Engineer's map showing plan of Cantonment Missouri, 1820
Reprinted from Nebraska History, Volume 37, Number 2, June, 1956
CANTONMENT MISSOURI, 1819-1820
1 Percy M. Ashburn, A History of the Medical Department of the United States Army (Boston, 1929), p. 42.
the Nebraska State Historical Society.
The locale chosen2 for the first settlement was "situated eight hundred miles above the mouth of the Missouri, and one mile above the place called the Council Bluffs, where Lewis and Clark held a general council with the Indians ... It is a bluff of about 100 [feet] higher than the surface of the water, and perpendicular on the side adjoining the river, which flows at its base; but gradually descends to the distance of three fourths of a mile on all the other sides. The country is prairie for the distance of several hundred miles back, but timbered above and below, which renders it the most beautiful spot I have ever seen for a fort; the scarcity of wood only prevents it from being the first place in the western country.... The country is entirely prairie, except a small grove on the bank of the river, but after you get two or three miles back it is all prairie, until you arrive near some other water course."3
The exact location of Camp Missouri (later Cantonment Missouri) has never been definitely established; its remains probably are buried beneath the overburden of successive floods of almost 140 years. Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Wuerttemberg, visited Fort Atkinson and noted that the "location first selected was a low point, about three miles farther up the stream than the Bluffs, not far from a swamp."4 Since 1819 the channel of the Missouri River has moved to the east, but the cantonment was probably located on the low terrace between the river bank and the higher bluff, where early settlers found trees standing that may have been those mentioned in the early orders regarding the construction of the post.5 A dirt road, running east and west, today may skirt and may even bisect the original buildings. Floods have washed over the post, carrying away detritus left when the soldiers removed to Fort Atkinson
and depositing soil over the ruins, but archeological work in the area may prove rewarding in conclusively establishing the site of the first cantonment in Nebraska.
Although only five of the eight companies of the Sixth Infantry had arrived in October, the ground was surveyed and the men of the Rifle and Sixth Infantry Regiments commenced erecting their barracks. The surgeon of the Sixth Infantry, Thomas G. Mower, reported that the position selected "was surrounded by a thick grove of poplars - a species of timber known in this country by the name of cottonwood. The principal part of the logs and planks used in the construction of the barracks was procurred [sic] in the immediate vicinity."6 Fifty, eighteen-foot rooms were erected for the regiment. The barracks had a perpendicular height of nine feet in front and eighteen feet in the rear. The roofs were shingled, and one-half of the rooms were covered with clapboards. These clapboards, stone for the fireplaces, and lime were transported by water from ten or twelve miles away. Storehouses, workshops, and hospitals were also erected. These and the remaining rooms were covered with shingles or boards procured near the cantonment.7
Company commanders superintended the building of their respective quarters. One sergeant, a corporal, and sixteen privates, directed by the adjutant, were detailed to work on the five rooms on the right line of buildings which were designated for the Field and Staff. One sergeant, a corporal, and twenty privates finished the quarters of Brevet Major Foster,8 the medical staff, and the hospital rooms.9
On November 3, 1819, the commandant, Col. Henry Atkinson, returned to his headquarters at St. Louis,10 conferring the command of the post upon Lt. Col. Willoughby Morgan.11 Colonel Morgan, confronted with approaching winter, pushed forward the completion of the buildings. Shelter was imperative. An unidentified person wrote from the post, "We have arrived at a very cold climate - it is in the 42nd degree of north latitude, and the immense body of open land makes it three degrees colder."12
Working with remarkable speed, considering that trees had to be hewn with broadaxes, planks cut by handsaws, and stone quarried from limestone bluffs, the Rifle Regiment completed its quarters and was able to enter them on November 23.
