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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark FORT ATKINSON

Location: Washington County, on a secondary road, about 1 mile east of the town of Fort Calhoun.

One of the first forts west of the Mississippi, the first west of the Missouri, and at the time the largest and most advanced frontier post, this fort (1819-27) had a short but important history. Next to Fort Smith (1817), it was the earliest on the "Permanent Indian Frontier." It was also an administrative center for the Indians on the upper Missouri and a base for fur traders and explorers.

The fort was founded by the first Yellowstone Expedition. The expedition was one in a series planned after the War of 1812 by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to awe the Indians of the upper Missouri River with U.S. military power, counter British influence, and establish a chain of military posts. Col. Henry Atkinson set out from Plattsburgh, N.Y., in the spring of 1819 with 1,126 soldiers of the 6th Infantry and many women and children. He planned to proceed up the Missouri and found a post some where near the mouth of the Yellowstone—a goal never reached because of lack of funds. In the fall, at the end of a 2,628-mile trek, the expedition bivouacked at Council Bluffs, a site on the west bank of the Missouri River at which Lewis and Clark had camped in 1804, held their first council with the Indians, and recommended as a site for a fort. On the river bottom near the bluffs, Atkinson and his men constructed Cantonment Missouri. But, after a winter of disease and hardship and a disastrous spring flood, they moved to a site high on the top of the bluffs, where by fall a permanent brick and log fort, soon known as Fort Atkinson, had taken shape.

A quadrangular stockade, with bastions at the northwest and southeast corners, surrounded the buildings. They included barracks, officers' quarters, sutler's house and store, Indian council house, hospital, powder magazine, laundresses' quarters, and stables. Near the fort were a dairy, gristmill, limekiln, sawmill, blacksmith shop, and brickyard. Agriculture and Indian management dominated life at the fort, which more resembled a frontier village and social center than a military installation. The soldiers, supervised by a director of agriculture and a superintendent of livestock, farmed and raised stock. By 1821 they had tilled 504 acres of land. Agricultural activities embraced dairying, cheese-making, meat curing, soapmaking, and milling. Fur traders brought news from St. Louis or the Indian country. Indians dropped in to hold councils and trade at the agency. Indian Agent Benjamin O'Fallon, who had established the Upper Missouri Indian Agency at the fort in 1819, worked to keep peace among the tribes and insure their cooperation with trappers and traders. Visitors at the fort were such explorers and mountain men as Jed Smith, Ed Rose, Hiram Scott, Jim Beckwourth, Jim Clyman, and Tom Fitzpatrick.

In 1823 news reached Fort Atkinson of an Arikara attack on William H. Ashley's fur brigade, 14 of whose 90 men had died and 11 received wounds. To punish the Indians, Col. Henry Leavenworth led 220 Regulars, 120 mountain men, and 400 to 500 Sioux allies up the Missouri to the Arikara villages and fought the first large-scale battle between U.S. troops and the Plains Indians. Although he recovered some of the goods stolen from Ashley, he mismanaged the attack and inspired the Arikaras with contempt for U.S. military prowess. Two years later the second and last Yellowstone Expedition in the 1820's had more success. Colonel Atkinson, 457 soldiers, and Indian Agent O'Fallon traveled to the mouth of the Yellowstone, negotiated treaties with 12 tribes, and accomplished much toward gaining the friendship of the Indians and promoting the fur trade.

In 1827, to afford better protection for the Santa Fe Trail, the Government replaced Fort Atkinson, distant from civilization and not on main routes of travel, with Fort Leavenworth, Kans., farther down the Missouri, and relocated the Indian agency.

Fort Atkinson State Historical Park consists of 147 acres, including a buffer strip. The cantonment site, on the river bottom, has not been exactly determined. The fort site lies on a plateau rising from the flood plain above the western edge of the Missouri River Valley. In the 1820's the river ran along the foot of the bluffs. The old channel is still evident, but the modern one is 3 miles to the east. The only visible remains at the site are low earth mounds on the eastern edge. The rest of the site has been leveled and placed in cultivation. A continuing program of archeological excavation by the Nebraska State Historical Society has yielded numerous artifacts, many of which are displayed at the Fort Calhoun Museum, and exposed several foundations.

NHL Designation: 07/04/61

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005