Southern Illinois History Page

The Raid on Sturdivant's Fort:
A Story Told by Documents

Springhouse Magazine

    ROSICLARE, Ill. (April 1998) — Many people have heard of Fort Massac and other forts along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, but how many have ever heard of Fort Sturdivant or Sturdivant's Castle? Its location in southern Illinois has been referred to as north of Golconda, south of Cave-in-Rock, in the wilderness, and along the Ohio River, but none gave a legal description. So where was Sturdivant's Fort? It was a mystery to be solved by Springhouse.
    This phantom fort was the home of an outlaw gang of counterfeiters in the early 1800's. It was attacked three times (once in 1822 and twice in 1823) by officers of the law in an effort to clean out this nest of criminals. This story has been mistakenly placed in a later era by Governor Reynolds in his history of Illinois, My Own Times (113, 114). He erroneously states the attack occurred in 1831, and by mob action. He was wrong on both counts. Although Reynolds is correct that much vigilante/regulator activities took place during his administration, this event was carried out by circuit prosecuting attorneys, justices of the peace, and constables of the affected counties
    During the territorial days and early statehood of Illinois, counterfeiters became a severe problem. It affected everyone from the settlers to the merchants and bankers. It was theft by deception. Along with the hopeful settlers, there also came villains who used their God-given talents of engraving to make fraudulent or counterfeit money. The counterfeiters may have descended from old world European families. Some of these master craftsmen produced works of art, engraving upon gold or silver, ornate knives, firearms, watches, silverware, etc. Engravers were highly sought after and very much in demand in the printing business. Almost every picture appearing in the old newspapers was the result of a master engraver's work. These plates were engraved in brass or copper, as photographs were unknown at this time. The engraver was paid a small sum for each piece. To some engravers, the temptation to duplicate banknotes or coin molds became too great, and they soon found themselves manu facturing bogus currency, which were sometimes better than the originals. In so doing, these artisans moved into the realm of the criminal
    One such artistic group of counterfeiters was the Sturdivant[1] family, who were operating in Pope Co., Illinois, and who also had ties in St. Clair County along the Kaskaskia River. Some of this family had evidently served in the Revolutionary War, helping to establish our country's independence. Many of the Sturdivant family came from the northeast, Connecticut and Massachusetts. One group came from Virginia and settled in Tennessee. Roswell S. Sturdivant and his brother, Merrick Sturdivant, claimed they came from "Robinson" [Robertson] Co., Tennessee, though no records could be found of their presence in this county (See Deed Book A, Pope County, p. 153). Roswell is listed on the census of St. Clair Co., Illinois, in 1820. Other documents prove that both Roswell and Merrick were in Illinois by 1818, and were probably here a few years earlier. One source also lists a Stephen Sturdivant in connection with the counterfeiters (Illinois Gazette, July 6, 1822).
    Azor Sturdivant (the father of Roswell and Merrick Sturdivant) had connections in Delaware Co., Ohio. He registered a land transaction in that county in 1808. He is also on the 1808 tax list of Fairfield County, Ohio. A Czar Sturdevant was a charter member of the Masons of Delaware on Jan. 15, A.L. 5812 (1812) (History of Delaware County and Ohio. 1880. Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co. 583).
    It seems the Sturdivants were involved in counterfeiting long before they came to Illinois, as is attested to by the following excerpt from the History of Delaware County and Ohio, p. 435.

    "...Not long after, another alarm was given, but not generally credited by the settlers. Two men by the name of Sturdevant had been out for some time in the woods of Kingston Township, ostensibly boring for salt, though generally believed to be engaged in counterfeiting. They came rushing into the settlement one day, declaring that they had been fired at, but had escaped, and, in returning the fire, had hit an Indian. To satisfy the timid, a party went out to look up the matter. The spot where the supposed Indian fell was found, and a single drop of blood, but nothing more. It was simply a ruse of these fellows to get a plausible reason for leaving..." (Found by Sam McDowell, McDowell Publications, Utica, KY).

