From 1820 to 1827, Fort Atkinson played host to momentous events in western settlement, and the fort adds much to the social history of the west. However, the fort’s most significant contribution was probably the role it played in the development of the western fur trade. During its brief existence, Fort Atkinson was the gateway to the fur regions of the upper Missouri and the Rocky Mountains.
The fur trade became a dominant force for American expansion during this time period. By the 1840s, fur traders and mountain men had explored the west, opened the Mexican territories of the southwest, and helped guide the emigrants to Oregon and California. The fort provided the only government authority in the vast territory west of the Missouri. It assumed the, often impossible, task of regulating the fur trade and enforcing peaceful relations between traders and the Indian tribes of the region. It also provided protection for the early upriver trade and was the point from which the first Rocky Mountain expedition was launched.
After the War of 1812, Americans feared British competition in the fur trade and the U.S. government built two forts to guard against the British. Fort Snelling, at present-day St. Paul, Minnesota, was to guard the northern Mississippi River. The second was to be near Council Bluffs and was designed to protect the Missouri River. So, the Missouri enterprise (commonly referred to as the Yellowstone Expedition) was formed under the leadership of Colonel Henry M. Atkinson.
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Document signifying the commission of an officer promoted by Col. Atkinson.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG7908-2
In 1819, Colonel Atkinson led a force of 1,126 riflemen up the Missouri River and Major Stephen H. Long led the scientific party of Army Engineers. Both parties used steamboats for the first time instead of the keelboats that Lewis and Clark and others had used. Atkinson’s party suffered through a variety of problems, which included an inefficient and corrupt operator. Two steamboats never reached the river, a third was abandoned and the last two stopped below the mouth of the Kansas River. Atkinson was lucky to reach Council Bluff before the beginning of winter. Long was luckier. His steamboat, the Western Engineer, had a shallower draft and a paddle system at the rear of the boat — a stern-wheeler. Long had time to set up camp and he returned to Washington for new orders.
The parties spent the winter in two camps, Atkinson’s troops in Camp Missouri near Council Bluffs and Long’s at "Engineer Cantonment" five miles down the river. Through the winter, Atkinson lost 160 soldiers to the bitter cold and scurvy.
The next year, Long returned with new orders. He was to take his scientific party up the Platte and into the central Rockies. Col. Atkinson was to abandon ambitious plans for a series of forts up the Missouri and build one near Council Bluffs. He chose a site higher on the bluffs and they began building barracks. Because of the scurvy epidemic over the winter, he had the men begin growing vegetables to supplement their diets. Washington ordered that the new fort be named after its commander and Fort Atkinson began its service.
The fortifications consisted of a rectangular arrangement of one-story barracks fashioned of horizontal logs with shingle roofs and brick chimneys. The structures faced inward upon an enclosed parade ground with gun slits, or "loopholes," on the exterior walls. Four entrances were located near the center of the four walls. Cannons were mounted in the bastions at then northwest and southeast corners. A massively built powder magazine occupied the center of the enclosed area. It was a large fort with 15 cannon and several hundred soldiers.
Lt. Gabriel Field was one of the soldiers serving with the Sixth Infantry at Fort Atkinson when he died from a leg wound on April 8, 1823. Archeologists found Field’s skeleton, and an anthropologist reconstructed his face. No other likeness of Gabriel Field exists. In addition to the soldiers, there were teamsters, traders, hunters, laborers, trappers, and Indians. Eventually, nearly one thousand people lived in the area, and hundreds of acres of land in the surrounding area were cultivated. Garrison life at this westernmost post in the United States was best described as monotonous. Troops spent more time farming than soldiering.
Outside the fortification was located a large council house for negotiating with the Indians, a gristmill, a schoolhouse, sawmill, and other buildings. A brick kiln produced thousands of bricks.
Fort Atkinson was the earliest and largest town in what was to become the Nebraska Territory, and over one thousand soldiers and their families lived at this remote outpost from 1820 to 1827.