Monday, April 29, 2013

The Forgotten Battle: Credit Island, Part II

Hi and Welcome Back for the second installment about this little-known War of 1812 battle! You can find the first part here.

Ever wondered how archaeologists reconstruct the blow-by-blow details of battles that occurred in the distant past? Just keep reading - Chris Espenshade will explain it all to you. And stay tuned, because this series will continue next week! Thanks for reading.

Interpreting the Landscapes of Battle: Typical Approaches to ABPP Grant Projects

Each War of 1812 battlefield has its own characteristics and challenges. To create a battle narrative that guides preservation and interpretation, there are generally four major data sources:

KOCOA/Military Terrain Analysis
Archival Data
Archaeological Results
Collector Data

In a perfect world, all four classes of data would be abundant. The Archival Data includes after-battle reports, diaries, letter, and maps. Such information must be used carefully, as it is well-demonstrated that various biases can affect the accuracy of the Archival Data (more on this in Post 3).

The KOCOA/Military Terrain Analysis requires the analyst to study the landscape from the perspective of the soldier, applying inherent military logic. KOCOA looks at key terrain, decisive terrain, observation, field of fire, dead space, cover, concealment, obstacles, avenue of approach, avenue of withdrawal, and mobility corridor. By applying Inherent Military Logic and defining these key features of battlefields, the researcher is able to match the battle narrative to the landscape.  For certain battles, the landscape and military behavior provide a strong input for the revised battle narrative.

Archaeological data, as seen in a number of projects on this web-page, can provide firm information on where actions occurred on the landscape. The plotting of fired and dropped bullets, fired artillery rounds, and dropped equipage can often allow for the definition of battle lines and positions. When a battlefield has reasonably good integrity, the archaeology becomes very important in creating or supporting a revised battle narrative. For most battlefield situations, controlled metal detector survey is the best method for recovering spatial data.

Metal Detecting in Progress, near head of Credit Island.  Many twentieth century items were recovered, but no battle-related material.  
Lastly, many American battlefields have been examined for decades by avocational detectorists.  These folks generally come armed with a strong interest in local history and a metal detector.  Such collectors can often provide valuable data on artifact distributions, and many have fairly sophisticated interpretations of their favorite battlefields.

Unfortunately for the Credit Island project, the local avocational metal detectorists did not have any information on any battle artifacts. In addition, despite our eight days of archaeological  metal detecting in the high probability areas of the battlefield, no battle-related artifacts were recovered. This was due to the nature of the battle, the natural impacts of Mississippi River flooding, and the modern development in many of the best locations. These negative findings shifted the emphasis of the study to the archival data and the KOCOA/military terrain analysis.  As is so often the case in battlefield studies, you work with what you have.

Area of Suspected British Artillery, Facing North-northeast.  Unfortunately for the archaeologists, approximately three feet of modern fill dirt have been deposited here.  On the positive side, the bike path can provide public access to interpretive signage.

This research – conducted by Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group -- was sponsored by the American Battlefield Preservation Program and the City of Davenport, Iowa.  This material is based upon work assisted by a grant from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Forgotten Battle: The 1814 Battle of Credit Island, Iowa and Illinois

Today's fascinating post, the first in a series of five, comes to us from Chris Espenshade. Chris is the Regional Director at the Jackson, Michigan office of Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group.  When he joined CCRG in October 2012, Chris brought experience with several ABPP (American Battlefield Protection Program) and other military projects in the Southeast and Middle Atlantic.  Credit Island provided the opportunity to pursue this work closer to his new home.

Welcome to the first in several posts about a different sort of War of 1812 battle. The Battle of Credit Island was fought September 4 and 5, 1814, on the Mississippi River near the present-day Davenport, Iowa.  The battle was noteworthy for a number of reasons:

The defeated Americans were led by Zachary Taylor, the future president, and the Native American forces included Chief Black Hawk (Black Hawk’s autobiography is available as a free ebook).

The 800-1200 Native American combatants far outnumbered the 334 Americans and the 20-30 British.  Unlike battles on the eastern seaboard, there was a heavy involvement by Native Americans at Credit Island.

It was one of very few battles on the Upper Mississippi, and featured eight reinforced river boats (see the current issue of the Midcontinental Journal or Archaeology,

The weather was a major determinant in the outcome of the battle.

