From the year of 1744, when the French established Fort de Cavagnial on the bluffs of the Missouri River. Kansas has been the home to numerous military forts or posts. This article will cover two of them, Fort Ellsworth, 1864/66, and Fort Harker, 1866/72.
During the late 1850's D. H. Page and Joseph Lemon established a trading ranche and mail station on the northeast side of the Smoky Hill River at a point where the military road linking Fort Riley to the Santa Fe Trail crossed the river and near the future site of Fort Ellsworth in now Ellsworth County, Kansas. This military road was laid out in 1850s. Three building were shown in this location on the General Land Office survey with a label of U.S. Mail Station. In addition to operating the mail station and trading ranche, Page and Lemon were hunters and traders. In May of 1864, an Indian massacre in the vicinity of their ranche caused them to give up the venture in the trading ranche. About this time the trade ranche was abandoned.
In June 1864, "Fort Ellsworth, Kansas" was established at the site of the Page Ranche. The fort was one of several that served to protect the area of Central Kansas and the Santa Fe Trail. According to an 1870 military report, both Fort Ellsworth and the later military post Fort Harker were established to furnish a point from which operations could be carried on against the Indians, who were very troublesome during this time in Kansas History.
At Fort Ellsworth construction began in June of 1864, under the orders from General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the Department of the Missouri. Major T. I. McKenny, Inspector General of the Department of Kansas, initiated construction of the blockhouse. The job of completing the blockhouse and post was left to 2nd Lieutenant Allen Ellsworth of Company H, 7th Iowa Cavalry. The first building on the site of the new post was completed in June of 1864. In July of that same year general Curtic assigned the fort its name, in honor of Lieutenant Ellsworth, during a dress parade at Fort Larned, Kansas. Not much information such as drawings, sketches or photographs have been found of this new Fort Ellsworth. Although there is one sketch entitled Sutler store, made by George Snyder in 1866 may in realety be a representation of the Sutler store at Old Fort Ellsworth. The post sutler at the fort was Robert Miller, possibly the only individual on the post to also live and work at Fort Harker.
A description of Fort Ellsworth exists in a few military records, letters, diaries, and journals. A traveler by the name of John Morrill, who traveled through the fort in September 23, 1865, worte to his wife and gave this discription:
"You would laugh to see the Fort, here is a groupe of log shanties covered with dirt, most of the windows are made of boards hung on leather hinges & made to swing open & shut. There is two or three of them which have a half window sash & some of them have panes of glass in them. I suppose the aristocracy reside in them which have the glass. It is a military post. There are soldiers established here. There is but very few log shakes perhaps eight or ten in all & a cat could go in & out of them between the logs. There is a row of caves along the river bank in which the soldiers burrow in winter. You can look away & see nothing but high stony hills and valleys. Morrill also stated that "this country should be left to the Indians & Wild beasts & such is pretty much the case."
On at least two occasions, Indians directly attacked Fort Ellsworth. A raiding party drove off about 50 horses belonging to the 7th Iowa Cavalry and five mules belonging to the Kansas Stage Company from the post on August 7, 1864. The second attack was mentioned in a June 17, 1865 report, but details of the attack were not recorded in the report.
General Orders No. 22 issured on November 17, 1866, by General Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the Division of the Missouri, directed the name of Fort Ellsworth be changed to Fort Harker, in honor of General Charles Garrison Harker. General Harker died on June 27, 1864, from wounds received in an abortive offensive action druing the Battle of Kenesaw Mountain.
While the name of the post was no longer Fort Ellsworth, the garrison remained in place and continued to carry out its duties. During the course of the next few months major changes began to take place in the vicinity of the newly renamed post of Fort Harker.
In 1865 David A. Butterfield, opened the Smoky Hill route through Kansas as the most direct stage and freight road from Atchison to Denver. This new route would be far shorter than along the Platte River route to the north that was now being used by most of the freighters of the time. The Smoky Hill route was 592 miles in length or 61 miles shorter then the Platte River route. This route would cut off two or three days from the trip to Denver. Butterfield's first wagon train along the Smoky Hill route, left Atchinson on June 25, 1865, with a total load of 150,000 pounds of goods. This wagon train was accompanied by a military escort of 250 men and several engineers. As they went they made improvements to the road and selected sites for stage way stations. Butterfield began running stages along the route after several way stations were built and stocked with the provisions that would be needed for the operation of the stage line. The first stage, with David Butterfield on board, left Atchison on September 11, and arrived in Denver twelve days later on September 23. The Butterfield Overland Despatch intially was a success, offering tri-weekly express service between Atchison and Denver in only eight to twelve days.
The travelers on the BOD found the journey fairly easy until they reached Fort Ellsworth. This site served as a home station on the route, offering food for the travelers and fresh stock for the stage. At this point the route followed the north side of the Smoky Hill River.
Indians caused major problems for the stages and wagons of the Butterfield Overland Despatch and other travelers along the Smoky Hill Route during the late 1860's. Several stations were attacked and burned, stages were waylaid, and a number of drivers were killed. In 1866 the company was sold to Ben Holladay, who continued to operate the stage operation. Military troops stationed in the area spent much of their time riding on or alongside the stages as an escort. In August of 1866, the Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs assembled at Fort Harker for a council. Colonel Wynkoop represented the United States. The chiefs promised to restrain their young men from making further trouble.
"Fort Harker, Kansas"
Fort Ellsworth, Kansas Dig - 1996
Fort Ellsworth, Kansas Dig Artifacts - 2000
Fort Ellsworth, Kansas Dig - Photos - 2000
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