Illinois 200: Rock Island area site of Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battles

At the confluence of the Mississippi and Rock rivers, the Quad-Cities region has provided a footnote to history for virtually every war fought on American soil, including the Battle of Campbell's Island - the westernmost battle of the War of 1812.

The region's importance goes back even further, to pre-revolutionary times.

According to the records of historian John Hauberg, as the French and Indian War ended, the last of the French soldiers of the northwest spent the winter of 1760-61 near present-day Rock Island, ice bound, on their retreat from Michilimackinac near Mackinac Island, Michigan, to Fort de Chartres, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi south of St. Louis, after the British conquest of Canada.

A few years later, all Native American villages in the upper Mississippi and Great Lakes were canvassed by British agents to enlist men for fighting in the frontier during the Revolutionary War.

The Americans, even before Gen. George Rogers Clark conquered the Illinois country in July 1778, had agents who had succeeded in keeping the Sauk and Meskwaki from joining the British ranks. With the arrival of Clark, messengers were sent to all of the tribes inviting them to come to Kahokia to join in treaties of peace.

According to the writings of Hauberg, the Sauk held to the middle ground - trading with the British but also with the Spanish at St. Louis and with the Americans in Illinois.

In 1780 the British hatched a plan to retake the entire Mississippi Valley. Representatives of all tribes were forced to serve. The first attack was at St. Louis, but according to some accounts the Sauk and Meskwaki held back. Other Native Americans, fearing a rear attack from them, held back, too, and the grand scheme of conquest failed.

Clark wanted to punish those who had aided the British. In 1780, Lt. Col. John Montgomery and 350 men came up the Illinois River to Peoria, then to the Sauk village of Saukenuk - the modern day site of Rock Island - on the Rock River.

One report said 700 Sauk warriors withdrew without resistance and watched as the Americans burned their village. According to reports by Hauberg, the Sauk, who had been America's friend, had been mistaken for the enemy. While history is uncertain on this point, this might have been the westernmost battle of the Revolutionary War.

During the War of 1812, an expedition led by Lt. John Campbell was heading north in five keel boats to reinforce and resupply the U.S. fort at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and stopped at Rock Island in July 2014. They spent two days eating and drinking with the warrior Black Hawk and his men and the Americans became friendly with the Native Americans.

In his autobiography, translated by Antione LeClaire and edited by J.B. Patterson, Black Hawk said the men had no intention of hurting the Americans. But during the night, the British arrived down the Rock River with six kegs of powder and told them that the British had taken the fort at Prairie du Chien and wished for the Sauk to join them in the war, which they agreed to do.

The next morning, July 19, 1814, Black Hawk and 500 braves were hidden along the river as the American expedition entered the head of the Mississippi River's dangerous Rock Island Rapids.

The wind came up and blew Lt. Campbell's boat to shore on what is now called Campbell's Island.

"This boat the Great Spirit gave us," according to Black Hawk's account in his autobiography. "We advanced to the river's bank and commenced firing at the boat. ... I encouraged my braves to continue firing. … I prepared my bow and arrows to throw fire to the sail, which was lying on the boat; and after two or three attempts, succeeded in setting the sail on fire." The boat was soon in flames.

"One of the boats that had passed returned, dropped anchor and swung in close to the boat on fire and took off all the people except those killed and badly wounded," Black Hawk related. "They did not return fire. ... I therefore ordered a rush to the boat. When we got near, they fired and killed two of our people, being all that we lost in the engagement. Some of their men jumped out and pushed off the boat and thus got away without losing a man. I had a good opinion of this war chief (Lt. Campbell) - he managed so much better than the others. It would give me pleasure to shake him by the hand."

In September, U.S. Army Maj. Zachary Taylor was sent with a fleet of eight protected keel boats and 334 men to destroy Black Hawk's village and uproot the crops.

According to accounts written by historian Hauberg, as the fleet approached the mouth of the Rock River at the Mississippi, the wind shifted and reached gale proportions. They put in at Pelican Island and were attacked by natives and British six-pound cannon and swivel guns. The expedition fled back to St. Louis.

All of these military activities led to the construction of Fort Armstrong in 1816. It was abandoned in 1836 after Indian warfare died down and from 1840 to 1845 was an ordnance depot. In 1861 efforts began in earnest to build a national arsenal on the island. It was approved by President Abraham Lincoln in July 1862 and remains in use, with the Rock Island Arsenal Museum open to the public.

• Roger Ruthhart, the former editor of The Dispatch-The Rock Island Argus, can be reached at Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Find previous stories at

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A view of the beach where the Battle of Campbell's Island took place from Gorge Meese's 1914 summary of the battle. Rock Island Arsenal Museum
A bronze plaque depicting the battle fought in 1814 on Campbell's Island between U.S. soldiers and American Indians led by the warrior Black Hawk. Dispatch-Argus Photo

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