Ft. Atkinson Breaks Sod in Preparation for Upcoming Farming Demonstrations

On Dec 6, 2017, a plow sliced through the sod at Ft. Atkinson State Historical Park (SHP) for the first time in 55 years. Ft. Atkinson was the first military post west of the Missouri River and was occupied from 1820-1827 before being left to slowly decay. However, the location of the fort was never forgotten. The first settlers to Ft. Calhoun took bricks from the ruins of the fort to use in constructing the first homes in the new town. The entire fort complex and surrounding area was cultivated for nearly 100 years before the State of Nebraska purchased the land in 1964 to create the SHP (Figure 1).

In the fall of 2017 Jason Grof, the superintendent of the park, contacted Nebraska State Historical Society (NSHS) Archeologist  Nolan Johnson to help choose an area in the park to plow for future use in farming demonstrations. Grof wanted to till 3-4 acres, but that proved to be impossible given the density of archeological features at the park. At its height, Ft. Atkinson had more than thirty buildings and functioned more like a frontier town than a military post. The location of the remains of these structures is well documented thanks to work of late NSHS archaeologist Gayle Carlson. Using maps from Carlson’s 1997 publication, Johnson plotted an area of roughly one acre. Located in the northeast corner of the park, the rectangular area is wedged between five archeological features (Figure 2).

On a cold December morning Johnson went to Ft. Atkinson to stake out the location to be plowed and to monitor the work to insure that no significant archeological remains were disturbed (Figure 3 and 4). With the help of a local volunteer (with his disc plow) and Superintendent Grof the work proceeded smoothly. Only a few scattered brick fragments and small limestone chunks, which were already disturbed from past farming of the area, were uncovered. Johnson will return in the spring when the area is disked smooth prior to planting to ensure the rich archeological record of the park is protected for future generations.

The park plans to use the newly tilled area in two ways. First, the park will showcase antique farming equipment that will work the land on periodic living history weekends throughout the summer and fall. The tilled area will also be used to grow crops that the soldiers grew in the 1820’s.

While in use, Ft. Atkinson was used as an experiment to see if frontier forts could be self-sustaining.  The soldiers spent much of their time on agricultural pursuits. So much in fact, that many soldiers complained and regretted leaving family farms for adventure and excitement in the army only to end up herding pigs in Nebraska. They raised pigs and cattle, farmed over 500 acres, had a dairy herd and creamery, ground their own grain in an ox power flourmill, and even had their own distillery. The park plans to plant potatoes and oats, both crops that soldiers grew during their stay at the fort, in the inaugural season this spring. Plan to visit Ft. Atkinson this summer on a living history weekend to see crops grow at the fort once again!

 

 

References


Gayle F. Carlson, 1997 Archeological Surveying, Testing, and Remote Sensing, at Fort Atkinson. Nebraska State Historical Society prepared for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
For more information on farming at Ft. Atkinson, check out these two articles from Nebraska History.

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

The Massacre Canyon Oral History and Archeology Project

The Massacre Canyon Oral History and Archeology Project

Lest We Forget:  The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot

Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot

Portraits of Omaha’s 1898 Indian Congress

Portraits of Omaha’s 1898 Indian Congress

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.
Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.