Fort Atkinson on the Santa Fe Trail


Fort Atkinson on the Santa Fe Trail was in operation from 1850 to 1854, and  was a part of the rapidly expanding American military frontier in the Far West following the Mexican War. As people traveled westward to occupy new lands for farming and ranching, rushed for gold, and exploited other natural resources of the vast continent, the need increased for military protection from the Indians whose homelands were being invaded.

The federal government, as in the past, accepted the obligation to protect its citizens and extended military operations along the routes of travel and into regions of new settlement.

Chains of military posts were linked across new frontiers to place federal troops in proximity to actual or threatened native resistance; more than 90 new western forts and camps were founded between the Mexican and Civil wars.

In the process, the older routes of travel across the plains and mountains were especially provided with troop stations.

Fort Mann, which was established in 1846 as a quartermaster’s station rather than a troop base, was used by some volunteer troops during 1847-1848. There were, at the time, forts at each end of the overland route, Leavenworth (1827) on the Missouri river and Marcy (1846) at Santa Fe.

Fort Atkinson was the first regular army post on the Santa Fe trail in the heart of the Indian country. It faced several obstacles, the most serious of which were location in an area almost devoid of building materials and firewood and a very small garrison of troops.

It did provide an important way station for travelers and the mail coaches, a base for limited field operations, and a point for contact and negotiation with the Plains Indians. Its occupation pointed the way to improved military protection and ultimate conquest; its weaknesses were examples to be avoided in future undertakings. In all, it was a significant early step in the expansion of American control.

Protection of the road to Santa Fe had been an unsolved problem since the 1820’s when the commercial history of the trail began. The era of the Mexican war saw increased use and a system of protection which worked in 1847-1848 when William Gilpin’s Missouri volunteers (Indian battalion) were stationed on the route.

When the war with Mexico ended and the army was reduced in size, the Santa Fe road had no military protection except at the extremities. Trade and travel over the route were increasing, and Indian resistance naturally followed.

This led to demands on the war department, which caused Adj. Gen. Roger Jones to recommend protection of the Santa Fe trail to Secretary of War G. W. Crawford in late spring of 1850. He wrote:

“It is known that several large Tribes of Indians roam over these prairies, and they will whenever an opportunity offers, attack caravans for the sake of plunder, and sometimes murder our Citizens. These Indians can only be restrained by having among them, or in striking distance of their hunting grounds, a military force able to pursue and punish them whenever they, commit aggressions upon travelers. On so long a route through an uninhabited region, it doubtless would be well to have one, or more intermediate posts, where the weary traveler, after a tedious journey, could rest securely, and be enabled to replenish his exhausted supplies, etc.”

Jones suggested three posts along the trail, at Council Grove, Pawnee Fork, and Big Timbers. Limited resources prevented this, but Secretary Crawford ordered the establishment of one fort to be located where it would provide the most effective protection of the road.

Actual location and arrangements for construction were assigned to Ltc. Edwin Vose Sumner, First dragoons, after which the post was to be occupied and built by soldiers of the Sixth infantry.

In July, 1850, a temporary camp, Camp Mackay, was established near the Middle crossing of the Arkansas river, and it served as the base for the survey of the area and aided travelers on the road. Sumner, after arranging for the procurement and shipment of supplies and building materials for the new fort, came out in August and scouted the region between Pawnee Fork and the site of Bent’s Old Fort.

Although the superintendent of Indian affairs at St. Louis, D. D. Mitchell, recommended that Indian Agent Thomas Fitzpatrick be taken with Sumner to assist in dealing with the Indians and selection of the location, Fitzpatrick was not taken. This may have been because the request was made too late or that the army did not consider this any business of the agency.

The Indian bureau had only recently been transferred from the war department to the new department of the interior, and the military officials and Indian officials were often competitive with and critical of the other service. These struggles showed up throughout the history of Fort Atkinson.

Another recommendation by Mitchell, which was not implemented, pointed up some differences in attitudes between the bureau and the military regarding Indian rights.

“I would . . . earnestly recommend that I be authorized to furnish the Agent with . . . $5,000 worth of Indian goods to be distributed amongst the Indians as a compensation for the destruction of the timber, game, grass, etc. which the establishment of a military post must necessarily produce. I consider our Government in honor bound to pay the Indians for any depredations of which they can justly complain.”

Sumner discovered that most of the wagon trains were using the Cimarron crossing, and he determined that the fort should be below that point on the Arkansas river. He chose a site about 26 miles east of the Cimarron crossing and 75 miles west of the crossing of Pawnee Fork, just a mile above old Fort Mann and near the mid-point of the trail, approximately two miles west of present Dodge City.

The summer was almost over and the troops would need quarters before winter, so Sumner directed that temporary buildings of sod should be thrown up. He laid plans for the erection of permanent stone buildings the following year, but these plans were never fulfilled.