Three artillerists with a brass 3-pounder and two swivel guns (probably 1-pounders) caused most of the damage and forced the American retreat.

The battle marked the last effort in the war by the Americans to wrest control of the Upper Mississippi from the British.

The victory helped cement the relationship between the British and the local tribes.
Detail of Battlefield.  Blue outline is Pelican Island.  The head of Credit Island is in southwest corner.  B marks mostly likely position of British artillery.  Red lines on northeast shore of Pelican Island are likely locations of American boats (Figure created in GoogleEarth 2013).
Despite these interesting aspects, the Battle of Credit Island is not well-known to the general public.  It is a forgotten battle, and was not included in the national survey of War of 1812/Revolutionary War Battlefields.

The only public signage about the battle is located away from the core battlefield - in fact, it faces away from the battlefield, and includes questionable information. In an effort to better understand and interpret The Battle of Credit Island, the City of Davenport applied for and won a 2012 grant from the American Battlefield Preservation Program.

The City owns much of the property in the core battlefield. The research was conducted by Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group of Jackson, Michigan.

Before talking about the present project, let’s consider a brief summary of the battle:

The Battle of Credit Island occurred on September 4 and 5, 1814, as American troops tried to take control of the Upper Mississippi away from the British and the British-allied Native American tribes. For the Americans, Zachary Taylor led 334 men in eight gunboats. The American force hoped to destroy the Native American village and crops on the Rock River, upstream from its confluence with the Mississippi River.  When Taylor realized his artillery would not be effective from the gun boats and the large number of Native American warriors present would not permit him to disembark his guns, Taylor decided to feint movement upstream, as if his target was the British fort at Prairie du Chen, Wisconsin. The Americans had just begun this upstream move on the afternoon of September 4, when a strong storm blowing downstream forced the Americans to stop for the night at Pelican Island. At least two of the American boats had poor anchors, and these boats tied off to the island.

The American boats were larger (80 feet long or more) and better armed than the 55-foot long keel-boat used by the Lewis and Clark expedition, but were likely similar in design. This model of the Lewis and Clark boat is featured on the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.
At first light on September 5, a number of Native Americans had waded to Pelican Island from Credit Island, and an American sentry was shot and killed.  The Americans disembarked a force and cleared the Native Americans from Pelican Island.  At about this same time, the few British with a 3-pounder and two swivel guns abandoned their position watching the Rock Island rapids, and moved downstream to the western bank of the Mississippi, where they had a clear view of the American boats.  

View facing south-southeast from the suspected British artillery position. 
Taylor had one of his boats drop downstream to cover the channel between Credit and Pelican Islands, to keep the Native Americans from returning to Pelican Island. Shortly thereafter, the British began an artillery barrage, inflicting serious damage to the American boats.  By one account, 51 of the 54 shots hit American boats. The barrage continued only 45-60 minutes, before Taylor recognized the need to retreat from his untenable position. The Americans retreated downstream. The Native American forces and the British were low on ammunition and supplies, and did not pursue the Americans.

More to come next week! Keep reading and please post questions or thoughts in the comments!

This research – conducted by Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group -- was sponsored by the American Battlefield Preservation Program and the City of Davenport, Iowa.  This material is based upon work assisted by a grant from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Geophysics of a War of 1812 Fort

Ground-penetrating radar (along with other kinds of remote sensing) is an emerging field for archaeologists, and it's very exciting. It's also kind of complicated! Happily, Peter Quantock, a graduate student at the University of Denver who is completing his Master's Degree in archaeology, is here to explain it all to us.

Geophysics at Fort Hollingsworth
by Peter Quantock

In recent years, geophysical survey has become an increasingly popular archaeological tool in Maryland.  Archaeologists at sites such as Port Tobacco, Nottingham, and Benedict conducted magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar surveys as part of their investigations. In Jim Gibb’s 5 part series about Fort Hollingsworth on this blog, he talked briefly about the geophysical techniques that were used to help locate the fort.

Today, I’m going to give you a little more information on the ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey conducted at the site through images of the data. GPR is a technique that collects and records information about the subsurface.  It involves the transmission of high frequency radar pulses from a surface antenna into the ground.  This data is converted into vertical profiles and plan view maps to aid in interpretation.

GPR Gear: GSSI SIR-3000 with 400MHz dual antenna and survey wheel used to conduct the survey at Fort Hollingsworth.

