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Artifacts from fort elude diggers

Researchers outline local history

October 1, 2009
By BILL SHEA Messenger staff writer

Fort Dodge obviously got its name from an old Army post, but that post didn't look like the stockade of the Fort Museum and Frontier Village.

And it was just one of at least 57 forts built in the Hawkeye State by traders, the Army and hastily assembled bands of militia.

Bill Whittaker, a staff archaeologist for the Office of the State Archaeologist, described the history of some of those Iowa forts Wednesday night to about 40 people gathered in Tompkins Health Center at Friendship Haven.

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With part of his slide projected onto himself, Bill Whittaker, a state archaeologist, talks about various Iowa military forts Wednesday evening during a presentation at the Tompkins Health Center. Whittaker also presented findings from excavations in Fort Dodge done to attempt to locate the original building site.

Last spring, Whittaker lead a team which searched for remains of old Fort Dodge, which was built in 1850 by Company E of the 6th Infantry Regiment.

Thanks to information left behind by William Williams, who founded the city in 1854 after the Army left, researchers have a good idea of where the old fort sat along First Avenue North near the City Square. But artifacts from it eluded Whittaker's team.

''You don't have any clear unambiguous fort deposits,'' Whittaker said Wednesday.

The archaeologists did find some prehistoric artifacts on a lot where a house once stood at the corner of Third Street and First Avenue North. Whittaker said small pieces of pottery dating from about 100 B.C. to 500 A.D. were found there. On Wednesday, he displayed some of those pieces. One of them clearly had a pattern etched into it, but the others would probably appear to be ordinary stones by anyone who doesn't have a background in archaeology.

A musketball was also found, but Whittaker said it's impossible to tell if it came from the fort.

Any future return trip by the archaeologists will depend upon the city securing a grant like the one that paid for the research in April. Whittaker said if he does come back to Fort Dodge, he would like to investigate the area beneath the Third Street Bridge.

There is one major item left over from the old fort, according to historian Al Nelson, of Fort Dodge. He said a cabin at the Fort Museum and Frontier Village, which houses a display on Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead is from the original post. Armistead was an officer at Fort Dodge a decade before the Civil War began.

The fort Armistead served at was a collection of similar buildings that were not surrounded by a fence.

The stockade that museum visitors stroll through is a replica of Fort Willams, which Whittaker said was built in 1862 on the border of Iowa and Minnesota in response to some Indian raids in southern Minnesota.

Fort Dodge and Fort Williams weren't the only bastions in north central Iowa. An outpost called Fort Confederation was built near Humboldt in 1825 by French traders, according to Whittaker. He described it as the ''last vestige of the French trading network.''

''The historical accounts are very sketchy,'' he said.

No battles were fought at the area forts. Whittaker said the only combat in Iowa occurred at Fort Madison, an Army post located where today's town of the same name sits. The archaeologist said Army troops there fought a series of skirmishes with Sauk Indians lead by Black Hawk during the War of 1812. He described the fort site, which was rediscovered in 1965, as ''the only true battlefield in Iowa.''

Contact Bill Shea at (515) 573-2141 or



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