The importance of the siege of Prairie du Chien does not come from the battle itself but rather in what it meant to both the British and Americans. The battle was a means to mantain gain control in the Northwest and its fur trading industry with the natives in the area for the British. While the Americans sought to gain a foothold in the region for themselves.
Before the War of 1812 the British had fought in the French and Indian War and gained control over their territories. Of these territories was the northwest region which was very popular for its value in fur trading. Having maintained a friendly relationship with the Native Americans in this region the importance of this region going into the War of 1812 was high. The outpost of Prairie du Chien was already established and seen as a valuable location. American’s noticing that the British could attack the major city of St. Louis by the way of the Mississippi. So the governor of Missouri William Clark made the decision to gather men to build a fort at Prairie du Chien. Since this was in American territory they believed it to be their right.
Leading up to the Siege
A fur trader by the name of Thomas Anderson, was a typical fur trader that used the outpost at Prairie du Chien, like many others. After having traveled from Prairie du Chien to fort Mackinac to transport his furs back to Montreal he was woken;
one morning by a gentleman, who informed me that two men in a little bark canoe had just arrived express from Prairie du Chien, with the information that three boat loads of American soldiers had arrived there, and were building a fort at that place. 1 jumped up, exclaiming, “We must go and take the fort.”[Anderson, Thomas Gummersall (1779-1875)].
Having his own investments in the region. He felt that they where at risk with the American troops taking up residents at Prairie du Chien Anderson so he set about asking for volunteers to help him take the fort:
By sundown, I had more than eighty volunteers, all traders’ clerks and engages, save one, who had large interests at stake on the Mississippi. It is true .our enterprise appeared unwise, and very doubtful of success, for our private means were too limited for a big job of this kind. We had no stores of any description for such an undertaking—no boats, provisions, arms, nor ammunition”[Anderson, Thomas Gummersall (1779-1875)].
British forces at Fort Mackinac also heard the news of the American forces arriving at the Prairie du Chien settlement. They knew that they couldn’t afford allowing the Americans to gain a foothold in the Northwest. Believing that the Americans where going to challenge their fur trade and alliances with the natives. The acting Lieutenant Colonel, Robert McDouall decided to give Anderson the supplies that he could spare for him to take the fort. Knowing that the British had both economical and politic risks in this region he also appointed William McKay to command the expedition. Among the supplies was a three pound gun, accompanied by a bombardier, and three gun boats.
Britishs forces arrived in the morning of July 17th, to the see of the fort still under construction. The commander of the British forces was Thomas Anderson, he had under his command a force of about 650 men. These men where comprised of British regulars, volunteers, local militia, and warriors from the Menominee, Winnebago, and Fox tribes. Upon his arrival sent a message to the Americans asking for their surrender. The Americans under the command of Lieutenant Joseph Perkins only numbered a mere 60 refused the offer to surrender. After his offer was rejected the commander got his men ready to lay siege to the fort. We opened fire on the fort and over the first day,”Their six-pound shot, because of their bad powder, did not reach our camp. Meanwhile, under shelter of the village buildings, the Indians kept up a constant firing at the fort, cutting down their flag, and wounding two of their men through the port-holes. Two of our Indians were also wounded, but slightly.” [ Anderson, Thomas Gummersall (1779-1875)].By the next afternoon using a three pound gun he order his men to open fire on the American gunboat (Governor Clark). The gunboat after taking damage was forced to retreat downriver with a large portion of the Americans supplies and ammunition. With the gunboat gone the British and Native forces focused all their fire on the fort. Throughout the next day both sides exchanged gunfire, with the British 3 pound gun having little effect on the fort. Becoming increasingly agitated about having gained no ground Anderson, began making plans to shoot red hot cannon balls into the fort to set it ablaze. On the third day the Americans where running low on supplies and ammunitions and “at the moment the first ball was about to be put into the cannon a white flag was put out at the fort immediately an officer came down with a note of surrender”[Douglas Brymner,(1888)]. The Native Americans where deemed useless during the course of the battle. Having done little to help the cause except fire at the fort from a great distance. Not wanting to risk their own lives they raided the village and stayed far enough away to prevent personal injury or harm. The overall damage of the battle was minimal with few wounded and no casualties.
The British took over the fort and renamed it fort McKay after the commander of the attacking force. Taking all the supplies that the American troops had left they set the prisoners back down the Mississippi to St. Louis. Having completely regained control of the Northwest region and the fur trading with the Natives the British forces had truly managed a victory. McKay left Anderson in Charge and left to return to fort Mackinac. Anderson having no real military background set about to do his best, “I had now to look around, determine upon the means for defense, and drill the volunteers to the exercise of small arms.”[Anderson, Thomas Gummersall (1779-1875)]. The British maintained their presence at the fort until hearing of the treaty in the spring of 1815. The United States had regained control of the fort through the treaty so the British where forced to leave. Before they left though the burned the fort to the ground as to leave nothing behind for the Americans.
The control over the northwest region from the beginning had been under British influence. Even though the territory was rightfully owned by the United States before the War of 1812 began based off the Treaty of Paris. The people who settled the area though where loyal to the British and the Natives their friends. What it came down to in the end was the British had maintained its control over the region with its victory at Prairie du Chen but because it lost the war it was only a sweet victory. As the American’s where able to take back the fort through the new treaty with Britain.
- 1. Anderson, Thomas Gummersall (1779-1875). “The British capture of Prairie du Chien during the War of 1812” Wisconsin Historical Society
- 2.Grignon, Augustin, b. (1780). “Seventy-two years’ recollections of Wisconsin” Wisconsin Historical Society
- 3.Douglas Brymner,(1888) “Capture of Ft. McKay, Prairie du Chien, in 1814.” Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin 11
- 1. Douglas, Michael. “The Battle of Prairie du Chien” Upper Mississippi Brigade.
- 2. Wisconsin Historical Society (2012). “Battle of Prairie du Chien, 1814”
- 3. Barkwell, Lawrence J. (2014) “Prairie du Chien, War of 1812, Rolette, Grignon”
- 4. World heritage Encylopedia “Siege of Prairie du Chien”
- 5. Antoine, Mary Elise. The War of 1812 in Wisconsin: the battle for Prairie du Chien (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2016)
- 1. “Siege of Prairie du Chien.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Dec. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Prairie_du_Chien.