Lt. Col. W. Morgan lauded the "industry and activity displayed in the erection of their Quarters, it reflects high honour on the Rifle Reg't., that on all occasions it has encountered hardships, and privations without a murmur in all the different marches in which it has performed [,] in the almost constant labour in which it has been engaged."13 The remaining troops of the Sixth Infantry moved into their barracks at different periods during the month of December, although many of the rooms still lacked floors, bunks, doors, etc. Once the barracks were erected, Camp Missouri officially assumed the name Cantonment Missouri.14
The winter of 1819-1820 was an extremely cold one.
Weather diaries, kept by both Surgeon John Gale,15 Rifle Regiment, and Surgeon T. G. Mower,16 Sixth Infantry, indicate the mean monthly temperature in January 1820, as 8.8 degrees; February as 29.4 degrees; and March as 34.1 degrees.17 It was essential in such weather that the rooms, occupied not only by the soldiers but also by their women and children, be heated. Masons were given priority and were "on no account to be with drawn from the building of the Chimneys until they are finished."18 Since sparks from the chimneys could easily ignite the post destroying the entire settlement and leaving the men and their families destitute in midwinter, orders were issued for the chimneys to be replastered whenever necessary.19 As was true of almost every community of the early nineteenth century, only the most primitive equipment was available to fight fires.
Throughout the winter months disease decimated the ranks of the soldiers. Construction faltered as an increasing number of men reported for sick call. As late as February 1820, the quarters of the Infantry were not completed, and constant repairs had to be undertaken in all of the rooms. Furniture was insufficient for the quarters; some of the Sixth Infantry rooms did not have tables or shelving to contain "table furniture and fragments of provisions." For a number of days the band room of the Sixth Regiment did not have a chimney. Captain Bliss20 made the
following report of the police for the week commencing January 25 and ending January 31: ... In this Regiment (6th) the practice of throwing the wash water in front of the Barracks, fish cleaning, etc., piling wood in the Rooms, and irregular meals are too much practiced Consistantly [sic] with the health and Police of the Cantonment. In both Corps the men are in the habit of spilling water upon the floor which renders them damp and unhealthy. The construction of the bunks in the Rifle Regiment does not appear to be calculated for the enforcing of a rigid police on account of the vacancy next the floor . . . The police in front of the Rifle Corps is generally very good, that of the Infantry is bad, the Police of the rear Cannot be remedyed [sic] immediately, it will require some attention as the warm season approaches.21
The quarters of the officers may have been in a somewhat better condition; officers were at liberty to employ soldiers not on specific detail in redaubing the cracks between the logs, through which the bitter wind blew, and building stone jams for the chimneys, in raising them higher, and in improving and making comfortable their quarters.22 Special effort was made to secure stone for the jams of the officers' chimneys.
During this period whiskey was a regular portion of the rations issued to the U. S. soldier. To compensate for the arduous labor they were performing, noncommissioned officers, musicians, and privates "employed on fortifications, in surveys, cutting roads [,] and other constant labour for longer than ten days"23 were paid fifteen cents and allowed an extra gill of whiskey or spirits for each day they were so employed. Those cutting planks at the saw pit under the direction of Lt. J. McIlvain,24 those at work on the public buildings, and those at work on the hospital were also permitted extra whiskey rations.
The regiments, racked by sickness, were never able to work at full strength, and consequently had pressing need
for their hospitals. Constructed under the direction of Major Foster and Surgeon's Mate Nicoll,25 the Infantry rooms were ready for the reception of the sick by December 20. Although the Sixth Regiment's hospital was reported in February as "close and in need of ventilators," that of the Rifle Regiment was mentioned as having a very open roof and as being otherwise uncomfortable, particularly in the kitchen and entry.26 A sufficient number of able-bodied men may not have been available at this time to make the necessary repairs.
