Monday, March 30, 2020

Kansas Forts Along the Santa Fe Trail-FORT LARNED by Zina Abbott

For my current book and the next three, my writing has taken me to frontier Kansas. In particular, I have researched the primary trails and frontier forts along those trails. For the next several months, I will be sharing with you regarding the Kansas forts along the Santa Fe Trail.

I chose to start with Fort Larned, even though it is the middle fort along the Santa Fe Trail, because it was the first fort. It was not the earliest temporary camp, but the first to develop into a permanent fortification.

Freight Train Crossing the Plains (colorized) - Harper's Weekly, Apr 24, 1858
One of the motives that prompted the government to construct a fortification at the confluence of Pawnee creek and the Arkansas river was to provide a base from which troops might protect Santa Fe Trail commerce in an area that was often under attack by hostile Indian tribes. Another important reason was the wish for a more centralized annuity distribution point to carry out the government's treaty obligations.

William Bent
William Bent, agent for the Upper Arkansas Indians, in a letter to A. M. Robinson, superintendent of Indian affairs for the Central Superintendency at St. Louis, reported on October 5, 1859, that he had encountered 2,500 Kiowa and Comanche warriors at the mouth of Walnut creek (25 miles east of Pawnee Fork). Bent also stated that he had witnessed, to October of 1859, 60,000 white people along the trail.

A. B. Greenwood, commissioner of Indian affairs, in his annual report (1859), enlarged upon the critical relations between Indians and travelers on the trail. He attributed the accelerated traffic to the discovery of gold in the Pike's Peak region, and his report pointed out the difficulty the Indians were having to maintain their natural subsistence. There was also the need to protect the recently established stage stations on the Trail from the resistance of the Plains Indians. 

There were no legal barrier to the establishment of a permanent military post and mail escort station because of earlier treaties with certain Native American tribes. The area where Fort Larned was to be located was government held land, being free from any binding Indian treaty.

The location at Pawnee Fork was the choice of William Bent. In his appeal for military protection, he stated, “I consider it essential to have two permanent stations for troops, one at the mouth of Pawnee Fork, and one at Big Timbers, both upon the Arkansas River. . . . To control them (the Indians), it is essential to have among them the perpetual presence of a controlling military force.”

On October 22, 1859, what was to become Fort Larned, a military post under the command of Maj. Henry Wessels was first established as Camp on the Pawnee Fork. He had with him Company K of the United States cavalry, under the command of Capt. George H. Stewart, which had been busy during the summer patrolling the region between Cow creek and Fort Union. On February 1, 1860. Because the small garrison of about 50 men had to remain constantly alert for Indians, orders were issued changing the name to "Camp Alert."

The exact location of this installation was at the base of Lookout Hill (now known as Jenkins Hill), on the south side of the Pawnee, eight miles from its confluence with the Arkansas River.
1867 Fort Larned
A description of the first structures of "Camp on the Pawnee Fork" is given in Capt. Lambert Wolf's diary:
October 23, plans are made for the horse and cattle stable, also for officers' and company quarters, all of which are to be built of sod, cut with spades by members of our company. Our stable [probably meaning fortification] is to be 100 feet square . . . wall 12 feet high . . . .

These plans must have been set aside for several months. As late as July 22, 1860, a letter from Camp Alert (as the installation was then called), failed to note anything more permanent than tents in the fort.

The forces of Stewart and Wessels remained at "Camp on the Pawnee Fork" until November 27, 1859, when they were relieved by a detail of 40 men under the command of one Lieutenant Bell, whose specific instructions were to act as a construction crew for the permanent site.
 In May 1860 the garrison was increased to 160 men, and Captain Henry W. Wessells arrived with orders to build a permanent post. He selected a new site about 2 1/2 miles upstream. The new location proved to be more beneficial since it was located on the south side of the Pawnee, with a big bend of the creek affording a natural barrier on two sides. He also requested the name to be changed. Just prior to the completion of the sod buildings and earth works, the post was given its third and lasting name, Fort Larned. On May 29, 1860, pursuant to General Order No. 14, the post was named Fort Larned, in honor of Col. Benjamin F. Larned, paymaster of the United States army. The new name became official on May 29, 1860. The reservation was four miles square, but the official survey was never carried out.

By the year's end the soldiers had constructed an adobe fort. It consisted of an officer's quarters, two combination storehouses and barracks, a guardhouse, two laundresses' quarters, and a hospital. Later additions included a bakery, meat house, and shops building. For the most part these buildings were poorly constructed and inadequate. However, with the eruption of the Civil War in 1861, these structures were to remain until appropriations for new permanent structures could be made in 1866.
Fort Larned barracks-built 1868, restored - Ctsy Chris Light
As a result of the Atkinson Treaty of 1853, certain tribes were granted annuities for ten years. Originally the distribution point was in present-day Oklahoma, but reports from Indian Agent William Bent show the tribes sought to have their distribution station be relocated along the Arkansas River.

Possibly as early as 1860, based on the reports sent as early as 1860 by Col. Jesse Leavenworth at Fort Larned, but known to be the case in 1862 through 1868, Fort Larned served as an agency of the Indian Bureau and a distribution point for annuities. Indian agents Edward W. Wynkoop, for the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Plains Apache, and Colonel Jesse Leavenworth, for the Kiowa and Comanche, located their offices at Fort Larned. After 1868, when the Indians were placed on reservations in present Oklahoma, the agencies were relocated to Fort Cobb, Indian Territory.
Commissary and sutler shop at Fort Larned, built 1868, restored-Ctsy Chris Light
With the establishment of Fort Larned, it appeared, for a time, the native tribes developed a respect for the trail commerce. In August, 1861, Colonel Leavenworth, reporting from Fort Larned, stated that the Indians had left the Santa Fe trail area and that there was no apprehension of any hostilities in the near future.

