150th Anniversary of Fort Larned
By Mary Hooper
In any consideration of how the West was won, Fort Larned should loom large.
Its heyday lasted only ten years, but during that decade the companies of soldiers stationed at the fort secured the Santa Fe Trail for traders and settlers, and changed American history.
If your imagination is stirred by the idea of stagecoaches and wagon trains, prairie schooners and buckboards, buffalo soldiers and muleskinners; or the mere mention of storied characters like Kit Carson, Satanta, Wild Bill Hickok, Black Kettle and George Armstrong Custer, you’ll want to spend some time at Fort Larned.
All were associated with the fort at one time or another, for the fort was in the right place at the right time as much of the drama of the Old West was unfolding.
Those days are being celebrated this year as the fort, in Pawnee County, observes its 150th anniversary with pageantry, lectures and special programs.
The U.S. Army established the first fort, dubbed Camp Alert, in 1859 at Pawnee Fork and stationed a small garrison to escort mail coaches and protect workers from Indian attacks as they built a permanent mail station.
The Santa Fe Trail, opened in 1821, was by the 1850s a great highway between Santa Fe and Independence, Mo., much to the displeasure of the Indians whose way of life was being destroyed by the onrush of white settlers and traders. The U.S.-Mexican War, and the ceding of much of the Southwest to the United States, made the situation worse, from the Indian point of view.
In 1860, the Army built a new post of adobe a few miles from Pawnee Fork and named it Fort Larned after the paymaster general of the Army, Col. Benjamin F. Larned.
The trail was fairly peaceful during the first years of the Civil War, which started in 1860, but in 1864 tensions between the settlers in Colorado and the Arapahoes and Kiowas they were displacing spilled over into Kansas.
That year, famed Kiowa warrior Satanta got into a dustup with a soldier at Fort Larned during which Satanta shot and wounded the soldier. The Indians and the Army claimed the other guy started it, but the Kiowas, who were camped nearby, decided not to stick around and stole away in the night. They also stole away with the fort’s entire herd of 172 horses, a clever coup that must have really annoyed the Army.
Skirmishes between the Indians and the soldiers continued on and off. The worst event was the massacre of Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864 when Colorado irregulars swooped down upon a peaceful Cheyenne village and killed hundreds of men, women and children. This outrage inflamed the Indians throughout the Great Plains and led to increased use of soldiers from the fort as escorts for the wagon trains along the trail.
Although representatives of several Indian nations – the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa, Comanche and Plains Apache -- signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1868, it’s doubtful that many of the chiefs were aware of what signing such a document meant, and what they were signing away. One thing they agreed to do was hunt buffalo south of the Arkansas River. But their main hunting ground was north of the river.
Treaty or no, whites and Indians continued their warfare. Indians hunted buffalo north of the river and the Army cut off the rations of food and arms the tribes had been promised. Angry Indians raided white settlements. Finally, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan and Custer appeared at Fort Larned to organize a military operation against the Indians.
By this time, points out writer and historian Robert M. Utley, the focus of the engagement was shifting south and west, away from Fort Larned. After 1869, Fort Larned entered a period of doldrums when it functioned mainly as a military inn, providing shelter to troops fighting Indians elsewhere and workers building the Santa Fe Railroad.
The railroad, of course, made the Santa Fe Trail obsolete, and, by extension, Fort Larned.
Even during its glory days, life at the fort could be humdrum. Consider this item in “The Plains,” a newspaper put out at the fort. It’s from November, 1865.
“The monotony of the camp was temporarily relieved on Sunday last by the appearance of ‘Poor Bear,’ head chief of the Apaches, accompanied by a sub-chief, a warrior and his squaw. The party came in with a dilapidated towel flying as a flag of truce. The big ‘Injins’ came for the purpose of testing the faith of the late treaty between them and the Great Father at Washington, and after being kindly received, rationed and partially clothed, they left on Monday last to rejoin the tribe. The presents promised them should be sent forward and distributed without delay.”
In 1883, the fort was transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior. The following year the whole property was sold at auction to E.E. Frizell, in whose family it remained for three generations.
It was thanks to the Frizells that the fort was preserved. Of all the Indian Wars forts or camps – Mann, Atkinson, Union, Lyon, Zarah, Dodge, Aubrey and Nichols – only Fort Larned has the entire parade ground complex and original buildings.
There were practical considerations, of course, but George Elmore, park ranger and historian, believes the Frizells wanted to preserve a precious piece of Western history.
They converted the old fort into part of a working ranch. They built silos and machine sheds, and added haylofts to the barracks. The ranch hands lived in the officers’ quarters.
“They were ranchers, and they didn’t throw anything away,” said Elmore. “If they’d take down a shutter, they’d put it away in case it might come in handy for something later. So they preserved the buildings too. How much was preservation and how much was practicality, it’s hard to say. But I believe they had a sense of history.”
The family sold the fort back to the government in 1966 and the National Park Service began restoring it immediately, rebuilding porches that had been torn down and removing the hayloft from one of the enlisted men’s buildings. That building today is the Visitors’ Center.
Elmore grew up in nearby Rozel. When he was graduated from Fort Hays State University in 1973, he joined the Park Service, was assigned to Fort Larned and has been there ever since. It’s a dream job for someone with degrees in history and the American West.
“It’s been a privilege. I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed my years here,” he said.
Today Fort Larned is completely restored. It consists of nine buildings flanking a square parade grounds in the center of which is a flagpole flying Old Glory. One building, the blockhouse, or jail, that had been demolished, has been rebuilt, partly with stones from the original building.
Visitors can get a vivid picture of life on a mid-19th century military post. The barracks are furnished with bunks, tables and benches, rifles and uniform hats, and looks much as it must have back then. The fort has a pharmacy, hospital, commissaries, quartermaster’s storehouse and officers’ quarters, the last furnished in the genteel decor of the period. And a short distance away is the Santa Fe Trail Center and Museum, which complements the fort with a picture of civilian life of the times.
The fort gets about 40,000 visitors a year, 10% to 15% coming from foreign countries, particularly Canada.
Anniversary programs for the remainder of the year include:
July 3-4, militia weekend, with garrison living history activities, equipment displays and demonstrations by 21st century military units, a Medal of Honor program, and recognition of volunteer units that served at Fort Larned.
Sept. 5-7, Santa Fe Trail art exhibit, garrison living history and dinner with amateur theatrical performance, buffalo soldier cavalry drill and “galvanized Yankee” presentations.
Sept. 19, at Fort Leavenworth, memorial service and monument dedication to recognize 65 Fort Larned soldiers reinterred in cemetery at Leavenworth in 1888.
Oct. 10, programs at Larned’s Little Red House and Camp Sibley; ladies’ fashion show, “Fort to Frizell,” at Larned’s Community Center; buffalo soldier and living history presentations, evening candlelight tour at fort with theme, “The History of Fort Larned 1859-2009.”
Oct. 11, rededication ceremony with guest speakers, reenactment of cavalry establishing fort as mail station, rededication of original post cemetery, military flyover, recognition of special contributors to fort, roll call and presentation of flags of military units that served at fort, 150-round salute, and parade of artillery, cavalry and infantry units to formal retreat.