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Colonel George Davenport was the first white man to make a permanent settlement in what is now Rock Island County, arriving here in the spring of 1816. He was a native of England, born in Lincolnshire, in 1783. At the age of seventeen he enlisted as a sailor on a merchant vessel, and for the next three years he visited France, Spain and Portugal. In the fall of 1803 his vessel sailed from Liverpool to St. Petersburg, Russia, and shortly after its arrival there an embargo was laid upon all English vessels in that port, the vessels taken possession of and their crews thrown into prison by the Russian Government. In the following spring they were released and returned home. The next voyage was to New York, in the summer of 1804, where they arrived in safety. After discharging their cargo and taking another on board for Liverpool, as the vessel was on the point of sailing, one of the sailors was knocked overboard. Mr. Davenport quickly jumped into a small boat and rescued him. In jumping into the boat he fractured his leg very badly and, there being no surgeon on board, the captain had him taken to the city and placed in a hospital, returning without him. After remaining in the hospital about two months, he was advised to go into the country to recruit his health. Acting upon this advice, he went to Rahway, New Jersey, and subsequently to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he afterward enlisted in the regular army.
In the spring of 1806 he went with his regiment to New Orleans, and in the fall received orders to march to Sabine River. While there, he was sent with dispatches to Fort Adams, and while on the way his canoe struck a snag and he was upset in the river. Clinging to some driftwood, he managed to reach the shore, and was then obliged to strike across the country to the Mississippi, traveling over swamps, bayous and sloughs. He was several days in reaching the fort, living upon what berries and wild fruit he could find. For ten years he served his adopted country as a soldier, principally against the Indians. In the second war with Great Britian the most important battle he was engaged in was that of Lundy Lane. He secured a British musket at this battle, which is still kept in the family as a relic of the war.
On receiving his discharge in 1815, he was employed by Colonel William Morrison, of Kentucky, government contractor, to supply the troops with provisions. Going to St. Louis, he took charge of several keelboats, loaded with provisions. A large drove of cattle were also purchased and driven through the country. They started up the river and arrived at the mouth of the Des Moines River late in the fall and concluded to stop there for the winter. In the spring of 1816, in company with Colonel Lawrence, in command of the Eighth Regiment United States Infantry, they again embarked on boats and proceeded up the river. Arriving at the mouth of Rock River, they examined the country for a site for a fort, resulting in the selection of the lower end of Rock Island as the most suitable point. They landed on Rock Island May 10, 1816, and here Mr. Davenport made his home until his death. His residence, a double log cabin, was near the foot of the island, where he subsequently erected a large two-story frame house.
The Indians at that time were not very friendly to the Americans, but soon took a fancy to Mr. Davenport, giving him the name of Sag-a-nosh, meaning ” an Englishman.” During the second year, with what little money he had saved, he purchased a stock of goods and began trading with the Indians. As an Indian trader he was remarkably successful, securing and retaining their good will and confidence, although for a time he had more or less trouble with the Winnebagoes, at one time narrowly escaping being murdered.
In 1823 the first steamboat, the “Virginia,” arrived at the island loaded with provisions for Prairie du Chien, and Mr. Davenport was called upon to pilot her over the rapids.
In 1825 a post office was established upon the island, with Mr. Davenport as postmaster. He held the office until its removal to the main land, on the organization of the county.
In 1827 he visited his native land, after an absence of twenty-three years, returning in 1828.
During this year the first settlements were made in this vicinity. As they were poor Mr. Davenport furnished many of them with provisions and groceries until they could raise a crop. – When the Indians returned in the spring of 1829, Mr. Davenport used all his influence to induce them to remove to the west side of the Mississippi, and partially succeeded. Wapello removed his village to Muscatine Slough, and Keokuk, with part of the Sacs, to the Iowa River, but Black Hawk and the remainder of the Sacs refused to go, claiming that they never had sold their lands. During the Black Hawk War that followed, Mr. Davenport was appointed quarter-master general, with the rank of colonel.
On the organization of the county, Colonel Davenport was elected one of the first county commissioners, and served some two or three years. In the fall of 1835, in company with several others, he purchased a claim of Antoine Le Claire, across the river in Iowa, and proceeded to lay out a town. This town was given the name of ” Davenport,” in his honor.
In the fall of 1837 he visited Washington City, in company with a number of chiefs of the Sac and Fox Nations, and aided the Government in the purchase of a large portion of Iowa. In 1842 Governor Chambers made another treaty with the Sacs and Foxes. He told the chiefs to select any of their white friends they might choose to assist them in making a treaty. They selected Colonel Davenport as one of four. By this treaty the Indians sold all of their lands within the State of Iowa. Shortly after this, Colonel Davenport withdrew from the Indian trade and devoted the remainder of his life to the improvement of his property in Davenport and Rock Island.
“Colonel Davenport,” said a well known writer, “was of a very free and generous disposition, very jovial and very fond of company. After retiring from the Indian trade, he spent the winters generally in St. Louis or Washington. Whether traveling on a steam-boat or stopping at a hotel, he would always have a crowd around him listening to his stories and anecdotes. He never sued any one in his life, and, could not bear to see any one in distress without trying to relieve him. He enjoyed excellent health and spirits, and had a prospect of living many years to enjoy the comfort for which he had toiled so hard, but he was struck down by one of a band of robbers, in his own house, on the fourth of July, 1845. He died aged sixty-two.”
The life of Colonel Davenport was a long and active one. ” Although of trans-Atlantic extraction,” says the writer already quoted from, “he was a true type of the American, possessing indomitable resolution, a restless desire to progress, with an invincible determination to overcome obstacles and achieve success. Much as his courage, perseverance, enterprise and ability demand admiration, there is still something more than these commanding our respect and honor-something which is more lustrous than wealth, better than position or title: it is his Humanity. Had men of his bias dealt with Black Hawk and his `British Band,’ less gory scalp locks would have decked the belts of warring savages, less blood would have been shed, and the entire fearful drama of devastation, slaughter and carnage which was enacted upon our frontiers, would have been wholly omitted. Honor to his ashes! He sleeps in a grave whose proud epitaph reads: “Here lies a friend to humanity!’”