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The 1868 Laramie Treaty sustained the Indians' right to hunt in the Republican River valley “so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase.” As settlement began in that valley in 1870 it became evident the frontiersmen needed military protection, particularly during the Indians’ summer hunt.  Camp Butler , informally named for the then Nebraska governor, was established for that purpose midway between the Republican and Little Blue River watersheds for the summer of 1870.  Camp Cameron , located on Turkey Creek in Franklin County about two miles north of its confluence with the Republican River, was established for the summer of 1871 and Camp Red Willow near Red Willow Creek served the Republican Valley in 1872.  The responsibility for the Republican Valley was shifted to the military District of the Republican, headquartered at Fort McPherson , upon the district’s reestablishment in 1872.

On May 15, 1870 Sgt. Patrick Leonard and four men of Company C of the 2nd Cavalry from Camp Butler encountered approximately sixty Indians near the confluence of Spring Creek and the Little Blue River in what is now Thayer County .  The five men quickly formed a tight circle, felled and shot their horses and awaited the Indian charge.  Using their dead horses for cover, these gallant soldiers repulsed charge after charge until their discouraged assailants withdrew.  Their courage earned each of them the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Settlers began to penetrate into the now verdant Loup River Valley in 1871.  They too demanded protection.  Various companies from Omaha Barracks, notably Company C of the 9th Infantry, spent their summers in that valley.  These summer tent camps attained a degree of permanency limited only by the imagination of the soldier who sought to make life comfortable and the officer who was concerned with mobility and unannounced visits by superior officers.  Fort Hartsuff relieved Omaha Barracks of the responsibility for the Loup Valley upon its establishment in 1874.

When circumstances required troops during the winter a telegraph message was sent to Department headquarters at Omaha .  If the commanding general decided to commit troops they were drawn from those wintering at Omaha Barracks and placed on the next train west.  They detrained at the point nearest to where they were needed and then rode or marched to the trouble.  The troops which remained at Omaha with the regimental headquarters during the summer were also used effectively in this manner.  Whether transporting a company of regulars to Lincoln to help quell a prison riot or to Columbus from where they marched to Genoa to protect the Pawnee Agency, the railroad served as the helicopter of its time.  A tactical reserve was meaningless without it.

Part of the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873 assembled at Omaha Barracks.  The expedition was charged with the security of the surveying party for the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Their journey up the Yellowstone River Valley compounded the tenseness between races created by relentless expansion.  During 1876, companies of the 23rd Infantry, then headquartered at Omaha , joined in the fatiguing and bloody campaign to the northwest.  Omaha Barracks was the “rear guard” for that campaign.  Its infantry reserve provided replacements for cavalry units at posts farther west, freeing the mobile cavalry for use in the various phases of the campaign.  Troops were quickly shipped west by train from Omaha during the Cheyenne outbreak in late 1878.  They served in the blocking and reaction forces which attempted to contain Dull Knife and his people.

In the spring of 1878 Congress passed a bill requiring all military department headquarters, with tightly restricted exceptions, to be located at military posts.  In response, General Crook moved department headquarters from its home of over ten years, the Withnell Building in Omaha, to the rural environs of Omaha Barracks.20  That summer’s Army Appropriation Bill authorized the construction of three brick buildings at the post for the use of the Department; quarters for the commanding general, a headquarters and a storehouse.  Work did not begin on these buildings until the following spring.

Omaha Barracks became Fort Omaha on December 30, 1878.21  The change was not based on the erection of a stockade or other fortification but merely on the Army’s never ending desire for uniformity.  General of the Army Sherman directed that all temporary posts be designated camps and all permanent posts such as Omaha , forts.

The stillness of the next decade was marred only occasionally and then primarily by civil disturbances, visiting dignitaries, the shouts of spectators at increasingly frequent baseball games, and by the incessant clamor of hammers and saws being used to maintain the frame buildings of the post in habitable condition.  Company H of the 9th Infantry was sent to Hastings in April, 1879 at the request of the governor to preserve order and safeguard justice during the Olive Fisher murder trial.22  In November of that year General Grant spent three days at the post and the following September President Hayes visited Fort Omaha briefly during his tour of the West.

It was while Fort Omaha was serving as headquarters for the Department of the Platte that the important federal case of Standing Bear v. Crook was decided.23  Chief Standing Bear and twenty-nine other Ponca severed their connection with the Tribe in the Indian Territory and began the trek northward toward their old home in the Dakotas .  The Omaha Tribe in northeastern Nebraska befriended them and gave them land for farming.  The Ponca were arrested by command of General Crook and were held in the Fort Omaha guardhouse pending return to the Indian Territory .  Crook was acting under orders which had originated in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior.  The Commissioner of Indian Affairs had charged the Indians with escaping from the reservation, fearing that allowing the Ponca to remain off their reservation would serve as a precedent which could undermine the concept of the reservation system.

