Fort Belle Fontaine

(Also known as "Cantonment Belle Fontaine")

 

View from the observation area of Ft. Belle Fontaine County Park. [Photo: April 6, 2002; Scott K. Williams]

Background Tune, "St. Clair's Defeat", a traditional American tune. MIDI Courtesy of Wayne Fetherby. See Info. below.

Panoramic view of the Missouri River overlook from bluff top at Ft. Bellefontaine. [Enlargement] [Photo: Scott K. Williams]

 

"This 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). For more information see Colonial St. Louis]

 

Old Map of North St. Louis County Showing General Location 

 

Operations at the Fort:

Diorama of an "Indian Factory" interior as portrayed in display on Ft. Osage. Indian factories were places where Indians could exchange their goods for trade items (i.e. muskets, ammunition, cloth, trinkets, ect.) Display is at the Missouri State capital in Jefferson City, Mo. The Indian factory at Ft. Belle Fontaine relocated to Ft. Osage in 1808. [Enlargement]  For a history of the Osage Indians see American Indian History of Missouri and Illinois.

 

The Missouri River bank just below the bluff at Ft. Belle Fountaine. The spring that was the source for the name "beautiful fountain" discharges from the limestone outcrop at right. Unfortunately the river was too high to get a closer examination of the spring. [Photo: April 6, 2002; Scott K. Williams]

September 2002 Update: Water levels on the river were low enough to get Photos of the spring/cave opening. 

 

"During the war with England--1812 to 1815--the U.S. Government kept a large force at the "Cantonment Bellefontaine", on the Missouri River. It was then the westernmost military post of the United States.  Many of the troops, both officers and men, at the close of the war remained in the West and became permanent settlers in and about the locality and in all parts of the western country." The fort was accessible overland from St. Louis by taking Broadway north to the city limits, and from there the road continues but is renamed Bellefontaine Road. [Above photo, courtesy of Carl Hugo Soest, displays the road as it looked in 1904. The building visible at right is the Missouri Boys Home which occupies part of the fort's grounds.]

The Missouri State Boys Home occupying the site of the fort has been a mixed blessing for its preservation. While it has disturbed some ground from the construction of a couple buildings over the fort site (the 2nd fort, that is), the State's ownership of the grounds has prevented real estate developers from obliterating the site with development. So beneath the sod rests what is left of the fort's foundations and debris. Below is a panoramic view of the ground where the upper fort was situated:

Panoramic view looking northeast toward Missouri River. [Enlargement] [Photo: April 6, 2002; Scott K. Williams]

Observation area, owned by St. Louis County Parks. The National Park Service has recently installed new interpretative signs describing the site's unique history. [Photo: April 6, 2002; Scott K. Williams]

Fifteen Star US flag flown at Ft. Belle Fontaine.

Fort Commanders:

Lt. Col. Jacob Kingsbury, born 1755 in Norwich, Connecticut. Began his military career as a Private in a Connecticut regiment during the American Revolution (Jul 11, 1775). Promoted to Sgt. while serving in the Continental Army, Connecticut Line. On Apr 26, 1780 Kingsbury attained the rank of Ensign in Col. Samuel B. Webb's Additional Continental Regiment (briefly to become the 9th Connecticut Regiment and shortly thereafter, the 3rd Connecticut Regiment (of 1781, under Col. S. B. Webb). In June 1783, Kingsbury began serving in Col. Heman Swift's Continental Regiment which disbanded at war's end (Nov. 1783) in New York City.  Following the war, Hunt served in the 1st U.S. Infantry, attaining the rank of Lieutenant on Oct 15, 1787. On Jan 9, 1791 Lt. Kingsbury was in command of squad of soldiers at Dunlap's Station (near Cincinatti, Ohio) while it was besieged by hostile Indians.  On Dec 28, 1791 promoted to Captain. Aug 20, 1794 in command of a company of Lt. Infantry during the Battle of Fallen Timbers. May 15,1797 promoted to Major, 2nd U.S. Infantry and served at Detroit and Mackinac. April 11, 1803 promoted to Lt. Colonel. While serving a Commandant of U.S. forces at Mackinac, received orders on May 4, 1805 to build a cantonment north of St. Louis. Arrived in the area about June 20, 1805, the Belle Fontaine site was selected by Lt. Col. Kingsbury and Gen. James Wilkinson (U.S. Army Commander at St. Louis in charge of military operations in the West.) A company of enlisted men under the command of Capt. Benjamin Lockwood accompanied Kingsbury, and provided the labor in building the fort. Lt. Col. Kingsbury went on to supervise the construction of Ft. Adams on the lower Mississippi. On Aug 18, 1808, promoted to Colonel. From Apr 8, 1813 to Oct. 31, 1814 served as Inspector General. Honorably discharged on Jun 15, 1815.  Kingsbury died at his Franklin, Missouri home on Jul 1, 1837. (Note: see the style of uniform Kingsbury probably worn As displayed by living historian, Greg Carter)

