Fort Crawford, situated in Prairie du Chein, Wisconsin, was constructed starting in 1816. The 340-foot-long wooden structure was built in succession with many other forts in the Fox-Wisconsin Routes after the scare from the War of 1812 . Strategically placed, Fort Crawford was able to secure both the Mississippi River and the Wisconsin River.
Origins and Struggles
Even though this fort did not experience any actual fighting at its premises, it did play a large role in helping the community and aiding the war effort throughout its life. This can be seen through the enforcement of laws, helping those in need, and training soldiers for battle. During the War of 1812 British forces captured Fort Shelby, a fort located in Prairie du Chein, but predating Fort Crawford. As the war died down and the fort was surrendered back to the Americans, it was burned to the ground. On that same ground Fort Crawford was erected and manned. Prairie du Chein was a center for the fur trade, so a key goal of the new fort was enforcing the trading companies. Keeping the companies trading efficiently and managing them boosted the economy for Prairie du Chein and kept a constant flow of settlers to the sight. The fort also functioned to settle disputes between white settlers and native Americans, since the territory at the time still had undeveloped lands. In fact the fort held one of the nation’s largest Native American councils in 1825 to negotiate the Treaty of Praire du Chien. This was meant to bring peace to the settlers and Native Americans. And although a general peace was established there were still small incidents that chipped away at it. Wisconsin Tribune reported of a Sioux Indian who shot and scalped a Winnebago Indian. This led to a force of 2000 Winnebago Indians to assemble at the fort to demand their justice. This lead to the decision of letting a team of 10 Winnebago’s chase down the offending Sioux as he ran back to his tribe as a sort of competition, which might seem like a untraditional sentence even for the time. The credibility of this story can be questioned somewhat as the newspaper claimed the Sioux could run 41 miles in under 2 hours without fatigue. Ultimately the occupants of the fort preserving the peace in the local community, and although it might be an unorthodox technique, it did settle the dispute.
Being such an important installation, Fort Crawford unfortunately had some problems in its lifetime. Being close to the Mississippi, diseases like malaria and dysentery affected the soldiers. Also, the fort was made out of wood, so it was prone to rotting and in 1826 a severe flood ultimately put it out of commission. It did not stay abandoned for long, though, and in 1829 members of the Ho-Chunk tribe, murdered some settlers in the area and the soldiers were sent back to preserve peace while preventing a potential war. New plans were drawn to upgrade and move the fort location away from the river, and 50 feet or so above the river’s elevation. It would be made of limestone for better reinforcement and immunity to rotting. Moving the fort to the elevated mound close by was also essential. It protected from further floods and provided a more strategic vantage point. They added barns, a blacksmith shop, and a farm to keep the fort running without help from others. With these new improvements, the build time took much longer, finally bringing it to completion in 1835. In the meantime, soldiers stayed at the previously abandoned fort. With the previous fort still in bad condition, health was another issue they dealt with. There had been a cholera breakout that slowed down the progress on the second fort. To combat the sickness Dr. Beaumont, was sent to the fort to care for the soldiers and citizens.
Along with being a physician, Dr. Beaumont was known for his experiments with the human gastronomy system. His patient Alexis St. Martin was a crucial part to his success. While in a store, Martin was accidently shot by a gun. Dr. Beaumont was able to fix most of the injuries suffered with the exception of an opening in his stomach. It was through this opening that the doctor was able to retrieve food from the stomach to perform his gastric experiments. 56 experiments were performed at Fort Crawford between 1829 and 1831. Even though the patient was tested daily, he lived a full life, was very active, and even had a family. This was surprising, considering Zachary Taylor’s statement “…a man who is said to have recovered from the most extraordinary wound ever known up to the present time”. After the Indian Wars, and the spread of cholera was in check, the doctor was no longer needed, and departed to St. Louis. He left an accomplished surgeon and his work led to the acceptance that exercise and emotion play roles in the process of digestion. All of these details point to the argument that Fort Crawford was able to help the community by taking care of those that are sick, providing occupations for working on the the second fort, and preserving peace in the Indian Wars.
People and Life at the Fort
There were other important figures that stayed at the fort as well. From their stay at Fort Crawford, they gained skill sets they may have not gained otherwise. These new experiences propelled them to become famous and ultimately what we remember from them today. From 1829 to 1837, Zachary Taylor commanded the fort and later rose up to become the twelfth president of the United States. During his command he took a strong role in the betterment of infantry maneuvers. This was brought to fruition during an inspection, where the troops displayed maneuvers that were better than any other fort’s on the tour. This example shows how seriously the fort took protecting those of the community. Also stationed at Fort Crawford, Lieutenant Jefferson Davis eventually became the president of the Confederacy. At Fort Crawford, Jefferson Davis became attached to Sarah Taylor, the second daughter of Zachary Taylor. Even though Sarah’s father was against the marriage they eloped to Louisville and were married. It ended tragically months later when Sarah died from a fever.
