Freedom and Public Space

Along the Upper Mississippi River and on the Iowa side, there is Fort Madison.

It is a medium-sized town, not exactly thriving but far from being in decline. It is an old river town that once had much wealth and still has many well-kept old houses. Some of the nicest and largest houses are located around a couple of parks in the center of town, just north a couple blocks from the downtown shopping area.

My brother moved there not too long ago and so I’ve since visited the town several times. He lives only a few blocks from these parks and only a few blocks from the river. It is a long and narrow strip of a town and so I guess everyone there lives within blocks of the river.

It is one of those places where you can sense the history. It is fairly quiet town now, but it had to have been a bustling at one time, back when the Mississippi River was more of a major transportation route. The old buildings still standing are of a wide variety of architecture. It has made me curious.

Much of the town has a standard Midwest feel, although of a river town variety. For example, there are the kinds of alleys I knew from my Midwestern childhood. Most of the houses wouldn’t be out of place in any other Midwestern smaller town. Still, there is much else that stands out. There are old federalist style houses. There are also quite a few houses with a clear Southern influence. One house across the street from Old Settlers Park reminds me of the houses in Charleston, SC, although it isn’t as narrow along the front.

Fort Madison was once a trade town. So, that allowed more diverse cultural influences for an old town so far north into the far reaches of the Midwest. Out of curiosity, I looked at the 1850 census, when Fort Madison was a young city and Iowa was a young state. In that census, there were people from diverse places within the United States (Washington DC, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Maine, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and from diverse countries (Canada, England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Switzerland).

Before being a trade town, it was the location of a major fort and hence the name. It was one of three forts in the new Louisiana Territory and the first permanent fortification on the Upper Mississippi. That touches upon the sense of history of the place.

The Mississippi River was the last natural boundary for the frontier. It is a massive river that back then would have been treacherous to cross. Iowa was one of the last areas Native Americans tried to hold ground to stop Westward expansion. Fort Madison was seen as an incursion and so immediately became a target of attacks.

One of the most famous Native leaders was Chief Black Hawk. He sided with Canada during the War of 1812. His first battle against US troops happened in Fort Madison and it was the only battle of the War of 1812 that happened West of the Mississippi. More than three decades later in 1838, he gave his farewell speech in Old Settlers Park, where today there is a plaque with a quote from that speech:

“I have looked upon the Mississippi since I have been a child. I love the great river. I have dwelt upon its banks from the time I was an infant. I look upon it now.”

As he described, just down the hill flows the mighty Mississippi. However, today the surrounding houses entirely block the view.

I walked to this park with my sister-in-law and niece. It has a large gazebo for bands and a playground. It’s quite beautiful with many old trees. The place is peaceful and it is hard to imagine the sadness Black Hawk must have felt as he gave that speech. As I stood before the plaque reading his words, I looked out across the park at the kids playing. It wasn’t lost on me that the park was filled with white kids. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked Native American in Fort Madison. The diversity the town once had never included the native population.

Where I live in Iowa City, there are two locations of former Native American villages. One of them was that of the tribe of Black Hawk’s medicine man. Iowa City was first settled by free blacks, many of whom were likely escaped slaves. Those free blacks sought the frontier for obvious reasons and I’m sure they were living there at the invitation of the local tribes.

In the pedestrian mall of downtown Iowa City, there is a small area that is called Black Hawk Mini Park. It also once was known as the People’s Park. It was the product of a fight for public space. On the side of the adjacent building there was a mural called “The Spirit of Black Hawk” that depicted the face of a Native American.

It’s telling that the freedom of public space often gets symbolized by Native Americans who lost their freedom and lost the very land they lived on, of which these parks represent a tiny portion.