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Chapter 9: the Galena lead mines, 1831-32.

In 1824 the first steam-boat reached Prairie du Chien. In 1827 Red Bird's capture gave a sense of security to the settlers, and they went in numbers to the lead mines at Galena, where, seven years before, only one house was standing. In 1829, the lead extracted amounted to twelve millions of pounds, but the treaties with the Indians, which secured this teeming country, had not been formally closed, though the fact of a treaty having been initiated was known. Colonel Willoughby Morgan, commanding the First Regiment of Infantry, and the post of Fort Crawford, in 1830, sent Lieutenant T. R. B. Gardenier to Jordon's Ferry, now Dunleith, with a small detachment, to prevent trespassing on the lead mines west of the Mississippi River and north to Missouri. In the autumn of 1831, Colonel Morgan died, and Colonel Zachary Taylor was promoted to the command of the First Infantry, who were then stationed at Prairie du Chien. The uneasiness about the Indians increasing, the regiment was ordered to Rock [84] Island. It moved up the river in Mackinac boats, and passed the Dubuque mines en route. The Indians, who had collected in some force in the neighboring country, on hearing of this advance, returned to Iowa, fearing that a larger force might follow.

The miners, on hearing rumors of a treaty, moved over to Galena and took possession of the lead mines. The Indians protested; and in consequence of an order from General McComb, Colonel Taylor sent a detachment of troops to remove the miners until the treaty could be signed, and the Indians had formally relinquished their claims to that portion of the country. Lieutenant George Wilson was sent there, with sixteen men, to remove the miners, who numbered four hundred. The troops arrived at Jordon's Ferry on the sixth day of their travel, and camped on the spot which is now the foot of the main street at Dubuque, where there were then three cabins.

Shortly after the arrival of the troops, the miners moved in a body to the Island, now the principal landing-place of the city, leaving some of their families in their cabins. Lieutenant Wilson, in a letter in 1865, says he thought it was too cold at the time to remove the trespassers. However that may have been, Colonel Taylor at once sent Lieutenants Abercrombie and Jefferson Davis, with fifty [85] men, to accomplish their removal. Lieutenant Davis had previously held some intercourse with them, when on duty near Dubuque, and was, as usual, with those whom he came near enough to know, on friendly terms with them. He said that all these frontiersmen were armed to the teeth, believed themselves to be wronged, and were determined to resist any effort made to drive them out of the mines to the last extremity. Most of them were men of the better class of pioneers. He felt the greatest reluctance to use force against them, and thought seriously and long over the best means of placating them, while he carried out his orders.

On the day he held his first conference with them, he crossed the river to inform them of his instructions, and was met by a dozen or more rugged and resolute — looking men thoroughly armed. In the background was a Spanish-looking woman. The spokesman was a tall, red-headed man, who opened the conference with the announcement that they had resisted the former officers detailed to remove them from the mines, and “if he knew when he was well off he had better leave honest men alone and quit showing partiality on the Indians.” Lieutenant Davis said that he was convinced from this man's manner that the miners contemplated armed resistance, [86] and he therefore announced in the plainest terms the determination of the Government to remove them, by force if necessary. He then asked a private interview with the spokesman; they walked off a few yards and sat down together. Lieutenant Davis made a full statement of the case and satisfied the miner that the security of his friends in the possession of the country and of their old claims was only a question of time and patience. He explained that the necessity for their removal was in order that the Indian claims might first be peacefully disposed of by treaty. He then went over to the group, and raising his voice over their murmurings, made his first public speech. At the beginning of it the miners interjected irritating remarks, but eventually listened in silence. The woman was the last to surrender.

Some weeks after this meeting, Lieutenant Davis crossed the river for another conference with them. In a little drinking booth on the edge of the mines, were gathered about twenty-five miners, with the red-head man, as usual, in the ascendant. As Lieutenant Davis came up to the cabin his orderly entreated him not to go in. “They will be certain to kill you,” he said; “I heard one of them say they would.”

Lieutenant Davis entered the cabin at once, [87] and, as they expressed it, “gave them the time of day.” 1 He immediately added, after saluting them, “My friends, I am sure you have thought over my proposition and are going to drink to my success. So I will treat you all.” Whether admiration of his daring, or that reconsideration had changed their policy, was never known; what is certain is, that they gave him a cheer.

With admirable patience and judgment, for many weeks, he listened to the complaints of each family, supplied them with the means lacking for their convenience in moving; registered and described their claims, and pacified the whole body of belligerents. He thus proved himself worthy of the thanks expressed for this service in the resolutions of the Legislature of Iowa, passed many years afterward, when he lay wounded in Saltillo after Buena Vista. His old friend General George Jones, from whom I have quoted before, has given the subjoined memorandum of the service:

In the winter of 1831-32 Lieutenant Davis was sent to the Dubuque lead mines, which, at the termination of the trouble, had been occupied by the squatters. He was directed by the War Department, through Colonel [88] Zachary Taylor, to remove these squatters, Lieutenant Wilson having preceded him and having failed to drive the people off.

