Fort Kearny on the Missouri River

U.S. Army Pvt. William Ingraham and his unit spent the winter of 1847-48 at Fort Kearny at present Nebraska City. In the spring they traveled about 180 miles west to build Fort Childs (later Fort Kearny) on the Platte River. An 1847 letter from Ingraham to his brother in Peoria, Illinois, described the original Fort Kearny on the Missouri as “nothing but a solitary block house” when his unit arrived, but the troops set to work and soon gave it “quite a respectable appearance. Our quarters are built of logs and covered with sods and dirt, with sod chimneys.” A number of Ingrahamís letters, edited and with an introduction by Richard E. Jensen, were published in the Fall 2001 issue of Nebraska History.

In January of 1848 Ingraham gave his brother a more complete picture of the fort and the surrounding countryside: “You ask for a description of Fort Kearney. It lies two miles west of the western line of Iowa on the west side of Table Creek about sixty miles from the Little Nemahaw. All the south and west side is one continued prairie twenty and sometimes thirty miles between the watering places. No timber except in the hollows where there is water.

“On the north side of the Fort is the Missouri river, on each side of which and on an island in the middle there is plenty of timber abounding in game of all kinds. I never go in the woods but I am nearly deafened with the screeching of paroquets and croaking of ravens. On the other side of the river are numerous shanties, grog shops and grocery stores, on a small scale, got up since the battalion arrived. As you go down the river there is a vast bottom covered with grass tall enough to hide a man on horseback, extending six miles from the river, beyond which are immense cliffs of sand that have the same appearance as cliffs of rock. . . .

“Every day we have to drill for two hours on foot in the rifle drill, acting as skirmishers or running along in single file at double-quick time. On Sunday we have another drill a horseback, where we have to dismount and act as skirmishers. Tis a very fine scene when well performed.”

Life at Fort Kearny was not dull for Ingraham and his unit. On March 18, 1848, he wrote to his brother: “There has been great excitement in the Fort for the last two weeks. One of the sergeants wrote a letter to a member of congress stating how the officers were conducting themselves, that the colonel and staff continually got drunk and that the quarter-master refused the troops lumber for their quarters and sold it to the Mormons that moved into camp, and many other grievances too numerous to mention. One of the lieutenants went to his trunk while he was absent on a furlough and took from it a copy of this letter and some of his private letters and read them.

“The sergeant, on his return, finding them gone, hearing the officer had taken them, went to the officer and called him a d__d thief. The officer reported him to the colonel and also reported a private for selling whiskey in the camp. Petition after petition was sent to the colonel to let them go, for he put them both in irons, but the colonel would let only the private go and kept the sergeant under guard. It came very near raising a mutiny for the sergeant had many friends. It has caused the men to dislike the officers throughout the whole battalion. The sergeant aided by his friends got off his irons and deserted last night with three privates. What the sergeant wrote in the letter was true and the colonel cannot prove to the contrary.”

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