UMB logo
Upper Mississippi Brigade articles; photo is UMB at Ft. Osage

The Americans at Prairie du Chien

by Edward L. Reidell

For years military officers and frontier politicians warned the United States about the importance of controlling the center of the fur trade industry on the upper Mississippi river, and thereby the Indians. Finally in the spring of 1814 the United States put into action a plan to capture the center, the strategic village of Prairie du Chien. To accomplish this goal, Governor William Clark of Missouri Territory organized and led an expedition up the river. The expedition, which was made up of two companies of Missouri volunteers stiffened by a company of regular army infantry, traveled on five barges, two of which were armed. In honor of the expedition's leader the largest gunboat was named Governor Clark.1

The regular army company was made up of a detachment of 61 men from the Seventh Regiment of Infantry under the command of Brevet Major Zachary Taylor. These men arrived in St. Louis in the spring of 1814 "for the protection of the frontier." Taylor was called home for personal reasons, but being in favor of the expedition and its goal he placed his company under the command of First Lieutenant Joseph Perkins, 24th Infantry.2 On the expedition Perkins held the local rank of Captain. Perkins was in Missouri on recruiting duty for his own company when Taylor ordered him to take command.3

The other part of the expedition was made up of approximately 140 sixty-day volunteers. They were touted as "dauntless young fellows from this country," but they only agreed to serve if Clark paid them $20 a month and one-and-a-half rations per day.4 These militia were divided into two companies under the commands of Captains Frederick Yeizer and John Sullivan. Also accompanying the troops was Nicholas Boilvin, the U. S. Indian Agent for Prairie du Chien, who had fled to St. Louis in the early days of the war.5

On May 1, 1814 the expedition left St. Louis for Prairie du Chien. The journey up river was uneventful until they arrived at the Rock river rapids. A brief skirmish occurred with pro-British Sauk Indians, in which the Americans seem to have gained the upper hand. The action was very brief and apparently there were no casualties. The Sauk asked for peace which was granted by Clark on condition that the Sauk fight other pro-British Indians.6

Once again the Americans pushed up river and arrived on June 2, at Prairie du Chien. When the Americans went ashore they discovered the village abandoned. Upon hearing of the imminent arrival of the Americans, the villagers and local militia had fled, and only after assurances of safety from the Americans did most of them return. Once ashore the regulars commandeered the Mackinaw Company building and fortified it. This was their home until the new fort was completed.7

Another incident, that would have later repercussions, was the imprisonment of a number of Winnebagoes (or, Ho-Chunk), some of whom were killed. The Americans claimed that the prisoners were shot while attempting escape, but the British stated the Indians were treacherously executed.8 This incident only served to increase hostility and hatred between the Winnebagoes and Americans.

On June 5 Clark placed the location of the fort in back of the village, on a hill that is now the site of Villa Louis State Historic Site. Construction started the next day. The works was named Fort Shelby in honor of Isaac Shelby, the current governor of Kentucky, home state of most of the soldiers in Taylor's company.9

Clark did not remain in Prairie du Chien for much longer. On the very next day, June 7, he and three of the boats departed for St. Louis, and arrived there June 28. Clark left Yeizer and Sullivan along with Captain George Kennerly, Clark's aide, and Lieutenant James Kennerly (both Missouri militia officers) to assist Perkins and regulars with construction. By June 19 the works was far enough along for the regulars to occupy it. Construction continued until July 17 when the British expedition arrived.10

Late in June, Sullivan, his company and 32 men of Yeizer's, left in the smaller of the two gunboats. The sixty-day terms of service had expired and the men wanted to go home. Yeizer and the remained of his command on the Governor Clark agreed to stay until reinforcements of regulars and rangers would relieve them.11

On Sunday July 17, about noon, just as the American officers were preparing for a pleasure ride on the prairie, Captain Thomas G. Anderson of the Mississippi Volunteers approached the fort under a flag of truce with a demand for surrender.12 Lt. Colonel William McKay, the British commander, sent a polite note ordering the americans to surrender unconditionally or defend themselves to the last man, but also requested they send their women and children out of the way. Perkins rejected the demand for surrender and chose to defend his fort.13 At this time Nicholas Boilvin decided to move to the Governor Clark for safety.14