On September 12, 1850, the soldiers at Camp Mackay moved to the New Post on the Arkansas, as it was officially known until June of 1851 when it was named Fort Atkinson (in honor of the late Gen. Henry Atkinson, who had previously been honored with three other posts: Fort Atkinson, Nebraska, 1819-1827; Camp Atkinson, Louisiana, 1830-1832; and Fort Atkinson, Iowa, 1840-1849). [5]

It was also called Fort Mackay and Fort Sumner by soldiers and travelers. Because of the building materials and conditions there, some of the troops referred to it as Fort Sod and Fort Sodom.

Sumner regarded the location as the best from a strategic viewpoint, since it was in the very heart of Indian country and the Arkansas valley seemed to present a supply of grass for the animals.

There were other considerations, however, which rendered the location unsatisfactory, especially the lack of construction materials (timber and stone) and firewood. No stone suitable for construction was found in the immediate vicinity, forcing the abandonment of Sumner’s design.

Timber was found along branches of Pawnee fork to the north some 12 miles and south of the Arkansas river about 25 miles. Within two weeks after they occupied the post, the troops were going as far as 35 miles to find wood.

A few weeks later, Alexander Majors delivered supplies to the new post and honored the commanding officer’s request for his wagons to haul cottonwood and walnut logs from a point about 25 miles south of the site to use in constructions.

It turned out that there also was not sufficient forage for the animals near the post. All these factors contributed to the decision to abandon the fort within a few years, and the next post along the Arkansas river was placed at Pawnee Fork where timber, stone, and grass were available.

After Colonel Sumner selected the site and made arrangements for construction. He placed Lt. Henry Heth, Sixth infantry, in command with a garrison of one company of the Sixth, and returned to Fort Leavenworth.

Heth oversaw the construction of temporary quarters until Cpt. William Hoffman, Sixth infantry, arrived on November 24 to assume command. Before year’s end, Hoffman was convinced that the location was unsuitable.

The question of location was debated throughout the time Fort Atkinson was occupied and even afterward. Sumner’s selection and design were approved by General Winfield Scott, who ordered the erection of the stone buildings to be carried out in the spring of 1851.

But, Captain Hoffman at the post recommended otherwise after the temporary quarters were prepared, pointing out that all lumber suitable for construction within 20 miles of the post had been utilized and reporting that stone could not be found within 10 miles. In addition, there were no masons or carpenters available to do the work.

Hoffman suggested relocation at Pawnee Fork, where building materials were present and the cost of supply would be less since it was closer to Fort Leavenworth.

This request was honored by Col. Newman S. Clarke, commander of the Sixth military department, who ordered, March 29, 1851, the moving of the post to Pawnee Fork, but the order was not carried out. It did not arrive at Fort Atkinson until several months later, and by that time Captain Hoffman was no longer in command.

It is not clear whether the new commander, Cpt. R. H. Chilton, First dragoons, disagreed with the move and recommended against it, or whether the lateness of the season led to a request to stay put, but the order was suspended and Fort Atkinson remained on the original site.

Additional investigations were made into the possibility of relocating the fort, but it was not done. Sumner always defended the position he chose, and several years after the post was abandoned he called for its reoccupation.

The site was used as a summer camp by troops protecting the trail in 1859 before Fort Larned was established at Pawnee Fork.

The debate over location did not affect the troops who founded the post. The construction of temporary sod quarters occupied their time during the autumn of 1850 and prevented their devoting attention to the Indians.

By early winter they had erected sod walls. These buildings were without floors, and the roofs were of poles covered with brush and sod, with canvas, or with both. Contemporary descriptions of the post provide a rather dismal view. An army officer who visited there in June, 1852, recorded:

“Our eyes were first greeted some ten miles distant from the post with a sight of the stars and stripes, waving over and among what appeared to be a close encampment of huge tents, but on nearer approach proved to be buildings of earth, the roofs of which were covered with tent canvass or duck, to keep out the drifting snow in winter and the dust in spring and summer. All the buildings at this post are constructed of heavy sods laid carefully with mortar of common surface soil, and are substantial and comfortable. All the defensive arrangements are constructed of this rude material, which gave it at first the name of “Fort Sod.” The site of this post struck me as being exceedingly dreary and desolate; scarcely a tree is to be seen near it. . . .”

Another visitor to the post in 1852, Charles Hallock, later described the locale:

“The scarcity of fuel and grass is the chief inconvenience experienced by this fort, though in other respects it is by no means agreeably situated — its location having been chosen solely with a view to the accommodation of the neighboring Indian tribes and the protection of the Santa Fe trade. The Arkansas River flows within a few rods of its walls, having a depth of three or four feet at certain seasons of the year; but in summer, like most of the prairie streams, its bed is generally nearly dry. The surrounding country is a barren waste, without vegetation, save a few shrub bushes and the crispy buffalo grass, diversified only by innumerable sand hills. No wood is to be had within thirteen miles; and “buffalo chips,” . . . once found in great abundance, are now quite scarce. . . . The fort itself is of adobe [sod], . . . roofed with canvas, containing fair accommodations for the garrison, and defended by a few small field-pieces and the usual armament. It has also a large corral on one side, five feet in height, for the protection of the animals.”

