News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 18, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: The Siege at Fort Harrison in 1812 (Part III)

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — At 6 a.m. on Sept. 5, 1812, the imposing Native American war party had failed to overcome the small force defending Fort Harrison.

A formidable picket row bridged the gap where a blockhouse once stood. Pakoisheecan’s plan had failed. The Indians, suffering substantial casualties, began to withdrew.

Only three occupants of the fort were reported killed. Some Winnebagoes reportedly returned to their village on Wildcat Creek, a major tributary of the Wabash.

But the confrontation was not over. Though disappointed, the Indians concluded that they could force the occupants into submission by starvation.

Before retreating, the marauders killed horses and hogs on the grounds and released oxen and cattle. The sole supply remaining was green corn, stored in a stable.

The Indians’ new goal was to prevent anyone from leaving the fort to seek assistance. Raiding parties were encamped to discourage access to the river or a crude land trail to Vincennes.

Help was desperately needed. Capt. Zachary Taylor waited five days before dispatching two scouts to Fort Knox, the closest outpost, for assistance. But the men returned promptly. The Indians were prepared to ambush any effort.  A fire on the river bank exposed most clandestine tactics.

On Sept. 13, Taylor sent Peter Mallory, an experienced scout, and another man to Fort Knox with instructions to avoid the river and roads. When the men did not return for two days, Taylor was uncertain whether they were en route for help or dead.

Meanwhile, unknown to Capt. Taylor, on Sept. 12 a few Weas approached Fort Knox, near Vincennes, to report that Fort Harrison had been attacked a week earlier and was still under siege by more than 300 Indians.

Col. William Russell quickly assembled 1,200 infantrymen and headed north. John Dickson and Isaac Lambert, residents of Fort Harrison, told Russell that the fort’s supplies were minimal, particularly if the Indians had stolen or slaughtered animals.

Dickson and Lambert, who were at Fort Knox securing supplies at the time of the attack, were the fort’s contractors and brothers-in-law.

A few hours after Col. Russell’s army left Fort Knox, Lt. Thomas H. Richardson ordered a 13-man supply unit commanded by Lt. Nathan Fairbanks to tow a wagonload of meat and flour to Fort Harrison. Four draft horses pulled the wagons steered by civilian John Black.

Following a well-known trace through the northwestern edge of present Sullivan County, Lt. Fairbanks’ brigade was ambushed by a Potawatomi war party at “The Narrows,” a ravine near a tributary of Prairie Creek. On April 11, five members of the Isaac Hutson family had been massacred on the Lamotte prairie west of the ambush site.

At the first gunshot, the company’s horses became runaways. With Indians in pursuit, Black abandoned his wagon and hid among vine-covered logs. From that vantage point, he watched the assailants kill nine soldiers, leaving only Fairbanks and two privates — Edward Perdue and John Ingram — to fend off about 70 Indians.

Lt. Fairbanks eventually fell, mortally wounded. Ingram, who had been sentenced to death for horse stealing in 1809, was captured and mutilated. With four bullet holes in his body, Pvt. Perdue raced for cover. One Indian followed him for about a mile before giving up the chase. Perdue limped back to Fort Knox to get medical attention.

Black covered himself with mud and returned to Vincennes along the river bank. He later sued Richardson for his losses.

Unaware of Fairbanks’ fate, a company under Lt. Richardson departed Fort Knox  Sept. 14 with two more supply wagons. Seven soldiers were killed in a similar ambush.

By the time Peter Mallory reached Fort Knox, Col. Russell had departed. When Russell and his troops reached Fort Harrison on Sept. 16, the occupants had not eaten for two days and were too weak to celebrate. A handful of green corn remained.

Capt. Taylor’s report to Gen. Harrison, his commander, written hastily on Sept. 10, did not include much detail. He summarized the battle in nine words: “Never did men act with more firmness and desperation.”

Taylor’s report was published in newspapers in the east coast. Acting Indiana Territorial Gov. John Gibson spoke for thousands when he wrote:

“The brave defense of Capt. Taylor at Fort Harrison is one bright ray amid the gloom of incompetency which had been shown in so many places.”

The siege catapulted Taylor into a national spotlight. He was brevetted major and feted by Congress on May 14, 1814. It was the first fame for “Old Rough and Ready.”

Paired with his subsequent successes in the Blackhawk War and at Buena Vista during the Mexican War, Taylor’s courageous leadership at Fort Harrison resulted in his election as the twelfth President of the U.S. in 1848.

Because it was built under the direction of William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the U.S., Fort Harrison became known as “The Fort of Two Presidents.”

Unfortunately, the names of many of the occupants of the fort at the time of the battle, and those associated with the 12-day siege, are unknown.

The youthful Doyle brothers were buried within the confines of the fort and later re-interred “about one-half mile south of the fort.” Three others — probably including Joseph Dickson and his son — were buried nearly two miles northwest of the fort.

Josey Cowen, whose brother was killed, died from wounds incurred during his   effort to escape.

John Dickson and Isaac Lambert built Lambert and Dickson mill on Honey Creek in 1816.  Isaac was a member of the first Vigo County Board of Commissioners. John’s daughter Rebecca married Quaker William Durham and lived in southern Vigo County.

Eight-year-old Matilda Anderson, who lived in the fort, later married William Taylor. Their daughter Caroline married pioneer Terre Haute undertaker Isaac Ball. Matilda befriended Pakoisheecan, the Kickapoo who set fire to the fort’s blockhouse.

Mallory, Dr. William A. Clark, Dr. Thomas Bradford and Mary Briggs — other fort residents during early September  — also became Vigo County residents.

Continued next week