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Chapter 6: Fort Crawford, 1828-29.

Cadet Davis graduated in July, 1828, received the usual brevet of Second Lieutenant of Infantry, went to visit his family on a short furlough, and then reported for duty at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis. There he found Lieutenants Gustave Rousseau, Kinsman, Thomas Drayton, Sidney Johnston, and several other old and dear friends. Very soon after Lieutenant Davis arrived there he was sent up to Fort Crawford, built on the site of what is now Prairie du Chien, in Wisconsin. The Fort was then in an unfinished condition, and he aided in building a larger and more impregnable fortification, as the Indians were then in a restless condition, and the muttering of hostilities that soon burst forth into war-cries, could now be plainly heard.

Fort Crawford was situated on the Wisconsin, near its junction with the Mississippi, and was, at an early day, the northern limit of the Illinois tribe. It was a starting-point for their raids against the Iroquois who occupied the land around Chicago. On Jeffrey's map of [56] 1776, a line is drawn from Prairie du Chien to Omaha, and inscribed “French route to western Indians.” In the “Colonial records of New York,” p. 621, it is mentioned as one of the three great routes to the Mississippi. Prairie du Chien, as early as 1766, was described as “a great mart, where tribes from the most remote branches of the Mississippi annually assemble, bringing with them their furs to dispose of to the traders.”

The Indians built forts even before the white men came to the country, to protect themselves from the hostile tribes, and the French, wary and industrious, as is their wont at this day, built a fort wherever they halted for a week. Marquette and the Jesuits each fortified their mission-houses. In 1727 Father Guignas wrote in his diary, when establishing himself on the north bank of Lake Pepin, “the day after landing we put our axes to the wood. On the fourth day following, the fort was entirely finished.” These were not, however, very elaborate fortifications. They were generally square, and inclosed by pickets of red cedar, with sentry-boxes at two of the angles. The pickets were thirteen or fourteen feet above ground.

The fort at Prairie du Chien, though built at an early day, was certainly not the first constructed there. It has been ascertained that [57] the French had established one at a much earlier period, and that during the revolutionary war it was burned. The name of the French fort was St. Nicholas.

The Rev. J. D. Butler, after reading of the struggles of the soldiers sent out to man the frontier said:

The strongholds and soldiers, north, south, east, and west, were pillars of cloud by day and of fire by night, to guide, cheer, and save pioneers into the terra incognita of Wisconsin. . .

Had half of these gentlemen been as careful to write their experiences as Clarke and Lewis were, even when drenched with rain, or when the ink was freezing, the world would have known by heart the merits of the military.

The beauty of the country about Four Lakes has been often extolled by travellers, and the Indians seem to have been fully as well aware of its charms as were the white men.

When the Indians saw this fair country being slowly wrested from their grasp, they grappled with the invaders and made a long and bold struggle for the prize, and thus it became necessary to build more forts and station a stronger force there. In 1816, a fort was built at Chicago, and one at Prairie du Chien, for the better protection of the fur traders, the miners, and those who tilled the [58] teeming soil, and these forts, in those days, were literally cities of refuge.

Of a reconnaissance made in that country, General George Jones wrote:

The next I knew of ‘Jeff,’ as we used to call him, was in 1829. He had graduated at West Point, and had been assigned to duty as second lieutenant in a United States infantry command at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, then Michigan Territory, but now the State of Wisconsin. It was late in the year, and late, one night, when a lieutenant and a sergeant rode up to my log-cabin at Sinsinawa Mound, about fifty miles from Fort Crawford, and inquired for Mr. Jones. I told him that I answered to that name. The lieutenant then asked me if they could remain there all night. I told him that they were welcome to share my buffalo robes and blankets, and that their horses could be coralled with mine on the prairie.

The officer then asked me if I had ever been at the Transylvania University. I answered that I had been there from 1821 to 1825.

‘ Do you remember a college boy named Jeff Davis? ’

‘ Of course I do.’

‘ I am Jeff.’

That was enough for me. I pulled him [59] off his horse and into my cabin, and it was hours before either of us could think of sleeping.

Lieutenant Davis remained at my cabin for some days, and after the unconstrained manner of early frontier life we had a delightful time.

While stationed at Fort Crawford in 1829 he commanded a detachment for cutting timber to repair and enlarge the fort. They embarked in one of the little open boats, then the only mode of conveyance, and, accompanied by two voyageurs, began their journey. At one point they were hailed by a party of Indians who demanded a trade of tobacco. As they appeared to have no hostile intentions the little party rowed to the bank and began the parley. However, the voyageurs, who were familiar with the methods of Indian warfare, soon saw that their peaceful tones were only a cloak to hide their hostility. They warned Lieutenant Davis of the danger, and he ordered them to push out into the stream and make the best time they could up the river. With yells of fury the Indians leaped into their canoes and gave chase. There was little, if any, chance for the white men to escape such experienced rowers as their pursuers were. If taken captive, death by torture was inevitable; and [60] they would have been captured had not Lieutenant Davis thought of rigging up a sail with one of their blankets. Fortunately, the wind was in their favor, but it was very boisterous. As it was a choice between certain death by the hands of the Indians, or possible death by drowning, they availed themselves of the slender chance left and escaped.