Fort Atkinson was supplied via wagon trains from Fort Leavenworth, some 370 miles away, and this proved to be an expensive proposition for the army’s limited resources.

Large shipments were sent in August and September, 1850, to provide for the garrison through the coming winter and provide building supplies. At least 150 tons of freight were shipped by contract trains in 1850, and the total cost was not found. The following year, 47 wagons carried 124 tons of army stores to the fort, and the transportation cost was $10,492.60.

That was for a garrison of approximately 80 men. Undoubtedly, the cost of supporting a garrison of several companies of infantry and mounted troops, as requested by various commanders as necessary to carry out the mission assigned the post, would have been prohibitive.

The location, condition, and supply of Fort Atkinson created problems, but they were not the prime reasons for the general military ineffectiveness of the post. That resulted from the small size and nature of the garrison.

One company of infantry was an advertisement of American military impotence rather than strength, and the perennial requests for reinforcements were either only partially filled or neglected altogether.

The fort and its garrison were able to survive only because of the largess of the Indians. On several occasions the post was surrounded by encampments of thousands of natives, and the troops knew they could not repel a concerted attack on their position.

Sent by the war department to instill fear in the hearts of the Indians and overawe them into peaceful behavior, the soldiers found themselves virtually powerless and frightened.

Since Indian relations constituted the major reason for the fort, the details deserve closer consideration.

It is important to make clear that the Indians had been in contact with white travelers for some time, especially since the Santa Fe trade was opened in the 1820’s. They had never made a determined effort to prevent the whites from passing through the country, but in accordance with their way of life, the Plains Indians raided those who were careless and possessed objects they desired, especially horses.

They had little contact with soldiers until the Mexican war, and they pledged their willingness to maintain peace and sign treaties during 1848 when Gilpin’s Indian battalion occupied portions of the region.

The United States failed to make treaties at that opportune time; it appears that neither the military commander nor the Indian agent possessed authority to negotiate.

Nevertheless, because of treaties with other tribes, it is certain that the Kiowas, Comanches, Plains Apaches, Cheyennes, Arapahos, and other Indians of the region knew about the presents and annuities that might be obtained through negotiation. Quite likely their friendly treatment of the garrison at Fort Atkinson reflected this interest.

Indians congregated near Fort Atkinson with the hope of receiving presents, and they were encouraged as early as 1850 to make peace treaties with the government. The post had the effect of drawing the tribes to the trail and encamping for periods of time in anticipation of handouts or annuities, and it thus served to increase the possibilities for hostilities, especially when the government gifts were delayed and the Indians were hungry.

To have expected them to refrain from stopping passing wagon trains to beg and to raid those who dropped their guard would have been expecting them to be other than what they were. Misunderstanding was a major reason for Indian-white problems, and to a considerable degree both sides failed to understand the other in the region of Fort Atkinson during the early 1850’s.

The congress and the war and interior departments were slow in developing and funding post-Mexican war plans for relations with the Indians of the Plains.

By 1850, however, they had determined upon a policy of military posts in the Indian country to protect citizens and Indians, peace treaties with all the tribes, and the distribution of annual payments (a form of bribery) for the granting of rights of passage and establishment of military bases. The implementation of this policy was a reason for Fort Atkinson’s founding and the attempts at treaty-making which followed.

During 1849 the agent for the Upper Platte and Arkansas agency, Thomas Fitzpatrick, distributed $5,000 worth of presents to his tribes, and requested them to remain peaceful toward each other and the Americans.

In 1850, prior to the founding of Fort Atkinson, he informed the Indians along the Arkansas river that the government wished to hold a treaty council with them, and the Indians indicated an interest in a treaty. Thus Fitzpatrick could report that the Indians were generally disposed to be friendly and wanting an agreement with the United States.

He recommended that they be rewarded for granting a right-of-way through their country and for the loss of timber and game which followed from American travel through the region.

Fitzpatrick had reservations about the location of troops in their midst, fearing that their presence might result in conflicts, and declared: “. . . I am satisfied it would be economical, and a good policy, for the government at this time to extend even a little show of justice to the Indians of that country, and to avoid a hostile conclusion if possible. . . .”

He considered the time to be right for securing formal commitments, and congress had already authorized the Indian bureau to make arrangements for negotiations which began in 1851.

In April, 1851, William Bent was at the New Post on the Arkansas urging the Indians of the region to attend the conference later that year at Fort Laramie. Bent was a trader who knew and was known by the Indians, and they began to encamp near the fort.

Merchant F. X. Aubry passed the New Post early in May and reported large villages of Kiowas, Comanches, Plains Apaches, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes assembled there.

