Revolution Strikes Iowa

The Revolution Strikes Iowa!

By Mark Tully

Several military engagements occurred west of the Mississippi River during the American Revolution. The occupation of Kaskaskia (July 4, 1778) and the battle for Saint Louis (May 26, 1780) are relatively well known, but a smaller, lesser-known incident holds the distinction of being the western-most incident of the American Revolution - a "battle" that happened in present-day Iowa.

The Mines of Spain

River ValleyPopular Iowa legend has it that the Continental Army was taking lead from the "Mines of Spain" area near present-day Dubuque. The story goes that these mines were a significant source of rebel lead and that a British gunboat was dispatched up the Mississippi river to capture the mines. Several cannon shots were supposedly fired, the Continentals fled, the gunboat went away, and the Continentals quickly returned to resume their mining activities. This legend further maintains that the steady supply of lead from the Mines of Spain was instrumental in helping the Congressional forces ultimately win the war.

Unfortunately, I could find no evidence to support this legend. The gunboat story simply doesn't hold up under close scrutiny as the Spanish controlled the lower Mississippi valley. England and Spain were enemies, and it is highly unlikely that the Spanish would have allowed an enemy gunboat to pass unmolested up the river past their military post at St. Louis.

Local historians acknowledge that, although the Indian populations had apparently been pit-mining lead in the area for many generations, white men didn't start operations there until Julien Dubuque negotiated rights to mine lead at the site from the Fox Indians in 1788. Dubuque petitioned the Spanish government for legal possession of the area in 1796, and promptly named it "The Mines of Spain" -- presumably to appease the Spanish officials. Dubuque's petition to the Spanish is the first recorded reference using that name for the site, and there is no hard evidence that any military action took place at the mines during the American Revolution.

The REAL Story

However, an incident did occur just north of the old mines that holds the distinction of being the western-most action of the American Revolution. It is a slightly less glamourous tale than the Mines of Spain legend, and it plays out as a veritable comedy of errors.

Spain had secretly been helping to supply George Rogers Clark's expeditions in the Mississippi valley, and officially declared war on England in 1779. With garrisons at New Orleans and St. Louis, Spain had the potential to control much of the fur trade along the Mississippi river and subsequently could also control the supply routes along the American frontier via the Wabash and Ohio Rivers. Control of the Mississippi valley also opened the back door to the British posts at Michilimackinac and Detroit through the Fox/Wisconsin and Chicago Portages. The British had been conducting a great deal of trade up and down the Mississippi, and had major trade centers at Natchez, (in present-day Mississippi), and Prairie du Chien, (in present-day Wisconsin). As a reprisal to George Rogers Clark's attack on Cahokia and Vincennes, and to prevent the Spanish from supplying additional rebel raids along the frontier, the British prepared to launch a campaign against St. Louis in early 1780.

Mississippi River mapAs these plans were being laid a man named Charles Gratiot (Gra-she-oh) was trying to get a batteau laden with trade goods up the Mississippi from Cahokia to Prairie du Chien. Gratiot was employed by David MacCrea & Company, an English merchant heavily involved in the fur trade along the Mississippi. The delivery of this batteau was a valuable transaction that would aid immensely in settling Gratiot's vast trading debts. Unfortunately, Gratiot took ill just as the journey was getting started. He desperately needed his cargo of furs, food, guns, cloth, and liquor to get through, so he enlisted the help of a man named Jean Baptiste Cardinal to make the trip for him. Cardinal took over the expedition and pushed off towards Prairie du Chien on March 30, 1780.

In those days, travelling upstream -- especially on large, fast-moving rivers like the Mississippi -- was quite an ordeal. Batteaus were long, flat-bottomed boats equipped with oars and occasionally sails, but they often needed to be dragged along with ropes by men walking along the shore. Despite this handicap, Cardinal's Batteau made good time and reached the Iowa River on April 13, where it pulled in to find a place to camp for the night. It was common for traders along the great river to leave the main channel for the night, seeking shelter in one of the many smaller rivers or streams that emptied into the Mississippi.

While camped on the Iowa River, a pair of traders named Calvé and DuCharme wandered into Cardinal's camp. In the ensuing conversation, these two enthusiastically offered to buy Gratiot's batteau and its valuable cargo, but Cardinal declined. Calvé and DuCharme began to ask a lot of questions about the destination of the batteau, and Cardinal became uneasy.

It was here that Cardinal made his first big mistake.

In an attempt to relieve any suspicions and guarantee his safe passage, Cardinal produced one of two letters that had been given to him by Gratiot. The letters were were licenses to transport goods -- "passes" of sorts -- one designed to appease Spanish interests, the other indicating a loyalty to the Continental Congress. Cardinal handed Calvé and DuCharme the letter declaring the holder an avid supporter of the Continental Congress.

This was a bad move.