In March 2012, with the help of ASM members and other volunteers, I conducted a GPR survey over top of the magnetometer survey I did the year before.  The goal was to find the trench used at Fort Hollingsworth.  And we were successful! Read all about it in the "Finding Fort Hollingsworth" series on this blog.  

To interpret GPR data we first go to the vertical profile, which allows us to look at the depth of features in the ground.  Below is an example of a vertical profile collected at the site.  This profile runs north south within the larger grid.  It looks like a bunch of sharp, squiggly lines, doesn’t it?  

Yes, it does!

What I see is much different…I see depths and distances of features underneath the ground.  The areas where the black and white reflections are stronger in contrast to the area around it (circled in red in the image below) tell me that there is something of interest there.  These are called high amplitude reflections and they indicate buried features.  THIS is what the fill from the trench looks like in a radar profile!  
These vertical profiles are collected along each transect that is surveyed within the grid.  Our grid was 50m x 50m and we had transects at an interval of every .5 meter.  That gives us 100 vertical profiles to interpret.  We can then put all of these profiles together to create a plan view map.  These are called slice maps.  They are “slices” in time, each representing 10ns of depth (or about 10cm in depth).  The slice map below represents the data from about 30-40cm below the surface…right where the trench fill was located! It's not exactly an underground photograph, but the linear shape definitely suggests the outline of the earthwork we identified here.

The GPR survey conducted at Fort Hollingsworth was a success and great fun!  

Monday, April 8, 2013

Dolley Madison Saves History

For archaeologists, the evidence of the past is mostly found below-ground, but there's an awful lot of history in the structures we see everyday and the landscape they occupy. Bringing us today's above-ground history lesson about how Dolley Madison rescued many of the White House's historical treasures from invading British troops is architectural historian Rebecca Crew. She's got the lowdown on the Bank of Maryland and its role in the War of 1812. Read on!

Perhaps one of the most well-known tales from the War of 1812 is the account of Dolley Madison saving the portrait of George Washington before the White House was torched by the British.  This legend has long-established Mrs. Madison as one of the most popular First Ladies, and one of my personal favorites.  To celebrate the bicentennial of this event, which actually occurred on August 24, 1814, I thought I would attempt to determine where George Washington’s portrait was stashed for safe-keeping, and whether the structure might still exist.

I'm not even kidding, there's a comic about this. 
As soon as she heard that British troops were on their way to burn Washington D.C. in general and the White House in particular, Dolley Madison was ready for action. As she once wrote in a letter to her cousin,“I have always been an advocate for fighting when assailed." (editor's note: You guys, do not mess with Dolley Madison).

With the help of her husband’s teenage slave Paul Jennings, the French-born doorman Jean Pierre Sioussat (also known as John Susé or French John), and the White House gardener Mr. Thomas Magraw (or McGraw), Mrs. Madison loaded up a wagon filled with cabinet documents.  She knew Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington, one of the four Landsdowne portraits, would be too appealing a target for the British troops to use to mock the young United States.  

The large portrait was in the state dining room. While some accounts suggest Mrs. Madison ordered it cut from its frame,  in fact, she had it unscrewed from the wall. The frame was broken, and the portrait was nestled carefully in the cart. 

Meanwhile, two gentlemen from New York arrived at the White House to offer their assistance to Mrs. Madison. They were Jacob Barker, a financier, and Robert G. L. De Peyster, a merchant.  Barker and De Peyster stayed at the White House after Mrs. Madison left, first for the safety of Dumbarton House (then owned by Charles Carroll who fetched Dolley in his carriage) and then to Virginia.  Barker and De Peyster collected more items, and visited with President Madison later that day. Barker and De Peyster followed the Army out of Washington, traveling along F Street, NW. They spent the night at the private home of a Maryland farmer, and deposited Washington’s portrait in a local farmer’s barn for the night. 

On August 25, 1814, Barker and De Peyster arrived at the United States Army Headquarters at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Rockville.  On August 26, 1814, Barker and De Peyster continued to Baltimore where they ordered provisions for the United States Army. Mrs. Madison had instructed that the cabinet documents (and the White House silver) be stored at the Bank of Maryland in Baltimore, and presumably Barker and De Peyster completed her instructions. 

