Fort Atkinson–Firsts

Fort Atkinson sign

If you click on the above picture it gets big enough to read.

The Revolutionary War was only 36 years in the past. A second war with England, the War of 1812, only 8 years behind the United States.

The Louis and Clark Expedition is 16 years in the rear view mirror.

The City of Chicago didn’t exist except as an Indian village, and in fact wouldn’t exist for 13 more years.

It would be 23 years before the first wagon wheel turned on the Oregon Trail beginning the Great Migration West.

The American West was Indian Territory. There were no white people allowed. Iowa had not one white settler in it, nor did any state west…and that certainly included Nebraska.

But there were fur traders.

The United States decided to establish a series of forts in the wilderness to support the fur trade.

Fort Atkinson was first. No others were built.

This one single fort stood as the single outpost guarding America’s entire west. The closest town was St. Louis, 2700 brutal miles to the south and west.

It’s not like they could send out for flour if they ran short.

So Fort Atkinson became more than a fort. It became a self-supporting town in the middle of the wilderness. I said once I might be able to do a year of blog posts about Fort Atkinson and that’s mainly because to cover all I learned would go on for far too long.

I talked about the medical care here: The Doctor is IN

And about the punishment here: Is it a jail? Or is it a romance novel?

Today I’m going to talk about Firsts

First White Women No one was allowed at Fort Atkinson if they weren’t somehow attached to either the fort soldiers or the mountain men. There were many women who lived there but they were almost all wives and children of soldiers.

First SchoolThese pictures are sort of hard to read, but the First School in Nebraska was at Fort Atkinson. Yes, there were children there, the soldiers were allowed to bring their families to the fort with them.

First LibraryThe first library in Nebraska was in Fort Atkinson. It’s nice to think that in 1820, books were considered this important.

First European CommunityThis was the first community that wasn’t made up of Native American people. Over a thousand soldiers…equal to 1/4 of the U.S. Army at that time, and at least one thousand other people supporting those soldiers. A town of two thousand. To put that in perspective, St. Louis had a population of four thousand in 1920.

First businessesThe fort had to be completely self-supporting. They had many small businesses. They were farming to raise food, but they also had all these businesses listed, plus entertainment was available like a bowling alley and a theater.

First scientific expeditionThey were also furthering scientific knowledge, much like the Louis and Clark Expedition had. There were biologists among the fort’s population who were carefully recording new species of plants and animals.

First weatherThey were also keeping records of the weather, which added to the knowledge of climate in this part of the world. It’s odd to think of it now, but so much of what was known about the west was rumor and tall tales. And many people didn’t know what was truth and what was lies. Fort Atkinson added greatly to the knowledge of the west.

This was Fort Atkinson. Open for only seven years then abandoned as the fur trade died out.

Next I’m going to talk about Mountain Men–many of whom traveled through Fort Atkinson. A quote I found about mountain men, at Fort Atkinson.

These were men who lived life large, and of whom it was said, “They feared God but little, and the Devil not at all.” Men like Jim Bridger, who discovered the Great Salt Lake in Utah, like Jim Beckworth, a former slave who became a war chief of the friendly Crow Indians, and Hiram Scott, whose lonely death near it gave Scotts Bluff Monument its name; men like William Sublette, who sold his bed for a dollar, ran away to join Ashley’s men and went on to discover Yellowstone, founded Ft. Laramie and retired as co-owner of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company; and Hugh Glass, who was mauled by a grizzly, left for dead by his comrades, yet was still able to crawl and walk hundreds of miles back to Ft. Atkinson; men like Jedediah Smith, who is credited with discovering the South Pass route to California; and the riverboatman Mike Fink, who modestly liked to claim, “I’m a Salt River Roarer, half horse and half alligator, suckled by a wildcat and a playmate of the snapping turtle.”