Major Russell Bissell, a native of Connecticut, began his military career in 1791 as a Lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry. Promoted to Quartermaster, with rank of Captain on Feb 19, 1793. Wounded at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (Aug 20, 1794), transferred to the 1st U.S. Infantry while stationed at Ft. Wilkinson, Georgia. Reassigned to "Cantonment Belle Fontaine" under the 2nd U.S. Infantry. After being promoted to rank of Major, Dec 9, 1807, he briefly served as Commandant of the fort. Maj. Bissell died  Dec 18, 1807 and was buried at Belle Fontaine. His grave was later relocated to Jefferson Barracks where a marble memorial can be seen in the Post section at  barrack's cemetery. 

Maj. Russell Bissell's son, Capt. Lewis Bissell, of the U.S. Army settled on a hill, known as "Bissell's Point" (4426 Randall Place now located near the Grand Ave. exit of I-70 in the north part of the City of St. Louis.) The Lewis Bissell Mansion is now a restaurant/dinner theatre and open to the public. 

Col. Thomas Hunt, of  Massachusetts began his military career on April 1775 as a Sgt. in Capt Craft's Company of Minutemen. He first saw action at the Battles of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution. On Jan 1, 1776 he transferred to the Massachusetts Continentals and served as Ensign and as Adjutant. On Oct 20, 1776 promoted to "Brigade Major". On Feb 1, 1777 Hunt was assigned as "Captain Lt." and later as Captain  in Col. Henry Jackson's Additional Continental Regiment which would become the 16th Massachusetts Regiment. During the winter of 1777-1778 Hunt experienced the suffering at Valley Forge. On July1, 1779, Hunt was wounded at the Battle of Stony Point and wounded again on Oct 14, 1781 at Yorktown. After the Revolution, Hunt served as Captain of the 2nd U.S. Infantry. On Feb 18, 1793 promoted to Major and served as Commandant at Ft. Defiance. Nov 1, 1796 transferred to the 1st U.S. Infantry and promoted to Lt. Col. on April 1, 1802. Promoted to Colonel on April 11, 1803. On Jul 30, 1805, Col. Hunt became Commandant at Belle Fontaine.  Col. Hunt at the age of 54 died at Ft. Belle Fontaine on Aug 18, 1808. 

Col. Daniel Bissell, a brother of Maj. Russell Bissell. He began his military career as a Cadet in 1791.  Bissell saw action at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (Aug 20, 1794) . On Nov 1, 1796 he served at Commandant at the Army Post at Presque Isle. On Jan 1, 1799  he was promoted to Captain ("Customs Collector") at Ft. Massac located at the southern tip of Illinois. Capt. Bissell was the American official to receive the transfer of  Ft. Celeste (New Madrid, Mo.) and Ft. Miro (Monroe, La) from the Spanish government. On Aug 18, 1808 was promoted to Lt. Colonel and put in Command of Ft. Belle Fontaine. In 1810 Bissell moved the fort from the low bottomlands where it was threatened by the river, to the top of the overlooking bluff. The blockhouses, barracks, and surrounding palisade was completed by the following year. Bissell was promoted to a full Colonel on  Aug 15 1812. During the War of 1812,  On Mar 9, 1814 Bissell was promoted to Brig. General.  On Oct. 19, 1814 Gen. Bissell fought British forces at Cooks's Mill, Lyon's Creek, Canada. After the War, Bissell returned to the rank of Colonel, 1st U.S. Infantry and was honorably discharged Jun 1, 1821. Bissell died on Dec. 14, 1833. The Daniel Bissell home located at 10225 Bellefontaine Rd. is still standing and has been preserved by the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation..

Col. Thomas A. Smith, information not available at the present time.

