During the 1820s three circumstances on the frontier of the United States created a need to protect American citizens. These included the Mexican Revolution of 1821, the establishment of trade between adventurous frontier businessmen and residents of northern Mexico, and difficulties between the Indian population and the encroaching white man. This interaction led to the founding of Fort Leavenworth by Colonel Henry Leavenworth in 1827. The fort was to protect the traders and to preserve the peace among the various Indian tribes.
Prior to 1821 Mexico had a closed economy and was prohibited from trading with its northern neighbor, the United States. For many years both countries knew the potential benefits that active trade offered. The economies of the two neighbors were complementary: Mexico had the raw material necessary for American expansion, and the United States produced manufactured goods in short supply south of the border. The 1821 Mexican Revolution ended the trade restrictions. Almost immediately, small groups of traders began the long trek through Indian lands to Mexico. Each success nurtured the nascent industry, and by 1824 a number of prominent Missourians had become involved in the trade. By early 1825 the increase in trade had led to a treaty between the U.S. Government and the Great Osage Indian Nation. This treaty, in turn, led to the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail, a development influenced in part by Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Benton sought peaceful relations with the Indians to guard the interests of the traders and the welfare of his state. His efforts eventually led to the founding of Fort Leavenworth.
Even though Senator Benton favored peaceful coexistence, the number of incidents involving the Indians and traders increased as more Americans ventured into Mexican territory. The persistent attacks led Benton to demand that a fort be built on the Arkansas River, along the main trade route. As a result of the political pressure applied by Benton, Secretary of War James Barbour, in late 1826, directed the Chief of the United States Army, Major General Jacob Brown, to consider establishing a fort to provide security for the traders.
After due consideration, Army officials determined that a fort on the Arkansas River was impractical. A site nearer the starting point of the Santa Fe Trail, however, was feasible. As a result, the Adjutant General's Office issued Ordered Number 14, dated March 7, 1827, which read in part:
"Colonel Leavenworth of the 3d Infantry, with four companies of his regiment will ascend the Missouri and when he reaches a point on its left band near the mouth of Little Platte River and within a range of twenty miles above or below its confluence, he will select such position as in his judgment is best calculated for the site of a permanent cantonment. The spot being chosen, he will then construct with the troops of his command comfortable, though temporary quarters sufficient for the accommodation of four companies. This movement will be made as early as the convenience of the service will permit."
In early April 1827 Colonel Henry Leavenworth and a reconnaissance element left Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, for the confluence of the Missouri and Little Platte rivers, where he was to establish the cantonment. Four companies of Colonel Leavenworth's command later departed Jefferson Barracks to join the advance party at the actual site. The initial survey began in the designated area, but the colonel soon ascertained that this location, as well as most locations on the east bank of the river, was frequently flooded and subjected to lowland diseases. On May 8, 1827, Leavenworth reported to the War Department that no adequate sites existed near the designated area, and that he had proceeded up river approximately 20 miles, locating a good site on the west bank of the Missouri River. Colonel Leavenworth justified his decision to place the post on the west bank by stating that the elevated terrain was the healthiest in the area. The site he chose is located on the ridge to the north of the current post headquarters, near Sumner Place.
Colonel Leavenworth did not wait for War Department approval of his site. He directed that a number of shelters be constructed for protection in the coming winter. He also had his men erect a hasty stone fence on the south edge of the encampment. Remnants of this original fence, incorporated into a more sophisticated wall, still remain on the site.
Initially, the soldiers lived in tents that offered little protecting from the hordes of insects inhabiting the dense, rotting vegetation along the river's edge. In spite of Colonel Leavenworth's desire to build at a healthy location, many men fell sick during the first summer of the encampment. With the approach of winter, conditions improved somewhat, and by the end of October 1827, newly erected bark and log structures housed the 14 officers and 174 enlisted men at the cantonment, as well as the families of a few soldiers. By the end of 1827, Leavenworth had returned to Jefferson Barracks to resume his duties, but he was to remain influential in the events at Cantonment Leavenworth.