The Civil War affected Fort Larned in several ways. The immediate effect was the removal of regular army troops from the post, who were sent to fight in the East, and the gradual replacement of them with volunteer troops from Kansas, Colorado, and Wisconsin.

The Plains Indians took advantage of the Civil War. Indian raids and harassment of travelers along the Trail increased. This forced travelers to seek protection at Fort Larned. On July 17, 1864, Kiowa Indians raided Fort Larned and were able to steal 172 horses and mules from the corral. They were pursued but never caught. In 1865 a system of escorting wagon trains was established, and all merchants were forbidden travel westward beyond Fort Larned without an armed escort.

In May, 1862, Fort Larned almost became directly involved in the Civil War when Gen. Albert Pike, Confederate officer in Texas, arranged an alliance with some Kiowas and a group of renegade Seminoles. This alliance had as its design the seizure of Forts Larned and Wise by these Indians. Nothing came of this, since as soon as the weather permitted, the Indians left for their annual hunt.

Fort Larned Reservation map
Difficulties with the native tribes continued during the rest of the 1860s. As more white settlers passed through the region, the activity drove off the buffalo and other game the natives needed to survive. Indians attacked the fort in an effort to seize their annuities early. Spurred on by freighters who wanted to sell to the Indians, especially whiskey, one year they threatened the fort in an effort to seize their annuity early. Looting by the natives became more common. On one occasion, after coming into Fort Larned under the pretext of wanting to trade, the natives drove off a large number of horses and mules. As difficulties increased, and the military began to withhold annuities, particularly promised guns and bullets, the situation.

After the Civil War concluded, the Army determined to end the problems with the plains tribes by insisting they go onto reservations or face military campaigns to force submission.

moved onto their assigned reservations, Major General Winfield S. Hancock organized a force of 1,400 troops to march along the Santa Fe Trail and deal with Indians as necessary to enforce the treaties. He did not know much about the plains tribes, and believed a show of strength would frighten them into submission. His command included four companies of the newly organized Seventh Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet Major General) George A. Custer. This campaign was Custer's and the Seventh's introduction to Plains Indian warfare. The campaign resulted in General Hancock's burning a Cheyenne and Sioux village of about 300 lodges, located approximately 3O miles up the Pawnee Fork from Fort Larned.
In the spring of 1867, in an attempt to defeat the Plains Indians who had not

As a result of Major General Philip H. Sheridan's winter campaign in 1868, most of the Indians in the Fort Larned area were forced onto reservations. 
Grafitti on barracks at Fort Larned - ctsy Chris Light
From 1866 to 1868 the sod and adobe structures at Fort Larned were replaced by the sandstone buildings that survive today. Henry M. Stanley, later well known for his rescue of David Livingstone in Africa, wrote after his second visit to Fort Larned in October 1867, "a complete change has been effected at Fort Larned . . . . The shabby, vermin-breeding adobe and wooden houses have been torn down, and new and stately buildings of hewn sandstone stand in their stead." When compared to many of the other frontier posts in the late 1860s and 1870s, Fort Larned was an impressive military complex.

By 1871, wagon trains using the Santa Fe Trail no longer needed military escorts. However, the fort still provided protection for the  survey and construction crews of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. By the end of 1872 the Santa Fe Railroad had pushed all the way across Kansas. Since the railroad, once it was built, provided transportation that was less expensive and faster, it soon replaced freight wagons.
Officers' quarters at Fort Larned - Ctsy Christ light
With the military importance of Fort Larned gone, the post was abandoned on July 13, 1878, except for a small guard force to protect the buildings. On March 26, 1883, the Fort Larned Military Reservation was transferred from the War Department to the General Land Office, Department of the Interior. The buildings and land were sold at public auction in 1884.

Today the nine original sandstone structures have been restored to their appearance in 1868. 

Anyone with an interest to read more details of activities at the fort, I suggest you read “The Story of Fort Larned,” by William E. Unrau, which you can find HERE.

My latest novel is Hannah’s Handkerchief, Book 24 in the Lockets & Lace series (also Book 4 in the Atwell Kin series). The opening chapters take place at Fort Riley. As will my other Atwell Kin books, an underlying theme involves the situation with the Kaw (Kansa) tribe who made early treaties with the United States which were not enforced to these people’s detriment.

To read the book description and find the purchase link, please CLICK HERE.

George A. Root. ed., "Extracts From the Diary of Captain Lambert Bowman Wolf," The Kansas Historical Quarterly, Topeka, v. 1 (1931 - 1932), p. 204.
Lee, Wayne C. and Howard C. Raynesford; Trails of the Smoky Hill


  1. This is an interesting post, Zina. I have never written about Fort Larned but learned I have been spelling it wrong in my mind all this time. I've heard the fort mentioned in movies and on television. Your series sounds like another winner. Best wishes.

  2. Zina, an excellent, obviously well-researched post on Fort Larned. I was born in Kearney, Nebraska, near the preserved historical Ft. Kearny, which was spelled differently from the town it was named after by mistake! I've always been interested and have studied the various frontier trails, especially the Oregon/California Trail which my first book, Trail To Destiny, was based on. Good Luck with your series.

  3. Interesting post, Zina. Thank you for sharing your research.


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