In the heart of the vast rolling prairie of Kansas, near Pawnee Fork, is located the best preserved 1860s to 1870s military post on the Santa Fe Trail, Fort Larned National Historic Site. Today the nine original sandstone structures have been restored on the exterior to their appearance in 1868. The reconstructed blockhouse and Flag staff help complete the feeling that you have stepped back into time.
Fort Larned came into existence on October 22, 1859, in response to the need to protect the constantly increasing traffic and the recently established stage stations on the Trail from the resistance of the Plains Indians. The post was first called "Camp on Pawnee Fork." On February 1, 1860, orders were issued changing the name to "Camp Alert" because the small garrison of about 50 men had to remain constantly alert for Indians.
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 and requested the name to be changed to Fort Larned to honor Colonel Benjamin F. Larned, U. S. Army Paymaster General (1854-1862). The new name became official on May 29, 1860.
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.
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 opportunity to strike, while the Civil War diverted military attention to the East. Indian raids and harassment of travelers along the Trail increased, forcing 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.
Starting in 1862 and lasting until 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.
The foundations for peace were laid throughout the 1860s with the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise and subsequent treaties of the Little Arkansas in 1865 and Medicine Lodge in 1867. However, continued Indian raids, coupled with rumors and false reports of Indian uprisings being planned, caused the military to withhold some annuities such as arms and ammunition. This withholding of annuities, which had been promised in return for a peace settlement, caused the Indians to conclude the treaties were not being honored by the United States.
In the spring of 1867, in an attempt to defeat the Plains Indians who had not 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. 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.
As a result of Major General Philip H. Sheridan's winter campaign in 1868, including Custer's destruction of Black Kettle's Cheyenne village at the Washita on November 27, 1868, most of the Indians in the Fort Larned area were forced onto reservations.
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 escorts were not needed for wagon trains using the Santa Fe Trail. However, survey and construction crews of the Atchson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad were given protection. The road of iron rails, with its cheaper and faster transportation, quickly replaced the wagon road of dust and mud. By the end of 1872 the Santa Fe Railroad had pushed all the way across Kansas.
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.
For the next 80 years the old fort was utilized in ranching and farming operations. The buildings were altered to meet the needs of the private landowners. Fortunately they realized the historic value of the place and did much to preserve the structures.
Attention was drawn to the historical significance of the post in 1957 when the Fort Larned Historical Society was founded to develop and open the site as a tourist attraction. In 1961 Fort Larned was designated a National Landmark. In 1964 Congress authorized the National Park Service to incorporate Fort Larned as a unit of the National Park System.
Today, as you visit Fort Larned NHS, you can still experience many of the same sights and sounds that greeted travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. Through restoration of the extant buildings and reconstruction of the well houses, fences, flagstaff, and blockhouse, the post has assumed its 1868 appearance. Through the park's living history programs, today's visitor can catch the aroma of meals being prepared in the barracks kitchen, watch and listen as soldiers drill on the parade ground, and talk with an officer's wife in her quarters.
The park's museum exhibits, audio-visual program, furnished buildings, and book sales area all help commemorate the history of this military post. It takes only a little imagination to capture a feeling of what the soldiers and the travelers, traders, merchants, buffalo hunters, miners, and others who traveled the Santa Fe Trail experienced.
Fort Larned NHS has several special events each year, the foremost occurring on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekends. On these weekends the fort comes alive with living history activities and demonstrations. During the summer months park rangers and volunteers present a variety of living-history programs, talks, and guided tours. Throughout the year visitors may choose to explore the fort on their own and or take a walk through Kansas prairie along the park's one-mile "history trail." Only a short drive from the fort, visitors can see extensive Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts in a 44 acre detached section of the park.
To reduce the total cost of visiting all the areas attractions, Fort Larned National Historic Site has dropped it's admission fee so folks can better afford the other small entrance fees which are necessary at partner sites. Please tell your friends to visit the Fort and all other area attractions again soon.
To obtain more information about Fort Larned or make advance arrangements for a visit, you can write to Superintendent, Fort Larned NHS, RR 3, Larned, KS 67550 or call (316) 285-691 1. The park is open every day of the year, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's day. Park hours are 8:00 am to 6:00 pm from memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm the remainder of the year. Fort Larned is located six miles west of Larned on Highway 156.
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