If you’re looking for places to visit with history this summer, check out these 12 early American forts located in the Midwest. The majority of these historical attractions have their roots in the Frontier Wars and are full of interesting insights about early American life on the Plains, military history, unique architecture, and fun for the whole family.
Construction on Fort Sheridan began in the late 1880’s as Chicago began expanding from a pioneer settlement to the urban center it is today. The Fort was established to protect the city’s commercial interests and was intended to be a permanent military post. Most of the buildings’ unique facades have been restored and preserved, while the interiors have been completely renovated and are now home to a variety of commercial and residential businesses. Outdoor educational exhibits pepper the areas trails, woodlands, and tell the story of the Fort’s history.
The forts of Vincennes, Indiana have a history dating to the mid 1600’s that begins with Fort Vincennes, itself. The timber fort was officially constructed by the French in 1732, but was abandoned during the French and Indian war in 1760. Britain claimed the dilapidated structure in 1763 and rebuilt it in 1777. It was taken by Americans and renamed Fort Sackville, two years later. Today, the former fort grounds are surrounded by the town of Vincennes, which is home to the George Rogers Clark National Historic Park, along with several other museums, living history events, and historical attractions depicting the rich history of the fort and the town itself.
This small frontier fort located in northeast Iowa was established in 1840 to help keep the peace between local Native American Tribes while preventing white settlers from encroaching on Native American lands. Fort Atkinson consisted of 24 building surrounded by a 12’ stockade. Less than 15 years after construction was complete, the fort had been abandoned by the Army and sold at auction to private owners who eventually established the town of Fort Atkinson, Iowa. A 26-stop self-guided walking tour is available of the fort’s structural remains.
Another Frontier fort, Fort Scott was established, primarily to protect American settlers as they moved west. However, with much of the U.S. Army deployed to the Southwest during the Mexican American war, Fort Scott was rendered obsolete shortly after its completion. The Fort Scott National Historic Site is maintained by the National Park Service and guided tours of this historical attraction are available daily.
Located on the Banks of Lake Superior, Fort Wilkins was constructed in 1844 to maintain law and order between miners and local Native American tribes during the copper rush of the mid 19th century. The fort has been restored and Fort Wilkins Historic State Park offers a living history program featuring historical interpretation provided by the Michigan History Center.
Historic Fort Snelling was built on a bluff above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers and was intended to control exploration, trade, and settlement along the waterways in the early part of the 1800’s. The Fort was eventually commandeered by the War Department for use during the Civil War and was the site of muster for many Minnesota units sent to fight. It remained active for over 100 years and played a role in nearly every major conflict involving the U.S. through WWII. Hiking trails now wind up the bluff and allow visitors to get a peek at the historical attraction that is the remains of Fort Snelling.
Fort Osage was constructed as a military outpost in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory at the beginning of the 19th century. The site sits upon a ridge overlooking the Missouri River, providing a clear view for miles. The fort served dual roles as a military garrison and local trade center for years. Visitors to the town of Fort Osage, MO can enjoy historical interpretations of the Fort’s past and tour museum exhibits at the Fort Osage Education Center.
What began as a temporary encampment during the Frontier Wars was continually expanded and wound up one of the largest military installations in the Midwest. Upon its inception, Fort Robinson served to protect Native Americans, and as needs changed, it served many additional functions over the course of the nearly two centuries that followed. It became a base for transitioning soldiers, the headquarters for a pack-artillery battalion, and a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps. The post remained active through WWII when it served as a facility for the K9 Corps as well as a POW camp. Visitors can tour the remaining historic structures and stroll through the museum located in the 1905 Post Headquarters building.
Fort Totten served Native American Policy for nearly 100 years beginning in the mid 19th century. It was first constructed as a military post, but later converted to a Native American boarding school, and subsequently used as a tuberculosis Preventorium. The Encountering Fort Totten exhibit at the Fort Totten State Historic Site allows visitors to follow a soldier, a Chippewa student, a teacher, or a young Dakota as they explore the fort grounds. The four, self-guided tours allow visitors to experience Fort Totten through the eyes of those who made it their home over the course of its 92 years.
One of the oldest historical attractions on our list, Fort Recovery, was constructed in 1793 along the Wabash River. It was attacked by a group of Shawnee, including Tecumseh, on June 30, 1794, and was abandoned in 1796. It wasn’t until 1891 at the battle sites were excavated and the remains of nearly 1200 Americans and Native Americans were discovered. Today, the Fort Recovery State Museum, includes many artifacts from the 1790’s as well as several recreations and life size models.
Named after the early Sisseton Tribe, this fort was erected in 1864 and originally named Fort Wadsworth. The location – atop the hills of the prairies – provided a strong natural defense, plenty of raw materials required for masonry work, ample drinking water from the lake, and a variety of trees to use for timber and fuel. The Fort Sisseton Historic Site is open daily in the spring and summer, and the Annual Fort Sisseton Historic Festival features period entertainment historic figures, and even a military costume ball.
Fort Winnebago was one of three forts built along the Fox, Wisconsin, and Mississippi Rivers in the 1820’s. Its main purpose was to control the Fox-Wisconsin portage and protect Americans from the potentially hostile Winnebago Tribe. The fort was abandoned in 1845 and the majority of it was destroyed in a fire 11 years later; however, the Surgeons Quarters and Garrison School remain and have been registered as a national historic site. Each is stocked with early 19th century artifacts including documents, books, furniture, medical equipment, and much more. Tours are available May through October.
This is the third in a four-part series of historic forts in the U.S., which also includes former military forts to visit in the West, South , and Northeast.
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