By 1828 the cantonment contained 26 officers and 291 enlisted men, as additional units of the 3d Infantry Regiment had moved to the encampment. As the summer of 1828 progressed, the most deadly enemy of Cantonment Leavenworth was nature. In that year, Secretary of War Peter B. Porter commented in his annual report that "the future of the cantonment was in question." Too many people were sick with malaria. He suggested that "only the introduction of population and herds to destroy the vegetation would help." This bleak forecast notwithstanding, a soldiers' quarters, a hospital, officers' quarters, and a stable had been erected by the end of 1828. The residents planned to stay put, but sickness was rampant as the spring of 1829 approached. There had been several fatal cases of malarial fever. So on March 25, 1829, the Adjutant General's Office issued General Order Number 14 directing that the entire command of Cantonment Leavenworth be withdrawn to Jefferson Barracks. Accordingly, in May 1829 the 3d Infantry left Cantonment Leavenworth, and the post remained empty until next fall.
As if disease were not enough, during the spring and summer of 1829, a number of Indian attacks occurred along the Santa Fe Trail. As a result, the 6th Infantry was ordered to Cantonment Leavenworth to join a caravan of traders bound for Mexico via the Santa Fe Trail. A force of 180 men from the 6th Infantry Regiment accompanied the traders as far as the Arkansas River, where the soldiers encamped and waited for the party to return. A Mexican Army escort provided security for the traders on the return trip to the Arkansas River. Overall, the venture experienced only minor encounters with the Indians and was considered a success.
After the 6th Infantry reoccupied Cantonment Leavenworth on November 8, 1829, life for the troops settled into a routine of monitoring the activities of the Indian tribes and preparing for escort missions. The nearest "big city" was Liberty, Missouri, and with the exception of an occasional steamboat on the river, life was without incident. Most of the daily necessities were procured locally. According to William Paxton's Annals of Platte County, the cantonment quartermaster, during the summer of 1829, paid local merchants the following prices: "Bacon-1 1/2 cents per pound, Salt Pork-75 cent per hundred, Horses-$15 to $20 each, Oxen-$30 a yoke, Large Steers-$10 each."
In 1830, during the administration of Andrew Jackson, the Indian Removal Act forced a number of the eastern Indian tribes to move west. In the same year, the cantonment became Fort Leavenworth and assumed a larger role in keeping the peace among the various Indian tribes and the increasing white population. During the Pawnee-Delaware War of 1833, for example, representatives from both tribes and the United States Government met at Fort Leavenworth and negotiated a settlement.
Expansion of the post continued in the years that followed. In 1834 a stone building was erected, and although modified over the years, it still stands as the oldest building on the post. Today Sumner Place, or "The Rookery," stands near the site of the original encampment. Between 1827 and Between 1827 and 1836, Cantonment Leavenworth, and later Fort Leavenworth, witnessed a number of military unit changes. Elements of the 3d Infantry Regiment-Colonel Leavenworth's command occupied the post until May 1829-were followed by elements of the 6th Infantry Regiment. After September 1834, the 6th Infantry was replaced by the 1st Dragoons, the first cavalry unit in the U.S.Army. Their creation was, in all likelihood, an indication of the fort's increased role in promoting peace on the Plains. In May 1835 Colonel Henry Dodge, with three companies of the 1st Dragoons, left Fort Leavenworth on an expendition west over the Plains. He reportedly went as far as the Rocky Mountains, via the Platte River, on a course that later became part of the Oregan Trail. He returned by way of the Arkansas River and the Santa Fe Trail. Citizens around the fort greatly disapproved of this action because they felt it left them unprotected, virtually at the mercy of the Indians.
Fort Leavenworth has always been an active post, but it was especially so during its early years. It served as a jumping off place for traders, its troops were instrumental in maintaining the peace among the Indians, and the escort missions contributed immensely to the development of the economy of the early frontier. The presence of the U.S. Army brought the white man farther west as settlements sprang up in areas near military posts. Fort Leavenworth was founded in response to a specific need, protection of the traders on the Santa Fe Trail. It not only met this need but also many additional challenges of an expanding country.
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