Old Fort Madison ‘a strange piece of American history’
A lesser-known piece of American history is the creation of the United States Government Factory System. In response to the Treaty of St. Louis of 1804, government trading posts were created as part of the payment to the Sac and Fox Nation for land ceded to the United States.
In an effort to maintain peace and goodwill with the Native Americans, the government sold all commercial goods at cost and offered high prices for the goods that the Native Americans caused to sell. What also sets these government factories apart from private counters is the fact that no alcohol is sold. One of the most successful of these government trading posts was along the Mississippi River in what is now Fort Madison.
Eugene Watkins, site manager at Old Fort Madison, a replica of the original fort, said it was one of the most unique sites to visit in the state of Iowa.
“You really don’t meet him at school,” he says. “It’s an interesting and strange piece of American history.”
It became one of the most popular trading posts among Native Americans, where they could buy almost anything they needed.
“It was pretty much like a Wal-Mart,” Watkins said. “The natives could get everything here, from pre-made clothes to guns, and they could get it at cost without growing alcohol.”
In return, Native Americans got the highest price for raw materials like furs, lead, and even feathers.
“One shipment to St. Louis contained 578 pounds of native traded feathers,” Watkins said.
Fort Madison’s demise came during the War of 1812, when it was repeatedly attacked by warriors Ho-Chunk and Menomenee. It is not known exactly how many civilians, militiamen from the Missouri Territory, American Rangers or Native Americans are buried at Fort Madison. However, 21 soldiers and a ranger are buried there, making it the oldest American military cemetery in Iowa. Eventually, the fort was set on fire by soldiers after trade was compromised.
Visit Old Fort Madison in Riverview Park to see what life was like in a trading post and military fort during the nation’s early days. See what life was like for a soldier stationed there. Experience a musket pulled by an interpreter in period dress. Read historical documents, from letters to receipts, transcribed by Watkins himself.
Address: 716 Riverview Drive, Fort Madison, Iowa
Distance from downtown Des Moines: 174 miles
Fun fact: Fort Madison predates the state of Iowa itself. It is the site of the first American colony in what would later become Iowa.
Kids: The convenience factor of Old Fort Madison makes it perfect for kids. They can smell beaver skin, try on uniforms, and run and climb around the fort to let off steam.
Admission: $ 8 adults, $ 7 with military ID, $ 3.50 students, free 5 years and under. Family rate: 2 adults and 2-5 children under 16 for $ 20.
Hours: From June to August, they are open from Wednesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Pro tip: Although Fort Madison is currently under road construction, you can follow detour signs to Riverview Park and Old Fort Madison.
Future event: Don’t have plans for Memorial Weekend? Visit to Muster on the Mississippi, where military-clad reenactors of all ages will discuss the commonalities and differences between soldiers. On Monday, join in the remembrance of the fallen heroes who served at the post from 1808 to 1813.
Where to eat: Watkin recommends La Casa Salsa (4821 Avenue O), for authentic Mexican cuisine. Discover their daily specials or order their extensive menu. Visit them on Facebook @LaCasaSalsaFM to view their menu in advance