The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: Road trip and discoveries

 

This past week, my wife Deb and I made a four-day road trip to entertain in eastern and central Nebraska. The first day was the longest stretch as we left Bushnell in the morning and arrived in West Point in the late afternoon.

In recognition of Nebraska's Ag Week, I had the honor to perform for a crowd of nearly 400 people involved in the business of agriculture in that area. I was reminded that the state of Nebraska ranks third in beef production and Cuming County – West Point is the county seat – is the largest beef-producing county in the state.

Leaving West Point the following morning, we traveled to Omaha where Deb and her good friend, Lyn Messersmith of Valentine, performed their poetry and song of pioneer women, in the historic Oregon/California Trail town of Benson. On our homeward journey, we stopped in Lexington, where we entertained a group of senior citizens. And while the trip was sometimes a bit tiring it was most enjoyable meeting new folks and making new discoveries.

Going through Grand Island, I found myself trapped in a turn lane that forced me to make a detour. That detour put us right in line with the grand, Hall County courthouse. Deb and I are both fanatics about turn of the century architecture and the courthouse in Grand Island is a beautiful example of some of the finest. We stopped to stretch our legs and took a self-tour of the building before heading northeast on Highway 30.

On the courthouse lawn sits an old, bronze cannon covered in the turquoise patina of age and mounted atop a concrete base. The bronze plaque affixed to the base reads: "This cannon left at Fort O.K. Aug. 22, 1865, by Major J.R. Curtis for protection of the settlement against attack by hostile Indians. Presented to Hall County March 1, 1897, under Act of Congress May 22, 1896."

So, where was Fort O. K. and who was Maj. Curtis? Perhaps the "J" on the plaque was an error by the engraver or maybe poorly written on the note from which the name was transcribed. The only Maj. Curtis that I have been able to find are a Maj. Gen. Samuel Ryan Curtis and his son, Maj. Henry Zarah Curtis.

Major Henry Z. Curtis was killed in October 1863 during a Civil War battle with Quantrill's Raiders at Baxter Springs, Kansas, while Major Gen. S.R. Curtis named Fort Zarah, in Barton County, Kan., in memory of his son.

Maj. Gen. S.R. Curtis was an 1831 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. He was promoted to colonel during the Mexican-American war and afterward located to Keokuk, Iowa, where he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1856.

The Civil War cut his political career short when he was appointed in June 1861 to command the 2nd Iowa Infantry. He was in command of the Union forces that won the Battle of Pea Ridge (Ark.) in 1862.

His personal account of the battle is more of remorse than triumph as he wrote: "The scene is silent and sad. The vulture and the wolf now have dominion over the dead friends and foes sleep in the same lonely graves."

Samuel Ryan Curtis was promoted to major general for his military success at Pea Ridge and received word of his advancement on March 21, 1862. That same day he received word that typhoid fever had claimed the life of his 20-year old daughter.

After his defeat of Confederate troops at the Battle of Westport, Mo., he was reassigned to the Army's Department of the Northwest where his troops responded to the Indian uprisings in southern Minnesota and the Dakota Territory. It was during this assignment that Curtis and his troops passed through the central Platte Valley of Nebraska Territory.

The early settlers of the area had platted a Grand Island City and established several farms and homesteads. In 1862, alongside the Mormon Trail, Henry A. Koenig and Fred Wiebe opened the first store in the settlement. The two men named their establishment the O. K. Store.

During the Indian uprising of 1864-65 the citizens of the settlement fortified the O.K. Store with a formidable sod stockade where 100 women and 68 men took shelter from the potential attack. At the same time, another small settlement about two miles further west built their own fortifications to shelter about 35 citizens. This structure, built by William Stolley, was known locally as "Fort Independence" though it never had any military connections. The site of Fort Independence has been preserved by the 1927 Nebraska Legislature as Stolley State Park.

In August 1865, Curtis visited "Fort O.K." and to aid in the defense of the fortifications, Curtis left a 6-pounder cannon. Perhaps it was due to the substantial "fort" and its heavy armament that no Indian attacks ever occurred at Fort O.K. however the cannon that stood ready to defend the people of Grand Island now stands proudly on the courthouse lawn.

Our southeasterly route from West Point to Omaha took us through Blair, where we turned on to Highway 75 as it hugs the Nebraska-Iowa border. It was along this route, about 10 miles north of the Omaha outskirts that we discovered Fort Atkinson and council bluff. Actually, the place had been discovered 211 years ago by Lewis and Clark and was inhabited before that by the Omaha and Otoe tribes, though for us, the discovery was new.

In 1804, Lewis and Clark, leading the Corps of Discovery, were traveling up the Missouri River and on July 30, made camp on the bluffs that rose some 70 feet above the rolling waters of that mighty river. At that site, Lewis and Clark held the first council with the Indian tribes located west of the Missouri. Scouts were sent out from camp to bring in leaders of the Indian tribes located nearby. Members of both the Otoe and Omaha came to the camp where a council was held on Aug. 3, 1804.

Clark described the site in his journal when the Corps arrived on the 30th: "...went up the Bank and walked a Short Distance in the high Prarie this Prarie is Covered with Grass of 10 or 12 inches in hight, Soil of good quality & at the Distance of about a mile still further back the Countrey rises about 80 or 90 feet higher..." The following day he noted: "The Prarie which is situated below our Camp is above the high water level and rich covered with Grass from 5 to 8 feet high..."

After the council was held on the 2nd of August the Corps left the site and continued upriver. On the following day Clark recorded the events of the meeting and further commented on the site: " The Situation of our last Camp Councile (cq) Bluff or Handsom Prarie, (25 days from this to Santafee (cq)) appears to be very proper place for a Tradeing (cq) establishment & fortification The Soil of the Bluff well adapted for Brick, Great deel (cq) of timber..."

In 1819, the U.S. War Department agreed with the appraisal of Captain Clark and ordered the building of a fortification and trading post at the site described by him. The original site, "Cantonment Missouri" was begun in the winter of 1819 on the river bottoms below the bluffs.

During the winter scurvy claimed the lives of more than 200 of the 1,000 enlisted men. That spring the river flooded and destroyed what building had been done. The site was then moved to the top of the Council Bluff and building commenced.

Completed in 1820, the fort was to be named Fort Calhoun to honor then Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun. However the naming went to the first post commander, General Henry Atkinson, who would become an honored veteran of The Black Hawk War of 1832.

Fort Atkinson was the first military post to be established west of the Missouri River and served as a key outpost for traders, trappers and explorers of the region. In 1827 the Army abandoned the post in order to better protect the increasing trade along the Santa Fe Trail and built Fort Leavenworth as a replacement. At its peak, the fort housed more than 1,000 soldiers and multiple civilians, tradesmen and trappers.

In 1846, Mormon immigrants found food and other provisions that still remained at the site. Little remained of the original buildings by 1850.

Today, the site has been reconstructed and living history exhibits fill the ramparts during the summer months. The Missouri River, that in 1820 hugged the banks below the bluffs, has rerouted itself through the mighty forces of nature and now has moved so far to the east that it can no longer be seen from the lofty heights of Lewis and Clark's Council Bluff.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. Contact Tim via email at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com

 

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