By Jeff Barnes
Mary and I were talking about topics I could use as an introduction to the forts and my book, “”Forts of the Northern Plains.” After a couple ideas were discussed, I thought I might talk about how the forts were built, and why some of them are still around and some aren’t.
When you visit the forts of the Northern Plains (and please take along my book as a guide!), you’re going to see a wide disparity in what remains. Fort Snelling in Minnesota and Fort Robinson in Nebraska, for example, have a great number of the original buildings in place. Posts such as Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota have some rebuilt buildings, while other sites like Fort Sanders in Wyoming have been reduced to ruins.
Many other sites are remembered only by historical markers, including the Council Bluffs Blockhouse in Iowa. And some are completely gone, such as the Missouri River-inundated Fort Bennett in South Dakota.
But why are some forts still around? And why are some gone? I like to tell people there are three rules about forts to explain that:
All forts are not created equal.
All forts are not treated equally.
All forts are not remembered equally.
Now, when I say “all forts are not created equal,” it refers to their construction. Think of it as the homes of the three little pigs–straw and sticks will fall; brick will stand. Forts built of adobe and of wood are in most instances gone; those of stone and brick are mostly still around.
Of course, not all forts could be built of stone. Forts were generally constructed from the materials that were at hand, and I can use my home state of Nebraska for all of these examples.
Fort Mitchell, near Scotts Bluff National Monument, was built of adobe, formed of sand, water, clay and organic material such as straw or even dried buffalo chips. Besides being cheap to build, adobe structures also needed continuous maintenance depending upon the materials used. In the western Nebraska climate, Fort Mitchell crumbled into dust within years of being abandoned.
Fort Atkinson on the Missouri River was built of timber and was well-maintained during its years of operation from 1819 to 1827. Without maintenance, it was in ruins by the time artist Karl Bodmer painted the site in 1833, just six years after the fort’s closing. That was due in part to the eastern Nebraska climate, but also to settlers in the area who lifted the fort’s precut lumber (as was often the case when forts were abandoned.)
When forts were abandoned, the wood-frame buildings were usually sold by the government and moved to nearby farms or towns. The buildings of Fort Hartsuff–located in central Nebraska–were built of concrete because of the gravel and limestone in the area. Since Fort Hartsuff’s concrete buildings couldn’t be moved when the fort was closed in the 1870s, a farm was built around the fort!
Fort Crook was established in 1894 with all of its buildings built of brick. Most of those buildings remain today as part of the fort’s successor–Offutt Air Force Base–and its 1894 guardhouse is the oldest continually operating prison in Nebraska.
As far as not being treated equally, some forts were maintained and updated through the years and some were intentionally destroyed. The original wooden buildings of Fort Omaha were replaced with redbrick structures at the turn of the century to enable it to survive. There were once around 90 wood-frame buildings at Fort Niobrara near Valentine; most of the buildings were sold when the fort was closed, and only a hay barn remains today.
And for being remembered: Fort Atkinson was rebuilt in the 1970s as a state historic park because of the enthusiastic support of local citizens and the state. The Friends of Fort Atkinson are there for the first weekend of every month in the summer as the fort’s soldiers, bakers, coopers, blacksmiths and laundresses to keep the fort alive. Fort Mitchell, however, had no such community support for its reconstruction, although it is remembered by a state historical marker.
So what makes the difference in a fort’s survival? I keep going back to threes–construction, climate and community–all of which have a say in whether you find a state park or a state marker when looking for a fort. Undboutedly, though, community is THE most important element in keeping forts alive today.
A freelance writer and fifth-generation Nebraska, Jeff Barnes is a former newspaper reporter and editor, past chairman of the Nebraska Hall of Fame commission, and former marketing director for the Durham Western Heritage Museum. He traveled more than 13,000 miles in researching and photgraphing Forts of the Northern Plains, his first book.
To buy Jeff’s book, click here: Forts Of The Northern Plains: Guide to Historic Military Posts of the Plains Indians Wars