What is Engineer Cantonment? And why is it so cool that we found it?
Back in 2003, NSHS archeologist Gayle Carlson quipped (in his usual deadpan way) that he could “die in peace, now that Engineer Cantonment has been found.”
He was joking, but only in part. He was truly thrilled that this long-lost Missouri River site had been re-discovered. But why? And why are we now devoting an entire issue of Nebraska History to it?
The short answer is that it’s a story of exploration and discovery, of diplomacy with Native American nations, of science and art, and of the detective work of archeology.
Here are the highlights, with links to related stories, images, and objects:
The Expedition. North of present-day Omaha, Engineer Cantonment was the winter quarters of the 1819-20 Stephen Long Expedition. At that time, what is now Nebraska was part of the vast Missouri Territory. The nearest city was St. Louis, which had only 10,000 residents and was weeks of travel away. Maj. Long led a team of scientists up the Missouri River to study the land and its people. The men wintered at Engineer Cantonment, and in the spring traveled overland west to the Rocky Mountains and back.
The name. It’s fitting that “Engineer Cantonment,” sounds both modern and old-fashioned. “Cantonment” is an old word describing a longer-term military encampment, such as a winter quarters. “Engineer” in this case refers to the Western Engineer, a steamboat built specially for the shallow, muddy Missouri River. Steamboats were the latest in technology. The Western Engineer was one of the first stern-wheelers ever built. It was the first steamboat to ascend the Missouri.
The science. The Long Expedition was the first time the US government sent a team of trained scientists and artists on an exploring mission. While the land and its plants and animals were well-known to the Native peoples who lived here, it was little understood by Americans. Long’s men conducted what today’s biologists would call a biodiversity inventory—the first time this was done in the United States. Their data provides a valuable snapshot of what the local ecosystem was like before it was drastically altered by Euromerican settlement. The team described several ‘new’ species previously unknown to science—including the coyote. The group’s artists, meanwhile, made highly accurate paintings and sketches of the land, its animals, and some of the local people.
The fur trade. The US government didn’t sponsor this expedition out of simple curiosity. There was power and money at stake. The river economy was built on the fur trade. Native tribes bartered furs for manufactured goods from British and American traders. The US was trying to push the British traders out. Long held councils with local tribes to try to win their loyalty. Meanwhile a military expedition under Col. Henry Atkinson was coming to build permanent forts along the river. One of these was Fort Atkinson, now reconstructed as a Nebraska state historical park.
The “desert.” The Long Expedition was best known for its 1820 overland journey west along the Platte River to the Rocky Mountains. The expedition produced a map labeling Nebraska as the “Great American Desert”—a name that appeared on maps for decades. The party’s geographer referred to the region as “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course, uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”
The archeology. Engineer Cantonment was lost for nearly 200 years. Nothing was visible above ground, and many people thought the site had probably been swept away by the ever-shifting channel of the Missouri River. NSHS archeologists re-discovered the site in 2003 by using old paintings, a trenching machine (normally used to bury cable), and test excavations to confirm the site.
Once the excavations began in earnest, archeologists recovered numerous artifacts from the expedition—buttons, pipes, knives and cutlers, broken china, trade beads, gun flints, and other detritus, including the foundations of one of the buildings where the men spent the winter. In all, it helps fill in the picture of what the men were doing and how they lived.
“Science and Survival at Engineer Cantonment,” a special issue of Nebraska History, will be published in March 2018. (See the issue's table of contents.) You can receive Nebraska History part of your NSHS membership. Single copies are available via the Nebraska History Museum, 402-471-3447.