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Fort Forgiveness

By April 28, 2023 One Comment

If you’re following the Trail, when you get to the river, hold on to that GPS because while finding the First Council Monument doesn’t require what it must have for Lewis and Clark to get there, Ft. Atkinson is not Wall Drug. You’ll have to look.

One way or another, get to Hwy. 75 in the middle of town and follow it to Fort Calhoun, even though you’re looking for Fort Atkinson. Trust me. They’re close. Turn left on Madison Street and watch the signs. 

Soon enough, you’re there–the real council bluffs–not that hillside city east of Omaha. In 1804, neither Ft. Calhoun nor Ft. Atkinson nor even Omaha existed, but you’re where you should be, on holy ground, the very place where Lewis and Clark finally, for the first time on the trip, met up with delegation of honest-to-goodness Native people, Otoes and Missourias, who were together, people say, because both tribes had taken such horrendous losses from smallpox.

That meeting was a big deal and goes a long way toward determining why this facsimile fort–it is, for certain, a facsimile–is here. The meeting between the Corps of Discovery and their first bona fide Louisiana Purchase Native folks is not the only big deal because Lewis and Clark had their wits about them as they moved up the Missouri, but also what they found at this “council bluffs” was a promontory of such reign that it would be perfect for a fort, or so they determined.

That’s why there was and is a Ft. Atkinson. Thomas Jefferson listened to them, and if you followed directions, right now you’re standing at an assembly of stiff metallic figures–some in uniforms, some in blankets, and all very commemorative, sturdy enough to stand out there in prairie extremes, but, yes, facsimiles of L and C and the men they met here.

There’s very little left–if anything–of the original Ft. Atkinson, but the place once buzzed with life, thick with buffalo hides and beaver pelts, the bounty of the prospering fur trade up the Missouri, north to Canada, west to the Rockies. Lots of what you see around you looks like it was just erected–because it was. The actual Ft. Atkinson was here for only seven years, barely an adolescent when it was abandoned way back in 1827. It would have been little more than a mirage these days if locals hadn’t been proud enough of its history to rebuild it and keep its memory alive. 

There’s plenty of good reasons for this facsimile fort, and here’s one. Once upon a time, an old trapper with a snowy beard got eaten alive by a she-grizzly up north of the Black Hills. The mountain men he was with thought he was gone and so abandoned him because the Rees all around were looking for scalps. 

Amazing thing happened. The old man with the white beard somehow pulled himself along through a couple hundred miles of dangerous, mostly treeless country, kept himself alive by eating bugs and grass and an occasional mouse, his strength slowly building once again, fueled by an understandable human emotion he absolutely could not restrain–sheer anger. Old White Beard lived and breathed revenge. Hate was his lifeblood.

When that old man got here, to Ft. Atkinson, he finally met up with the kid named Fitz, the one he was hunting, one of the two who’d left him out there alone to die, even taken his rifle and knife. For months, or so the story goes, he’d fed himself on an exquisite dream: kill the campaneros who’d left him to die, his grave already dug beside him.

But when he got here, right here, to the ground beneath your feet, something happened, something no story about this guy gets particularly clear because why and how he did what he did has never been particularly clear. Old White Beard, an veteran mountain man named Hugh Glass, did not kill this guy named Fitz, did not carry out the dream that had fueled his unearthly, epic crawl. 

Hugh Glass did something nigh unto impossible for most of us. He forgave Fizt. He let him live. He did. I’m not pulling your leg. He forgave Fitz right here at Ft. Atkinson, and an unlikely cast of story-tellers have been telling the unbelievable tale ever since, a story of strength, courage and indomitable human will, but also, right here at this facsimile fort, an even better story than all of that, an honest-to-goodness story of forgiveness, told, once upon a titme, by a Frisian-American writer named Feikema, or Manfred, in a book he titled Lord Grizzly.

It’s worth your time to visit. Seriously. It’s holy ground.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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