UI Old Capitol Museum kicks off War of 1812 exhibit


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It was a war of attrition, with Native Americans steadily attacking and then retreating from a ravine that stretched across the battlefield. The soldiers in Fort Madison, low on rations and morale, were threatened as much psychologically by the enemy as they were physically.

That’s the picture painted by the newest exhibit at the Old Capitol Museum, Conflict on the Iowa Frontier: Perspectives on the War of 1812. The exhibit — which focuses on Fort Madison and its role during the War of 1812 — is a collaborative effort between the Old Capitol Museum and the University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist. It features documents and artifacts from the period, some found as recently as 2009. The exhibit kicked off with a reception Thursday evening.

John Doershuk, state archaeologist and one of the organizers of the event, said the exhibit offered a unique opportunity.

“With this exhibit, we mix together text material and archaeological objects that both inform one another,” he said.

In addition to commemorating the 200th anniversary of the war, the exhibit was timed to coincide with the Napoléon and the Art of Propaganda exhibit, also in the Old Capitol Museum.

Doershuk said Iowa — though not a state until 1846 — played an important role in the War of 1812.
“These battles set the stage for American expansion,” he said. “But [Native Americans] managed to stymie the movement west with the assault on Fort Madison.”

UI history Assistant Professor Tom Arne Midtrød said the direct fighting in the Midwest region was relatively minor, though there were constant skirmishes with Native Americans, especially along the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers.

Eugene Watkins, the site manager for Old Fort Madison who delivered a lecture at the reception, said Fort Madison was constructed as part of the U.S. effort to expand to the west.

However, the placement angered Native Americans, who considered the area their territory. It was during the War of 1812, when the British formed alliances with Native Americans, that the Sauk tribe attacked the fort, killing soldiers and preventing them from getting resources.

Eventually, the siege forced American troops out of the fort and back across the Mississippi River.

They burnt the outposts as they left, leaving nothing for the Native American and British troops.

“The fort couldn’t have been overrun, and the Indians knew that,” Watkins said. “But they steadily wore it down.”

Watkins said while most of the conflict with Britain took place elsewhere, British soldiers provided support for the Native Americans in unexpected ways.

“British soldiers would actually dress in native garb and provide strategic support on the battlefield,” he said. “Of course, if they were captured by American soldiers, they’d be sure to identify themselves pretty quickly.”

Several dozen people milled about at the reception before the lecture by Watkins, and he said he was happy to see such interest.

“[Fort Madison] is an underrated part of history,” he said. “I’m glad we can put this out there.”
Bill Pusateri, a resident of Iowa City who was at the reception, said he had been to Fort Madison several times and was very interested in its history.

“This exhibit offers a great example of life during that era, for soldiers and Native Americans,” he said. “It’s an in-depth look at both sides.”

While the exhibit has dozens of artifacts and documents on display, Watkins said the search for more artifacts is ongoing.

“We’re still digging [at Fort Madison],” he said. “There’s still a lot to be uncovered.”

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