    However, this is not to say that all of the Ohio Sturdevants were considered outlaws, for it was said of James B. Sturdevant (1880) that he was "a hard-working and honest man," who had cleared and worked his own farm, as did his brother, Chauncey H. Sturdevant (History of Delaware County and Ohio).
    There were at least two operations in the counterfeiting scam. The first was the actual engraving and printing of the notes, the second the "passing off" these notes, or as it was called "passing the queer." The counterfeiter would sometimes sell these bogus notes at a discount. Some sources stated that Sturdivant sold $100 counterfeit for $16 legal currency.
    There were two groups of people living side by side along the Ohio River, one who had a work ethic and respect for morals, and the other who spent their time habitually living outside the law. Legislators soon realized the problem counterfeiting was causing and passed laws to try to discourage the practice and punish the violators. On Jan. 11, 1816, the law in the Illinois Territory set the penalty for counterfeiting at "death by hanging, without benefit of clergy." [2]
    Other penalties listed in this law ranged from death to paying "a fine of four fold the amount of such note or bill" or beating with "not less than thirty-nine lashes well laid on, on his bare back" for such things as manufacturing or bringing paper into the Illinois territory to be used for counterfeiting, making or concealing plates used for counterfeiting, and passing or assisting others in passing counterfeit notes.
     In 1818, Illinois received statehood. At its first General Assembly held at Kaskaskia, on February 27, 1819, the penalty for counterfeiting was lessened to a $500 fine and 75 lashes. In addition, the convicted felon would "be deemed infamous, ad be held incapable of holding any office, or giving testimony in any case whatever." [3]
    This same penalty went for anyone found manufacturing or bringing paper into the state for counterfeiting purposes and making the counterfeiting plates. However, for passing or assisting in the passing of bogus notes or concealing money moulds carried a penalty of a $500 fine plus "thirty-nine lashes to the bare back." If this fine was not paid, the person was to be committed to jail until the next term of court. If the fine was still not paid, the Sheriff was to sell the offender to the highest bidder for a term of servitude of seven years. Should the person sold try to run away from his master, his term of servitude would be increased.
    In 1821, this law was strengthened to include counterfeiting gold or silver coins with the same punishment as above (Laws of Illinois, Feb. 12, 1821).
    New settlers were arriving who were willing to enforce these new laws and would not ignore the crimes of the counterfeiters. One such man was young Shawneetown attorney, John McLean, [4] who evidently was one of the first to go after the Sturdivant gang, as shown in the following account published in the Illinois Gazette, Jan. 1, 1820.

