Return to the days when the West was young by exploring the garrisons that were built out on the plains.
By Pamela Selbert, F195400
Most of Kansas’ original frontier citadels now are abandoned. No infantrymen or dragoons (mounted soldiers) are garrisoned at Fort Scott, for instance, a fortress located in the southeastern part of the state. The barracks stand empty, and, except during re-enactments, no drills take place on the sprawling parade grounds. But what stories the old fort’s buildings could tell, if only they could talk.
Fort Scott was not occupied for long. It was built in 1842 to fill a gap along the Indian frontier between Kansas’ Fort Leavenworth to the north and Oklahoma’s Fort Gibson to the south. It was one of several forts planned to separate proposed western Indian lands from eastern white settlements, established along a line that extended from Minnesota to Louisiana.
Kelley Collins, chief ranger at Fort Scott National Historic Site, explained why Kansas’ forts were built. During America’s 19th-century westward expansion, the culture brought by white traders and immigrants from the east clashed with that of the American Indians who lived or had been moved there. Between 1827 and 1865, the United States government built dozens of forts, temporary and permanent, in the Kansas Territory to serve a variety of purposes. The soldiers stationed at these forts prevented white encroachment on Indian lands, protected one tribe from another, and helped to maintain peace. The forts also protected the teamsters and traders who traveled the three main trails that ran through the territory.
The Santa Fe Trail, established in 1821, carried adventurous traders between the United States and Mexico for more than 50 years. The Oregon Trail, founded in 1830, skirted the southern edge of what is now Kansas City and then headed northwest across 172 miles of the Kansas Territory’s northeastern corner. The Smoky Hill Trail, which was named for the Smoky Hill River that it followed across western Kansas, was used by gold prospectors bound for Colorado. The famous Butterfield Overland Despatch stagecoach line ran along the trail from 1855 to 1866. The line’s intrusion on Indian hunting grounds led to war on the plains, Collins said.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 uprooted more than 80,000 American Indians from their native lands east of the Mississippi River and moved them to what is now Kansas and Oklahoma. Congress passed legislation in an effort to preserve peace, regulate trade, and permit the military to enforce the act. But the government often failed to protect tribal land rights and honor the Indian treaties. The Indians became increasingly angry as more and more travelers, settlers, and railroad crews moved westward and invaded their land.
The number of hostile encounters grew, and Kansas forts came to be used as military supply depots and headquarters for troops protecting the intruders. The Kansas Territory was established by the U.S. Congress in 1854, and the Colorado gold rush, which had started a few years earlier, created a need for mail, stage routes, and railroads across the territory.
In 1863 Congress authorized President Abraham Lincoln to revoke all Indian land titles in Kansas and send the displaced tribes to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Within 10 years, most of the Indians had left Kansas. The appearance of railroads, the annihilation of the buffalo, and an influx of settlers all played major roles in the Indians’ disappearance, as had Army activities at the forts.
Regardless of which direction you’re arriving in Hutchinson, Kansas, for FMCA’s 68th Premier International Motorhome Extravaganza, you’re sure to find at least one of Kansas’ frontier forts within your driving range. Plan now to see as many as you can, as their impact on U.S. history was significant.
Fort Scott was named for General Winfield Scott. Heavily armed, colorful dragoons stationed at this fort were trained to fight on foot and horseback. They escorted parties traveling the Oregon and Santa Fe trails and ensured that exiled Indians didn’t try to return to their native eastern lands.
The Army abandoned Fort Scott in 1853, just 11 years after it was built. One reason cited for this decision was that the “West” had moved much farther west by then. But that’s not to say the fort was of no further use. Although the buildings were sold at auction in 1855, the fort was reactivated during the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865.
Fort Scott is now a National Historic Site and is administered by the National Park Service. The fort looks much as it might have in its 1840s heyday, when 200 troops were stationed there. A flagpole spikes the grassy center of the compound, from which a historic 30-star American flag waves in the wind. This version of the Stars and Stripes would have been flown before the Mexican War, a conflict in which the dragoons from Fort Scott played a role.
Eleven of the fort’s original buildings have been restored to their original appearance. Nine others, which had become dilapidated over the years, have been rebuilt according to original plans. A total of 33 historically furnished rooms can be seen inside the buildings. Their exterior architectural style is French Colonial with touches of Greek Revival elements.
