Seeking Sibley's Fort

Professor leads team to uncover the mystery of Arrow Rock’s missing trading post
Thursday, June 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:10 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Most everyone in Arrow Rock has heard of historic Sibley’s Fort, but no one knows where it was.

“For years in Arrow Rock they had a sign at the end of High Street that said, ‘Sibley’s Fort stood just near here,’” said Tim Baumann, professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “We were like ‘OK, where?’”

Although both the sign and the fort are no longer standing, the search for Sibley’s Fort has become a part of the 80-year tradition to preserve history and cultural resources in Arrow Rock. A lack of documentation and artifacts, though, have made it difficult.

“It was only here for eight, maybe nine months and only one vague historic document gives us an idea of where it was,” Baumann said. Baumann and his team of 13 students and a few volunteers decided to search for evidence of Sibley’s Fort a mile outside of Arrow Rock as part of an archaeological dig that will end Friday.

They narrowed the search to this site using metal detectors weeks ago. “The place we’re digging at now had the highest concentration of metal objects detected, as well as the right age of objects suggesting that this is probably the best location of what we think is Sibley’s Fort,” Baumann said.

The short-lived fort was set up to be used mostly as a trading post with the Osage Indians during the War of 1812. In 1813, George Sibley, a government agent, argued with territorial governor William Clark that the trading post should be built to keep up friendly relations with the Osage.

“It maintained trade, but also maintained the military alliance so that they wouldn’t turn on the Americans and come up the backside of St. Louis or double-team the settlers,” Baumann said.

In October of 1813, the temporary trading house was constructed. Records kept by Sibley note that more than 1,000 deer pelts, 500 bear skins and other animal skins were brought in by the Indians to trade for European and American goods such as playing cards, umbrellas and smoking pipes, Baumann said.

The group has found many small artifacts and a post hole, but no structural evidence of the fort. The biggest pieces of evidence they have found so far consist of part of a green wine bottle and a portion of a rusty cast-iron pot.

“Bottle glass here and there with the ceramics, along with the nails, are probably the best indicator that we’re in the right spot as far as age of the site,” Baumann said.

One reason the fort has been so hard to locate is because it was only designed for temporary use. The fort was reportedly made with cottonwood, a soft wood that deteriorates. Since the fort was meant to be used for a relatively short amount of time, Baumann thinks it’s possible that settlers built it on top of the ground, instead of digging it into the ground.

“We have enough artifacts to say this is the right age,” Baumann said. “But it would be nice to find more structural information.”

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources provided a $6,500 grant for the dig to augment money from UMSL, student fees and a donation from the Friends of Arrow Rock.

Although the students notice that they are finding only sparse amounts of artifacts, they still enjoy being a part of the dig.

“I haven’t found a lot, actually nothing really, but it’s still been pretty good,” said John Claggett, a 19-year-old from Westminster College. His major is undecided, but he says that helping with dig has made him consider archaeology. “It’s probably the best possible thing I’ve done outside all year,” Claggett said.

Megan Bonacker, an anthropology major at UMSL, agrees that the time is well worth it.

“I think it’s rewarding to start the project and see at the end of the day that you’ve actually finished something,” she said. “You can see that you did something productive.”

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