Their mission was to protect the burgeoning western fur trade and control access to the upper Missouri and the Platte Valley overland route.
Put your pencils down. There's no test, but certainly a lesson to be learned. Just ask Penny Ankenbauer.
The 44-year-old Council Bluffs native thought she knew American history. Armed with an elementary education degree (social studies emphasis), she can rattle off plenty of facts about life in Nebraska in the early-19th century.
"I thought I knew something," said Ankenbauer, who for the past three summers has played the role of an officer's cook during Living History Days at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park. "Then I came here and realized I didn't know anything."
For six weekends during the summer months, Ankenbauer joins a volunteer cadre of history buffs who portray life at Fort Atkinson from 1820 to 1827, when the area was an active
Facts and figures do not adequately tell the story of life back then, she said.
"Kids think history is boring - but it's not," said Ankenbauer. It's the little things, she said, like sleeping on a rope bed in the barracks alongside her children, Kacie, 15, and Kyle, 16. Rising at the crack of dawn to build a fire in a brick oven, then preparing stews, breads and desserts like tipsy cake in a Dutch oven for the officers' lunch and dinner. Sewing her own clothes - the long-sleeved chemise, jumper and apron that she wears each day.
It was an era when families toiled in farm fields, blacksmiths spent long days over fiery coals, women churned butter, soldiers marched and trained, children fetched water and firewood, and coopers constructed buckets and barrels out of narrow slats of wood. "I have so much respect for what those people went through," said Ankenbauer.
Fort Atkinson once stood just east of what is now Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. But the spot entered the historical record well before it became an army post.
In 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition held a council with the Oto and Missouria tribes somewhere on those same bluffs, a spot the captains called "the Council Bluff." That was the Expedition's first council with Native Americans. When the explorers resumed their journey, Clark made an entry in the journals recommending the spot as a site for future fortification.
The Yellowstone Expedition of 1819, led by Colonel Henry Atkinson, was commissioned to build a series of posts across the Great Plains. However, when that idea was abandoned, Fort Atkinson stood as the only constructed post.
As the westernmost government authority, the military installation assumed the often impossible task of regulating the fur trade and enforcing peaceful relations between traders and the Indian
The fort was abandoned in 1827 when the Army realigned its forces to the southwest. Gradually, all visible evidence of Fort Atkinson disappeared as the area was razed for farmland.
In 1963, after a successful fundraising drive spearheaded by the Fort Atkinson Foundation, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission purchased the land. Reconstruction of the log fortification began in 1978.
"We knew the general area of the fort," said John Slader, who has served as park superintendent
"You name it, they found it," he said. "In fact, one old gentleman used to pay local children if they came out and picked up buttons and other items."
Many artifacts are now at the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln or at the Washington County Museum.
Before reconstruction took place on the site, researchers determined exact locations of original buildings. Then the area was excavated "to recover everything underneath," Slader said.
The north, west and south fort walls now stand. Other buildings include the powder magazine - a stone structure with walls about two feet thick - and a sutler's store. The armorer's shop and the council house are on their original locations. A modern visitor center sits nearby.
While in its formative stages, Fort Atkinson State Historical Park opened to the public in 1970. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that Living History Days began taking shape.
"There wasn't a formal group involved," said Slader, just a loosely knit handful of history enthusiasts, including buckskinning and muzzleloading organizations that occasionally conducted demonstrations. As the fort, barracks and other buildings began taking shape, interest grew to include portrayals of military and civilian life at the fort.
Now "Friends of Fort Atkinson," formed in 1990, includes more than 60 volunteers, ages 1 to 75, who come from as far away as California, Tennessee and Minnesota to bring the early-19th century fort back to life.
"We cook up all kinds of scenarios," said Rich Flowers, 68, who began in 1985 as a blacksmith's assistant. "You can add a lot of humor and fun in your interpretations."
The Omaha native is somewhat of a utility player. One weekend Flowers may be Sergeant O'Hara running the blacksmith shop or a gunsmith in the armorer's shop. "If someone needs a weapon fixed, they bring it to me," he said. "I have to make sure they have a requisition from the quartermaster to get it fixed."
Sometimes he's a clerk in the sutler's store where the public can buy goods from the time period (rock candy is a favorite). On occasion, Flowers is Senor Flores, a horse thief from the Mexican settlement of Taos.
"There are very fertile minds at work here," said Flowers, "Some scenarios are planned, others are not."
One afternoon Flower's 11-year old granddaughter witnessed "Senor Flores" being stripped of his weapons and hauled away by soldiers for selling whiskey to an Indian.
"She hollered, 'They're arresting Grandpa!' " said Flowers, who was just as surprised as she was.
A more elaborate plot included a re-enactor with a prosthetic lower leg who feigned a self-inflicted gunshot wound to that limb. The troops heard screaming following a blast behind a barracks and ran to find the man on the ground writhing in pain. A crowd quickly gathered to watch as the drama unfolded.
After wrapping him in a blanket soaked in phony blood, the soldiers rushed him to the surgeon's quarters where a saw was used to amputate the extremity.
"They were actually cutting through PVC pipe," said Penny, describing the realistic sounds of the staged trauma.
The surgeon then threw the blanket-draped "leg" out the door.
"A couple little old ladies about fainted," said Flowers. "We only did that once."
Other less-involved scenarios might include a Sunday morning church service or children studying in a one-room school, soldiers gambling or lining up for rations, a tinsmith fine-tuning his craft
Visitors are encouraged to interact with the interpreters while they're working, which often prompts a recurring question.
"People ask if things are real," said Ankenbauer, "Is that a real fire? Is that real food?"
Re-enactors go the extra mile to make sure their portrayal of life at the 1820s Fort Atkinson is as authentic as possible.
"Living History Days is becoming more historically correct," said Slader. "More information is coming in all the time."
The volunteers do a lot of their own research, tapping into each other's knowledge as well as fort diaries, court-martial records and the Internet.
One diary entry told of a soldier who was court-martialed for shirking his duties when he stepped under an awning to chat with a prisoner and get out of the rain, said Ankenbauer. Research also
Period cookbooks shed light on the diets of the day, she said.
Because there was no refrigeration, meats were layered with salt and spices like nutmeg, then smoked. Bread was toasted so it would last longer.
"Officers ate much better because they had more money to procure things like lemons, oranges and other fruits," said Ankenbauer. Enlisted men lived on rations of meat, bread, rice, beans and vinegar, which was believed to prevent scurvy. "It didn't," she said.
"People who do living history here are always studying," said Flowers. "There's so much to consume."
Slader hopes as more volunteers reach retirement age, Living History Days can expand.
"I'd love to see it on a daily basis," he said, "with a volunteer cadre of up to one thousand."
Additional long-range plans include construction of the east fort wall and wooden entry gates, along with other significant structures, like the officer's quarters, schoolhouse and band house, Slader said.
Each improvement no doubt will enhance an educational experience that teaches visitors a lesson they'll never learn in a classroom, said Slader.
"It gives them a chance to step back in time, reflect on life in the presettlement West and appreciate what they have today," he said.
Fort Atkinson State Historical Park is located east of Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, off U.S. Highway 75, and is about eight miles north of the I-680 and U.S. 75 interchange in Omaha. For more information, call the Harold Andersen Visitor Center at (402) 468-5611 or send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Friends of Fort Atkinson web site is www.fortatkinsononline.org.