded to the United States in the treaty of 1804, and which would soon be opened for actual settlement.

At the time the fort was built, there were at least 4,000 Indians living on the main shores and adjacent to the island. All those on the east side were the wards of the Government, living on Government lands, which they were allowed by the terms of the treaty to occupy so long as these lands belonged to the United States.

The movement for the establishment of a Western Arsenal on Rock Island was begun as early as 1839, in which year it was made the object of a special survey and the subject of a report to the War Department by Major Bell, of the Ordnance Department, as a feasible and desirable location. In 1843 its advantages for that purpose was reported to Congress by a commissioner appointed by the President, under the provisions of an act of Congress approved September 9, 1841. At a later date it was also the subject of a recommendation to the Government for the same public use.

It was not until the summer of 1861 that the initial step was taken by the citizens of Rock Island looking to the accomplishment of this object. On the first day of July, of that year, a petition addressed to the senators and representatives in Congress was drawn up by the following committee of citizens of Rock Island, viz: N. B. Buford, J. Wilson Drury, Ira O. Wilkinson, Ben Harper, Reuben Hatch, George Mixter, J. B. Danforth, Jr., and P. L. Cable, asking Congress to establish a national armory and arsenal on Rock Island, and setting forth the special advantages of the site for such an establishment.

By the action of these gentlemen another committee of leading citizens of the three cities-Rock Island, Moline and Davenport-was appointed, consisting of the following named persons: Ira O. Wilkinson, N. B. Buford, H. C. Connelly, J. Wilson Drury and Bailey Davenport, of Rock Island; W. H. F. Gurley, George L. Davenport, and G. M. French of Davenport, and C. Atkinson and P. R. Reed, of Moline. These gentlemen memorialized Congress in an ably prepared pamphlet, with a map of this locality, upon the claims and advantages of Rock Island as the site for the proposed Western Arsenal and Armory.

This memorial sets forth that a new Armory and Arsenal, for the manufacture, safe-keeping and distribution of arms and munitions of war, are of pressing national necessity demanded alike by the present wants and future requirements of the Government, and that the preponderating growth of the northwest, as well as the absence of any such establishment within its limits, indicate that such an armory should be located upon the upper Mississippi. Coming directly to the claims of Rock Island, the memorialists say: "Believing that Rock Island, in the State of Illinois, in the centrality and safety of its geographical position, the facilities it affords for transportation to and from other parts of the country, the cheapness and abundance of its motive power and the materials used in the manufacture of arms, in the supply and cheapness of labor and food, in the healthfulness, spaciousness and general eligibility of the site, and the possession and ownership thereof by the Government free of cost or expense-enjoys advantages equal, if not superior, to those possessed by any other place in the northwest for the location of such an establishment-your memorialists would respectfully ask your attention to a brief notice of these advantages." The advantages are set forth in the ten or twelve pages which follow with great force and cogency of argument. In this document we find a re-port of the action of the Iowa Legislature and of the authorities of Illinois on the subject, and a certificate of the government agent in charge of the Island.

Official Documents Relating to Rock Island Arsenal
General Rodman's Plans

 

Early Settlements of Rock County 

 

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

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