The History of Fort Atkinson
Fort Atkinson was the first United States Army post to be established west of the Missouri River in the United States. Located just east of present-day Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, the fort was erected in 1819 and abandoned in 1827.
The site that would become Fort Atkinson was the “Council Bluff” (not to be confused with Council Bluffs, Iowa, 20 miles to the south) used for an 1804 council between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and members of the Oto and Missouria Native American tribes. William Clark recommended the high bluff overlooking the Missouri River as a suitable location to build a fort.
Fifteen years later, in 1819, President James Monroe dispatched a military expedition (the Yellowstone Expedition, led by Colonel Henry Atkinson) to establish a series of forts along the Missouri. These forts would increase American presence in the fur trade and would also counteract British influence on the northern plains. The expedition arrived at the Council Bluff site on September 19. At this time, the expedition stopped to build a camp (named Cantonment Missouri) for the winter along the river bottom, below the bluffs. Plans to establish more forts upstream were abandoned, and the soldiers settled in for winter. The winter of 1819-20 was very harsh; 160 of 1,120 men on the expedition died that first winter. In the spring of 1820, the Missouri River flooded Cantonment Missouri. A permanent camp was built atop Council Bluff, and the camp was renamed Fort Atkinson at this time.
The only combat involving the fort's garrison occurred in 1823. Members of the Arikara tribe attacked a trading post along the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota. Soldiers from the fort attacked an Arikara village in retaliation. Seven soldiers died during the fighting; they were the first American casualties on the Great Plains in the Indian Wars.
In 1827, the fort was abandoned; by the 1850s, when widespread American settlement began in the area, little remained of the fort. In the 1950s, Nebraska State Historical Society archeological crews determined the locations of buildings at the Fort Atkinson site. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission gained title to the site in 1971 and slowly reconstructed the fort to its original appearance during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Fort Atkinson is a Nebraska state historical park; living history demonstrations take place during the summer months.
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