Review of Frontier Forts of Iowa: Indians, Traders, and Soldiers, 1682-1862, edited by William E. Whittaker University of Iowa Press

Frontier Forts of Iowa: Indians, Traders, and Soldiers, 1682-1862. William E. Whittaker, ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009. ISBN 1587298317

This essay is a part of our new series, Graduate Students and The Middle Ground Journal 

Frontier Forts of Iowa demonstrates the importance of forts in the establishment of Iowa as a state in 1846. William E. Whittaker, the editor of this collection, defines forts as “all military installations” and “any compound that was historically called a fort…whether or not it was stockaded” (3). Moving through what the authors collectively portray as stages, this book traces forts from the seventeenth and eighteenth-century trading outposts of the French, who tried to use the forts to fortify relationships with Native allies and halt the westward expansion of the British, to the American forts that were part of the federal government’s efforts in the surveillance of Native peoples.

While almost all of the chapters focus on forts built by Europeans and Americans, earlier Native forts are discussed in Lance M. Foster’s “Native American Perspectives on Forts.” Foster details American Indian fortifications and the increase in fortified settlements beginning in 1000 in what is now northwest Iowa. He argues that Native peoples were familiar with forts and the types of purposes they could serve. While Europeans wanted to use forts to establish claims to territory and create alliances with Native peoples, American Indians integrated forts into their social networks of trade and alliances.

The trading function of forts lasted through parts of the American period. The shift from trader’s outpost to military fort was blurred and gradual. In 1808, Fort Madison was built to protect U.S. trade with Native peoples and to stop foreign (British) trade. After the War of 1812, the fort’s purpose as part of a military strategy instead of trading center became more defined as treaties and American confiscation of Native peoples’ land increased. In the 1840s, the military function of forts intensified and the forts in Iowa were used in the government’s attempt to control the movement of Native peoples. The U.S. Army, for instance, occupied Fort Atkinson from 1840 to 1849 in order to help facilitate the removal of the Ho-Chunk from Wisconsin to Iowa. Foster argues the forts became a symbol of removal, reflected by population shifts after 1832 from a predominantly American Indian population to a majority white population in the 1850s. In the first chapter, Whittaker argues the importance of the forts to this demographic shift and thus to the history of Iowa and the United States. Many of the subsequent chapters illustrate his point.

This collection provides a wealth of archaeological detail with some historical context on forts that were in, or in view of, present-day Iowa. The book creates a landscape for the reader through descriptions that focus on the forts and land directly surrounding these structures. The first four chapters provide an introduction to Iowa history, the forts, and the surrounding Native peoples, military members, and settlers. The subsequent eleven chapters focus on specific forts, beginning with Fort Madison in 1808 and ending with the forts that were part of the Northern Border Brigade, a response to the hostilities between Euro-American settlers and the Dakota in the 1850s and 1860s. The authors of these essays are from a variety of positions and disciplines, such as history, anthropology, and archaeology. The archaeologists serve in a wide range of capacities including as part of private consulting firms, state-run organizations, historical societies, and universities. Multiple perspectives and this interdisciplinary approach make this collection appealing to a wide audience—it is useful in undergraduate classrooms, as a research reference for all levels of study, and for general readers interested in archaeology or Iowa’s history.

Undergraduates can learn much about the state of Iowa, forts, military interaction with Native peoples, and the practice of archaeology and history. In particular, this book is an excellent resource to introduce students to archaeology through specific sites and artifacts that demonstrate the challenges archaeologists and historians face when reconstructing and interpreting the past. For example, Cynthia L. Peterson’s “Historical Tribes and Early Forts” shows students the different types of sources necessary to piece together the history and significance of the forts. She weaves together evidence from primary sources, such as personal journals, with archaeological data. The majority of the essays in this collection focus on particular forts or types of forts and they illustrate the collaboration necessary to complete an archaeologist’s detective work. For instance, archaeologists found Fort Correctionville through local interviews and stories of this ephemeral fort’s location rather than depending on archival research (202).

While many of the chapters show the ways historians’ work and primary sources direct archaeologists to sites, they also highlight the ways archaeological evidence changes historical interpretations and narratives, especially useful when historians contend with contradictory sources. Marshall B. McKusick, for instance, describes how archaeological work confirmed the exact location of Fort Madison and proved an 1808 drawing of the fort was inaccurate in comparison to an 1810 rendition. In addition, the archaeological work on fort sites demonstrates the need for collaboration between archaeologists, state and local governments, and private companies working on new construction in order to find and record the evidence from forts.

Not only for undergraduates, Frontier Forts of Iowa is also a good reference work for scholars at multiple levels. The essays detail the locations of forts; interpretations of artifacts found at different sites; and important events that affected the construction, modification, and abandonment of the forts. Taken as a whole, the essays systematically go through sites and possible sites of the forts, detailing findings while also pointing to missing pieces and the possibilities for future research. Most of these essays, however, are straightforward archaeological reports and many of them lack conclusions about the broader implications of the authors’ findings. McKusick’s “Fort Madison, 1808-1813” is an exception that provides an explicit explanation of the significance of his archaeological evidence. Other essays conclude with suggestions for research or a note on what buildings or artifacts have yet to be discovered. The first four chapters provide context for the archaeological findings on fort locations but the link between the findings in the various essays could be expanded. While the final essay in the collection provides information for visiting the forts and exploring their history further, an additional chapter—linking together the findings, describing the larger picture these individual sites illustrate, and giving further context—would have helped the reader gain a better understanding of nineteenth-century forts and the people associated with them.

From a historian’s standpoint, the contributors to this collection miss the opportunity to place their work in the context of the historiography surrounding the West, borderlands, and the frontier. For a collection published in 2009, it is surprising that the authors and editor do not define the term “frontier” yet use it frequently and highlight it in the title. Forts and the frontier have taken on mythical proportions, as Foster points out in the introduction to his chapter “Native American Perspectives on Forts.” Historians still disagree about the use of the term “frontier” due to its racist and imperialist baggage and its association with Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier process. Turner’s model of a frontier was based on social evolution, a process from savagery to civilization that took place in stages—from hunter to trader to settlers and farmers who pave the way for statehood. Many historians have worked to redefine “frontier” as a space of cultural interaction where peoples competed for land and other resources and where both Native peoples and Euro-Americans were changed by contact with the other. While discussions of frontier as a process or as a place continue, a definition of frontier, at least in the introduction, could have explained the authors’ use of the term and acknowledged the dialogues surrounding it. Foster only begins to discuss the term’s Turnerian connotations when he mentions how, to many people, forts represented “the approach of civilization, the first stage in the evolutionary process of manifest destiny that would conquer the West and transform a desolate land of savages into these United States” (42).

Overall, this collection provides an excellent introduction to nineteenth-century forts and the various functions they served. Forts were part of European and American strategies to claim a space and its resources for themselves. This book hints at the ways they were not always successful and how Natives peoples used forts and contested their purpose.

Reviewed by Michelle Cassidy, University of Michigan
Edited by Sarah R. Hamilton

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]