Where Have All The Forts Gone?

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.

Jeff Barnes, forts of the Northern PlainsA 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

Website | + posts

Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

41 thoughts on “Where Have All The Forts Gone?”

  1. What an interesting blog. I am ashamed to say as a recident of Nebraska, I have never visited any of the forts but will definately put them onmy to do list along with purchasing this book.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the information, and the pictures are incredible. I’ve seen a few of these, but it looks as though I have a few road trips to plan.

    Fort Atkinson is definitely a favorite. We used to take our kids faithfully for the reinactment events.

    Thanks for being a guest here, Jeff! I hope you’ll come back and share more soon.

  3. Hi, I meant to add this to the blog. If you run your cursor over the picture it will tell you which fort it is. Fort Atkinson is really close to where I live. the last time I was there, it was pretty much bare earth but they were planning a building project.
    I haven’t been back since it was done, but on summer weekends they have re=enactments of a day of living history at the fort.
    Here’s Jeff’s website.
    and here is a link to Fort Atkinsons, very interesting.

  4. Are there forts like this all over the country?
    Are there any near YOU?
    Didn’t they rebuild that fort in Washington State where Lewis and Clark spent one winter, only to have it burn down.

  5. Hi Mary –
    You’re thinking of Fort Clatsop in Oregon. The original had disappeared long ago, but the WPA built one during the Depression and that one burned down a couple years ago. I’ve since heard that it’s been rebuilt. I’ve never been there myself, but would love to see it!

    You’d be amazed at the number of forts around the country. I covered 50 for this book; my second – “Forts of the Southern Plains” – will have another 60 in the states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and portions of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. I don’t know what that says about the total counts of forts around the U.S., but it’s into the hundreds.

  6. Hello, Jeff! Welcome to Petticoats & Pistols. Thank you for giving us your time and sharing your expertise on forts. I remember visiting and staying at Fort Robinson when I was a kid. The grounds were so well maintained.

    I was in Nebraska City Saturday. I know you were in town signing copies of your book; alas, we never made it out of the orchards to go into town. I would have loved to meet you!

  7. We’re thinking about the west though, there were lots of forts back east, when the east WAS the west, you know? Like out on the wild frontier in the far west state of TENNESSEE.

    Last of the Mohicans was set around a fort.

  8. Hi Pam – Sorry you weren’t able to stop by in Neb City! That’s an old hometown of mine, and got to meet a lot of new people and catch up with old friends. If you’re in the Omaha area, I’ll be at Borders, 132nd and West Maple, from 7 to 9 pm this Friday.

    I thought I might do the whole country, Mary, but that WOULD be a life’s work! Forts of the Southern Plains will probably be my last “fort” book but I do want to do more historical travel books based in the Great Plains. It’s the part of the country I know best and it’s such a rich ground for this sort of thing.

  9. Do you take the pictures yourself, Jeff? These are beautiful. Here’s a question, did they build forts where there were trees?
    Some of these wide open spaces we have out here doesn’t provide much building material. How’d they come up with enough trees to build those fortressed walls?

  10. Yes, all of the photos – or current-day photos anyway – were taken by myself. It was essential to me to visit each one of the sites, not only because I love photography but I wanted to be able to tell the reader first-hand what was there. In the course of doing so, I think I’m probably the only person who has visited each one of these sites!

    And, yes, many of the forts were built where there were trees – Fort Ripley was built in the Minnesota northwoods and had plenty of wood, as did most of the forts on the eastern Great Plains and in the foothills of the Rockies. A few of the forts were built along the Missouri and used cottonwood, but soon had to rebuild after putting the wood up while it was still green (it tended to shrink and the resulting gaps made it pretty chilly in the winter!)

    The forts had a voracious appetite for wood, as you can imagine. In the chapter on Fort Hartsuff, I have a quote from a book talking about the forests that surrounded the fort when it was built – that author lamented the desolation that resulted from all of the trees being cut for the fort’s needs.