With the help of an Omaha newspaper reporter, Standing Bear asserted the government had no grounds for confining him and his people.  The hearing commenced in the federal court room in Omaha on May 1, 1879 “for the purpose of inquiry into the cause of the restraint of liberty.” The court’s decision in favor of Chief Standing Bear and the other Ponca guaranteed the Indian race the right to choose the tribal way of life on the reservation or to dissolve tribal relations and subsist independently anywhere the white race could lawfully reside.  Additionally, by holding an Indian was a “person” within the meaning of the habeas corpus act, the court secured for the Indian race the right to be free from arbitrary, unlawful detention or imprisonment by the government.

The headquarters and a detachment of the 4th Infantry arrived at Fort Omaha in 1882 to replace the 9th Infantry.  The Department of the Platte lost its commanding general, George Crook, in August of that year to the Department of the Arizona where the General attempted to resolve new difficulties with the Apaches.

During 1886, Fort Omaha received a new garrison, the 2nd Infantry, and added a rifle range to its facilities.  Bellevue Rifle Range was officially established on May 19, 1886 at the northern edge of Bellevue .  Through 1894, in accordance with the preparedness doctrine established by General Crook, it was the site of summer marksmanship training for rotating companies of the garrison and the annual Department of the Platte rifle competition.24

From its inception, Fort Omaha was a social center of Omaha .  Elaborate receptions, such as the one given General Crook when he departed for Arizona , were the order of the day for the post’s officers and the prominent citizens Of Omaha.  Charity balls, band concerts and sleighing parties in winter rounded out the officers social calendar.  The officers either helped start several of the fraternal lodges which presently exist in Omaha or extended strong support to the fledgling chapters which had already been established.  They were very active and influential in Omaha 's Grand Army of the Republic posts since most were veterans of the Civil War.  Another product of the somewhat aristocratic-like designs of the officer corps of that period was the Fort Omaha Dramatic Association.  Even the 2nd Regiment's Colonel's lady, Mrs. Frank Wheaton, tried her hand at acting via the association.  An 1888 newspaper reported she gave “a gem of a performance” in the play “A Lesson of Love.”25

During the decade 1879-1889, the immediate future of Fort Omaha was determined.  The increasingly shabby condition of the post is illustrated by the following excerpt from the March 31, 1882 inspection report, “The buildings . . . [are] old and shaky and in severe cold and rainy weather uninhabitable . . . ; to thoroughly repair them now would cost almost as much as to erect new ones.”  This condition was primarily the result of General Sherman’s original recommendation to erect “cheap barracks.”  The situation forced a decision as to whether Fort Omaha should be rebuilt.

One obstacle to rebuilding the post was the federal government's lack of title to the entire tract of land.  This was cleared in April 1882 when the citizens of Omaha conveyed the title of the rented portion to the government.

But an even greater obstacle, created by the lobbying of the same citizens, was not to be surmounted.  Secretary of War Robert Lincoln was continually pressured by Nebraska ’s Senators Saunders and Van Wyck to have the post rebuilt.  Mr. Lincoln asked General Sherman to state his position concerning the rebuilding of the post.  In response General Sherman wrote,

[A]bout five Years ago Congress enacted that all headquarters of departments should be removed to military posts of the U.S. owned wholly by the government, such cases only as the Secretary of War might except in writing.  In fulfillment of that law the Headquarters of the Department of the Platte was moved out of the city of Omaha to Omaha Barracks . . . .  By some process unknown to me, Mr. Ramsay, Secretary of War, consented to have the Department headquarters changed back into the city of Omaha where a rental of $6,000.00 a year is paid for a building less valuable than the one erected on the ground belonging to the U.S. and not three miles distant.

If the Headquarters of the Department of the Platte be retained in the city of Omaha , I must conclude that Omaha Barracks has fulfilled its destiny and should be allowed as other discontinued posts to go to decay.  But if the Department of the Platte is to be maintained and the post of Omaha again made Department headquarters, then I am willing to report that the point is well adapted as a post of reserve for troops not actively engaged on the frontier but held for service in any direction easily reached from Omaha, and to recommend that the present barracks and quarters, replaced by brick buildings which will last a century.26  

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Ó Fred M. Greguras
All Rights Reserved
1977, 1999, 2000