About the time the fort was completed the Indians began crossing to the island and would watch the soldiers in its construction. They would often sing and go. through some of their dances to amuse the soldiers, and the latter began to think that the Indians were peaceful. The Hon. Bailey Davenport de-scribed an incident during this time that shows that the Indians had not become reconciled to the erecting of the fort. He said: “One day a small party came over to dance, and after the dance the colonel in command gave them presents. In a few days after, and while a large number of soldiers were out cutting timber, a large party of warriors, headed by the Ne-ka-le-quat, came over in canoes and landed on the north side of the island, and danced up to the entrance of the encampment, and wanted to enter and dance in front of the commander’s tent. About the same time a large party of warriors was discovered approaching over the ridge from the south side of the island, headed by Keokuk. The colonel immediately ordered the bugle sounded to recall the soldiers from the woods, and had all under arms (about six hundred) and the cannon run out in front of the entrance, ready to fire. The Indians were ordered not to approach any nearer. The colonel, taking the alarm before Keokuk’s party got near enough to rush in, saved the encampment from surprise and massacre.”
The Powder Plot
Be it truth or fiction there is connected with the history of Fort Armstrong an incident that to my mind possesses more reasons in favor of its being fact than fiction. After the Black Hawk War, some soldiers happening to enter the cave in “Rock Island Arsenal,” found three kegs of powder each attached to a fuse. No one seemed to know how these things had come ‘there, but after the war some Indians had said that Black Hawk when he marched up Rock River in April, 1832, stopped overnight at his old village, and during the night of April 12 he, with over two hundred braves, had gone to the island, crossing at the ford between Rock Island and Moline, remaining there nearly all night. It was said his intention was to see if he could not capture the fort. Black Hawk, in his autobiography, does not mention this incident, the reason being that his attempt to blow up the fort proved a failure. It is a fact that Black Hawk was on the island that night. Benjamin F. Pike, the captain of the Rock River Rangers in 1831, and afterwards sheriff to this county, together with two companions, had been selected to do picket and scout duty that night. They took their place near the ford, and some time near midnight saw Black Hawk and his braves cross the slough to the island. They at once ran to the fort and to the stockade and gave the warning. The garrison at this time was commanded by Captain Bliss who had with him only two companies of infantry, partly full, not over eighty men. The stockade around Colonel Davenport’s store was filled with settlers and their families and was crowded to its utmost capacity. By an oversight the only well on the premises had not been enclosed in the stockade: Dreading fire from the Indians’ fire arrows, every bucket, tub and barrel was hastily filled with water and the anxious settlers momentarily awaited the attack. An old swivel had been brought up from the fort and this was loaded to the brim and placed in front of the gate, where Sergeant Hanchett of the garrison, with a smoldering fire by his side, stood ready to fire it off at the first approach of the enemy. The night was one of terror to the settlers; a drifting rain and pelting hail storm had set in, and the occasional claps of thunder and flashes of lightning but added new alarm to the already frightened women and children. At about 2 o’clock in the morning the firing of cannon was heard from the direction of the fort and those in the stockade believed the attack had commenced, but they were soon apprized that the firing was from the cannon on board the steamer Chieftain, which brought General Atkinson and his regulars from St. Louis. It is said that when the people at the stockade heard the firing of cannon and the shouts of the garrison welcoming the reinforcement, they believed it the shouts of triumph of the Indians at the capture of the fort, and Elder Kinney of Rapids City, a devout Presbyterian advised them all to “unite in an appeal to God as their only hope of safety;” whereupon Antoine Gouquy, Colonel Davenport’s French servant, said, “Ze prayer he be good for ze vimmin an ze childer, but he be not wort one cent to fight ze Injins. Wattair, he be bettair zan ze prayer.” Black Hawk had been with the British so much that he well knew the use of gunpowder. He was in the attack on the fort at Detroit and undoubtedly believed he could with a few kegs of powder blow up the fort, at its gate and the rock embankment, upon which it stood, and then with his braves rush in on the weak garrison. The Sac chief knew also that the fort was but weakly garrisoned. The Prophet had several times attempted to enter its gate, but had been kept out on the orders of Major Bliss, who suspected treachery. The last attempt of the Prophet to enter the fort was but a few days before Black Hawk’s attempt to capture it.
The Burning of the Fort
For thirty-nine years the fort stood as first constructed, and though evacuated and no longer the abode of the soldier since 1836, it was used as a Government warehouse and was a picturesque sight, being an object of interest to all travelers up and down the river as well As to visitors to this locality. On Sunday afternoon, October 7, 1855, some vandal set fire to the historic buildings. J. B. Danforth, Jr., agent of the quartermasters department of the army, in charge at that time, in a letter written on the 9th of the month to Major D. H. Vinton, quartermaster United States Army at St. Louis, said, “Sir: The barracks and one block fort at this place were destroyed by fire yesterday (Sunday) afternoon. I was in the city at church at the time the fire originated. I immediately rallied about a hundred men with buckets, and endeavored to quell the flames, but to no purpose. We had no fire engine, and it was impossible to stay the progress of the conflagration. The buildings were fired by some persons to me unknown, and in the following manner: About thirty kegs of powder had been stored in the magazine by the contractors for the improvement of the rapids, by permission of the secretary of war. The magazine had several times been broken open and powder stolen. It was then stored in a safe room, or what was believed to be safe in the barracks. It. had all been taken away, except one keg and one or two parts of kegs. Some persons; while I was at church, had broken open a window and ignited a part of a keg of powder, thus causing the loss of the buildings. I have published an advertisement (at my own expense) to endeavor to find out the perpetrators of the outrage, which I hope ,will meet your approval. I send you a copy of my paper, containing the advertisement and an editorial notice of the fire.” When the United States government (under the act of 1862) commenced the construction of Rock Island Arsenal in 1863, all that remained of Fort Armstrong was removed. The first building erected stands nearly on the site of the old fort, and the window frames of the basement, of this building are made of oak obtained from the old fort.
Source: Historic Rock Island County, pub. Kramer & Company, Rock Island, Illinois, 1908