  11. Hi Jeff – So glad to see this blog! I also have a question about trees. My understanding is that Nebraska was quite barren before a lot of trees were planted. If true, then no forts were built in those “barren” areas? Was there no protection for the people coming to those areas & who built their houses of sod & clay?

  12. HI Jeff!

    Fascinating data on forts. I write historical romance and so I have been to a few forts as research. My favorite fort is up in North Dakota — And for the life of me I can’t recall its name right now.

    Well, anyway — great post.

  13. I know Fort Laramie in wyoming, which I understand had two locations NONE of them in the current site of Laramie, had an earthen fortress.

    Which messed up my story. I ended up moving away from the fort, just like a disgruntled resident. 🙂

    So if there was no wood available and they HAD to pick a location, I guess they made do.

    By the way, Fort Crook???

    PAM? Any relation???

  14. Hi Shirley!
    Yes, most of Nebraska was barren of trees, except along the rivers. Fort Kearny was build very near the Platte River for its hayfields and also for the cottonwood trees that grew on the sandbar islands (in fact, the cottonwood trees at Fort Kearny State Historical Park today are descendants of saplings planted by soldiers.

    In many instances, there WASN’T protection for settlers in areas without nearby forts. Most of the Nebraska forts of the 1860s were built near transcontinental trails, and those who decided to settle far from the trail took considerable risk as not all Indian tribes were yet on reservations. When settlement increased and reservations were established in the 1870s, forts like Hartsuff, Niobrara and Robinson were built in those remote areas to keep the peace and offer protection.

  15. I live near the Missouri River in Nebraska. There’s a tree that’s still living about 15 miles from the river and back in the wagon train days, the area got the name Lone Tree Valley and hunting for that tree was the next step on the way west. It was the ONLY tree for miles.

    It’s on a direct line from my hometown on the river, to two other towns, a straight line that was created by the trail to that tree marking the way west.

    Now there are lots of trees, windbreaks surrounded in farm places and growing up in fragile, highly erodable land and along fence rows. But it’s still basically wide open.

  16. Hi Jeff! Great pix and wonderful information. And Mary, I love the Lone Tree Valley tidbit. I love Nebraska.

    Re: Indian tribes. I think I read once that soldiers from Ft. Robinson sent blankets infected with smallpox to the local tribes. If so, boo hiss.

    But back to your post, I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  17. Hi Jeff,

    A big welcome to P&P! We’re thrilled to have you come visit.

    Thank you for answering my question about why some forts still stand and others have disintegrated. We have so many forts here in Texas and I’ve visited quite a few of them. I’m glad to hear your next book will feature forts from the Southern plains. Great!

    My favorite fort visits were to Fort McKavett down south from me, Fort Richardson which is in Jacksboro, TX, and Fort Concho which is almost in the center of the state. All of these still have some original buildings plus a lot of reconstructed ones. There has been a genuine interest in keeping them up. And they’re great places to tour. Everytime I go, I feel history pressing so close to me. It’s sad when no one cares enough to keep them from falling into ruin.

    I hope you have a wonderful time here and come back again often.

  18. I just have to tell you this funny story about my friend Rose who lives in Lincoln, NE. She and her husband attended a family gathering in coastal state where they were asked questions about the west. Anyone from Nebraska can testify that there are clueless people everywhere who think we live in the wilderness. So anyway, one woman asked, “What do you do when the Indians get restless?”

    Rose replied, “That only happens once or twice a year, and we just go to the fort for a while until it’s over, and then we go home.”

    The lady said, “O-o-oh.”

  19. Hi Jeff! Welcome to P&P! I’m a Filly, too, and live in Toronto so haven’t been to any of the forts you mention(yet) but there is one nearby I’ve gone to–called Fort George. It’s near the Niagara River and played an important role in the battle of 1812. One thing I learned about Cdn forts is due to climate, they couldn’t have moats like they did in Europe–the water would freeze and enemies could walk across it (LOL)–and if they built the front gates to open out, then soldiers from inside the fort would have to get up, scale the walls and shovel the snow first before the gates could open and any soliders could leave in peaceful times. I had no idea!

