"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


OLD FORT ATKINSON


On the site of the Council Bluff where Lewis and Clark first held council with the Indians, once stood Old Fort Atkinson, built in the year 1819, the first United States fort in Nebraska. The Rifle regiment and the Sixth Infantry were here. It was a large, strong fort with fifteen cannon and several hundred soldiers. Besides the soldiers there were teamsters, laborers, traders, hunters, trappers and Indians, making a town of nearly a thousand people. They had a brick yard and a lime kiln. Rock was quarried from the ledges along the river. A saw mill and a grist mill were kept busy. Hundreds of acres of rich Nebraska land were farmed and thousands of bushels of grain raised. Roads ran in all directions from this fort on the Council Bluff. Indians came to it from all parts of the West for it was the most western army post in the United States. From far-off Santa Fe Mexicans came here to meet the Pawnee Indians and make peace with them. White women were here. There were marriages and births. Children played about the bluff and the first school in Nebraska was taught here. Fort Atkinson was the largest town of early Nebraska and the only town in Nebraska at that time.


Plan of Fort Atkinson, Nebraska, 1819-1827.
(Drawing by Miss Martha Turner.)

To this fort in the summer of 1823 came the news that a party of American trappers had been fired upon by the Arikara Indians and about twenty of them killed. The Arikaras were related to the Pawnees. They lived on the Missouri river, in what is now South Dakota, five hundred miles above Fort Atkinson. They were different from the wild Indians on the plains for they lived in villages surrounded with walls of dirt and fenced with timbers set on end in the ground. An Arikara had stolen horses from the trappers. He was horsewhipped by them. This led to the attack on the trappers.

There were very busy times in the old fort on the Council Bluff when the news came. The bugles rang out calling the soldiers to their colors. Cannon and powder and shot were loaded into keel boats. The hunters and trappers at the fort seized their rifles. General Leavenworth started with over two hundred soldiers. He was joined by four hundred Sioux warriors, who were enemies of the Arikaras, and by several parties of hunters and rivermen. It was a month's march along the shores of the Missouri to reach the Arikara villages. The keel boats with the cannon, powder and food were pulled up the river with ropes. Never before had such an army been seen on the North Nebraska prairies. On August 8th they arrived at the Arikara villages. The cannon were placed on a hill and their heavy balls fired into the village while the Sioux under their chief White Bear fought with the Arikara warriors outside the walls. Gray Eyes, chief of the Arikaras, and about forty of his people were killed. The tribe sued for peace and a treaty was made while the white soldiers and the Sioux feasted on roasting ears from the Arikara cornfields. No white soldiers were killed and the army returned to Fort Atkinson. This is called the Arikara war of 1823 and is the first war on the Nebraska frontier.

There was quiet for a long time at Fort Atkinson. We know that in the summer the fur traders came up the river and keel boats from St. Louis brought stores and news from the world below. In the winter sleds traveled across the snow to other posts. Hunting parties from the fort went out to kill game for the soldiers. So many elk and deer were killed in this way that the Omaha tribe could find no food on their old hunting grounds. Big Elk, chief of the tribe, came to the fort for help, saying that his people were starving while the soldiers killed and drove away the game.

In 1827 Fort Atkinson was abandoned by the United States. All the soldiers were sent down the Missouri River. They drove away a great herd of cattle which supplied them with beef. They left the plowed fields to grow up with grass and weeds. All that was of use and could be carried was taken away. The buildings were left. The traders and hunters went to Bellevue and other posts down the river. It was said that the Indians burned the buildings after the soldiers were gone.

Six years later Maximilian, the great German traveler, found the fort in ruins. The great stone chimneys were standing and a brick storehouse was still under roof. Rattlesnakes made the place their home.

When the early settlers came to this part of Nebraska in 1854 and 1855, they were glad to find that the United States had provided them with such a supply of brick and stone ready to use for their chimneys and cellars. They tore down the ruins and carried them away to their farms.


Flint Lock and Cannon Ball from Fort Atkinson.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)

To-day the little village of Fort Calhoun, sixteen miles north of Omaha, adjoins the site of Old Fort Atkinson. On the summit of the Council Bluff may still be traced the parade ground, the place where the flagstaff stood, the rows of cellars where once were the officers' quarters and the barracks where the soldiers lived. The ashes and broken brick where the great fireplaces were may still be found, as also the powder vault and the road running down Hook's Hollow to the boat landing on the river.

Every spring when the people make gardens they plow up bullets and buttons with the name "Rifles" or the figure "6" for the Sixth Infantry, on them. Gold and silver coins are also found. Most of them are Spanish coins with far away dates upon them, telling of the time when Spain ruled the greater part of America and her coins were in commerce everywhere.


A Fort Atkinson Gravestone.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)

Such is the story of the Council Bluff and Old Fort Atkinson, the scene of the first council with Nebraska Indians, the site of the first fort, and the first important town in the state. It was the center of busy life one hundred years ago. To-day the Missouri River is three miles away from the old landing beneath the bluff. The fort and its soldiers are gone. The Indian trader and hunter come no more. The Mexican no longer crosses the plains to make peace with the Pawnee. The very name of the old fort is forgotten. Yet here is one of the historic spots of early Nebraska whose memories should be cherished and whose story deserves to be told.


QUESTIONS

  1. Why did not white settlers come into Nebraska and farm as soon as the soldiers at Fort Atkinson found that fine crops could be grown on its rich land?
  2. Why should the Omaha Indians be in danger of starving in such a rich land as Nebraska?
  3. What does Fort Atkinson stand for in the "first things" of Nebraska?
  4. What should be done with the site of old Fort Atkinson?



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