Born: 1782 Person County, North Carolina
Died: 1842-06-14 Lemay, Missouri
Born into a planter family, Atkinson earned a U.S. Army commission in 1808 and remained in active service for the rest of his life. His first position was as captain of the Third Infantry, a unit formed by Thomas Jefferson in response to rising tensions with Europe. Atkinson remained with the unit until the War of 1812, when he participated in the attack on Mobile, Alabama and became a staff officer for Wade Hampton. He earned promotion to colonel and a position as inspector general in New York. In 1814, he held command of two regiments at different times along the border with British North America.
After the war, Atkinson became commander of the Sixth Infantry. He received orders to take the unit to St. Louis and then west into modern Montana but only reached as far as Council Bluffs in modern Iowa, where they built Fort Atkinson. Atkinson made his headquarters in St. Louis, where he commanded a large part of the West. In 1819, James Monroe appointed him to command the Ninth Military Department, which included Kentucky, Tennessee, and Illinois as well as territory west of the Mississippi River. The following year, Atkinson earned promotion to brigadier general but lost his rank in 1821 due to a general downsizing of the Army and returned to his former position as colonel of the Sixth Infantry.
Atkinson primarily assisted with the building and supplying of western forts, giving him the Native American nickname, "White Beaver." In 1824, he served as a peace commissioner to Native Americans along the Missouri River. In this capacity, Atkinson helped negotiate treaties with sixteen tribes as far west as modern Montana. In 1826, he supervised the construction of Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis and married Mary Ann Bullitt, with whom he had three children. The following year, he led an expedition into the Wisconsin Territory that helped prevent a war with the Winnebago. In 1832, Atkinson commanded the force sent to Illinois to deal with the Black Hawk War. He spent most of the remainder of his career at Jefferson Barracks. In 1838, Martin Van Buren appointed Atkinson governor of the Iowa Territory, but Atkinson declined.
Roger L. Nichols, "Atkinson, Henry," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1:713-15; Roger L. Nichols, General Henry Atkinson: A Western Military Career (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), 14-31, 69-89, 109-118, 152-188.