Constructed in 1819 on a spot picked by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Fort Atkinson, just outside of Omaha, Nebraska, was the first US Army fort west of the Mississippi River, in the new Louisiana Purchase territory.
For those who don't know, I live in a converted campervan and travel around the country, posting photo diaries of places that I visit. I am currently in Nebraska.
One of the missions which had been assigned to Lewis and Clark by President Thomas Jefferson was to establish good relations with the various Native American Nations in the new territory. As part of this, the expedition met in July 1804 with a delegation from the Missouri and Oto Nations at a high cliff overlooking the Missouri River, in what is now Council Bluff, Nebraska. Lewis and Clark recognized that the spot would make a good location for a settlement and a defensive fort, and when they returned to Washington DC they recommended that the US establish a base there. “The Situation of this place which we Call Council Bluff," Clark reported, "which is handsom ellevated a Spot well Calculated for a Tradeing establishment, the Bank high & leavel on top well Calculated for a fort to Command the Countrey and river the low bottom above high water & well Situated under the Command of the Hill for Houses to trade with the Natives a butifull Plain both abov and below at no other bend on either Side does the High land touch the river for Some distance up, as I am told.”
After the War of 1812, the United States decided that it needed a string of defensive forts along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to protect against any possible British incursions. So in 1819 Jefferson's successor, President James Madison, sent an expedition to the location consisting of troops from the 6th US Infantry and the 1st Rifles, led by Colonel Henry Atkinson and accompanied by around a thousand civilians. They reached Council Bluff in mid-September and set up camp there.
The winter of 1819-1820 was harsh, however, and the settlers ran out of supplies. Some 200 died from hunger and scurvy. Then in the spring of 1829 the Missouri River flooded and much of the camp was destroyed. The settlers moved to higher ground and set up a new camp, which they named Fort Atkinson. It was at that time the westernmost military post in the United States.
The Fort was laid out in the form of a rectangle. There were no walls, but the buildings were designed to function as defensive points if it became necessary. There were several large barracks, a heavily-built stone powder magazine, and a council house for meeting with local Native American delegations. Fifteen cannons were placed around the fort.
The accompanying civilians established a brick kiln, a grain mill, a school, a sawmill, and even a public library. There were also farms, dairy pastures, and ranches.
For the most part, Fort Atkinson served as a peaceful trading center (particularly for the fur trade) and a meteorological observation post. In the summer of 1823 an Arikara war party attacked some settlers in what is now South Dakota and killed 13 fur traders. In response, 200 troopers from Fort Atkinson, led by the Fort's then-commander Gen Henry Leavenworth and accompanied by Lakota scouts, were sent to punish the Arikara by shelling one of their villages with an artillery battery. About 40 Arikaras were killed in the fighting, and seven of the US troopers drowned when their boat overturned on the Missouri River. The incident became known as the "Arikara War".
The Fort became a gateway to territories further west, and a network of roads radiated out as far as the Spanish settlement at Santa Fe. Hunters and trappers from the Fort killed so many deer and other wildlife that the local leader of the Omaha Nation, Big Elk, complained to the commander that his people were having difficulty in hunting food.
As American interests moved further westward, however, Fort Atkinson became less important, and in 1827 the Army closed the fort and moved all of its personnel to other posts. Many went to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
When Mormon refugees formed a town at Cutler's Park, in modern North Omaha, they found that some of the abandoned food stores at Fort Atkinson were still usable, and they dismantled the brick ruins for building material. Within a few years the entire Fort had decayed and disappeared.
In the 1950s, archaeological surveys had succeeded in finding the location of Fort Atkinson's old buildings, and the Nebraska State Historical Society began excavations. In 1961 the area was designated a National Historic Site, and a couple years later the land was purchased by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, who built a reconstruction of the Fort's structures and opened it as a State Historical Park.
Today, there is a Visitors Center, and living history re-enactments are carried out through the summer.
Some photos from a visit.