War of 1812; When the Brits Took Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
When the British Army took the city of Prairie du Chien during the War of 1812, it was in what we call the Siege of Prairie du Chien. The little town on the Mississippi River in Wisconsin was even sleepier back then.
In fact, Prairie du Chien was so sleepy, the residents didn’t care so much if they were British or American. Since the Treaty of Paris, the town was U.S. territory, but the British relied on the little hamlet for their fur trade.
The U.S. didn’t yet have a reason to put down their collective foot. That is, they didn’t until someone (read: the U.S.) started lobbing stones (read: shooting bullets) over the border near Detroit.
That little row kicked off the War of 1812, which as Canada sees it, was when the U.S. invaded Canada. The way the U.S. sees it, it was when the Americans failed to liberate Canada from the imperialist Brits. In any case, (spoiler alert) the U.S. lost the War of 1812 in the end.
What few people outside of Prairie du Chien remember is how the British bullied control of that little town, in what was one of the deepest invasion on American soil by the British since the revolution. Had we not signed a peace treaty, outlining the return of all conquered land, the British might have sacked St. Louis.
The problem for little Prairie du Chien was its proximity to St. Louis. The gateway to the west, ol’ St. Louie, was a town the U.S. did, in fact, care about.
If the Brits took Prairie du Chien, they could more easily mount an attack on St. Louis. That would have been bad, bad, bad, for so many reasons.
The only way for the U.S. to make sure that didn’t happen was by slowing down the Brits, fortifying defenses leading into St. Louis. This me t, the U.S. had to put down that “collective foot” on Prairie du Chien.
It was the Spring of 1814, the second calendar year of the war before the U.S. made a move.
The Governor of the Louisiana territory at the time was Governor Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame. He organized a force in St. Louis with 61 soldiers from the 7th Infantry, led by Brevet Major Zachary Taylor.
Those two rustled up 140 more volunteers to sign up for 60 days of service. The volunteers would answer to Frederick Yeiser and John Sullivan.
Then, Taylor took a leave for personal reasons, turning over the regulars to Lieutenant Joseph Perkins, so it was he, Yeiser, and Clark leading the band.
On May 1, 1814, Governor Clark and his merry band set out for Prairie du Chien. They arrived on June 2nd. By June 6, they began construction on Fort Shelby, a small wooden fort on the river.
By this point of the war, the Brits had Detroit, but they also had Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, which is part of modern-day Michigan. It was that island where British Commander Robert McDouall caught wind of those darn colonists creating more problems.
The British didn’t want to lost control of their key fur trading outpost in Prairie du Chien, so McDouall organized a militia of his own. What started out as a few dozen men, gained size en route to Prairie du Chien.
British loyalists in Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, and Native people who also had an interest in the British fur trade (not to mention a sore spot for Americans) joined the British militia until they had 650 men.
The British Army arrived on July 17, 1814, delivering a note to the 100 or so Americans still inside Fort Shelby.
The volunteers under Yeiser had already completed their 60-day contracts and returned home. Those who remained in the fort were not enough to fight the Brits, but Perkins still declined the surrender anyway.
What the Americans had in their favor was the fort and a river gunboat, the Governor Clark, the wooden boat sitting in the Mississippi, which harbored many of their supplies. At the helm was Yeiser with a new group of volunteers. They’d returned to Fort Shelby to resupply the Americans, but the Brits were already there.
On their side, the Brits had a brass field cannon, one of the most advanced weapons of that day. After they fired their brass cannon at the Governor Clark, the Americans inside had no choice but to retreat to the south.
Throughout July 18th, the Brits pounded the fort with their cannon. This continued until the 19th when the Americans in the fort ran short on supplies.
The biggest issue was water. The well went dry. When they tried to dig it deeper, it collapsed.
By the 19th, the Americans waved the white flag. The Brits allowed them to leave on the 20th after they’d ensured their Native partners wouldn’t sack the Americans as they left.
By the end of the 19th, the British had control of the fort and of Prairie du Chien. The Brits renamed the fort Fort McKay, defending it until the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.
On their way out, on May 15, 1815, the British soldiers burned Fort McKay to the ground.
In an effort to never lose control of the region again, after the war, the United States erected forts all along the Mississippi River. The new fort in Prairie du Chien, they named Fort Crawford.
It stands to this day, but as a tourist attraction, since the Mississippi doesn’t see much action these days.