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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Allen, James, Jr.
(1806–August 23, 1846)

–military officer, explorer, and founder of Fort Des Moines—was the son of James and Jane (Hethwood) Allen, Scotch-Irish immigrants to Madison, Indiana. Young James, the top student of eight in a local academy, entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1825. Of the 87 young men who entered the Military Academy in Allen's class, only 46 graduated four years later. The top two in his class were Charles Mason of New York (later an Iowa Supreme Court justice) and Robert E. Lee of Virginia.

    Allen's first posting as a second lieutenant was to the Fifth Infantry at Fort Brady in the Michigan wilderness near the east end of Lake Superior. In 1832 he and 10 enlisted men were assigned to accompany a party made up mostly of Ojibwe, French Canadian fur traders, and a few Americans on a lengthy, difficult voyage to the source of the Mississippi River. The expedition's leader was Henry B. Schoolcraft, a scholarly Indian agent. He and, to a lesser extent, Allen became recognized as the discoverers of the river's source, newly renamed as Lake Itasca. Allen's report to the army described, with some literary flair, the lives of the people they encountered, natural resources (particularly copper), obstacles to travel, and what he believed was the hopelessness of the Indians' situation.

    In 1833, commissioned in the recently organized First Regiment of Dragoons, Allen left the infantry to report for duty at the infant town of Chicago. The dragoons were the army's horse soldiers, but Allen's assignment had little to do with fighting or horses. Instead, he was to battle Lake Michigan, which kept filling the mouth of the Chicago River with sandbars, chilling the hopes of Chicago's boosters, whose plans for building a great city were based on cheap waterborne commerce with the East. The problem was that Chicago had no natural harbor and was subject to sudden violent storms. If the mouth of the river could be kept open with timber and stone piers extending out into the lake, it could provide a safe harbor. Allen's first construction season was under the command of an older officer, but the next year it became his job alone. When he left Chicago in 1838, it was as a captain. He had made progress, yet lake problems persisted. Socially, he had been a popular young bachelor about town. And, through land speculation, he had been considered a wealthy one until the Panic of 1837 struck.

    Allen's most significant involvement in Iowa began in October 1842, when the Sauk and Meskwaki agreed to sell their vast remaining acreage of Iowa lands and, after three years, remove to Kansas. To maintain relative order during that period, the government assigned troops to the area. The captain's company of dragoons and one of infantry were under orders to keep white settlers out of the Indian lands until title passed to the United States in October 1845. Captain Allen not only chose a site for a temporary fort–on the west side of the Des Moines River at the Raccoon Fork–but was able to sell construction lumber from a mill in which he was a partner. The Sac and Fox Agency was relocated from Agency, Iowa, to a plot nearby on the east side of the Des Moines River.

    While on this assignment, Allen, during a visit home to Indiana, stirred the imagination of a young nephew, Benjamin Franklin Allen, to see the opportunity for fortune once the area was opened to white settlement. Meanwhile, the captain was taking advantage of his position to further his own affairs by pursuing land claims and bankrolling the post's sutler and urging the Indians to buy from the sutler's store.

    James Allen died at Fort Leavenworth in August 1846 while leading troops of the Mormon Battalion to California and the war with Mexico.
Sources For more on James Allen, see David Wiggins, The Rise of the Allens: Two Soldiers and the Master of Terrace Hill (2002).
Contributor: David Wiggins

Cite as: Wiggins, David. "Allen, James, Jr." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 21 January 2018