An audiovisual program at the infantry barracks museum orients visitors to Fort Scott’s history, and guided tours of the site are offered daily during the summer. In addition, a 5-acre restored prairie is accessible via a short walking trail.
History is brought to life at Fort Scott when the National Park Service holds a Civil War encampment. FMCA members who are in the area September 28 and 29 may want to consider attending the American Indian Heritage Weekend.
Fort Scott is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Since this is a national historic site, visitors may use a National Parks Pass or Golden Age, Golden Eagle, or Golden Access pass for entry, or pay $3 for individuals age 17 and older. For more information, including the events schedule, contact the visitors center at (316) 223-0310 or the park’s Web site at www.nps.gov/fosc.
Fort Scott is situated along the Frontier Military Scenic Byway, also known as U.S. 69, which runs from Kansas City, Kansas, south to the Oklahoma state line.
Before you leave Fort Scott, consider visiting the little town of Fort Scott, population 8,500. Ornate historic buildings have been renovated and house art galleries, craft shops, theaters, and restaurants. The town also is home to a Fort Scott National Cemetery, one of 12 original national cemeteries chartered by President Lincoln.
Trolley tours through the town of Fort Scott are offered daily from mid-March to the beginning of December. Sights in town include the Ralph Richards Museum, which features exhibits of antique tools, dolls, and military and Indian artifacts (316-223-1557); the 1881 Fort Lincoln School, which is authentically furnished (800-245-3678); and a district of restored Victorian homes that includes the elegant 1887 Chenault Mansion and the 1876 Lyons’ Victorian Mansion, both of which are now operated as bed-and-breakfast inns. Country music shows are presented on Saturday nights at the Fort Scott Jubilee (913-883-2006). For more information, contact the Fort Scott Area Chamber of Commerce at (800) 245-FORT (3678) or visit www.fortscott.com.
Of the historic Kansas forts still standing, only Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley are still in use. Fort Leavenworth, established in 1827, is the oldest active U.S. Army post west of the Mississippi River. Its appearance generated the construction of the town of Leavenworth, the oldest city in Kansas. Situated on bluffs above the Missouri River, the fort was built to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail and other westward routers. Troops headed for service in the Mexican War departed from there, and when Kansas was opened for settlement, the fort served as the territorial capital.
Fort Leavenworth was used as an arsenal and training ground during the Civil War. After the war ended, Colonel Benjamin Grierson formed the African-American 10th Cavalry Regiment. These mounted troops, along with those who served in the 9th Cavalry, became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” Other renowned military men who served at the fort are George Custer, William T. Sherman, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, and Colin Powell.
Leavenworth today is the home of the Combined Arms Center; Headquarters of the Army National Guard’s 35th Infantry Division (mechanized); and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, considered the finest senior tactical school in the world. It is also home to the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the only maximum-security prison in the Department of Defense. Visitors can inspect the fort’s Frontier Army Museum, which contains exhibits about the frontier Army from 1817 to 1917, and about Fort Leavenworth from its founding to the present.
Tours of the fort include numerous historic buildings: the 1830 “Rookery,” the oldest residence in Kansas; the 1872 Post Chapel; the 15-acre Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery; and the Buffalo Soldier Monument, which honors the 9th and 10th regiments of the U.S. Cavalry.
The Frontier Army Museum depicts the U.S. Army’s activities as the West was won, from 1804 to 1917. Admission is free. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Sundays and holidays from noon to 4:00 p.m. Fort Leavenworth is located at Seventh Street and U.S. 73 in Leavenworth. For more information, phone the museum at (913) 684-3191.
While you’re in town, you might wish to visit more attractions. For details, contact the Leavenworth Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 844-4114 or visit www.lvarea.com and click on the Visitors Bureau link.
In old Western movies, you knew help was on its way when an actor shouted, “Here come the cavalry!” Visitors who travel west of Leavenworth via Interstate 70 to Fort Riley can learn more about these mounted soldiers.
This fortress, near the town of Junction City, was established in 1853. Because it was placed in between the Oregon and Santa Fe trails to protect travelers on both routes, it was originally called Camp Center.