Lieutenant Davis, by his conciliatory efforts and kindness, soon got them to leave under the assurance that their claims would be recognized as soon as the treaty made with the Sacs and Foxes should be ratified by the United States Senate, which he felt confident would be the case. He induced all the men to leave, but permitted one woman to remain in her husband's cabin, as the winter was excessively severe. She remained ever afterward his devoted friend, up to her recent death. While Lieutenant Davis was encamped opposite Dubuque, my present home, he often visited me. He was a great favorite with my boys, whom he often used to hold on his knees as if they had been his own. Two of them afterward served under him in the cause of the Confederacy.

General Jones, who was there, added, in a letter written on the occasion of sending to a newspaper Mr. Davis's private letter to General Jones on the subject, in 1873: “This letter will be read with interest by your readers, and particularly by the descendants of the first settlers of these lead mines, whom ‘ JeffDavis, as he is sneeringly termed, was ordered and commanded to drive off at the point of [89] the bayonet, but whom he preferred to treat with kindness and humanity, promising them that he would use his influence to restore their mining and other rights as soon as the treaty should be ratified by the Senate of the United States.”

Mr. Davis wrote: “I had known many of the miners when on the east side of the river, and on me mainly devolved negociations with them to induce them peaceably to retire. I went to their residences, and explained the entire absence of any power on our part to modify or delay the execution of our orders, and being an intimate friend of Captain Legate, the superintendent of the lead mines, volunteered my services to secure, through him, to every man, the lead or prospect then held, as soon as the treaty should be ratified to extinguish the Indian title. It has always been to me a happy memory that the removal was accomplished without resort to force, and, as I learned afterward, that each miner in due time came into his own.”

In this year came the first trial of the young patriot's devotion to the principles of constitutional government, and he contemplated the sacrifice of the hopes of his life rather than be untrue to what he considered the cause of liberty and State rights. He wrote:

The nullification by South Carolina, in [90] 1832, of certain acts of Congress, the consequent proclamation of President Jackson, and the ‘ Force Bill,’ soon afterward enacted, presented the probability that the troops of the United States would be employed to enforce the execution of the laws in that State, and it was supposed that the regiment to which I belonged would in that event be ordered to South Carolina.

By education, by association, and by preference I was a soldier; then regarding that profession as my vocation for life. Yet, looking the issue squarely in the face, I chose the alternative of abandoning my profession rather than be employed in the subjugation or coercion of a State of the Union, and had fully determined and was prepared to resign my commission immediately on the occurence of such a contingency. The compromise of 1833 prevented the threatened calamity, and the sorrowful issue was deferred until a day more drear, which forced upon me the determination of the question of State sovereignty or federal supremacy — of independence or submission to usurpation.

The language of this brief statement of the case combines the expression of resolute and inflexible adherence to duty, with a touching and almost pathetic sense of the magnitude of the responsibility involved and of the [91] sacrifice required, the unaffected sincerity of which will be doubted by none who knew the character of Jefferson Davis.

I was sent by Colonel W. Morgan, in the fall of the year, to watch the Indians, who were semi-hostile, and to prevent trespassing on the Indian territory. Smith, of Bate & Smith, had a smelting establishment on the east bank, just above Mr. Jordon's residence, where they smelted the mineral brought to them by the Indians; but when the Indians left, their operations were confined to smelting the ‘ ashes.’ I remained on duty there until the spring of 1832, and, though I made frequent reconnaissances into the country, never saw an Indian or any indication of their presence in that neighborhood. In the spring of 1832 I was relieved by Lieutenant J. R. B. Gardenier, as private matters required me to go to Mississippi, my home.

In a short time reports of Indian hostilities caused the withdrawal of Lieutenant Gardenier, and soon followed the crossing to the river by the little war party mentioned in the sketch. After the campaign of 1832 Lieutenant George Wilson, with a few soldiers, was sent to Dubuque for the same purpose as that for which I had been sent there in the previous year; but on reporting to the commanding officer at Prairie du Chien that trespassers [92] were, despite his prohibition, crossing the river, a larger force was despatched to enforce the orders of the Government, and the laws relating to intercourse with the Indian tribes. Lieutenant J. J. Abercrombie and I were the officers of this reinforcement. It was in the depth of winter, so cold that we went all the way on ice.

1 Which means, in frontier phrase, “Good-morning” or “Good-evening.”

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