The Farming Soldiers

In the summer of 1819, Colonel Henry Atkinson led about 1100 soldiers up the Missouri

River. Their mission: to establish a chain of military posts to keep English fur traders out of

America’s recent Louisiana Purchase. But even in 1819, Congress had a way of intervening.

In an attempt to balance the budget, the War Department’s appropriations were axed.

Atkinson and his men never made it to their original destination–the mouth of the

Yellowstone. Congressional penny-pinching forced them to remain on the west bank of the

Missouri, in the area Lewis and Clark had dubbed “Council Bluffs.” One hundred and

seventy years ago this September, they established the first American fort and the first

considerable settlement in Nebraska. Eventually the post was named for its founder–Fort


The fort was the site of many “firsts.” The first school, library, sawmill, grist mill,

blacksmith shop, and brickyard in Nebraska were all located at the fort.

The post was more like a pioneer settlement than a military installation. A fair number of the

450-850 troops garrisoned at Fort Atkinson had their wives and children with them. Traders,

carpenters, masons, shoemakers, laborers, laundresses, trappers, hunters, and Indians lived at

the fort, in addition to Army personnel.

The soldiers at Fort Atkinson were mainly farmers, not fighters. The English threat never

materialized, and relations with area Indians were still friendly. One year drilling was

suspended from September to December, in deference to crop-tending.

The troops were successful agriculturalists–to such an extent that in 1826, an Army inspector

reported with disgust: “Our military have lost character among the Indians. No officer seems

to know his place in case of an alarm. Let the soldier be one. Let him no longer boast of his

skill as a tiller of the soil. They can raise gardens, but do not let them boast of proficiency as

farmers, of the advantages of the broadcast over the drill, nor of the extra five bushels per

acre raised by Company C over Company B from relying more upon the plough than upon

the hoe. Look at Fort Atkinson and you will see barnyards that would not disgrace a

Pennsylvania farmer, herds of cattle that would do credit to a Potomac grazier, yet where is

the gain in this, either to the soldier or the Government? Why all the corn and hay? To feed

to cattle. Why the cattle? To eat the corn and hay.”

By 1827, the Army concluded that perhaps its resources could be put to better use elsewhere.

Troops and families moved back down the river to Missouri. “The farmer’s fort” was


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