In 1792, Folie’s map of Baltimore shows the Bank of Maryland standing at the approximate location of today’s 26 South Street, on the west side of the street, south of Lovely Lane (now Redwood Street).  

However, Lucas’ 1822 map of Baltimore showed the Bank of Maryland on the east side of South Street, and written descriptions state that it “stood in South Street between Walnut Street and Lovely Lane.”  

Regardless of which side of the street the Bank of Maryland stood in 1814, the Bank of Maryland institution collapsed in 1834, and its possible locations on the east and west sides of South Street have been replaced by early twentieth-century bank and office buildings.  

While it is not possible to visit the vault where Presidential papers were kept during the summer of 1814, the story offers a valuable teachable moment on the role of the federal government.  Why did Mrs. Madison choose to send items to the Bank of Maryland?  Location played a part, as Baltimore was relatively close to Washington, and Virginia’s cities were not as established as banking centers.  Also, in 1814, there was no federal bank. The Bank of the United States, which was established in 1791, was opposed by James Madison as unconstitutional; Madison and others, such as Thomas Jefferson, did not think the federal government needed to be involved in banking and that this could be left to the states.   

When the Bank of the United States’ charter expired in 1811, Congress did not renew it. The Bank of Maryland, established in 1784 and opened in 1791, was one of the oldest banks in the country and retained the right to issue bank notes. I have not found any images of the Bank of Maryland other than the cartoon shown above, but perhaps it resembled another early state bank, the Bank of Pennsylvania, which Benjamin Latrobe designed ca. 1790? 

For more information see:

Cote, Richard.  Strength And Honor: The Life Of Dolley Madison. Mt. Pleasant, SC: Corinthian Books, 2005. Available online at

Eshelman, Ralph. A Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: Eighteen Tours in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Baltimore: JHU Press, 2011. Available online at
Scharf, John Thomas. The Chronicles of Baltimore: Being a Complete History of "Baltimore town" and Baltimore City from the Earliest Period to the Present Time. Baltimore: The Turnbull Brothers, 1874.  Available online at

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Finding Fort Hollingsworth, Part V

The final post in a series about Fort Hollingsworth in Cecil County provided by archaeologist Jim Gibb. Looks like there's more work to be done, as always - if you're interesting in helping out, consider volunteering with ASM, the Archaeological Society of Maryland!

Fort Hollingsworth was one of several vernacular forts erected by locals at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. Where are the other forts and what did they look like? Have they survived the last century's booming land development? The Archeological Society of the Northern Chesapeake—a chapter of the Archeological Society of Maryland—and noted War of 1812 historian Ralph Eshelman have been exploring the site of what we think is Fort Defiance, a small outwork or gun emplacement just downstream of Fort Frederick (the site of which has not been definitively identified).
Could this be the site of Fort Defiance?
The possible site of Fort Defiance is suggested by a circular depression some 4.25 meters, or about 14 feet, in diameter and 2 meters, or about 6 feet, deep, perched at the top of a bluff overlooking the Elk River. Much of the river at this point is shoaled or marsh and the channel of the stream bends westward, virtually to the foot of the bluff.

Shovel tests—holes about a foot and a half in diameter and excavated up to three feet deep—produced some architectural and domestic (kitchenwares) refuse dating to the late 1800s and some 20th-century incinerated trash, probably from the nearby house. Sifting the soil through quarter-inch mesh screens, however, produced no military artifacts. Systematic metal detecting also led to the recovery of 20th-century trash, but nothing that could be attributed to the War of 1812. The lack of finds isn’t surprising: military sites tend to produce very few artifacts, unless they were battlefields on which intense or protracted fighting occurred. No such fighting occurred at Fort Defiance.

Our field crew prepared a preliminary topographic map of the site to document the depression as well as some other curious landforms just 50 feet south of the depression. A road had been cut through the bluff sometime in the late 20th century, probably to afford access to the narrow beach below. That road cut complicates an already irregular, eroded topography and it lies between the circular depression and a narrow ridge that has one of the best…if not the best…view of the Elk River. Could this ridge be an eroded remnant of a gun emplacement?

We can’t tell…not yet, anyway. We will return to the site soon, hopefully with Bill Stephens who has the equipment and skills to produce a topographic map that provides the kind of detail that we will need to sort out the complicated contours.

That brings our series on Fort Hollingsworth to a close, for usual, the more answers you find, the more questions those answers generate.