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17 thoughts on “Fort Atkinson–Firsts”

  1. I got excited when I read that title! Wow! She’s writing about Fort Atkinson! I read on, but it didn’t make sense. Oh. Nebraska! I grew up 20 miles from Fort Atkinson, WI. So you can see why I got confused and excited.
    But anyway, that’s really neat that you found all that historical information!

  2. Mary, I loved your post! It was so very interesting and informative. Life was so hard back then yet people put their skills and knowledge together and carried on for seven years. Amazing!

  3. Sherri, you mean the Mountain Men? They really were. I always wonder what made them do what they did? What made them just dive into those tractless wildernesses alone like that. They were a strange, tough breed.

  4. Melanie, I always wonder if, when men enlisted in the Army if they had any idea what they were getting into. They might well have enlisted without knowing Nebraska existed.

  5. WOW, Mary, I had no idea just how important Fort Atkinson played such a major role in Nebraska’s infancy. When I think of the courage it took to travel so far, not really knowing what you were going to find (or if you were even going to make it) humbles me. If I had lived back then, I would have stayed in the East (or in my family’s case, the South) instead of venturing into the unknown. God bless the pioneers!!!

  6. Hi Mary, awesome info in Fort Atkinson and tidbits about life at that time. As for mountain men, anybody seen Jeremiah Johnson? Just a hauntingly beautiful film. Through today’s sensibilities, I am so opposed to fur that it’s hard to believe that in industry it was. I am also such a weenie by nature I wonder what I would have felt back then…would I have wanted to go west? Would I have been excited or scared if daddy had said, yo, got us a conestoga, we’re off on the Oregon trail tomorrow.

    My big question is why women had to wear skirts in the wild? I know they shortened the hems a bit to keep them out of the mud, but skirts? Really?

    Hugs, Mary. Great stuff today. xo

  7. Wow, the first fort was that big and self sustaining? I never figured it. You had to be crazy hardy to live back then and those Mountain Men sure sound like it.

  8. Renee, I think we aren’t really judging how tough it was in cities for people who just had NOTHING. The promise of LAND was so huge. FREE LAND. Of course homesteading came much later than Ft. Atkinson. But to a person barely surviving in a miserable cold run down slummy apartment with who knows how many children and no food, the lure of land had to be huge. And I think such a rosy picture was drawn of the west, people didn’t really know what they were getting into, in many cases.

  9. Tanya, go read the real story of Jeremiah Johnson. He was awful. That is such a romanticized version of his life it’s sick. They called him Liver Eating Johnson and he was a brute and a murdered. It was said that Crow Indians killed his wife and child and after that he went on a rampage that lasted for years. You know how in the movie they had him ‘forced’ to go through that Indian burial ground by self-righeous Christians. (why is it always Christians???) Then Indians attacked him for years and years???

    Well, in real life, after his wife and child died, he became a killer who revelled in murdering Indians every chance he got…and yes, eating their livers, and boasted about it. Terrible man, completely sanitized for that movie.

  10. Tanya, I sometimes wonder if, once they were really off by themselves, with only their families around, did the women really keep wearing the skirts? I like to think the wild west independent spirit that helped them survive caught hold in a lot of ways, including in practical matters like dress and a lot of women were riding astride, wearing britches, hunting supper right along with their husbands.

    It makes me happy to believe it, whether it’s true or not.

  11. Susan P, by all accounts during the Ft. Atkinson years, it was a fairly peaceful time out west. The Mountain Men and Indians mostly got along quite well. Yes there was trouble occasionally, but the men at the fort almost never had to fight. And Indians came and went from the fort often and traded and were friendly and the west being held as Indian Territory except for the Mountain Men being allowed their fur trapping, was strictly enforced.

  12. I have enjoyed your posts on Fort Atkinson. It is amazing that it was such a large settlement and that it ended so abruptly. The trappers and mountain men were pretty independent individuals. I’m not sure they needed or wanted a fort for more than supplies and occasional contact with the East. The troops really weren’t needed until years later when the government decided not to honor the treaties with the indians and settlers flooded in.

    Thanks for another interesting post.

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