Wild Bill Hickok was a scout at Fort Riley in 1867. By 1884 the famous 7th Cavalry was based there, and the fort soon became known as the “cradle of cavalry.” It was used as a staging area to protect the expanding frontier and became a fixture in the U.S. Army’s educational system in 1892, when fort schools began providing instruction in cavalry tactics and other training. Fort Riley has served as a training center for soldiers who served in every major war. Today the fort is home to the Army’s 24th Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Division, 1st Armored Division, and 937th Engineer Group.
Visitors can take a driving tour of the post and view the old cavalry stables, which are today inhabited by horses that are used by the fort’s Honor Guard. The stables are open from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. The U.S. Cavalry Museum is also worth a visit, housed in a building that dates to 1855. Exhibits there tell the story of the mounted soldier from the Revolutionary War (1775) to post-World War II (1950). It’s open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. In addition, visitors can get a realistic look at the life of an Army officer on the Western frontier by touring the Custer House, the only home quarters left from the fort’s early days — 1855. George Custer and his wife were thought to have lived there from 1866 to 1867, hence its name. The Custer House is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m.
Fort Riley is located in Junction City; take exit 301 off Interstate 70. Admission to all attractions is free. For more information, phone the cavalry museum at (785) 239-3708 or visit www.riley.army.mil.
Right along the Santa Fe Trail (near the Santa Fe Trail Center museum, in fact) is Fort Larned. Originally called Camp on Pawnee Fork, and later Camp Alert, because of the need to be on constant guard against Indian raids, this fort was established in 1859 as a small Army post of dugouts and tents along the Pawnee River. The original post was moved a few miles west and renamed Fort Larned in 1860.
Troops from the fort escorted mail coaches, protected wagon trains along the trail, and patrolled the area. Fort Larned also was a base for military campaigns during times of Indian hostility. Trail travelers increasingly encroached on Indian land, slaughtered the buffalo they depended on, and threatened their very existence. From 1861 to 1868 the fort was the site of an agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs while the government attempted to resolve the conflict. By 1878 the fort was deemed no longer necessary and was deactivated.
Thanks to preservation efforts, Fort Larned remains one of the best examples of an Indian War-era fort in the United States. Nine of the fort’s 1860s buildings survive, their exteriors having been restored. Visitors can tour barracks, a commissary, officers’ quarters, a blacksmith shop, and a post hospital. More than 40 interior rooms have been restored and furnished with period items. A blockhouse has been reconstructed, too, and the parade grounds can still be viewed.
Fort Larned is a National Historic Site and operated by the National Park Service. It includes a visitors center, a museum, and a bookstore. Living history demonstrations are offered there on Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend (August 31 to September 2 this year). Other special events take place at the fort throughout the year. On September 19, 20, and 21, a Santa Fe Trail Rendezvous will be held in conjunction with the Santa Fe Trail Center. For more information, contact the park at (620) 285-6911 or visit www.nps.gov/fols.
The fort is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m between September 4 and May 30, and from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in summer. Admission is $4 per family or $2 per person, or free with a National Parks Pass or Golden Age, Golden Eagle, or Golden Access pass. The fort is approximately 70 miles west of Hutchinson, near the town of Larned on U.S. 56.
Only 2 miles east of Fort Larned is the aforementioned Santa Fe Trail Center, which includes a library and a museum. Inside, a gallery and exhibits offer insights into the people who bravely walked through the plains along the route. Outside are examples of sod and dugout houses, plus a one-room schoolhouse. The center is open daily year-round from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; admission is $4 for adults, $2.50 for adolescents ages 12 to 18, and $1.50 for children ages 6 to 11. For more information, contact the center at (620) 285-2054. Or, call the Larned Chamber of Commerce at (800) 747-6919.
The original stone blockhouse, the guardhouse, and two officers’ quarters homes still stand at Fort Hays, originally called Fort Fletcher. This garrison is situated in west-central Kansas only 4 miles from I-70 in the town of Hays.
Fort Hays was built in 1865 as a base for soldiers who protected military roads and the Smoky Hill Trail to Denver. They guarded the mail wagons and defended construction workers on the Union Pacific Railroad. The fort also served as a major supply depot for other Army posts in Kansas. Custer’s 7th Cavalry was stationed there, as was the 10th Cavalry — the Buffalo Soldiers. Other renowned figures associated with the fort were Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. The fort was abandoned in November 1889 after the Indian Wars ended.