    Counterfeiters and Swindlers—For the past three or four weeks, strangers had been collecting here, in companies of two or three at a time, until the number had increased from twelve to twenty. The first who made their appearance were the family of Hagermans, consisting of an old woman, three young women, a young man, William Hagerman, two or three other young men, and perhaps some children. They rented a house and opened what they called a grocery. Others afterwards came and commenced boarding at this grocery — others boarded elsewhere — though Hagerman's was the common rendezvous, where they met every night to drink and dissipate, and swindle all who might fall into their clutches. But in this latter business they succeeded badly; their conduct being such, that they found few associates: and such, indeed, had excited some suspicion as to their character and designs. In this course of proceeding, however, they continued until a soldier, who had b een lately discharged from the army, was drawn into their toils made drunk, and swindled of several hundred dollars—money which he had earned by a one years service of his country. After this, there was some stir among the citizens of this place, and an attempt made to recover back the money. A warrant was served upon one who was stated to be of the party, and who acknowledged he had won more than a hundred dollars of the money; and being unable to clear himself of the charge, was committed to jail. [Note at bottom of article: From some facts that have since come to light, it is thought that he does not belong to the gang.]
    At this, some of the gang took the alarm and on the 16th last, set off towards St. Louis. Of these there was one they called Col. Johnson. He was about 6 feet high, and of a very decent appearance—rides in a handsome little wagon drawn by match sorrel horses. With him in the waggon were a Mr. John Daily and William Hagerman; and on horseback accompanying them, a Mr. Nicholas Castleman. Daily is a thick, well set fellow, elegantly dressed—gray pantaloons and with a frock coat. Castleman rides a black horse—is a thick, well set, round faced, flat nosed, black looking fellow—5 feet 7 or 8 inches high. Hagerman is said to be lurking about this place. This part of the gang had only got to the Saline, 14 miles hence, when they began to offer notes altered from ones to tens and twenties, which being refused, they passed on about 15 miles further to Bridgman's, where they took up their head quarters, on the 18th, in the evening. While in this neighbourhood, they pass ed off a considerable quantity of notes, altered from ones to twenties. The notes are on the bank of Indiana at Vincennes, branch bank at Vevay, and Farmers' and Mechanicks' bank at Madison. Our townsman, Mr. McLean, being on his way to Vandalia, hearing of these proceedings, raised some men for the purpose of taking the rogue—which he effected, but having no proof of their guilt, was constrained to let them go again. Mr. McLean, (determined to break up their haunt in this place,) returned on Monday evening, raised another party, and went in pursuit of the others—three of whom (John S. Potter, Thomas Foster, and _____ Milburne) they found and brought before two of our magistrates for examination—. There was found on Potter, (besides much depreciated and uncurrent paper) one one hundred dollar note on the "Patriotick bank of Washington," D.C.—and on Foster two notes each of the same amount, on the same bank—all palpable forgeries. Nothing was found in Milburne's possession.
    Note—The engraving of the place on which these notes were printed is a tolerable imitation of Murray, Draper, Fairman and Co.'s original, but the cashier's signature is very indifferently counterfeited.
    It having been proved that Potter had attempted to pass some of his trash, he was committed to prison. The other two fellows, for want of sufficient proof, were acquitted—though little doubt is entertained as to their agency in circulating this spurious paper through the country.
    Much credit is due to Mr. McLean for the prompt and determined manner in which he acted in this affair. We venture to predict, that Shawneetown will not be again infested with these men; and also, that the country would soon be rid of counterfeit money, if the people (as soon as they found such in circulation) would trace it to its source, and punish the makers to professed distributors thereof, with as much promptness and rigour as has been done in this case.
    From a letter found in Foster's pocketbook, it would appear that Merrick Sturdivant, (the fellow who was taken up for passing counterfeit money about a year ago, at Golconda) resides at Manville Ferry (supposed to be on the Kaskaskia river,) [Ed. note: Manville Ferry was located at New Athens, Illinois.] and that he is the head man of this horde of swindlers. The letter was from Potter to Sturdivant, introducing Foster to the latter's acquaintance, and speaking of him as worthy of great confidence, and willing to engage in their "speculations."

    The incident of Merrick Sturdivant passing counterfeit money "about a year ago" referred to in the above newspaper account was substantiated with documentation found in the Pope County Circuit Court vault, Golconda, by Becky Schmook and Mary Brimm and given to this author. The following arrest warrant was issued 6 January 1819.[5]
    On the outside of the above document is written: "The United States vs. James Leach, Ebenezer Hays, Merrick Sturdivant, Syrus Halberd. Executed the within as therin directed. Lewis Field" "The deffendants appeared at the hour of three oclock agreeably to adjournment and after the evidence was heard they were adjudged by us to be guilty of the within charge. Jas. E. Willis JP, Francis Moore JP, January 8th, 1819, Witnesses Wm. Modglin, Jos. Williams, Caleb E. Irvin, A. J. Storm."
    James Hall (born July 29, 1793, died July 5, 1868), from Philadelphia, was another young lawyer who was willing to risk his life to enforce the law and apprehend the counterfeiters. Hall is best known for his writings chronicling the frontier (Letters from the West, 1828, reprinted 1967 by Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, Gainesville, Fla., and Sketches of History, Life and Manners in the West, 1835, Philadelphia). He was only 26 when he came to Shawneetown in May of 1820. Shortly after his arrival, he bought a half-interest of the newspaper Illinois Gazette from Allen Kimmel, and went into partnership with Henry Eddy, who had been a law student of Hall's back in Pittsburgh. Hall became the prosecuting attorney for the Fourth Judicial District, which covered the six southernmost counties of Illinois, including Pope and Gallatin.
    Merrick's brother, Roswell Sturdivant, according to James Hall, was "a man of talent and address. He was possessed of much mechanical genius, was an expert artist, and was skilled in some of the sciences. As an engraver he was said to have few superiors; and he excelled in some other branches of art" (Sketches of History, Life and Manners in the West 89-90). The Pope County Court was so impressed with his artistry that they paid him $5 to engrave a circuit court seal (Pope Co., Illinois, County Court Record, Mar. 20, 1821, Book A, 141). His seal is found on several of the court documents of that time, including, ironically, arrest warrants for counterfeiting.
    Roswell also had a sense of humor. As an example of a classical master criminal mind at work, he sent a letter to the old John Marshall Bank at Shawneetown warning them of bogus money being in circulation and signed the letter with his own name. This warning was published in the Illinois Gazette on Dec. 29, 1821.

