By Addison Erwin Sheldon, 1913
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 brickyard and a lime kiln. Rock was quarried from the ledges along the river. A sawmill and a grist mill were kept busy. Hundreds of acres of rich Nebraska land were farmed and thousands of bushels of grain were 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 in early Nebraska and the only town in Nebraska at that time.
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 Arikara were related to the Pawnee. 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 by 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 keelboats. 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 Arikara, and by several parties of hunters and river men. It was a month’s march along the shores of the Missouri River to reach the Arikara villages. The keelboats 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 Arikara, 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 keelboats 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.
Today 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.
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. Today 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.
About the Article & Author: Excerpted from the book, History and Stories of Nebraska, by Addison Erwin Sheldon, 1913. Addison Erwin Sheldon (1861-1943) was director of the Nebraska Historic Society and wrote numerous books devoted to the history of Nebraska. Many of the photographs and illustrations in his many texts were also taken and drawn by Sheldon.
Today this old fort has been rebuilt and the area restored, serving as the Fort Atkinson State Historical Park.
Fort Atkinson State Historical Park
PO Box 240
Fort Calhoun, Nebraska 68023-0240