This was one among many instances of Mr. Davis's fertility of resources when a sudden exigency arose. In speaking of the incident, fifty years afterwards, he said: “The Indians seemed to me to be legion.”

The requisite timber for the repairs he found among the hackmatack, cedars, and other varieties of timber that grow near the Menomonee, or Red River. Lieutenant Davis was camped ten miles from the mouth of the Menomonie, and just below the mouth of the Chippewa, the first stream that empties into that river.

When the timber was rafted, the oxen and outfit were placed upon it, but the swift stream sucked it into a side current of the Chippewa river. The raft was broken up, several of the oxen drowned, and the whole work had to be done over again. In consequence of this accident it was called the Beef Slough, and is so named to this day; but from 400 to 500 millions of logs pass yearly through it now. [61]

Four miles from where Lieutenant Davis logged in the wilderness is Menomonee, a city of 7,000 inhabitants. Where he cut and banked the timber a railroad now runs.

A Western historian, whose name was not communicated when the newspaper slip was sent me, mentions Lieutenant Davis thus:

Jefferson Davis was the first lumberman in Wisconsin. In the year 1829, when a lieutenant in the First Regiment, he was detailed to ascend the Mississippi, with a company of men, in birch bark canoes, and stopping at the first pine forest, to cut, raft, and float a sufficient quantity of timber down the river to build a fort at what is now called Prairie du Chien.

On the opening of the river in the spring of 1829, long before the day of steamboats on the Upper Mississippi was known, but while the country was in a savage state of nature, with the black bear, the elk, and the deer in the greatest abundance; while Indian wigwams were the only evidence of habitations that greeted the eye of civilized man; this little band of soldiers pursued their way up to the mouth of the Chippewa, one hundred and seventy-five miles from Prairie du Chien. Then Lieutenant Davis concluded to leave the Mississippi and descend the Chippewa, which he did until they came to the mouth of [62] what is called the Red Cedar River. Up this stream they worked their way about forty miles, when they came to the splendid pine which adorns the banks of the Red Cedar. At this point, where the beautiful and thriving village of Menomonee now stands, they disembarked, went into camp, and began the labor for which they came. At this point and this time the sound of the white man's axe was first heard in the pine forests of Wisconsin.

The service then performed seems a mere every-day matter, if the condition of the country, the shifting character of its population, and even of its boundaries be not considered, as well as the menace under which every order was carried out. Death might hurtle forth from behind any tree or bush, and an eagle's plume be added to the head-dress of a blood-thirsty Indian.1 Once, while busy cutting timber on the banks, the alarm was given, and the party barely escaped being seen by a fleet of canoes which passed, full of Indians, in war-paint, singing their war-songs. One canoe landed, and a warrior reconnoitred within twelve feet of the place in which Lieutenant Davis lay concealed. Amidst constantly recurring [63] alarms, with force inadequate to their defence, sleeping at night in the open air, and watching hourly for an attack, they finished their arduous service and returned to Fort Crawford.

Illustrating the shifting boundaries of the territories General A. C. Dodge mentioned the remarkable history of a house near Burlington. “It was built by that pioneer and honored lawyer ‘ Timber’ Woods. Here one of his children was born, in the territory of Michigan; the next child, born in the self-same cabin, was a native of Wisconsin, and the third was in the territory of Iowa.” As a companion to this story the general mentioned that “the Hon. Mr. Duncan, living not far from Carydon, without changing his residence, first served as a member of the Missouri Legislature, and afterward as a member of the Iowa Territorial Legislature.”

There were few amusements for the young men in the long winter evenings. Sometimes what were called “gumbo balls” were got up by the neighboring settlers, at which the respectable young women of the different families were present, and the officers and other people of the neighborhood danced with them. The refreshments generally consisted of a large bowl of gumbo and an ample supply of bread. Once the “fiddler” was ill, [64] and a disconsolate old Frenchman wailed out, “Oh de ball is broke, it is broke;” but two little girls, with clear, sharp voices were found, and, seated behind the open door, they sang for the dancers, “The moon it is a rizin, Jinnie, come away,” and the gay young people found no fault with the musicians.

Here the frontiersmen used to bring wolves to the officers for races, as foxes are chased with horse and hound. It was their favorite game. Sometimes they fought their dogs against the wolves, and Mr. Davis and General Harney, four years ago, when the general was our guest, were comparing their recollections of a wolf fight with their dogs, and General Harney seemed very proud of chasing a wolf down, on foot, and having what he called a “fist fight” with it, during which he choked it to death by main force.

These amusements were diversified by sleigh rides in the depth of winter over the frozen river, and notwithstanding that every day they risked losing their scalps, life flowed on with them about as cheerily as it does now with the officers who have more comfortable and safer quarters.

1 An eagle's feather was added to a warrior's head-dress. for each scalp he took.

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