Establishing the Fort on the Saginaw River
July 22, 2022, marks the 200th Anniversary of the establishment of Fort Saginaw. This short-lived project had long lasting effects. To acknowledge the milestone year, the Castle Museum will share a series of historical posts this week. You can also visit the permanent exhibit on the lower level of the museum to learn more.
At some point on July 22, 1822, along the banks of the Saginaw River, Major Daniel Baker sat down to write a letter to his superiors. Two months earlier, Baker and about 70 officers and enlisted men of the U. S. 3rd Infantry had been ordered from Green Bay to the Saginaw Valley to construct a fort. In 1820 the U. S. Senate ratified a treaty negotiated between territorial Governor Lewis Cass and a delegation of Anishinaabe chiefs and head men at Saginaw. The Anishinaabe signers of the treaty had agreed to sell more than 6 million acres of land to the United States in exchange for money, services (such as a blacksmith and a farming supervisor), and the promise that they could retain some lands as well as hunting and fishing rights within the cession. Not all Anishinaabeg supported the treaty, however, and when surveyor Joseph Wampler reported that some indigenous men had harassed his team mapping the region, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun decided that a modest fort could provide “beneficial effects in curbing the Indians & encouraging settlements in that direction.”
The site that Baker selected for the fort was upon a bluff on the west bank of the Saginaw River. He wrote that he picked the place, “below the forks [of the river] oppisite [sic] Rileys reservation and adjoining the place known in this country by the name of the tradeing establishment [Louis Campau’s trading house],” because of its defensible location and its proximity to water and timber. Baker established a 30 or 40-acre military reservation, and his men began work on the fort immediately. We do not know precisely where the fort was situated, but based upon observations provided by early American settlers in Saginaw, we can guess that it was located on the high ground adjacent to the river, approximately where Court Street intersects with Hamilton Street.
Neither do we fully know what the fort looked like. Fort Saginaw was one of many forts that the United States built immediately following the War of 1812, seeking to extend its control into what would become the Midwest. But unlike the more imposing forts constructed elsewhere, Fort Saginaw was comparatively modest. In October, Baker reported that the men had completed a timber barracks building, “eighty by twenty feet, two stories high.” Other structures, such as an officer’s quarters, a storehouse, a guard house, a blacksmith shop, stables, and a blockhouse, were also quickly erected. A simple wooden palisade surrounded these buildings.
While the fort did not last long, its location became the center of the emerging Saginaw City. But while its presence signaled the birth of something new, it also represented a threat to something old. To the south of the fort was a vibrant Anishinaabe community at Green Point, where the Tittabawassee, the Shiawassee, and the Cass Rivers join to create the Saginaw River. Other indigenous villages dotted the region on lands the Anishinaabeg had reserved from sale in the 1819 treaty. Fort Saginaw’s goal of stimulating settlement north of Detroit also represented an infringement upon indigenous communities that would become more pressing a few years later during the Removal Era.