Two brothers are trying to solve one of the great mysteries of Madison County: Where was Fort Russell?
David and Ken Hanser have spent the past two years scouring historical records, talking to archaeologists, examining artifacts and exploring farm fields.
The 1812 log fort was key to Madison County's development, serving as a safe house for white settlers in case of Indian attack and later as a U.S. Army post.
"We think we're within a few feet of it," said David, 70, of Stillwater, Okla., an architecture professor at Oklahoma State University who is restoring his grandparents' home in Edwardsville.
Brother Ken, 81, is a retired architect in Manchester, Mo.
The Hansers believe the fort was about 1 1/2 miles northwest of Edwardsville, in a residential area near the intersection of Springfield Drive and Fairfield Drive.
The site is on a high plateau, allowing visibility for miles, and adjacent to two major traces (19th century interstates).
"The land drops off on three sides with flat accessibility on one side," David said. "That would have made it easily protected."
The Hansers' enthusiasm and perseverance have impressed Joe Weber, a member of Edwardsville's Historical Preservation Commission. He helped organize an event last spring, asking local residents to bring musket balls, arrowheads and other artifacts found in the vicinity.
"We're the third-oldest city in the state of Illinois, and (the fort) is a beginning point for our history," said Joe, 70, who teaches art education at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. "It would behoove us to learn more about it. I want more evidence, more documentation, more information."
Ken will speak on "Rediscovering Fort Russell" at the Madison County Historical Society's annual meeting on Nov. 4, along with local surveyor and history buff Jeff Pauk. The public is invited.
100 years of speculation
Interest in Fort Russell's whereabouts is nothing new. It began in earnest with Madison County's centennial in 1912.
Two decades later, officials discussed turning the site into a state park, but they couldn't positively identify its location.
"In 1948, the Madison County Historical Society formed a committee to search for the fort," said current member Cindy Reinhardt. "And in the Intelligencer on July 23, 1972, there was a lengthy article (titled) 'Where, oh, where has Fort Russell gone?'"
SIUE students have examined potential sites over the years but found no conclusive evidence.
Pioneers built the 150-foot square fort in 1812 under the direction of Illinois Territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards, who wanted to protect the newly designated Madison County seat. It began as "Camp Edwards."
"It was a safe haven for people who wanted to come here and buy land," David said. "The Native Americans were upset. They were downright irate that their land was being sold for development."
The fort later expanded to become Illinois Territory headquarters for Col. William Russell, commander of the U.S. Army's 7th Infantry Regiment in the War of 1812.
"Russell brought two companies of mounted U.S. rangers," Ken said. "One was quartered at the fort all the time, and the other was out ranging to assure that Indians were not (threatening white settlers)."
Fort Russell eventually was abandoned and dismantled, leaving no trace of its existence by the mid-1830s. People built homes and farmers plowed fields.
Evidence continued to be destroyed in the 1900s by collectors looking for artifacts.
"The general area has been known to contain the site of the fort for so many years, people have been out there with metal detectors, and the surface has been picked clean," Ken said. "You can't find anything out there."
Ken has been interested in the fort since the late 1990s, but he and David really got fired up a couple years ago because of Madison County's bicentennial.
They developed their own theory on the fort's location, then asked for help from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Researchers used an auger to take soil samples in August, but the drought-affected ground was too hard to allow deep probing.
The next step will be taken by Greg Vogel, an archaeologist and SIUE assistant professor of anthropology. He plans to do a surface study in the next month with a remote-sensing device called an electrical resistivity meter.
"If the fort was there, and the foundation compacted the soil, then the soil particles would be closer together, and they would have less resistance to electricity," he said. "So we might be able to map out the foundation."
The study may not solve the Fort Russell mystery, but it could be a boost for the Hanser brothers and other historians.
"We're light years ahead of what we knew one or two years ago," Joe said. "For me, the fort has become more real. It's no longer just a legend."
More information on Fort Russell can be found in a print-on-demand booklet written by the Hansers called "A Bicentennial Celebration of Edwardsville and Madison County." It's available for $20 at www.bookemon.com.
At a glance
What: Madison County Historical Society's annual meeting
When: 2 p.m. Nov. 4
Where: MCHS Archival Library, 715 N. Main St. in Edwardsville
Topic: "Rediscovering Fort Russell"
Speakers: Ken Hanser and Jeff Pauk
Information: Call 656-7569