Aubry reported that Captain Hoffman, commanding the fort, held a council and smoked the pipe of peace with the principal chiefs of those bands. He declared that the Indians “appeared to be well satisfied” with the officer.

Agent Fitzpatrick arrived at the post on June 1, 1851, to council with the tribes and encourage their attendance at Laramie. Fitzpatrick, on this his first visit to Fort Atkinson, was not impressed with what he saw and described it as “a small insignificant military station, beneath the dignity of the United States, and at the mercy and forbearance of the Indians.”

He requested the Indians to come in and talk, and within two weeks some 3,000 were located near the fort. With such overwhelming numbers present, the garrison at the post reportedly lived in fear of extermination. A plea for reinforcements had been dispatched to Fort Leavenworth prior to the agent’s arrival, and a company of First dragoons, under Captain Chilton, arrived in response on June 19.

The presence of these mounted troops, plus the fact that Colonel Sumner with troops and recruits for New Mexico marched down the trail at the same time, probably suppressed any hostile intent on the part of the Indians, if such existed (as believed by the soldiers). On July 6, after the Indian camps broke up, Chilton and the dragoons marched back to Fort Leavenworth, leaving the single company of infantry to guard the region.

Meanwhile Fitzpatrick had held council with each tribe separately, giving a “feast” consisting of pork, bread, and coffee, and distributing presents to each band. He explained that the United States government wanted to protect them from harm by American citizens and compensate them for any damages or injuries they received.

To that end, he requested their presence at the Fort Laramie council in September. The Cheyennes and Arapahoes agreed to attend, but the Comanches, Kiowas, and Plains Apaches refused to go so far and meet with many tribes with which they were not familiar.

They expressed fear that the Sioux and Crows might steal their ponies. They had heard that the dreaded diseases, smallpox and cholera, were prevalent along the Oregon trail. These Indians explained that they considered themselves to be at peace with the Americans and planned to preserve the peace, but they were willing to sign papers (which would bring additional presents and annuities) if that could be done in council on the Arkansas river or someplace in their own country. They did not go to Laramie, and Fitzpatrick signed the 1853 Treaty With The Comanche, Kiowa, And Apache at Fort Atkinson.

While Fitzpatrick was meeting with the Indian leaders, Colonel Sumner and command arrived and camped about two miles above Fort Atkinson near the Cheyenne village. The presence of these troops almost precipitated hostilities where none had existed. Fitzpatrick lamented what happened:

“The command remained . . . the best part of two days, during which time the Indians had free intercourse in and about the military camp, a privilege in my opinion, which should never have been allowed. Indeed, I was much astonished, and regretted to see such familiarity, as in no country and among no people is the adage ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ better exemplified than in that country and its natives. Such free and unrestrained intercourse, carried on between officers, privates, squaws, and Indians, not braves or chiefs, but, as the Indians themselves would term them, “dogs,” was certainly a new thing to me, and what I have rarely seen allowed even by the traders. I felt apprehensive that serious consequences would ensue.”

The incident which threatened to disrupt the peace was the flogging with a carriage whip of a Cheyenne brave by one of the officers, who claimed the Indian had made indecent advances toward the officer’s wife.

Fitzpatrick did not believe that the Indian had intended any harm and that the officer had simply misunderstood. Nevertheless, the situation was delicate and the Cheyennes demanded their agent to seek reparation for the insult to the brave.

Sumner, apparently dismissing the incident entirely, had proceeded with his command on the road to New Mexico. The Cheyennes were exasperated at this, and Fitzpatrick learned that they were contemplating an attack on the whites. He informed Commander Hoffman at the fort, who sent an express to Sumner.

The colonel wheeled his force around and marched back to the Cheyenne camp, arriving the following day. The Indians were alarmed at this display of force and feared they might be attacked. They came to Fitzpatrick for an explanation.

He explained and tried to patch up relations. This was done in a meeting between some of the chiefs and Sumner, which resulted in the presentation of a blanket to the whipped Indian. Peace was preserved, but Fitzpatrick observed that “such trifling matters are oftentimes fraught with serious consequences.”

He pointed out that the small wagon trains and mail parties traveling the trail were “entirely at the mercy of the Indians, whenever they felt desposed to injure them.”

Fitzpatrick had a good grasp of the Indian situation, and he also provided a knowledgeable analysis of the military posts, including Fort Atkinson, later that same year:

“. . . [Fort Atkinson] and Fort Laramie are such as I have always been opposed to have established at all, for the reason that they are barely able, in case the Indians were hostile, to defend themselves within their own walls. There is not a single day that passes in which the, Indians could not, if disposed to do so, strip and deprive these posts of all their resources, murder the different fatigue parties in detail, and drive off all the horses and stock belonging to either post. . . .”

