Early settlers of Lee County believe that the explorers Marquette and Joliet landed at this spot in 1673. From here they made their only overland exploration on the west bank of the Mississippi, finding villages of the Illini tribe. Other French Canadian trappers and traders were later known to have explored this region.
Recorded history begins here in 1799, when Louis Honore Tesson received a grant from the Spanish government of Louisiana and built a homestead and trading post a half mile south of this location. Tesson chose this place because the Sac and Fox tribes (who had displaced the Illini), had semi-permanent dwellings to the north. When Zebulon Pike traveled up the river in 1805, Tesson interpreted for him, then faded away.
In 1824, Keokuk and other Sac and Fox chiefs traveled to Washington D.C. for a treaty conference. The United States Government designated the land between the Mississippi and the Des Moines rivers to be the "Half-Breed Tract," so designated because of intermarrying between white men and Native American women. Following the Black Hawk War in 1832, Iowa was opened to permanent settlement. The government sent military units to establish a presence in Iowa as peacekeepers. The military built Fort Des Moines, a temporary base, on Tesson's grant.
As settlers moved in, the need for peacekeeping diminished, and in 1837 the unit transferred to Fort Leavenworth. The government forbade selling the fort for any private use, but David and Edward Kilbourne set up a store on the fort grounds. They joined Isaac Galland and other land speculators in forging quit-claim deeds from those labeled "half-breeds" who had signed over their deeds.
The Kilbournes and a few others lived in and around the old fort, doing business with steamboat men and with the Sac and Fox. Inspired by wild roses that abounded on the bluff they called their village Montrose. Amenities were few, but in 1837 Galland entered into an agreement with Thomas Gregg to publish a newspaper called the Western Adventurer which was used to lure people to settle in Lee County.
In this same year, Erastus Snow wrote, "Moved my Mother in law into the old barracks at Montrose opposite Nauvoo and very soon every available cabin or room in the barracks were filled with the families of the Saints."
The Mormons learned that Isaac Galland claimed to own the so-called "half-breed lands" and also a farm across the river near the village of Commerce. Israel Barlow put Galland in touch with Mormon leaders wintering in Quincy. In April 1839, following his release from Missouri authorities, Joseph Smith negotiated with Galland to purchase land on both the Iowa and Illinois sides of the Mississippi.
Initially encouraged about an influx of people to whom he could merchandise, Kilbourne soon became at odds with Galland over his purported land claims and subsequently moved his storekeeping to Fort Madison. Later, in the 1850s, Kilbourne moved to Keokuk, making his fortune with the Des Moines Valley Railroad. Galland moved to Keokuk, then lived in California for a time. He returned to Fort Madison and died there in 1858.
As Mormon migrants began to come to Nauvoo, some settled in Lee County, Iowa. By 1840 Mormons comprised the majority of settlers in the vicinity of Montrose Township which was organized as a unit of government in 1841. Population centers at Nashville and at Ambrosia, three miles west of Montrose, never were formalized as towns, but were designated branches of the Church.
When the Mormons left Nauvoo in 1846, the Mormon residents of Montrose Township also traveled west. In the intervening years, settlers from Kentucky and Scandanavia occupied the abandoned farmsteads. Chartered as a city in 1857, Montrose served as an active river port, was linked to nearby Keokuk by the railroad.
The original fort gradually fell into disrepair and and was flooded by water when the dam at Keokuk was constructed in 1913.