    A letter to the Cashier of the old Bank of Illinois, at Shawneetown, cautions the publick against counterfeit three dollar notes on it, which are in circulation in Pope county. One or two have been offered to Mr. Ross Sturdivant there, who is the writer of the letter.

    In April of 1822, Hall announced in his paper that counterfeit notes were being circulated in Shawneetown. A few weeks later, on Friday, June 28, 1822, after one of Sturdivant's gang was captured there, Hall and four other citizens left Shawneetown to capture the Sturdivants (W. H. Venable. 1891. Beginnings of Literary Culture in the Ohio Valley. Cincinatti, Ohio). The account of this successful raid was given in the July 6, 1822 issue of the Illinois Gazette.

    ROSWELL STURDIVANT. We are glad to announce that this celebrated counterfeiter, who has for several years, inundated the country with spurious Bank Bills, has at last been apprehended. On Friday last, a party of five persons, who volunteered upon this service, set off from this town in pursuit of him with a warrant granted by one of the supreme Judges on the affidavit of an accomplice. They proceeded on that day to Golconda, where they procured a constable, and an addition to their party, consisting of a few citizens of that neighbourhood, and, on the following morning, went to Sturdivant's house, ten miles from Golconda. Two of the party entered the house by stratagem, unsuspected, and the remainder immediately pressing forward, the gang within, consisting of six or seven persons, was completely surprised. They were evidently at work when the house was first entered, but broke off, and were busied in attempting to conceal their implements when they were discovered. The upper story of the house was found to be a complete workshop, fitted up with work benches, &c. On these were several tools, apparently used for engraving; and on the floor was a quantity of trimmings, or scraps of paper, evidently cut from the edges of Bank Notes. Here was also a large flat stone, upon which they were grinding or mixing ink when surprised—and a number of phials, containing mixtures of different kinds. Unfortunately, however, the party had not time to continue their search; for it was soon discovered that an alarm was given to Sturdivant's confederates in the neighbourhood, and it was expected that they would attempt to rescue him. The apprehending party, being only eight or ten strong, therefore withdrew with Roswell Sturdivant and his brother, Merrick Sturdivant, who alone were named in the warrant. They were pursued by a party of Sturdivant's friends, well armed with rifles, for about twenty miles, but they fortunately reached Mr. Potts', [6] ten miles from this place, before the pursuing party came up. Here they were surrounded by these villains the whole night, and threatened with an attack: which, however, was fortunately not made—the resolute deportment of the party in the house being such as to intimidate their pursuers. On Sunday morning the prisoners were conveyed to this place, where they are now closely guarded. It is ascertained that the scoundrels who pursued were at first nine in number, and that their party was afterwards reinforced by twelve more. Jacob Robertson, _______ Blair, Captain Steele, James Belden, and Stephen Sturdivant, were of this gang. Such is the high-handed villainy of the counterfeiters of Pope county.

    Because Hall's posse had to run for their lives with their two prisoners, they failed to gather up the counterfeiting paraphernalia for evidence needed for a conviction. Consequently, the Sturdivant brothers were set free.
    Almost a year later, the Sturdivants were again captured after a bloody battle in May, 1823. This account was also carried in the Illinois Gazette on 17 May 1823.