“I do not wish to be understood as saying that military posts are not necessary in that country; on the contrary, I am well aware of the importance of such as are to be respected and feared, and not such as are a source of ridicule and contempt.”

The agent then recommended more military power, particularly a mounted force of at least 300 troopers along the Arkansas. Such force would command respect and protect the, interests of the United States. The military would reach the same conclusion, but the real obstacle was limited resources. The solution to that problem resided only in congress.

During that busy season at Fort Atkinson in 1851, when troops feared the large congregation of natives, a real threat to the garrison came with the invasion of the sod buildings by field mice. They were destroying the army provisions at an alarming rate until a requisition for a dozen cats from Fort Leavenworth was filled.

So far as is known, this was the first time that cats were carried on the property lists of the army. They did their duty, and the mouse threat to Atkinson was virtually eliminated.

Two years later the cats were declared to be “perfect wrecks” because of another kind of vermin — fleas. It must have been disconcerting to the soldiers who had been sent to the fort to fight Indians to find that mice and fleas were their most serious enemies in 1851.

There were other problems that year. Epidemic cholera appeared during the summer, and three deaths were reported among the garrison. 

The region was faced with a serious drought. Lieutenant Heth reported on August 4, 1851, that no rain of consequence had fallen within 100 miles of the post during the previous year and, as a result, there was no grass to supply hay for the animals. This made it necessary to send most of the public animals to Fort Leavenworth for the winter.

Heth planned to retain two or three six-mule teams and 12 riding horses for emergencies. Those animals would be subsisted on the store of 1,800 bushels of corn which had been shipped from Fort Leavenworth earlier. Without transportation, the little garrison could do little more than survive the coming winter at the fort.

Lt. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sixth infantry, assumed command at Fort Atkinson on November 6, 1851. Late that winter, he concluded that it would be in the best interest of the army to withdraw the garrison to Fort Leavenworth during winter months, leaving a small detachment of about a dozen enlisted men and, presumably, the cats, to guard the supplies during that time.

This would conserve the scarce firewood, curtail expenditures entailed in supply, and keep troops in better quarters for the season. Buckner’s experience showed few travelers during the cold season and no Indian troubles because the natives were in their winter camps.

The savings achieved in removing the garrison during the winter could be utilized to provide a sufficient garrison for the remainder of the year, which Buckner declared should consist of at least a company of infantry to construct, guard, and supply the post and two mounted companies to protect travelers and deal with Indians who exhibited hostile threats or actions.

Buckner estimated that several thousand Indians would spend the summer in the vicinity of the fort, and he begged for adequate reinforcements to prevent troubles. No troops were sent.

By June, 1852, when thousands of Indians were there awaiting Fitzpatrick’s arrival with presents, and the post, according to one reporter, was virtually under siege, Buckner demanded reinforcements.

Then rumor reached the Missouri settlements that Fort Atkinson had been captured, its garrison massacred, and a large caravan of wagons in the same vicinity destroyed and its people murdered. With a reported 10,000 Indians encamped there, that could have happened but did not.

Temporary reinforcements were on the way, for Maj. Winslow F. Sanderson with two companies of Mounted riflemen and one company of First dragoons marched from Fort Leavenworth on July 3 and arrived at Fort Atkinson by July 19.

What happened at Fort Atkinson was reported by Charles Hallock (with some embellishment and known inaccuracies) several years later.

The Kiowas and Comanches, with some of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, had gathered to meet with Fitzpatrick and were awaiting his arrival and the distribution of presents. He was delayed because the shipment of presents was late, and as the time passed for the appointed meeting, the Indians became hungry and the grass for their animals was disappearing.

They reportedly threatened to attack the soldiers, declaring that they wanted the presents or they would retaliate. At that point the request for reinforcements had been sent.

About mid-July, some 300 to 400 Kiowas and Comanches broke into Fort Atkinson after one sentry was knocked down by a warrior. No other violence or damage was reported at the time.

Later, when the Indians had returned to their tipis, the troops became brave and a young officer decided to punish the Indian who had struck the sentry. A detachment, with two field pieces, marched from the fort to the Kiowas’ encampment and demanded that the guilty Indian be delivered up for punishment.

Indian warriors surrounded the detachment, and the troops began to lose their confidence. When the Indian they demanded was handed over to them, they realized that an act against him would likely result in retaliation by the Kiowas. Further trouble was avoided when the lieutenant discreetly turned the guilty Indian back to his chief for punishment.

Although surrounded by Indians, the soldiers managed to return to the fort without incident. The Kiowas seemed to divide over the proper reaction, and the forces for peace won over those for war.

Into this potential for hostilities, William Bent with a small wagon train accompanied by Stephen C. King, with an excursion party from Georgia seeking adventure and more healthful conditions for Mrs. King (who incidentally died at Fort Atkinson in late July), and a party of Englishmen led by Charles William Fitzwilliam, in all about 50 persons, arrived at the fort.

