Fort Allison: Black History and the War of 1812 in Illinois

1812 stars and stripes flagThe early settlement of Crawford County, Illinois is still relatively clouded in mystery.

The movies used to simplify the westward expansion as a contest between “Indians” and “The White Man.” But when I presented this stereotype a couple of decades ago, on my visit to the a little town near Russelville in Illinois, I was corrected.

The squabbling of adults prevented an elderly local from telling me the full story, so I’ll have to rely mainly on written sources for the tale of Fort Allison.

One story says that Lawrence counties earliest “white” settlers in Crawford county were in fact African Americans, or “free blacks.” Two of these early settlers lived in a “house not built by hands.”

“Billy o’ the Bow” and his wife Seley, we are told, settled in a hollowed out sycamore tree. Their lives were cut short when Indians shot their home with rifles.

Other settlers, both black and white, came to the area around the turn of the 19th century. I met some of their descendants when I went there in the 1980s.

Samuel Veal Allison

One of the first US citizens to settle there and live to tell about it was a man of Scottish ancestry, said to have come through Kentucky, by the name of Samuel Veal Allison.

Samuel Allison was a talented man, and no doubt one of his major talents annoyed the Indians who lived nearby in “little village.” He was a great “woodsman,” or hunter.  It’s said that Samuel Allison could kill more than 13 deer in a day, every day, and carry these deer home.

Killing and carrying 13 deer doesn’t sound too hard until you’ve actually tried it, and tried it with early 19th century rifles in unfamiliar territory. And try carrying those 13 deer home on your own, without any paved roads or modern vehicles. (I’ve seen higher numbers, but thirteen is about as high as I’m prepared to believe.)

Samuel Allison’s sons were busy killing their own deer, so they couldn’t help their father carry his.  However, they weren’t alone in the area.

Fort Allison

Allison was just part of a growing community of settlers which included people of African, Dutch, Scottish, English, and Canadian backgrounds. But as insignificant as he was back then, Samuel Allison left a legacy that has lasted to this day.

Adding Allison’s other accomplishments, he and his friends built a fort. Fort Allison was said to have been built in the spring of 1812: before war was declared against Britain, but after the Tecumseh made a name for himself.  So families of settlers huddled together in forts.

The Allisons weren’t alone in the Fort Allison. They were joined by “the families of Thomas Mills, William Stockwell, McBane, William Hogue, Daniel and Henry Kuykendall, and the colored families of Anderson, Morris,” and Austin Tann.

As amazing as Allison’s legendary exploits were, he couldn’t build a fort on his own.  Austin Tann and three Anderson brothers, along with Thomas Mills, helped Samuel Allison build the fort.

The use of the word “colored” is interesting here.  Most of the descendants of these families were listed as “free people of color”, and later free people of mixed race in future census returns.

One rumor says Anderson family once lived in Kentucky, just like the Allisons.  It would be interesting to know if the two families knew each other, or were even related by marriage.  They could have been strangers united by a crisis.

How these families met, however, doesn’t really matter. All were ready to defend the fort, their families and their liberty.

There were many people residing at Fort Allison (Samuel Allison alone had nine children, an unspecified number of grandchildren, and perhaps his brothers’ families) and the land inside couldn’t grow enough to feed them all.  So families had to leave Fort Allison to get food.

“As [21 year old] Austin Tann was returning, one day, […] with a sack of meal, he was pursued by a band of Indians on ponies. He was riding a large horse and took refuge in the marsh, southwest of Russellville. His pursuers were unable to follow him with their ponies, and he escaped with the loss only of his grist.”

The design of the fort is said to have been based on that of “Fort Francisville” which is probably the same as “Fort Tougas”, another fort in Lawrence county.

Joseph Tougas, a French speaker from what is now Canada, was said to be the first permanent settler in Lawrence country. Tougas’ fort consisted of a wall “12 to 14 feet high.” Inside were log cabins where families from nearby farmers stayed in time of trouble. Like the Allisons, Tougas built his fort to defend against the Indians and a possible invasion from his own homeland to the North.

9 September 1812: Fort Allison asks for help

On the ninth day of September, 1812, the inhabitants of the fort wrote a letter to General Gibson asking for assistanc.

They were in a “precarious” situation. The upper part of the foot was shaky, and part of it had cracked. It was “Likely to fall” if they didn’t “get a brace” to keep it up. They asked General Gibson for men to help them.

The Indians surrounded Fort Allison and fired upon it. Then the men of the fort, in order to draw the fire (perhaps so that the Indians would run out of ammunition, or perhaps to distract them as someone escaped the fort to get help) decided to play a little trick. The “inmates” of the fort found a gourd, or a sack full of unground corn, and stuck a man’s hat on top of it. Then they slowly raised that sack with a hat above the pickets.

Well, the Indians refused to waste their bullets on such a silly trick. The women in the fort then “taunted” the Indians with the yell “fire, you yellow sunny bees.”

Leaving the fort became very dangerous.  William Stockwell was shot and killed on his way to another fort.  Mr. Anderson (I’m not sure what his name was) was shot not to far from the fort, perhaps on his way to find reinforcements.

Mrs. Anderson (probably Mary) didn’t take to kindly to her husband getting shot by Indians.  She “wanted a cannon mounted on Dubois hill to deal out indiscriminate slaughter amoung the Indians.”

The Indians were good shots, but they didn’t always shoot to kill. It’s said that two “rangers” who were travelling between “Du Bois and Allison” had their scarfs shot away but were otherwise untouched.