Col. Henry Atkinson, a North Carolinian that led expeditions to the Yellowstone in 1819 and 1825. last Commandant of Ft. Belle Fontaine and first Commandant of Jefferson Barracks. Known as "White Beaver" to the Indians. He commanded troops in the war against the Sac Fox Chief, Black Hawk. Eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General before his death at Jefferson Barracks in 1842.

20th Century:

The grounds below the bluff became a public summer resort during the late 1930's. In 1936, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built a grand staircase down from the bluff, in addition to "comfort stations" and picnic facilities. While the County Parks have been restoring some, many of the buildings are in ruins. Also, the Daughter of the American Revolution relocated the graves from the post cemetery and had them reburied at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. These were graves of soldiers and family members of officers that perished while stationed at the fort. About 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt (first lady) paid a visit on behalf of the WPA project. (Roosevelt photo courtesy of Carl Hugo Soest.)

21st Century Images:

Background Tune:

"St. Clair's Defeat"

Traditional American tune about the disastrous Nov. 4th 1791 battle that took place against the Indians along the Wabash River. It left 832 U.S soldiers and camp followers dead. Many of the men stationed at Belle Fontaine had combat experience fighting Indians along that very same "dark and bloody" river. This song is a tribute to those that perished that day. Midi courtesy of Wayne Fetherby of Morganton, NC. Lyrics and sheetmusic courtesy of Maynard Johnson.

1. November the fourth in the year of ninety-one, we had a sore engagement
  near to Fort Jefferson; Sinclair was our commander, which may remembered be,  for there we left nine hundred men in the Western Territory.

 2. At Bunker's Hill and Quebec, where many a hero fell, Likewise at Long
  Island, 'tis I the truth can tell. But such a dreadful carnage, never did I see, As happened on the plains,  near the River St. Marie.

  3. Our militia were attacked, just as the day did break, And soon were
  overpowered, and forced to retreat. They killed major Ouldham, Levin, and
  Briggs likewise, While horrid yells of savages, resounded thro' the skies.


   4. Major Butler was wounded the very second fire; His manly bosom swelled
  with rage, when forced to retire. Like one distracted he appeared, when thus
  exclaimed he, Ye hounds of hell shall all be slain, but what reveng'd I'll
  be.


    5. We had not long been broke, when general Butler fell; He cries, my
  boys, I'm wounded, pray take me off the field, My God, says he, what shall
  we do, we're wounded ev'ry man; Go, charge, you valiant heroes, and beat
  them if you can.


    6. He leaned his back against a tree, and there resigned his breath, And
  like a valiant soldier, sunk in the arms of death; When blessed angels did
  await, his spirit to convey, And unto the celestial fields, he quickly bent
  his way.


    7. We charged again, we took our ground, which did our hearts elate, There
  we did not tarry long, they soon made us retreat; They killed major
  Ferguson, which caused his men to cry; Stand to your guns, says valiant
  Ford, we'll fight until we die.


    8. Our cannon balls exhausted, our artillery-men all slain, Our   musketrymen and riflemen, their fire did sustain; Three hours more we fought
  like men, and they were forced to yield, While three hundred bloody warriors
  lay stretched upon the field.


    9. Says colonel Gibson to his men, my boys, be not dismayed, I'm sure that
  true Virginians were never yet afraid; Ten thousand deaths I'd rather die,
  than they should gain the field, With that he got a fatal shot, which caused
  him to yield.


    10. Says major Clark, my heroes, I can no longer stand, We will strive to
  form in order, and retreat the best we can. The word retreat being passed
  all round, they raised a huing cry, And helter skelter through the woods,
  like lost sheep we did fly.


    11. We left the wounded on the field, O heavens, what a shock! Some of
  their thighs were shattered, some of their limbs were broke; With scalping
  knives and tomahawks, soon eased them of their breath, with fiery flames of
  torment soon tortured them to death.


    12. Now, to mention our brave officers, 'tis what I wish to do. No son of
  Mars e'er fought more brave or courage true. To Captain Bradford I belonged,  in his artillery, who fell that day amongst the slain; - what a gallant man  was he.

 

 

 

 

For More Information and Walking Tour Guide:

Fort Belle Fontaine Park (Official website of St. Louis County Parks)

 

 

Also of Related Interest: American Indian History of Missouri and Illinois

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