    Must’ve been the same in some of the states with similar weather to ours. Some of the solutions apparently were to build up the ground level in front of the fort to lay cannons on, or half walls, that kind of thing. North American Indians here also built these types of mazes instead of front gates to get inside their fortified village walls.

    Was there anything you came across like that, specific to weather?

  20. Well, a big high-noon thank you to the fillies and bloggers for the invite! I’m really enjoying this and hope for the opportunity to come back!

    Cher, love the story about the restless Indians. I hope I get asked that someday so I can respond in the same!

    Linda, I went to Fort Richardson last Thanksgiving and it IS a neat post. I picked up about five forts in my Texas visit then and have a BUNCH more to go. Even then, I’m not going to be able to get the entire state and will actually have to confine it to the parts of Texas that ARE on the Great Plains.

    And thanks, Tanya! You know, I keep hearing about the smallpox and blankets and I’m not sure what to believe anymore. Out of curiosity, I just Googled the topic and could only find one semi-confirmed instance of it: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1088/did-whites-ever-give-native-americans-blankets-infected-with-smallpox

    This column made a good point: You’d probably kill as many friendlies as enemies with that tactic!

  21. That’s a good question, Kate – there WERE a couple forts that did have moats, Fort Sisseton in South Dakota and Fort Ransom in North Dakota. They weren’t particularly big moats – probably more like a speed bump for anyone who thought of attacking.

    That was one of the things about the Northern Plains forts – they rarely had walls, moats or any other defensive architecture for protection. Forts were mostly built out in the open in relatively peaceful areas, and any attacking force would be seen long before they got close enough to assault the fort.

    That didn’t apply to the forts along the Bozeman Trail (Forts Reno, Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith) which were built in Indian territory without Indian permission. Those forts were constantly under threat and required stockade walls.

    Two forts which didn’t have the walls but would like to have had them were Fort Ridgely in Minnesota and Fort Abercrombie in North Dakota. They were built in peaceful times on ground that wasn’t selected for defense; when they were attacked during the Dakota Uprising of 1862, the soldiers scrambled for materials to build walls between the buildings.

  22. Thanks for that thoughtful reply, Jeff! It was a good reminder, too, that forts were built for peaceful reasons, as well, not just defense. Such interesting history and you know so much about it. Your book looks great!

    How did you get interested in studying forts? Were you a fort-fanatic as a kid? 🙂

  23. I was actually born just a couple blocks from Fort Omaha. Mom used to push me in a stroller around the fort, and in return, my brothers and I used to tear up the couches and chairs in the living room to build cushion forts!

    I’m not sure why I got the adult bug, however. I’m a history nut and it’s easy to become interested in the Plains Indian Wars when it surrounds you. Forts are physical reminders of a different time, moreso than the battlefields, so that probably has a lot to do with it.

    I kind of think it’s a “guy thing,” though – I’m constantly signing books for women who are saying “My dad/son/husband/grandfather/uncle will love this!”

  24. I live in PA and there are quite a few forts still around – the closest to me are Ft. Duquesne in Pittsburgh from the French and Indian War, Fort Pitt and Fort Ligonier. So much history and I find them quite fascinating.

  25. (I’ve returned from earlier.) Just wanted to say that Jeff is my nephew & I’m proud of his work. Quite a few years ago he was back in Virginia & came up with the paperwork of my gr-grandfather’s wound in the Civil War & his hospitalization down in Key West, FL. He definately likes history as his mother & I do (geneologists).
    His mother & I grew up in Burt County (Craig) & we think that Mary Connealey just might be from Decatur. Is that right, Mary?

  26. Thanks again, Shirley!

    And thanks to all of you for a great day as a first-timer on Petticoats and Pistols. I had a lot of fun and enjoyed the comments and questions – I could yodel about forts forever, so anytime you want me back, let me know!

    Happy trails,

Comments are closed.