In August 1873, the Red Cloud Agency was moved from the North Platte River to the White River, near what is now Crawford, Nebraska, in the northwest corner of the state. The following March, the U. S. Government authorized the establishment of a military camp at the agency site. Some 13,000 Lakota had been resettled at the Agency, some of them hostile. There were continuing tensions between whites and Lakota on the Great Plains, who had been forced off much of their territory.
The camp was named Camp Robinson in honor of Lt. Levi H. Robinson, who had been killed by Indians while on a wood detail in February. In May, the military camp was moved 1.5 miles (2.4 km) west of the agency to its present location; the camp was renamed Fort Robinson in January 1878.
Fort Robinson played a major role in the Sioux Wars from 1876 to 1890. The Battle of Warbonnet Creek took place nearby in July 1876. Crazy Horse surrendered here with his band on May 6, 1877. On September 5 that year, he was fatally wounded while resisting imprisonment. A historic plaque marks the site of his death.
In January 1879, Chief Morning Star (also known as Dull Knife) led the Northern Cheyenne in an outbreak from the Agency. Because the Cheyenne had refused to return to Indian Territory, where they believed conditions were too adverse for them to survive, the army had been holding them without adequate food, water or heat during the severe winter to try to force them into submission. Soldiers hunted down the escapees, killing men, women, and children in the Fort Robinson massacre. The U.S. Supreme Court called the “shocking story” “one of the most melancholy of Indian tragedies”. The event marked the end of the Sioux and Cheyenne Wars in Nebraska.
In 1885, the 9th Cavalry Regiment, nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers by Native Americans, was stationed at Fort Robinson. This was an all-black unit. During the next several years, the fort was enlarged, and military training was a major activity. From 1889-1890, Second Lieutenant Charles Young served here and later was reassigned to the regiment. A black pioneer officer who had graduated from West Point, he was the highest-ranking black in the US Army throughout his career and achieved the rank of colonel. From 1887-1898, the fort served as regimental headquarters. The post gymnasium and theatre, built in 1904, provided entertainment for the soldiers.
In 1919 at the end of World War I, Fort Robinson became the world's largest quartermaster remount depot. It was used as a breeding and training center for horses and mules for the military. In addition, stallions owned by the military were used to breed with local stock to improve it. During the Great Depression, a hobo was murdered on a Chicago & Northwestern freight train within the fort. In World War II, the fort was the site of a K-9 corps training center. Later it was used to hold a German prisoner-of-war camp.
The army decided to abandon Fort Robinson in 1947; in the following year, it transferred the property to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), for its Beef Cattle Research Station. In the mid-1950s, efforts were made to preserve the fort as a historic site, prompted by the demolition of buildings. In 1955, the Nebraska State Historical Society began to acquire property on the fort; in 1956, they opened a museum on the site. The fort was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. The USDA closed its operation in 1971, transferring the property to the state of Nebraska.
The fort is part of the Fort Robinson and Red Cloud Agency historic district, which includes Fort Robinson and the site of the second Red Cloud Agency (about 1.5 mi (2.4 km) to the east). The district also includes the Camp Camby site and the 1886 Percy Homestead.
The fort is managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, with some individual buildings operated by the Nebraska State Historical Society and the University of Nebraska. A quartermaster's stores building is now used as a playhouse.
The Trailside Museum of Natural History at Fort Robinson State Park is located inside Fort Robinson State Park. It is operated by the University of Nebraska State Museum.
The Fort Robinson Museum is located in the 1905 post headquarters building. Exhibits focus on the fort's history, including its role guarding the Red Cloud Agency from 1874 to 1877, up through the housing of World War II German POWs from 1943 to 1946.
There are many historic buildings and sites for viewing, including the 1904 blacksmith shop, the 1908 veterinary hospital, the 1887 officers' quarters, the 1875 guardhouse and adjutant's office, and the post cemetery. There is also a library with materials about Fort Robinson and military and western history available for research.