History of Ft. Belle Fontaine by Scott K. Williams

Fort Belle Fontaine, a frontier military post, was the predecessor of both Jefferson Barracks and the St. Louis Arsenal. It was established in [1805] at the mouth of Coldwater Creek, then called La Petite Riviere, and sometimes St. Ferdinand River, by General Wilkinson, governor of the Territory of Missouri. The fort was used by the Army through 1828 when its decaying condition and the changing military needs of the region convinced the War Department to abandon the location. Over its lifetime it was both the scene of stirring adventure as well as routine boredom to the soldiers stationed here, fifteen miles north of St. Louis.

Actually there were two Fort Belle Fontaine's by the same name. One was located on the flood plain below the bluff. That fort was abandoned in 1810 when the river shifted South. Today, the original fort site would be located in the middle of the river. The 2nd fort was built on the flat ground on the over looking bluff. In the 1904 Photograph at left is the last remnant of Fort Belle Fontaine. This log cabin has been suggested to be a soldier's quarters that would have been located behind the defensive walls of the fort. This structure is no longer standing.

Previously the Spanish government had established Fort Don Carlos* (1768) in the same general area but it had fallen into disrepair and was abandoned by 1780. Fort Don Carlos was located closer to the Missouri River's mouth, at the confluence with the Mississippi River (four miles downstream). The Spanish had proposed building a new fort at the Ft. Belle Fontaine location but nothing was ever started before the area was turned over to the Americans. [*Not to be confused with Fort San Carlos, the Spanish stone tower fort located at the colonial town of St. Louis (now the City of St. Louis).

  • Besides being a military outpost on the edge of the frontier, the fort hosted an "Indian factory" that served as a trading post to Indian tribes of the region. In 1808, the Indian factory was relocated up the Missouri river to Fort Osage.
  • Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition camped here at the beginning of their voyage on May 14, 1804 as well as their final night of their expedition here on Sept. 22, 1806. On the last occasion the time was spent resting and celebrating their return to civilization with the fellow American soldiers stationed at this outpost. Chief Sheheke (Big White) of the Mandans, was among the party returning with the expedition. (Sheheke received clothing from the post's public store in preparation for his trip to visit President Jefferson in Washington.)
  • In 1805 Thirty-two troopers from the fort were dispatched by Gov. Wilkinson to the Oto villages located up on the Platte River to ensure safe passage for chiefs visiting St. Louis.
  • Pierre Chouteau, in August of 1805, was accompanied by soldiers of the fort under the command of Lt. Peter George, in hope of making negotiations with the Osage. They returned on Sept. 22 with a delegation of Osage and Pawnee seeking traders closer to their villages.
  • In later years, as Governor of Louisiana Territory, William Clark would make frequent trips via horseback from St. Louis over the "Bellefontaine plank road" to socialize with his old Army friends at the fort.
  • Zebulon Pike began his two expeditions here. The first (1805) being an exploration of the upper Mississippi and the second, in 1806, a probe toward the Spanish lands of the Southwest. On both occasions he left his family at the fort during his absence. See www.zebulonpike.org for more information on the SW Expedition and to further explore the southwest portion of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
  • George Shannon ( age 18) was hospitalized at Belle Fontaine after being wounded in a fight (9 Sept. 1807) with the Arikaras while attempting to return Chief Sheheke to his people. Three members of the Nathaniel Pryor/August Pierre Chouteau expedition were killed, with several wounded.
  • Aug. 1808 a contingent of soldiers under command of Capt. Eli Clemson, departed Belle Fontaine to begin work on the construction of Ft. Osage.
  • Three operations in the summer of 1814 against the British and Sauk-Fox Indians were conducted from Belle Fontaine. In an invasion force led by Gov. William Clark, Americans temporarily occupied Prairie du Chien (present day Wisconsin) and erected Ft. Shelby, which fell to the British on July 20th. Two flotillas of keelboats attempted to retake the region but were turned back due heavy casualties.
  • Soldiers from Ft. Belle Fontaine helped provide security for the great Indian council at Portage Des Sioux in July 1815. Representatives of the Delawares, Iowas, Kansas, Kickapoos, Omahas, Osages, Sioux, Piankeshaws, Pottawatamies, Shawnees, and a band of the Sac-Fox under Chief Keokuk took part in the peace negotiations. U.S. representatives included Gov. William Clark, Auguste Chouteau, Gov. Edwards of Illinois, and Robert Walsh. Security consisted of 275 U.S. Army regulars and two gunboats. In the meantime, at Fort Belle Fontaine, the War Department called up the local mounted militia to be prepared at a moment's notice to reinforce the Army.
  • Col. Henry Atkinson's Yellowstone Expedition left Fort Belle Fontaine in 1819.
  • By 1825 the wood buildings of the fort had become so rotten it was decided that Fort Belle Fontaine would be abandoned in favor of a new military post at Jefferson Barracks. While Jefferson Barracks would meet the Army's immediate needs, there was another decision in 1826 to establish a separate Federal arsenal, located approximately half way between St. Louis and Vide Pouch (Carondelet).
  • In 1826, the troops stationed at Fort Belle Fontaine were relocated to Jefferson Barracks which served as a training and garrison distribution center for the western theatre of the United States.
  • A contingent of soldiers under the command of Maj. John Whistler remained at Ft. Belle Fontaine to protect the aging arsenal facility there until it could be moved to the new arsenal (south of St. Louis). It is known that as late as June 1828, Fort Belle Fontaine still supplied the munitions for the troops at Jefferson Barracks. Soon after that date, when construction was completed for the new arsenal (located at 2nd Street and Arsenal St, in present day City of St. Louis), Fort Belle Fontaine was permanently abandoned.
  • Col. Henry Atkinson, a North Carolinian, led expeditions to the Yellowstone in 1819 and 1825. He was the last Commandant of Fort Belle Fontaine and first Commandant of Jefferson Barracks and known as "White Beaver" to the Indians. He commanded troops in the war against the Sac, Fox, Chief and Black Hawk eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General before his death at Jefferson Barracks in 1842.

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