They had been harassed by the Indians prior to arrival, and their numbers at the post increased its strength. Agent Fitzpatrick still had not arrived, and the situation remained explosive.

The Indians could see Bent’s wagons, and they demanded distribution of those goods. Bent refused, and his friendship with Arapaho Chief Yellow Bear probably prevented the taking of the train by force.

On the other hand, Hallock declared that the Indians did plan a night attack on the train and the fort, but that the war party fled after being alarmed by four deserting soldiers who were breaking away from the garrison. These deserters supposedly spread rumors that the fort had been captured and destroyed.

Soon after that, the Indians began to break their camps and leave the vicinity. The reason for this became clear at the fort upon the arrival of Major Sanderson with reinforcements.

Sanderson commanded Fort Atkinson for 12 days, July 20-July 31. His battalion of riflemen then proceeded to Fort Laramie, accompanied by the King party. Captain Chilton arrived on August 1 and assumed command of the post. His dragoons remained until the grass for the mounts was gone.

On September 27 they departed for Fort Leavenworth, leaving one company of infantry under command of Lieutenant Heth at Atkinson. While the mounted troops were present, the infantrymen had been able to lay in some supplies for the coming winter.

Fitzpatrick and the presents did not reach Fort Atkinson until the end of August, by which time some 2,000 Indians were again encamped nearby. Distribution of presents followed, and Fitzpatrick laid the groundwork for the negotiation of a treaty with the Kiowas and Comanches the following year.

After receiving the presents, the Indians “dispersed on the plains, prosecuting their fall hunts, preparatory to taking up their winter quarters.” The little garrison at Fort Atkinson settled down to survive the winter, which was accomplished without incident.

With the coming of spring, 1853, the Cheyennes began to raid travelers on the trail, leading Lieutenant Heth to request reinforcements for his garrison and armed escorts for the mail coaches. The escorts were provided and Captain Chilton and his company of First dragoons returned to the post for the third summer in succession, June 24 to August 6.

The post did provide some protection to the Santa Fe route during that time.One of the services provided by the garrison was the protection of a mail and stage station for mail contractors between Independence and Santa Fe.

Fort Atkinson was used as a relay station soon after it was established in 1850, and the mules were changed and wagons repaired at the point of security. A post office was established at Fort Atkinson on November 11, 1851. This mail station was dependent on the military, and when the fort was abandoned the mail station was removed.

The most significant development at Fort Atkinson in 1853 was not the protection of the trail and mail station; the post was the site of treaty negotiations with the Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache bands in the region, fulfilling the plans made by congress, the Indian bureau, and Fitzpatrick in previous years.

The agent arrived late in July with presents to distribute upon completion of the treaty arrangements, and he found some 5,000 to 6,000 natives awaiting him. The details of the treaty of Fort Atkinson were worked out in two days.

It was signed on July 27, 1853, and provided for peaceful relations, granted the United States the right to use land for roads, depots, and military posts, promised restitution for injuries sustained by either side, provided against Indian attacks in Mexican territory, called for the restoration of captives, and set up annuities of $18,000 (in form of merchandise and provisions) to be paid to the Indians for 10 years, with the possibility of Presidential extension of payments for five additional years.

Most likely all the terms were not understood by the Indians, and it was not to be a lasting agreement. A soldier, Sgt. Percival G. Lowe, First dragoons, who was present at the time declared later that it was a “so-called treaty, a renewal of faith, which the Indians did not have in the Government, nor the Government in them.”

Fitzpatrick reported that the council almost did not get underway because of “the distant and suspicious bearing of the chiefs, and the utter impossibility of obtaining any interpreters who understood their intricate languages.” He continued:

“They were ignorant of the proposals to be made to them, suffering from a scarcity of game, and consequently impatient, watchful, jealous, reserved and haughty. There were no trappers or traders amongst them who could facilitate an interview; no one who could speak a syllable of the English tongue; none present in whom mutual confidence could be reposed; and the “sign language,” . . . while it might answer the purpose of barter, could not be relied upon in matters of so much importance and delicacy. Thus, although nothing could exceed the correctness of their behavior at the moment, yet nothing was more uncertain than their intention and action at the end.”

Finally, through the use of Mexican captives and the Spanish language, plus an Arapaho who could communicate with the Comanches, interpretations were repeated until Fitzpatrick believed everything was understood.

The fact that negotiations were completed within two days casts doubt on such belief, and the later actions of the Kiowas and Comanches in Texas and Mexico indicated that they either misunderstood or deliberately violated the agreement.

Following the signing and the distribution of gifts, the Indians dispersed and moved south. This left the trail open to traffic without harassment from those tribes, but Pawnees attacked a caravan near Ash creek late in August.

Fitzpatrick moved on to Fort Laramie to see the northern tribes in his agency. Meanwhile, the distributions of presents brought forth a double protest from Captain Chilton, in command at Fort Atkinson.