In addition to the existing historic buildings, markers and interpretive signs on the grounds provide an overview of how the fort appeared. A modern visitors center contains a museum filled with artifacts such as historic toys, household furnishings, weapons, and other items. Admission is free, but donations to the Kansas State Historical Society are appreciated. Fort Hays State Historic Site is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday and Monday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. For more information, call (785) 625-6812 or visit www.kshs.org.
While you’re in the town of Hays, you may wish to explore the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, which is full of dinosaur relics, and the Ellis County Historical Society Museum, which features more than 25,000 artifacts from pioneer days. For more information, visit www.haysus.net or phone the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 569-4505; (785) 628-8202.
Fort Dodge, built in 1865, the same year as Fort Hays, was established on a site previously used as a campground by folks in wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail. This fort, a few miles east of today’s Dodge City, served as a supply depot and a base of operations against warring Plains Indians. Its first buildings were made of sod and adobe, and troops occupied dugouts. The first shipments of lumber arrived in 1866 and were used to build a hospital and officers’ quarters. The 7th Cavalry was stationed there when George Custer returned to command after his 1867 court martial.
The fort was the scene of a large Comanche and Kiowa Indian attack in 1868 in which four soldiers were killed. In 1882 the fort was abandoned, and in 1890 it was deeded to the state for use as a soldiers’ home — a function it still serves today.
Visitors can tour several historic buildings at the fort, then head into Dodge City for even more Old West memories. A museum and library at the fort are open from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., and a self-guided walking tour is available on site during daylight hours. Admission is free. For more information, phone the fort at (620) 227-2121 or contact the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 653-9378.
Fort Ellsworth, better known as Fort Harker, was established in 1864 to provide protection for the Kansas Stage Line and military wagons traveling the Fort Riley Road and the Smoky Hill Trail. The following year the famous Butterfield Overland Despatch began operating along the Smoky Hill route, a nearly straight run west across Kansas’ midsection to Denver. Bill Cody took his first scouting job at the fort in 1866 and a year later, while hunting buffalo for railroad crews, he became known as Buffalo Bill. Fort Harker was a supply depot and distribution point for all the forts in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Texas. The fort was closed in 1872.
The fort was located near the present-day town of Ellsworth, which is 7 miles south of I-70, west of Salina. Today a portion of the fort grounds is on private property and cannot be visited by the public. But some buildings remain; these include the original guardhouse, junior officers’ quarters, and commanding officer’s quarters. These, plus exhibits about the fort displayed inside a historic train depot, are available for touring at the Fort Harker Guardhouse Museum Complex in the town of Kanopolis on State Route 140. The museum is open daily between April 1 and October 31 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, phone (785) 472-5733.
Only the cemetery at Fort Wallace, first called Camp on Pond Creek, remains today. This westernmost Kansas fort was established in 1865 near the modern town of Wallace. Fort Wallace was the outpost along the Smoky Hill Trail between Missouri and Denver. After the fort was abandoned, the government exhumed the bodies of 88 soldiers who were buried there and moved them to the national cemetery at Fort Leavenworth. However, more than 100 graves — those of U.S. scouts and others who were not in the Army, remain at the old post cemetery. Today the post cemetery is part of the Wallace Township cemetery, enclosed by stone walls. Original buildings once stood just south of the graveyard, on what is now private land.
Visitors can still learn about the fort at the Fort Wallace Museum and Cemetery, located along U.S. 40 just east of the town of Wallace. The museum also highlights local history relating to the railroad and stagecoach transportation that once served the area. It is open daily between May and September, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Between October and April, visitors are admitted by appointment; phone (785) 891-3564 for more information. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.
A treasure trove of artifacts remain from the days when the West was still wild, and they await your visit to Kansas. Make a stop or two (or more) at these historical sites as you travel through the state. For more information about all of Kansas’ forts and other nearby places of interest, contact Kansas Travel & Tourism, 700 S.W. Harrison St., Suite 1300, Topeka, KS 66603-3712; (800) 252-6727; www.travelks.com