Fort Crawford also played a role in what was called The Black Hawk War. This war was started by Chief Black Hawk in hopes of taking back the land they lost in Illinois. He was encouraged by young war hungry indians and filled with false promises of Britain contributing to their movement. Once they had blindly dug into Illinois, it was too late to turn back from their folly. The US organized a large volunteer army that had ten times the amount of Chief Black Hawk’s men and sent the Native Americans into a long retreat. This only ended after losing many men, women, and children to the environment and then eventually the massacre of the Battle of Bad Axe. In 1832 Black Hawk surrendered in Prairie du Chien and was transported by Jefferson Davis to Fort Crawford where he was imprisoned. During the war, the Fort contributed men to help the effort, but then in the end it took the role to securely transport and contain Chief Black Hawk until he was moved.
Life at the fort, even the second one was a bit dry. As quoted from Holman Hamilton “ Caleb Atwater of Ohio, who acted as Indian commissioner at Fort Crawford, considered the post too remote and too cheerless to warrant prolonged periods of service there”. It was away from civilization in the midst of indian territory. Those that were used to luxuries did not find those kind of comforts at the fort. The routine for a soldier consisted of waking up at dusk, going about duties such as sweeping the parade grounds and bedding horses, completing drills, and finally going to sleep to repeat the sequence again. During Taylor’s rein, construction of the 2nd Crawford Fort was heavily implemented into the daily tasks; This included quarrying stone, cutting down trees, and milling logs. It was through even these dreary conditions, that they stayed and helped there town of Prairie du Chien.
The years directly before the Civil War the fort continued to work with the Indians. Most of the work, however, involved relocating them to areas where they wouldn’t interfere with white settlers. Specifically west of the Mississippi, was ceded out for this use. This was not always the easiest task as the Wisconsin Tribune gives an example of, Capt. Knowlton sending soldiers from Fort Crawford to pursue Winnebagos crossing back east of the Mississippi. Even though this would bring harsh criticism in today’s world, back in the 1850’s they thought what they were doing was protecting those around them, which was their main goal.
In 1861, the Civil War broke out, and separated the North from the South. It was time for Fort Crawford to prove its importance to a war effort yet again. Setting up the fort to recruit volunteers and then train them was its role till 1863. They were formed into a regiment composed of two companies and sent to help in the war effort in 1863. The fort drastically changed in 1864, when it was determined the location was better suited to serve as a hospital. This hospital took a year to create and renovate, but was well worth its wait as it took in 1468 men in one year alone. Without the training, sending the soldiers, which then were sent to the war, the union side may have had a bit more trouble. Also without a hospital the ramifications of the war would have been worse.
Eventually even the hospital wasn’t needed and the fort was sold to a local railroad agent, John Lawler who took up residence in the fort commander’s house and tore down the rest for use in the construction of the growing town. This was probably for the best, as the fort was around 40 years old and it was in ragged condition. The 1900’s saw the construction of a school on the fort’s former location and eventually what was left of the fort was restored into a museum. The Beaumont Foundation helped raise money for this project, which achieved it’s goal of 7000$. In 1939 Fort Crawford and the hospital were purchased and eventually in 1960 they opened as museums to the public. These museums are still active in the community, and continue to play an important role in educating the public in the historical significance of Fort Crawford.
- Beaumont, William (1833) “Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion”, pg 20
- G.W. Bliss, (1848), Governor’s Message, Wisconsin Tribune pp. 1
- G.W. Bliss, (1852), The Indian Gunner, Wisconsin Tribune pp. 1
-  C. V. Mosby Company (1912) “Life and letters of Dr. William Beaumont” pp. 145,
- Martin, Deborah B. (1921) ”Doctor William Beaumont: His Life in Mackinac and Wisconsin, 1820-1834” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Mar., 1921), pp. 263-280
- Mahan, Bruce E. (1926). “Old Fort Crawford and the Frontier”
- Trewartha, Glenn T. (1932) “The Prairie du Chien Terrace: Geography of a Confluence Site” Annals of the Association of American Geographers
- Antoine, Mary E. (2011) “Prairie du Chien (Images of America)” pp. 24
-  Hamilton Holman “Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic” pp. 32
-  Antoine, Mary E (2015) “Legendary Locals of Prairie du Chien” pp.24