Chilton and his dragoons had spent three summers at Atkinson, helping to protect travelers on the trail. He first protested against the distribution of presents at points on the trail.

The presents, he noted, were usually delayed several months beyond the time expected, and thus the Indians remained in proximity to the road, “impatient, half starving, and not capable of being made to understand the cause of delay.”

The frequently passing emigrant, merchant, and military supply trains were thus inducements to hostilities, and the Indians begged, stole, and in other ways created problems which the military was expected to prevent but did not possess the means to do so.

Second, Chilton was angry because guns and ammunition were among the presents to the natives. He declared that the Indians used only bows and arrows for hunting, and the guns, powder, and bullets were used solely to make war. The combination of these two Indian bureau practices was making his job an impossible task.

Chilton had found guns and ammunition among the presents Fitzpatrick had brought out in 1852, had protested against their distribution, and placed them in the Fort Atkinson magazine where they remained.

He had assumed no more weapons would be given, but had discovered 50 guns, 475 pounds of powder, and 30 sacks of bullets among the presents given after the treaty was signed. This prompted his protest. His successor, Cpt. Edward Johnson, filed a similar remonstrance against the Indian bureau.

It is possible that these Indians could obtain guns and ammunition from the traders, too, but they must not have been well armed in the early 1850’s. Agent John Whitfield reported in 1854 that the tribes along the Arkansas river were without guns.

Whether the protests of the officers at Fort Atkinson were the reason or not, there were no weapons included in the first annuity distribution under the treaty of Fort Atkinson the following year.

Fitzpatrick elaborated on the treaty negotiations in his annual report, and what he had to say about military posts is of interest to this evaluation of Fort Atkinson. The Indians were, of course, opposed to this concession and agreed only with reluctance.

“There is decided aversion among all . . . the Indians to the establishment of military settlements in their midst. They consider that they destroy timber, drive off the game, interrupt their ranges, excite hostile feelings, and but too frequently afford a rendezvous for worthless and trifling characters. Their efficacy, too, for insuring the security of the country, is perhaps overrated, as at present existing, although under the command of excellent and efficient officers, who are always zealous in the performance of their duties; yet so small is the force usually at their disposal, that they maintain their own position in the country more by the courtesy of the Indians than from any ability to cope with the numbers that surround them. Instead of serving to intimidate the red man, they rather create a belief in the feebleness of the white man. In fact, it must be at once apparent that a skeleton company of infantry or dragoons can add but little to the security of five hundred miles square of territory; nor can the great highways . . . be properly protected by a wandering squadron that parades them once a year. Indeed, the experience of the last few years would show, that white emigrant,; who relied on such defences have often lost their lives, those who were more vigilant, and trusted to their own arms for safety, have only lost their animals.”

Despite all this, Fitzpatrick had followed his instructions to insist on the right,

“…and it was accordingly incorporated. Yet, having done so, I feel it incumbent . . . to urge upon the government the propriety either of increasing the forces at such places, or else of abolishing such posts altogether. Our relations with the wild tribes of the prairie and mountains resolve themselves into a simple alternative. The policy must be either an army or an annuity. Either an inducement must be offered to them greater than the gains of plunder, or a force must be at hand able to restrain and check their depredations. Any compromise between the two systems will be only productive of mischief, and liable to all the miseries of failure. It will beget confidence, without providing safety; it will neither create fear, nor satisfy avarice; and, adding nothing to the protection of trade and emigration, will add everything to the responsibilities of the governments.”

Fitzpatrick’s analysis was to prove prophetic. Even so, by the time this was written, Fort Atkinson had been abandoned (although it would be reoccupied temporarily the following spring and summer).

The location, as noted, had not proved satisfactory. On May 12, 1853, departmental headquarters directed the removal of the fort to Walnut creek, and the post commander, Captain Johnson, began preparations.

On June 24 Captain Chilton and his company of dragoons arrived for the summer, and Chilton assumed command of the fort the following day. Captain Johnson was later sent with a company of infantry to locate a camp site on Walnut creek, and the troops began moving military provisions to the new camp.

On June 28 a directive was sent from department headquarters ordering the development of a post at Walnut creek to be suspended, apparently because efforts were to be concentrated on the new Fort Riley which had been garrisoned in May.

Thus Captain Johnson returned to Fort Atkinson on August 4 and assumed command on August 6 when Chilton left to patrol the trail to New Mexico. Another departmental order arrived at Atkinson on August 14, directing that the post be abandoned and the troops and public property be removed to Fort Riley.

On August 22 the post office at Atkinson was discontinued, and it was moved to Walnut creek. Contractors were engaged to transport the public property to Riley, and the troops departed Fort Atkinson on September 22.

Before leaving they knocked down the sod structures so Indians could not hide in them and surprise travelers on the road.

What effect the abandonment of Fort Atkinson had on the lines of communication to the Southwest has not been determined, but the legislature of New Mexico territory, in February, 1854, requested congress to reestablish the fort, stressing the need for the mail station as being of prime importance.