Although constant efforts were made to improve the appearance of the post, lumber, tools, and other debris littered the grounds and were a source of irritation to the Police Officer and the Commandant. Many garrison orders refer to the conduct of the police, including a report on Christmas Day, 1819, in which the environs of the cantonment were declared to be in a filthy state.27 Stakes were laid out and orders issued that all filth was to be carried from the post at least fifty paces in the rear and placed in heaps; none was to be thrown down the banks. These regulations were directed toward not only improving the military police but also toward safeguarding the health of the men. Nevertheless, the soldiers disregarded repeated warnings, and the trash accumulated within the post limits. At length steps were taken to punish offenders. On February 15, 1820, Sarah Fox,28 a washerwoman of Light Company B, was tried before a regimental courtmartial. She was charged with "throwing and depositing in front of the Quarters of Light Company A 6th Infantry, and within the limits of its own police, a quantity of foul and dirty water on or about the 14th . . . "29 The prisoner, pleading guilty,
was sentenced to a stoppage of her whiskey rations for ten days, which rations were then appropriated for the use of the company to which she belonged. She was also ordered to be present when her sentence was read at the first Regimental Parade.30
Each regiment was made responsible for its own vaults and ordered to see that its parade in front of the quarters was "perfectly free of nuisances for thirty feet."31, Dissension arose over this latter order, which Lt. Col. W. Morgan was forced to resolve by issuing the following, February 23:It is difficult at this place where work has been usually performed by the Corps separately to assign each Corps its proper position of labor. The Commandant, however, has endeavored to equalize the labour as nearly as possible without being influenced by any partial consideration or any ill grounded Complaints or Clamor. In order to avoid for the future any difficulty the Commandant directs that the Quarters erected by each Regiment are to be completed or repared [sic] by the regiments respectively by whom they have [been] erected with the exception of the houses assigned to the Indian Agent which are to be completed or repared [sic] by General detail ... The Police of each Corps has the same extent with the Quarters which the Regiments have respectively erected or in other words the same extent with the Regimental Quarters including half the Gates which lie between them.32
Secretary of War Calhoun wrote April 10, 1820, to Colonel Atkinson concerning the refusal of Congress to appropriate money to carry the troops to their proposed destination at the Yellowstone and the decision of the President "that the troops shall not progress beyond the Council Bluff this year. That, then, being for the present our most advanced post its defence must be ample and of a permanent character. You will however exercise your discretion in determining whether the materials to be used in the construction of the works and Barracks shall be of stone, brick or wood, the two former should be preferred if they can be conveniently obtained and are not too expensive, or which, you will judge."33
Fortunately, a drawing exists of the cantonment as it appeared in 1820. The structure was a large one capable of housing approximately 1,120 men.34 When completed, the post resembled a hollow square, the log walls of the quarters forming the four sides, which were broken by four gateways. Over each gateway a projection was built of logs, covered with a roof of planks. Divided equally, the northern half of the cantonment was occupied by the quarters and rooms of the Sixth Regiment; the southern half belonged to the Rifle Regiment.
The Rifle Regiment built seven rooms to house twentyfour Field and Staff quarters;35 six rooms were on the west side adjoining the gateway, and one was on the east side adjacent to the hospital. Two rooms, on the west side next to the Field and Staff rooms, were appropriated for the use of the Indian Agent; and two rooms on the southeast corner of the cantonment became storerooms for the Rifle Regiment. The hospital was composed of three rooms that adjoined the eastern gateway. The remaining forty rooms were occupied by approximately 608 noncommissioned officers and privates.36
Quarters for the Sixth Regiment (the smaller of the two regiments) were similar in arrangement to those of the Rifle Regiment. Eleven of their rooms were used by thirty-four Field and Staff officers; five were located on the west side near the gate; one divided room was directly to the right of the north projection; and five rooms (one divided) were adjacent to the hospital rooms (three in number), which were located near the east gateway. Thirtysix rooms, five of which were divided, belonged to 460 noncommissioned officers and privates. 37
In the center of the cantonment stood two buildings. The structure to the right (to the east) consisted of a block
of six rooms; three on the north and three on the south side. Five of these rooms were devoted to the general storage. At the southwest corner was a magazine built of logs. As a safeguard for the explosives, a smaller log structure was constructed within the magazine to house the munitions. The second building was slightly larger and contained eleven rooms. On the west side were the mess and kitchen of the Sixth Infantry (two rooms) ; adjacent to these was the schoolroom of the children of the Sixth. Next to the schoolroom was the storeroom for the Indian Agent and four rooms appropriated for the guard and the prisoners. The remaining four rooms, three on the south and one to the north, were storerooms.