    BLOODY BUSINESS — Last Tuesday week, a party of eighteen or twenty set out from Golconda to arrest the Sturdivants, who live about 16 miles above that place, near the Ohio river, and are supposed to carry on the counterfeiting business, being engravers, and having the necessary implements, &c. We have not learnt how the affray commenced, or who fired first, but presume it began on the attempt of the Golconda party to enter the house to make the arrest. A Mr. Small, who was at the house of Sturdivant, was shot through the body, and died in a few hours after. He is supposed to have been an agent of the counterfeiters, employed in putting off their paper. Roswell Sturdivant, the principal engraver, was shot through the nape of his neck, and is supposed to be dangerously wounded. Mr. Rondeau, who was of the Golconda party, in endeavouring to prevent disturbance, and to induce the assalted to submit without resistance, was shot through the shoulders—the wound very dangerous. One other, we believe, was also wounded, but we do not know to which party he belonged. The party finally succeeded in taking them prisoners, and they are now confined in jail, together with such of the assailants as were concerned in the killing and wounding. The Sheriff has communicated the facts to the Judge of the Circuit, with a view to the holding a special court for the trial of the prisoners—but none has yet been ordered, and we understand it is a matter of doubt whether the statute gives authority to hold one.
    Since the above was in type we have procured a more correct account. It was a day or two after Small was killed that the other attack was made. The first party not conceiving themselves strong enough, returned to Golconda, and a day or two after about 40 persons assembled, and proceeded up to the neighborhood of the counterfeiters on board the steam boat Cincinnati, surrounded the house, and after a considerable struggle, in which Sturdivant and another of his party; and Mr. Rondeau of the other party, were wounded, as stated above, they succeeded in arresting Roswell Sturdivant and his father, and two others, and conveyed them to jail, who are the only persons that are confined—our information not being correct, which stated that some of the assailants were also in jail.
    The commanders of this expedition against the counterfeiters, for themselves and their associates, beg leave, most respectfully, to thank the Captain of the Cincinnati for transporting them, without charge, to the neighbourhood of Sturdivants, and for his politeness to them while on board.

    Roswell and his father, Azor Sturdivant, and William Caldwell were charged with assault and battery and with counterfeiting. On May 15, 1823, Samuel Omelvany and Alexander Parkenson put up a $400 bond on appeal for Roswell Sturdivant, who was released on a recognisance bond. William and Azor were also released on recognisance bonds.

    William Rondeau, mentioned as being wounded in the above raid, was another early lawyer of Pope County. He was born in London, England in 1779, ordained a Baptist minister in England about 1812, and was licensed to practice law in the Manchester, England, area in 1814. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1819, settling first in Philadelphia, Penn. In 1820, he purchased a small farm on the Hodgeville Road west of Golconda, Ill. He also was licensed as a retail merchant in Golconda in 1820. Later, he and his wife Ann and children settled on Rondeau Island in the Ohio River near Golconda. At the time of the above raid, Rondeau was the clerk of the Big Creek Baptist Church, now the First Baptist Church of Elizabethtown. In 1827, he would help organize the Old Grand Pier Baptist Church, Pope County, Ill.
    An interesting entry is found in Pope County Court Record Book A, page 199:

    Ordered the treasurer is required to pay to William Rondeau $2 for iron to make hand cuffs in May last. Ordered the treasurer is required to Tubba Taylor $2 for making hand cuffs in May last.

    As a result of the wounds he received in the Sturdevant raid, Rondeau filed the following suit [Pope Co. Circuit Court, Vault Box 1825, Indictments Disposed].[7]
    The case dragged through the courts and the Sturdivants one of the best lawyers in Illinois history as their defense lawyer, the man who had years before happened upon a letter implicating Merrick Sturdivant as ringleader in a counterfeiting gang. The irony of the situation was not lost on McLean, who was successful in continuing this case.
    On the 16th of April, 1824, it was reported to the court that "Azor Sturdivant, the principal in the recognisance, was dead. Therefore considered that the same be discharged."
    Roswell Sturdivant and William Caldwell's cases were also continued and were finally removed from the docket. McLean's reward for his good work was that he was not paid by the Sturdivants and ended up suing the estate, but died before he could collect.

    For more on the Sturdivants in Southern Illinois' history check out Ron Nelson's story To Find a Fort. and Judge James Hall's description of Sturdivant the Counterfeitor
    Springhouse Magazine originally published all three articles in their April 1998 issue and are reprinted with permission. For back issues of Springhouse, contact publisher Gary DeNeal.
    Author Ron Nelson can also be reached via the web.
Created April 24, 1999 by Jon Musgrave © 1999