Calvé and DuCharme were Loyalists and in fact had been sent by the British to enlist the support of the local Indian populations for the upcoming British raid on St. Louis. For their cooperation, the British had promised Calvé and DuCharme total control over the fur trade in the Mississippi valley -- a substantial reward that would bring them untold wealth. The pair raced back to Prairie du Chien, where the British invasion forces were gathering, and immediately told their superiors about their encounter with Cardinal and the batteau.

Several days later, the unknowing Cardinal made it to the mouth of the Rock River in western Illinois. Cardinal's crew quickly picked up on local rumors that the British were searching for their batteau, and they threatened Cardinal with mutiny. Cardinal managed to calm his panic-stricken crew, and it must have been a great relief to him when a company canoe arrived from Prairie du Chien carrying a British license to transport cargo -- it offered the traders an additional degree of protection.

At that point, someone made the decision to split up the batteau's cargo, putting some of it into the canoe to better the chances of getting the valuable cargo through to Prairie du Chien. This was yet another bad move. The canoe -- with its British trade license -- took all of the furs and hurried them to the safety of the company warehouse at Prairie du Chien, leaving Cardinal in charge of a batteau loaded with food, guns, lead, cloth, and liquor -- all items that could easily be considered military supplies -- and no British license.

None-the-less, the journey of the batteau continued, and a few days later Cardinal and his crew were very close to reaching their destination. By late April of 1780, they were just north of present-day Dubuque -- less than 25 miles from Prairie du Chien -- when they again looked for a place to pull off the Mississippi for the night. They soon came to the mouth of the Turkey River (opposite present-day Cassville, Wisconsin) and pulled in to find a safe mooring.

Yet another bad move.

Just as Cardinal's crew was tying up their batteau, a group of Indians fell upon them, whopping and jumping into the water, effectively surrounding the batteau and its crew. Cardinal had stumbled into the vanguard of the British expedition. Caught with a cargo that included "military stores", and with his letter promising allegiance to the Continental Congress, Cardinal was doomed. Lieutenant Alexander Kay, a prominent local trader and commander of the British forces, immediately ordered Cardinal and his crew sent to Michilimackinac as prisoners. Kay promised them fair treatment as long as they didn't stir up trouble among the Indians, who comprised the bulk of the British force. The prisoners agreed, but later that night Cardinal became drunk and loudly proclaimed that: "All Indians are fools and are lost," which greatly upset the Sauk, Fox, and Souix warriors -- and his British captors. Cardinal spent the rest of the trip, from Prairie du Chien, to Michilimackinac, to Detroit, to Montreal (some 1,100 miles), in chains. The batteau's cargo was split up among the Indians and traders, and the British-led expedition went on as planned.

By the time they arrived at St. Louis (the 26th of May), word of the impending attack had travelled down from Prairie du Chien through Jean Marie Cardinal (Jean Baptiste's older brother) and the British element of surprise had been lost. The Spanish garrison had repaired much of their crumbling fortifications and they had been

reinforced and manned with local militia. George Rogers Clark had been summoned to lend a hand and brought in several small pieces of artillery that were placed in the partially-reconstructed fort. Subsequently, the half-hearted British attack failed, largely due to the non-committal attitude of the Indians. This was largely attributed to the presence of artillery, but the demeaning comments made by Jean Baptiste Cardinal during the Turkey River incident were probably a contributing factor as well.


Charles Gratiot, the owner of the Batteau, recovered from his illness but not his indebtedness. He spent the next several years trying to persuade the British to reimburse him for his confiscated cargo, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Jean Baptiste Cardinal was paroled before official charges could be brought against him, and he and his crew also tried to recoup their losses from the British government. They were equally unsuccessfully.

Jean Marie Cardinal (the older brother who had brought word of the advancing attack to the Spanish garrison), was killed during the battle of St. Louis-- one of only a handful of casualties. Iowa claims him as the only Iowan to die in the fight for independence, but Cardinal was, in fact, a resident of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.


The bulk of the information for this article comes from "Gratiot's Boat", a lecture by the Reverend Robert Weiderander, from the Center for French Colonial Study annual meeting at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in October, 1994. Reverend Weiderander is currently working towards publishing his paper as a book -- if/when that happens you'll read about it here!

The legend of The Spanish Mines is from conversations I had with people in the Dubuque area. I was told that this story is written in an old textbook on Iowa history, but I have not been able to find this book. For another version of the story, see The Palimpsest, Vol. 57, No. 3, May/June 1976, (State Historical Society of Iowa). For more on the Mines of Spain area, see: Iowa Natural Heritage, a publication of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Fall 1985.

For more on this incident and the battle of St. Louis, see Commanger and Morris, Spirit of Seventy-Six, (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) p. 1052; and Skaggs, Curtis, ed., The Old Northwest in the American Revolution, (Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977). Also see Armour, David and Widder, Keith, At the Crossroads, Michilimackinac During the American Revolution, (Midland Michigan: Pendell Printing, 1986). The authors of this book state that a boat load of lead was also captured on the Des Moines River (p. 138). The reference is not footnoted and I have not been able to find additional information on this event.