The People's Tribune

Buffalo Fort Offered Early Settlers An Oasis From Danger

• Louisiana’s Past Looking Forward •

It stood for only a few years, but it provided a safe haven for early settlers.

Work on Fort Buffalo began in December 1811 as tensions with the Sac and Fox tribes rose due to British incitement in the buildup to the War of 1812.

The dimensions aren’t recorded, but the primitive citadel got its name from the immense herds of bison that French explorer Rene-Robert de La Salle found in the area on his journey along the Mississippi River in 1690. Accounts differ as to whether a creek ran through the fort or flowed nearby. A channel may have been dug to bring water from it.

“Into this fort…more than twenty families were gathered, taking turns guarding and cultivating crops the next year,” according to “A History of Northeast Missouri” by Walter Williams.

“The crops raised in this way became common property of all, and though for a while they were permitted to work but little, yet so fruitful was the new cleared soil that no apprehension of famine was ever felt,” reported the 1883 book “History of Pike County, Missouri.”

Hunting expeditions also proved successful.

“If the earth could be made to yield the bread, the forests could be readily induced to supply the meat,” the Pike County book offered. “Deer, turkeys and other game were abundant, and the hunter had little trouble in procuring all the necessities his household might demand.”

Families listed as using the fort included those of John and Robert Jordan, Samuel, David, James and John Watson, William McConnell, James Templeton, James Mackey, John Farmer, Thomas Cunningham and Edward Byers.

What may have been the first wedding in Pike County took place in the fort. Again, accounts vary, but Peter Brandon and Mary McConnell likely took their vows in 1812 from either John Jordan or Samuel Watson. The Northeast Missouri book says Brandon was “one of the soldiers” who participated in the war.

Peace ensued until March 30, 1813, when 41-year-old Capt. Robert Jordan and his 22-year-old son, James McGee Jordan, were shot as they returned from working in the fields. Some accounts list the son’s age as 17, but cemetery records have him as being born in 1791.

Shortly before her death at age 68 in 1915, Caroline Maria Coulter Jordan described an ominous premonition James Jordan apparently had.

“The morning the boy was killed, he begged his mother to cut his hair short, so if killed by Indians they would not scalp him,” she wrote. “They did not, but scalped his father.”

Two family members heard the gunfire and found the bodies. They speculated the British or French had supplied the guns.

The April 10, 1813, edition of the Missouri Gazette, one of the region’s first newspapers, reported on the murders. It said “there are several small bodies of Indians in that tract of country between the Illinois and Mississippi (rivers) who are constantly watching the settlements and a very numerous collection preparing to burst into that country, and may be expected early next month.” The prediction seemingly proved correct.

“The murderous Indians were on the war-path, and the safety of the white man depended alike upon his caution and skill,” the Pike County book says. “But the greatest care was sometimes without avail, as the settlers were occasionally waylaid and shot down near their homes and in their fields.”

“The people were now thoroughly alarmed and requested Governor (William) Clark at St. Louis to send soldiers for protection,” Williams wrote.

Meanwhile, families took refuge inside the fort.

“Here they were a long time confined and forced to a dreary, monotonous life,” the Pike County book noted. “Still they bore their hardships with that heroism characteristic of the early settlers, and seldom complained of their hard fate, but each did his or her best to encourage the other, while all found in their confinement some degree of social enjoyment.”

Samuel Watson pleaded with Clark, who just seven years earlier had returned with Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery after exploring the Louisiana Territory. Clark turned down the request for staffing the fort, but agreed to have troops protect families who would abandon it and come to St. Louis.

Matters were made worse when the wife of James O’Neil and their nine children were killed and scalped near what would become Clarksville. O’Neil survived only because he at the time was attending a meeting about how to best defend settlers’ homes.

Fort Buffalo was torn down in 1815, the year the War of 1812 ended. Many of the families that left for St. Louis returned after the massacres and established the towns of Clarksville and Louisiana.

The Jordans were buried where they were killed in what is now known as Buffalo Cemetery, which is accessible today. A marker was placed at the fort site by the Pike County chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in July 1917.

In addition, a mural depicting the fort hangs on the south outer wall of The Mercantile Bank of Louisiana.

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