THE MILITARY POST OF FORT ATKINSON
Historic Site: 13WH57
In the broader context, the story of the military post of Fort Atkinson is a story of the United States government policy in removing native Americans from the east side of the Mississippi River over to the west side. In the narrower context, the story is about the life of the inhabitants of the ‘neutral ground’ of the northeast Iowa Territory from 1840-1848.
THE WINNEBAGO INDIANS
Throughout the 1830s, the Winnebago resisted leaving their homelands in Wisconsin. The region contained their tribal burial grounds, and the Winnebago also had concern for moving into the region near their old enemies, the Sioux. General Henry Atkinson then suggested the idea of establishing a temporary fort along the Turkey River within the ‘neutral ground’. Atkinson supposedly promised that the U. S. military would provide protection to the Winnebago tribe from the Sioux tribe located to the north. While the Fort was not really constructed for this purpose, the soldiers did monitor the location of the Sioux, and also kept settlers out of the “neutral ground” since they were prohibited from entering this territory reserved for the Winnebago.
CONSTRUCTION OF THE FORT BEGINS
The first log barracks of the fort were constructed in the year 1840. The cold Iowa winters led to many desertions that first winter, so beginning in April, 1841, the first stone barracks were constructed. Due to the difficulty the infantry (foot soldiers) had in monitoring the various Winnebago bands throughout the ‘neutral ground’, a unit of dragoons (soldiers mounted on horseback) arrived at the fort in June, 1841.
THE BUILDINGS CONSTRUCTED AT FORT ATKINSON
Labor continued on the fort and by the fall of 1842 most of the work was completed. A total of 24 buildings were erected. Ten of these existed inside the stockade walls of the Fort, & included such buildings as two enlisted men’s barracks, an officers’ quarters, a non-commissioned officers’ quarters, a commissary storehouse, a sutler’s store, a powder house or powder magazine, two block houses (cannon houses) and a guardhouse. Another 14 buildings were located outside the gates. Some of these buildings included the stables, a granary, three laundresses’ huts, a carpenter shop, a blacksmith shop, a bake house, root house, ice house, and three dragoon (mounted infantry) stables.
MAIN ARMY UNITS ARE PULLED FROM THE FORT IN 1846
In the year 1846, the regular army troops stationed at Fort Atkinson were sent to Mexico to fight in the Mexican-American War. Volunteer troops then took over the manning of the Fort.
By the mid-1840s, the southeast Iowa Territory had been invaded by settlers, and shortly these pioneer farmers were located at the southern edge of the ‘neutral ground’. The government made the decision to move the Winnebago Indians out of the region and into Minnesota. In 1846, the same year that Iowa was admitted as a state to the union, the Winnebago signed a treaty to relinquish their land within the neutral ground. It would not be until June, 1848, that the military escort of the Winnebago into Minnesota was completed. With no more Winnebago Indians left in the region, the last company of infantry soldiers left Fort Atkinson in February, 1849.
AFTERMATH OF THE FORT SITE
In 1855, the Fort was sold to private owners by public auction, and the outside buildings were torn down. It wasn’t until the 1920s that he residents of the town of Fort Atkinson began to realize the role that the military fort in the community had played not only as a part of our country’s history, but more specifically in the importance to local history. Through efforts of local citizens, the Iowa Board of Conservation acquired the fort site in the 1920s.
RECONSTRUCTION OF FOUNDATIONS & SOME BUILDINGS
In June, 1940, workers remarked the foundations of the original buildings within the stockade. In 1957, funds were appropriated which were used from 1958-1962 to reconstruct the north barracks into a visitor center, and the log stockade wall was partially reconstructed. Due to rotting of the stockade wall poles, the stockade wall was replaced in the fall of 2006.
FORT ATKINSON BECOMES A STATE PRESERVE
In 1968, the Fort was dedicated as a State Preserve. In 1976, the Iowa Conservation Commission, along with the Travel Development Division of the Iowa Development Commission, decided to develop a new program of promotion of interest areas on state-owned land in Iowa with Fort Atkinson being the starting point.
PREVIOUS ARCHAEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS
Two previous archaeological investigations have been conducted at the Ft. Atkinson military post site. In 1939-41, Sigurd S. Reque, a professor at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, conducted excavations at the fort. The purpose of the investigation was to determine the exact locations of the building foundations located inside the stockade wall, and to collect artifacts for display at a State Museum within the fort. A report on Reque’s work was never published.
The second archaeological investigation was conducted by Dr. Marshall McKusick, then State Archaeologist of Iowa, in the summer of 1966. McKusick dug outside the stockade wall and located the foundation of the bakehouse as indicated by Lieutenant A. W. Reynolds sketch of the post. Reynolds made the sketch for the War Department in September, 1842. McKusick then excavated the officer’s latrines inside the stockade wall. Artifacts associated with the latter part of the fort’s occupation were discovered. McKusick never published the findings of his excavations.
‘Self-Guided Walking Tour Brochure’
In the year 2008, the Fort Atkinson Historic Preservation Commission was awarded a $5505 grant from the Winneshiek County Gaming Revenue Committee for development of a ‘self-guided-walking-tour-brochure’ to be available to visitors to the military post grounds and for development of two ‘teaching trunks’ of historic Fort Akinson materials/artifact replicas/military elements/Winnebago/Ho-Chunk Indian cultural items that could be check out by schools and other organizations.
The project was conducted by personnel from the Office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa City with assistance from the Fort Atkinson Historic Preservation Commission members. OSA staff that developed the brochure included Lynn Alex, Cherie Haury-Artz, and Angela R. Collins.
Since the current military post grounds are not staffed during the week and the State Museum on the post grounds is only open weekend afternoons during the summer, visitors to the grounds can now have access to the historical aspects of the fort by picking up a copy of the Walking Tour Brochure when they enter the fort.
The brochure gives a history of the 1840s military post and specific information on over fifteen stopping points on the grounds.
One side of the brochure contains a large water color painting by Deanne Wortman showing the layout of the fort buildings in its heyday. Numbered stops guide visitors to the location of reconstructed structures such as blockhouses, the North Barracks (now the museum) and the stockade.
Images on the brochure such as dominoes, a jaw harp, buttons and artifacts found by archaeologists on the post grounds help create a sense of the Fort’s residents and their everyday lives.
The teaching trunks contain replicas of period artifacts and educational resources that can be utilized in the elementary grades of regional schools. The lessons and activities are excellent sources for use in social studies and history units on the 1840s military post of Fort Atkinson and the Winnebago/H-Chunk Indian history in the ‘neutral ground’.
The brochure is available by clicking on the link below.a
Visitors to the fort are encouraged to pick up a copy of the brochure to get a detailed story of the military post and the current sites on the grounds.