You won’t find the defenders of Fort Allison on any Veterans list, and there’s good reason. The men, women and children in Fort Allison drew no government salaries. In 1812, no one paid you to defend your own home.

A new threat

After the war, or the “age of Forting”, was over, the families went their seperate ways.

The history of the counties, written after the Civil War and the period of turmoil which followed, tells us that “colored” inhabitants were law abiding, and that they lived in peace.  A threat came, however, as after the war of 1812 ended two brothers from Tennesse tried to start a slave farm in the area. This, according to the chronicle, was resisted by the existing residents, and the slave owners were run out of the state.

The heroes of Fort Allison became prosperous land owners.

(Despite the fact that slavery was illegal in Illinois, the 1818 Crawford county census does list more than a few people as “slaves or servants”, which may include the slave farm that the chronicle mentioned. These slavers did not appear to have any links the inhabitants, or “inmates”, of Fort Allison.)

Samuel Allison’s descendant inherits his Spirit of Adventure

Although I’ve relied on written sources for most of the above, there was a story that I did get to hear.

Many years later, during the days of segregation in America, some of Samuel Allison’s descendants decided to go out for a picnic. A little boy among them exhibited some of his ancestor’s adventurous spirit, and managed to slip away on his own.

The little boy soon found some children whose extended family had been having a picnic of their own. These children may have had darker skin than the little boy’s siblings, but he took no notice of physical appearance.  They were children, and children like to play. I think that one of the games they played together was “forting,” a game which I was told was similar to cowboys and Indians.

A great time was had by all.

Eventually, it was time to go home.  Old photographs reveal that the little descendent of Samuel Allison had curly hair and tanned quite easily.  In his little boy voice, Allison could have sounded like “Anderson.”  The little boy was mistaken by the picnickers for a child of a friend or a relative, who nearly took him home with them.

Want to know more?

If you go to Russelville, Crawford County, Illinois, you can see a small monument marking where people believe Fort Allison once stood. I don’t remember it from when I visited the place as a kid, but there’s a photo online. According to Ed Brumley, “This monument  is a historical maker in reference to our early history of our country and should not be overlooked.”

The marker reads:

“Fort Allison Stockade
Located in this Vicinity
Lawrence County
Historical Society”

Old Census returns for crawford county:

If you know any related stories, I’d be interested.

It is often said that one in ten (or even one in four) American sailors were of African descent. I believe this included the majority of the Holkar’s crew.

Martin O’Malley of the Irish times reported that “When the citizens of Baltimore banded together to repel the British during the War of 1812 , three in five were immigrants, and one in five was black — some were free, some slaves.”

Quotes are extracts are from

“Combined history of Edwards, Lawrence and Wabash Counties, Illinois : with illustrations descriptive of their scenery and biographical sketches of some of their prominent men and pioneers” as transcribed by K.Torp.

The letter and the sunny bee taunt were from the entry on Allison in a genealogical publication about “Lawrence County, Il”, by Lawrence Co. Historical Society

A list of forts

Online Genealogies


  1. Samuel Veale Allison, Sr., was my 5th great-grandfather, and his origin has been the topic of a lot of conflicting information. Some say he was born in Warm Springs, VA, while others say New Jersey. Some say he was Scottish, others say he was English. As his descendant I have participated in DNA testing, and know that my DNA results are consistent with a Joseph Allison who came from England.

    According to the book ‘History of Maria Creek Church By Ben. F. Keith, M.D., and Published By Authority of the Church, Vincennes, IND: A. V Crotts & Co., Book and Job Printers – 1889’,

    Pg. 6 – States that the church was organized on the 20th day of May, 1809. “There were thirteen members that entered into that organization, viz: Samuel Allison, Phoebe Allison, Charles Polke, Sen., Charles Polke, Jr., Margaret Polke, Achsah Polke, William Polke, Sally Polke, John Lemen, Polly Lemen, William Bruce, Sally Bruce, and John Morris, a man of color. Of the above named persons Samuel Allison, Phoebe Allison and John Morris lived on the West Side of the Wabash river in Illinois Territory.”

    Pg 8 – Articles of Faith – Art. 10th. We believe that African slavery as it exists in some parts of the United States, is unjust in it origin and oppressive in it consequences; and is inconsistent with the spirit of the Gospel. But viewing our situation in this Territory, as the Law does not tolerate hereditary slavery, we think it inexpedient to meddle with the subject
    in a Church capacity. [*See note below].
    -Note—It is thought by some that this 10th Article of the Confession of
    Faith was not adopted as an Article of Faith at the organization of the
    Church, but was drafted by Wm. Polke and passed as a resolution by the
    Church in 1815, and amended to their Articles of Faith. The records were
    full and perfect of every meeting through all the early years of the existence.
    If such action had been taken subsequent to the organization of the Church,
    it would have appeared in their minutes. It is therefore presumed that it
    was adopted at the organization of the Church, and was the first public act.
    so far as known by the writer, condemning slavery, by any body corporate or
    otherwise, in Indiana Teritory.

  2. Enjoyed your article. Thomas Mills was my GGGGrandfather. I was born and raised in Lawrence Co about 10 miles from where Thomas settled. There are 7th generation Mills still living in the county.

  3. From my GGGGgrandfather Esau Johnson’s diary, it sounds like Fort Allison was there in 1811, possibly earlier. If you go to page 5 of the diary (pg 8 of PDF), Esau talks of his father building their house 6 miles east of Fort Allison in 1811. He notes who helped them raise the house, and that they were experiencing Indian troubles at that time also.

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