The Fort Atkinson State Preserve in Winneshiek County contains the remnants of a frontier Army post established in northeast Iowa in 1840 by an act of Congress as part of a new Winnebago reservation. It was the only U.S. fort built to protect a native population.
Gen. Henry Atkinson was in charge of resettling the native Winnebago tribe on the 40-mile-wide strip of land that was dubbed the Neutral Ground.
The new reservation stretched from the northeastern corner of the Iowa Territory across the territory to what is now Humboldt County in north-central Iowa. Its purpose was to keep two tribes, the Sioux on the north and the Sac and Fox on the south, separated from each other, and to protect and control the more peaceful Winnebago.
BUILDING THE FORT
Soldiers from Fort Crawford in Wisconsin helped Capt. Isaac Lynde and 80 men build Fort Atkinson on the Turkey River, beginning in 1840.
Heavy wagons pulled by six-mule teams were ferried across the river at Prairie du Chien, Wis., to a spot north of Marquette. There they set out along a trail that became known as the Old Military Road for a two-day trip to Fort Atkinson.
It took more than two years to complete the fort’s stone and wooden barracks at a cost of more than $93,000. The price tag was high because it included the road built for the teamsters and the quarrying of limestone from the surrounding hills.
The finished fort had a high stockade on all four sides with a cannon in each corner. Inside, it had stables, a bakery, a blacksmith shop and other buildings. Three 200-foot-long buildings housed the soldiers. The powder magazine had stone walls nearly 3 feet thick.
SODOM & GOMORRAH
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The Winnebago living in the Neutral Ground were prohibited from building lodges closer than 20 miles to the Mississippi River to keep them away from the whiskey trading.
The Winnebago, however, easily skirted that regulation and, disguised as traders, frequented the log cabins built just outside the Neutral Ground where the Military Road entered the reservation.
The patrons called one cabin, owned by Taft Jones, a boxer, Sodom. The other cabin, owned by a former Fort Crawford soldier named Graham Thorne, was called Gomorrah.
James Clarke became governor of the Iowa Territory in November 1845. Clarke organized a new company of volunteer dragoons — cavalry soldiers — in 1846. They were mustered into service by Capt. Alex Hooewhen their support was needed near the borders of the reservation.
Once the U.S. troops moved out, liquor dealers felt free to sell whiskey to the natives and the Iowa officers were ordered to stop the whiskey trade.
On Feb. 24, 1849, the federal government vacated the fort and moved the Winnebago to Mankato, Minn.
In July 1853, the buildings were sold at public auction for $3,521.
EFFORTS TO PRESERVE
In 1901, the old army fort began to attract attention from those interested in its history. Some proposed a park because, although it was far away from other parts of the state, it was easily accessible to eastern and northern Iowans.
“There is no reason for putting all the memorial parks and buildings in one part of the state,” a Cedar Rapids Republican editorial said in advocating for buying the fort and restoring some of its old buildings. “Fort Atkinson has been suggested as a good place for regimental and other encampments.”
The Sioux City Journal, in a picture essay around the same time, suggested the fort become a state park.
Nothing came of those efforts.
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In 1920, a group of prominent Iowans touring northeast Iowa in an automobile happened upon the fort’s remains. One of the buildings was being used as a farmhouse, another a pigsty and another a chicken coop. Again, a campaign started to convert the fort into a state park.
At the time, the 235 people living in the village of Fort Atkinson raised $2,000 to buy the fort’s grounds and buildings. The state board of conservation set aside another $2,000. Other pledges came in, and the property was bought in 1921 and the title transferred to the state. Work to restore the site began in April 1922, but money dwindled by 1926.
In 1931, the effort to preserve the fort was renewed when Roger W. Toll, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, began an official inspection of the proposed Upper Mississippi River National Park area.
One of his stops was at Fort Atkinson, which had been suggested as a national preserve. By then, it had served as a state park for several years and then as a state game refuge.
Another effort began in 1940 to restore the fort, which had the ruins of a brick blockhouse, a shot tower and one of the barracks. Gov. George Wilson said that an attempt would be made to do that before the fort’s centennial in the fall, but World War II happened, and only a partial restoration resulted.
In 1958, the state conservation commission acquired a $45,000 grant to reconstruct a portion of the fort. The formal dedication was May 20, 1962.
The fort also was the site of archaeological dig in 1966 that revealed pieces of china dishes and chamber pots that appeared to have come from New England. The items were carried off to the Office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa City. In 1998, the items were sent back to a museum established at Fort Atkinson.
In 2013, the fort was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The old stone buildings and foundations are open to the public in late September during the Fort Atkinson Rendezvous — Sept. 29 and 30 this year — for a celebration of the brief period when the Iowa Territory sheltered the Winnebago.
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