Whether or not the New Mexico plea was the cause, the post was reoccupied the following year, from May 27 to October 2, by two companies of Sixth infantry under command of Maj. Albemarle Cady. They protected a mail station and aided travelers during that time. They could not occupy the destroyed quarters, but lived in their tents on the site.

Indian Agent Fitzpatrick died on February 7, 1854, and he was succeeded by John Whitfield, who distributed the first annuities under the treaty of Fort Atkinson.

He reported that bands of Kiowas, Comanches, Plains Apaches, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, and Osages set out to fight some of the removed tribes who might be out hunting buffalo, but they were soundly defeated by a much smaller force of Sac and Fox men.

Whitfield explained that the Sac and Fox warriors had rifles while the others, except for the Osages, fought with bows and arrows. The absence of the tribes on that expedition forced Whitfield to wait 16 days at Fort Atkinson for the Indians to come in for the distribution, during which time he was forced to detain the wagon train that brought the goods (at an additional cost of $455) because there were no buildings at Atkinson in which they could be stored.

The Kiowas and Comanches received their payments at the fort, but the Plains Apaches had their annuities delivered to the Big Timbers. 

Whitfield reported that the tribes had been stopping most passing wagon trains and begging coffee and sugar. He was, like his predecessor, very critical of the military establishment in the agency.

“The great majority of the Indians in this agency have no respect for the government; they think Uncle Sam is a weak old fellow, and could be easily overcome, and they have good reason to come to that conclusion. . . . The military posts located in this agency are perfect nuisances. The idea that one company of infantry can furnish aid and protection to emigrants who pass through this agency, is worse than nonsense. They can protect themselves no further than their guns can reach; they have no effect upon the Indians so far as fear is concerned; neither respect nor fear them; and as to protecting the traveler on the road, they are of no more use than so many stumps.”

Whitfield concluded that the overland routes were badly in need of strong military protection, and he recommended more forts and larger garrisons. During the next few years such arrangements were provided.

Fort Atkinson had served as a rest point on the Santa Fe trail in midst of Indian country, protected a mail station, and was a significant point of contact for distribution of presents and negotiations with Plains tribes.

It had not accomplished all that the war department desired — prevention of hostilities along the trail — and the conquest of the Plains Indians was far from completed. The garrison at Fort Atkinson was never sufficient to have a meaningful impact on the tribes; the average number of troops stationed there from September, 1850, to August, 1853, was about 80 except when the company of First dragoons pushed it up to about 145 during summer months.

The average command in 1854 was 140 men. Except when the dragoons were present, the garrison was unable to pursue or chastise hostiles. No record was found to indicate that there was an engagement between troops stationed at Fort Atkinson and the Indians.

It should be noted, however, that the early 1850’s were generally peaceful on the Plains, especially as compared to the later 1850’s and the 1860’s, because the Indians had not expressed much opposition to increasing penetration of their homelands.

With the Indians gathering annually along the overland roads to await annuities, with small garrisons of troops who did not understand the natives nor command their respect, and with increasing travelers on the routes, the stage was set in which collisions were inevitable. Fort Atkinson did not survive to become part of that warfare.

Fort Atkinson had been relatively ineffectual, a point constantly emphasized by Indian agents, but it helped to show the way to more effective forts in the future — better locations and larger garrisons.

Fort Atkinson, simply by being there, probably had a restraining effect on the Indians. The year after the post was abandoned for good, 1855, Agent Whitfield reported that the Indians were very troublesome along the Santa Fe road.

He recommended additional military protection and concluded that Indian friendship could not be bought with annuities but must be won by strong military posts with sufficient troops to beat the Indians into submissions.

In the long run, Fort Atkinson was just a step in the military expansion and ultimate conquest of the region. It was more significant for what it failed to do than what it did, for this pointed the way to better protection of the trail and the surrounding region.

The troops stationed there were pioneers in a very limited sense, if any. They had been unable to support themselves and animals in the Arkansas valley; they were dependent on supplies from Fort Leavenworth for sustenance.

They were unable to construct adequate and lasting quarters, and they helped to denude the countryside of timber and grass. They built no roads and neither started nor protected a permanent settlement. Their aid to westward expansion was limited and temporary.

It would be two decades before the doomed Plains tribes were fully subjugated and removed to reservations. During that time, as at this post, the military and the Indian bureau would follow their different means to the same end.

For the white man, Fort Atkinson was a small beginning in the quest for security along that overland route to the Southwest; for the Indian, it was the beginning of the end of domination on the Plains.

About the Author:
Prof. Leo E. Oliva, native of Rooks county, Kansas, received his graduate degrees in history from the University of Denver. He is chairman of the department of history at Fort Hays Kansas State College, Hays, and is author of the book, Soldiers on the Santa Fe Trail, and numerous magazine articles.