Cantonment Missouri probably presented a fairly attractive appearance in the spring of 1820. Care had been taken to preserve the elm trees that grew within the lines marked for the cantonment and those outside the barracks' lines for a distance of two hundred yards when the post was initially surveyed in October.38 Despite orders to the contrary, some damage had been done to these trees in the vicinity of the bake houses and quartermaster store at the southeast corner. Since many years are required for trees to reach their maturity, the soldiers were reminded that every precaution was to be taken to save them.39 Racks were placed in front of the different quarters on which wood sections, cut and split outside the cantonment, were laid. When melting snow and rain made passage difficult through muddy streets, officers were requested to lay walks before their company quarters, which would "tend much to improve the police of the Barrack rooms and add to the comfort of the men."
In February the two smith shops of the Rifle and Sixth Regiments were ready and placed under the direction of the Quartermaster. The previous month, Lt. S. Keeler,40
Assistant Commissary of Subsistence, had been placed in charge of two bake ovens, which, with the quartermaster stores, were located in the southeast corner of the cantonment. Water was obtained from the river, at some danger to the men, who were cautioned in February to cut holes through the ice only at secure places.41
With the coming of spring, the hog pens were removed 120 yards from the cantonment, where the stench would be less noticeable; horses, wagons, and cattle that would disturb the grass were forbidden to enter the walls.42 By May, one hundred acres of land were planted in corn, and extensive vegetable gardens were started.43
Springtime also brought apprehension concerning the friendliness of the Indians in the area. Efforts were redoubled to put the post in readiness. The north and west gates and projections were assigned to the Sixth Infantry for completion; the south and east received the attention of the Rifle Regiment.44 Cannon were installed at the projections; and the gates, with the exception of the wickets at the projections, were ordered bolted shut.45
Disaster came not from the aborigines, however, but from another source --- Nature herself. Stagnant water standing after the rains had been found not only to be detrimental to health but also had created much inconvenience within the post, situated as it was on low ground, near a swamp. In May Captain Bliss examined Cantonment Missouri and submitted the following recommendation for siphoning off the water:I examined the Site of the Cantonment as far as I could judge of the level without the aid of Instruments, I am of opinion that three common sewers are necessary for the proper draining off the Cantonment. The first which now passes through the west Gateway requires deepening and will lead off the water which collects on the west side of the Infantry Mess room and the front of the West line of Quar-
Efforts were made to carry out the recommendations of Captain Bliss, but even the deepest sewers could not carry away the muddy Missouri in flood. On about June 10 or 11, the Corps were forced to seek higher grounds on the bluffs,47 whence they watched the brown waters sweep over their gardens and homes. Every exertion was made to rescue the lumber, tools and other equipment that remained undamaged after the river subsided, but the troops were never to rebuild this first cantonment, the scene of so much disease, suffering, and death. In his letter of June 19, 1820, Colonel Atkinson wrote Secretary of War Calhoun:The unusual quantity of snow that fell, high up on the Missouri, last winter, has produced a greater rise in the river, by many feet, than has ever been known before. All the first bottom land is inundated, and our cantonment unfortunately shares the same fate. We have pitched our Camp on the Bluff, and are engaged in bringing up the materials, of the Cantonment to rebuild.48
On the bluff the soldiers began to construct what was eventually to become Fort Atkinson, an outpost that saw
the arrival and departure of Hugh Glass, Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and other names famous in the story of the West.
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