By Zina Abbott
To protect commerce on the Santa Fe Trail, the U.S. government established a line of forts from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Dodge. Among those was Fort Zarah, which built along Walnut Creek in 1864. The site was a logical choice for several reasons. It was built near the old Rath Ranch Trading Post which, prior to the time of the fort, had served as both a stagecoach station for the Kansas Stagecoach Company and post office. In addition, Rath and his predecessor, named Peacock, had built a considerable trade with the plains tribes. Unfortunately, that trade was fraught with uncertainty due to the government agents not fulfilling treating obligations or changing terms. There were also disputes over Rath’s trading license and whether or not he traded in alcohol, firearms, and ammunition to the tribes. During the early 1860s, tensions between the whites and tribal members continued to escalate.
|Ft. Riley to Ft. Larned Road-established before either Forts Harker, Hays, or Zarah|
On June 14, 1864, Maj. T. I. McKenny, inspector-general and his party were en route to Fort Larned escorting a mail stage. After a 40-mile journey from Smoky Hill crossing, the site of early Fort Ellsworth where construction on a blockout was underway, they reached Walnut creek. According to his report, he "camped at a point where the road intersects the old Santa Fe road, and where the Leavenworth and Kansas City mails are due at the same time"; "found the ranch [Rath's] entirely deserted." (He saw the owner next day at Fort Larned.)
In his June 15 report, written at Fort Larned, Major McKenny included his intent to "build a block-house" at Walnut creek on his return trip. Camp Dunlap was established two miles east of present-day Great Bend in July 1864. The major left Captain [Oscar F.] Dunlap with 45 men, Fifteenth Kansas there. Initially, it was comprised of dugouts and tents, but the men were left to build a stone fort.
Work soon began on a more permanent facility about 100 yards distant with General Samuel R. Curtis in command. The post was renamed Fort Zarah for General Curtis’ son, Major H. Zarah Curtis, who was killed at the Baxter Springs Massacre while serving on the staff of General Blunt.
In 1866, the post was replaced by a more substantial fort about one-half mile up Walnut Creek. Built of sandstone moved from the bluffs about three miles away, the fort was 116 feet long and about 50 feet wide and cost about $100,000 to build.
The fort was abandoned in April 1866 then reopened two months later. In November 1866 as the U.S. continued to secure lands from the Indians, Fort Zarah hosted a council with Plains tribes. That year had seen fewer battles, but more conflicts would occur the year after the council. Part of the reason for the discontent among the tribal people can be summed up by this 1866 statement from Woqini, or Roman Nose, of the Cheyenne warrior society:
We made peace on the North Fork of the Platte. We have kept it. Every time we meet the whites in council, they have new men to talk to us. They have new roads to open. We do not like it.
Up to July, 1868, Fort Zarah was under Fort Larned's control; On September 30, 1868, by order of President Andrew Johnson, the Fort Zarah military reservation was established, and it was surveyed the same year. It contained about 3,700 acres and extended from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad north to the hills. From July 1868, until it abandoned in December, 1869, it was an independent post.
Two sketches of Fort Zarah (1864-1869) were drawn in 1867 by Ado Hunnius, a U. S. soldier, who was at Fort Zarah in 1867. The following statements, from an April, 1867, military report, help to identify the structures. "There are two public buildings of stone at Zarah." "A trader named Rath claims a stone building near the Round Tower as private property and also a toll bridge over Walnut Creek." "The mail Station occupies a building on the south side opposite the round tower."
Part of the trading post evidently was constructed of stone, but Ado Hunnius who was at Fort Zarah in 1867 described the trader's place as "Adobe Mud Roof House partly underground."
Peacock Ranch, the Rath Ranch, or the Douglas trading post, depending on who operated it. The ranch was destroyed by Indians in May 1868.
With trail traffic shifting to rail traffic, the fort was no longer needed and closed in December 1869.
The fort was dismantled in December 1869, and an act of Congress, approved February 24, 1871 provided for the survey and sale of the reservation. in July 1874 the assets were offered at public sale at Salina, but less than 50 acres were sold at that time. The rest sat abandoned.
Bernard Bryan Smyth, in his Heart of the New Kansas,” published in 1880, said: “After the abandonment of the fort it became a den of thieves and general rendezvous for bats and marauders. These occupied it day and night by turns — he former hiding by day, the latter by night.” The stone used in the construction of the fort was gradually appropriated by the settlers in the vicinity.
A small town called Zarah grew up around Fort Zarah. At its peak, Zarah had a hotel, two saloons, a blacksmith shop, a livery stable, a general store, a post office, and several homes. Several thousand Texas cattle were wintered there. The town of Zarah is now a wheat field 3 miles east of Great Bend. The last citizen left Zarah in 1875 about 6 years after the fort was abandoned. Fort Zarah lay in ruins by 1880. Nothing remains of the site today, but it is designated with a historical marker located about 1.5 miles east of Great Bend on U.S. Highway 56.
|Fort Zarah marker at nearby Fort Zarah Park - ctsy Chris Light|
I have two books so far in which Fort Ellsworth serves as part of the setting. In Hannah’s Handkerchief, book 24 in the Lockets & Lace series set in 1865, Jake Burdock often finds his quartermaster duties take him to Fort Ellsworth. Hannah’s Handkerchief is now available. To find the book description and purchase link, PLEASE CLICK HERE.
In Mail Order Roslyn, book 9 in the Widows, Brides & Secret Babies series set in 1866, my heroine finds herself and her baby in the Ellsworth Stage Station near the town and Fort Ellsworth. At that time, hostile tribes, particularly the Cheyenne, frequently attacked stagecoaches and stations in an attempt to capture livestock and either kill or drive away the white Americans invading their favored hunting grounds. This book is now available. To find the book description and purchase link, PLEASE CLICK HERE.