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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Lewis and Clark
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

historic site Council Bluffs

Location (approximate): Washington County, about 15 miles north of downtown Omaha, just east of the site of Fort Atkinson. The latter is accessible via a secondary road that runs east from U.S. 73 about 1 mile west of the fort site at the town of Fort Calhoun.

This site, which bears no relationship to the city of Council Bluffs, on the Iowa side of the Missouri River some miles downstream, is significant as the place where Lewis and Clark conducted their first council with Indians. From July 30 to August 3, 1804, the explorers camped at this location, along the bottom land at the edge of some high bluffs on the west bank of the Missouri.

Responding to an invitation from an emissary the commanders had sent out on July 29, a group of Oto and Missouri Indians arrived late on August 2. The council began early the following morning, and at its conclusion later in the day the expedition departed. On the eastbound journey, on September 8, 1806, a brief stop was made at the Council Bluffs.

In 1819 the War Department, confirming the judgment of Lewis and Clark that the site was ideal for a fort and trading post to deal with the tribes in the area, established Fort Atkinson and an associated Indian Agency on the bluffs back of the expedition's camp site. The second post to be established on the "Permanent Indian Frontier," it was one of the first activated west of the Mississippi, and the first west of the Missouri. It served as an important outpost in Indian country and as a base for explorers and trappers until the Army abandoned it in 1827. To afford better protection of the Santa Fe Trail, Fort Leavenworth, farther down the Missouri, replaced it. Nothing remains of Fort Atkinson, but the site, today a National Historic Landmark, is commemorated by 147-acre Fort Atkinson State Historical Park.

The many changes wrought by the Missouri have substantially altered the appearance of the river bottom area, most of which is now committed to agricultural use. The bluffs no longer afford a fine view up and down the river. Indeed, because of intervening timber growth and the shifting of the channel over the years, some 3 miles to the eastward, the river is not even visible from the vicinity of the council site. The site of the fort, the closest identifiable spot to the campsite, is on the level plain just back from the edge of the 60-foot-high river bluffs. Scrub trees and brush growth cover the face of the bluffs. A township road runs down over them to the widened bottom land, where evidences of the old channel are apparent among the cornfields. Neither the exact location of the Lewis and Clark camp site, nor that of Cantonment Missouri, the temporary predecessor of Fort Atkinson, also established in the bottom lands, can be determined.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004