At 1:10 PM the British fired their brass 3-pounder cannon and the battle for Prairie du Chien began.15 Initially the British concentrated their artillery fire on the Governor Clark managing several direct hits. Some of these hits caused the boat to begin leaking, and after two hours the men on board cut their cable and floated downstream for repairs. The regulars in the fort, seeing the boat leaving, called for it to return and reputedly fired a round across its bow to induce it to do so.16 The Governor Clark stopped briefly at the mouth of the Wisconsin river to repair some of the damage and continued down river. On the way down they encountered some of the boats of Lt. Campbell's expedition and helped them pass Saukenuk, the Sauk village at the Rock river rapids. The casualties reported were seven: Lt. Henderson, Ensign St. Pierre and five privates, one of whom died during the journey to St. Louis after having his leg amputated.17

For the next two days the fighting continued at Prairie du Chien. Both sides kept up a relatively constant but ineffectual fire on one another. But by the evening of July 19, things were getting desperate for the Americans. It had now become obvious that the Clark was not returning, the ammunition supply for the 3- and 6-pounder cannons was nearly expended, and there were no hospital supplies. The water supply was also exhausted. During the fighting the well had gone dry, and an attempt to deepen it resulted in its collapse. The final problem that forced the American officers to decide to surrender was evidence of British intentions to attack the wooden works with red-hot iron shot.18

After consulting with the Kennerlys about their options, Perkins sent George Kennerly out to the British with an offer to surrender both fort and garrison provided they be protected from the Indians. McKay accepted the terms but told Perkins to delay his surrender until the next day so that he could guarantee their safety.19

The next morning at 8 o'clock the Americans marched out of the fort and surrendered their arms. McKay placed the Dakota and Ojibwe between the Americans and Winnebago in order to keep the latter from massacring the troops.20 Included among those who surrendered were two women and one child.21 It was a relatively bloodless engagement. The regulars had only five men wounded, including one man who had his fingers cut off when he tried to shake the hand of a Winnebago.22 Also at time of surrender, it was noted that when the American flag was lowered, even though it was riddled with holes, the representation of the eagle in its canton was untouched.23

On July 30, McKay paroled all of the Americans but four, two were claimed as deserters and two as "subjects" who were in American service. After being provided with a boat and provisions the Americans departed for St. Louis at 2 o'clock PM. Also accompanying the Americans was an escort of two British officers from the Indian Department and a "strong" guard with artillery. This proved useful when they arrived at the Rock river rapids on August 2. The British officers convinced the Sauk to let the Americans pass unmolested.24

The Americans continued their journey south that evening with one British officer and six men. This small escort stayed with them until the lower rapids at the Des Moines river. From that point on the Americans traveled night and day until they arrived safely in St. Louis the morning of August 6.25 The arrival of Perkins and his command ended the United States' first attempt to control the village of Prairie du Chien.

1. Bruce Mahan, Old Fort Crawford and the Frontier (Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1926): 52-53.
2. Marie Antoine de Julio, The Forts on the Mound: Military Presence in the Main Village of Prairie du Chien (Prairie du Chien: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1987): 15.
3. Peter L. Scanlan, Prairie du Chien: French, British, American (1937, 1949; reprinted, Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Company, 1985): 118.
4. James Neal Primm, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing Co., nd): 106. Louise Phelps Kellogg, The British Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1935): 316.
5. Scanlan, 117; Kellogg, 319.
6. Kellogg, 314.
7. de Julio, 15-17.
8. Douglas Brymner, "Capture of Ft. McKay, Prairie du Chien, in 1814." Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin 11 (Madison, WI: SHS WI, 1888): 260. Alec R. Gilpin, The War of 1812 in the Old Northwest (East Lansing, MI: The Michigan State University Press, 1958): 246.
9. Scanlan, 117-118.
10. Scanlan 118; de Julio, 17.
11. Mahan, 53.
12. de Julio, 22.
13. Brymner, 256.
14. Kellogg, 319.
15. Scanlan, 118.
16. de Julio, 22-23.
17. Frank E. Stevens, "Illinois in the War of 1812-1814." Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society 9 (Springfield, IL: Phillips Bros., 1904): 161-162.
18. de Julio, 23-24.
19. Scanlan, 119.
20. Scanlan, 119.
21. Mahan, 57.
22. Scanlan, 119; Augustin Grignon, "Seventy-Two Years: Recollections of Wisconsin." Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin 3 (Madison, WI: SHS WI, 1857): 277.
23. Grignon, 278.
24. Scanlan, 119.
25. Scanlan, 119.

back to top


site designed and maintained by Celtic Fringe Web Design