Historic Structures Report
(Part II — Historical Data Section)
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Chapter 2
The Development of Fort Larned

Americans. . . .are insensible to the wonders of inanimate Nature, and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests which surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet. Their eyes are fixed upon another sight; the American people views its own march across these wilds—drying swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing Nature.

Alexis de Tocqueville


William Bent, the well known Indian trader, had throughout the 1850's advocated the establishment of an escort station on the Santa Fe Trail between Fort Riley and Fort Union. He suggested the best location would be a small stream called Pawnee Fork near the mouth of the Arkansas River in central Kansas. When the Indians became restless in 1859 and began attacking traffic on the trail, the army ordered troops from Fort Riley to march to Pawnee Fork and set up an escort station. In February 1860 the name of the camp was changed from Camp on Pawnee Fork to Camp Alert. In June the camp was elevated to the status of temporary fort and named after the Paymaster General, Col. Benjamin F. Larned.

Originally situated at the base of Lookout Hill, the location of the fort was moved about three miles west in the fall of 1860. From that time until its abandonment, Fort Larned's position would officially be given as "on the right bank of Pawnee Fork, about eight miles from its confluence with the Arkansas River, latitude 38.10' north, longitude 99. west, altitude above the sea, 1,932 feet." [27]

The reasons for locating the post eight miles from the Arkansas River are conjectural. Some suggest the reason was an abundance of trees required for construction and firewood. It is also probable that defensive position played a role. The stream and ox-bow, or bayou as it is identified on an early map, provided natural barriers on the north, east, and west, leaving only the south approach exposed to a frontal assault.

When considering how they would construct the necessary post buildings, the commanding officer and post quartermaster were usually guided by two factors, climate or environment and the type of material locally available.

The term "uninhabitable desert" described the environment of the region and was accepted as an apt description by all those traveling through Kansas. The immediate environment of Fort Larned, although an oasis in the desert, was depicted by the post surgeon as "a vast rolling prarie [sic] of scanty vegetation, to the south a flat prarie extends six miles to the Arkansas river, beyond which a low range of sand hills terminate the view. . . .on the north a desolate prarie whose principal growth is the buffalo grass, the gourd and various species of cactus." [28] The environment was indeed desolate, in the eyes of arriving easterners fit only for Indians and buffalo, but the climate of central Kansas was neither arid nor in the winter mild. In selecting materials, bitter winter winds and summer cloud bursts would have to be considered.

Available materials were lumber from the trees growing along the banks of the stream, and mud. In addition, the materials had to be such that the garrison could construct buildings from them, i.e., the materials had to correspond to the construction skills of the work force.

Col. Edwin V. Sumner, whose 1st Cavalry Regiment first garrisoned Fort Larned, intended to construct wooden buildings. However, higher authority, undoubtly worrying about the cost of cutting the trees and supplying shingles, nails, etc., vetoed the proposal and instead ordered that Fort Larned be constructed of adobe bricks, the cheapest available material. Colonel Sumner protested: "I took it for granted that the quarters at the new posts were to be built in the same manner as they had been at all frontier posts in this department. I am aware that troops can be quartered in Mexican huts, in a mild climate. . .but I did not anticipate that such quarters would be thought sufficient for the military post on the Arkansas." [29] Washington, long familiar with such complaints from local commanders, opted for economy and the decision to employ adobe stood.

Plate 1 illustrates the growth of Fort Larned from 1860 to about 1863 or 1864. (It is advised that the reader turn to this illustration and familiarize himself with the fort). As can be seen, approximately 24 structures of various types were constructed during these years. They were all post-designed to fill an immediate need. Local material was employed. The types of buildings (storehouses, quarters, bake house, guardhouse, corrals, etc.) were similar to those found at most frontier posts.

Plate 2, dated 1866, shows not only general fort development to that time, but also contains very good descriptions of the existing structures and rough drawings of a few. A soldier stationed at Ft. Larned described the construction procedure and commented on the quality of the buildings:

The buildings are mostly built of mud made into large square blocks and dried, then laid into a wall—mud being used for cement or mortar. They are covered with poles and brush and then covered with dirt. They will answer for dry weather but cannot shed water. There is one of a similar wall covered with shingles, also one stone and one shingled (hospital and blockhouse). There are two made by setting posts endwise in the ground near together and covering with dirt but the greatest number are made by excavating the bank and then covering with dirt. These latter are quarters for soldiers. [30]

Neither diagram shows the dugouts along the banks of the stream. The "soldiers' quarters" in the two storehouses were too small to house the garrison. The need for adequate quarters was one of the principal arguments for building new structures.

In a letter to his family, a reconciled Fort Larned officer nicely described the structures at the post:

For the first month or so out there, I fared very poorly indeed as to quarters. A bed on top of a heap of coffee is by no means comfortable, and that is how I slept for a month or so. I now have my bed in the office, where if not as good as could be wished, it is more comfortable than the other. The buildings are very inferior, being built of adobe or sun dried bricks, covered with earth for a roof. In windy weather the air circulates rather too freely through the walls, and the snow and rain (in a hard storm) comes down as though through a sieve. Not very pleasant is it? All these inconveniences seem hard to be borne, but they are soon ceased to be thought of unless our desks catch the rain, when our patience is sorely tried. [31]

During the years 1859 to 1866 Fort Larned developed into a sizeable outpost of civilization on the Kansas plain. However, it official designation remained "temporary." Not even an executive order establishing an official military reservation had been issued. Even if funds for new construction had been available—and due to the Civil War they were not—it is doubtful that the post would have shared in them. Temporary status indicated no intention to establish a regular garrison at that location. Since the fort could be abandoned at any time, economy-minded quartermaster officers reasoned that construction and repair, beyond that which the men could perform themselves, would be a waste of money. As a result men from the volunteer outfits maintained the structures, plugging here and patching there. By 1866, when the regular army again garrisoned the fort, the nicest buildings belonged to the post sutler. Plate 3, sent to Washington in 1866 at the time the post sutler was attempting to sell his buildings to the Army, shows the stage of development shortly before the beginning of new construction.

In comfort and convenience Fort Larned did not rival Forts Leavenworth or Riley. Nevertheless, tired travelers often harassed by hostile Indians welcomed the site of actual structures grouped around a waving flag. No matter how primitive or rudimentary, Fort Larned was civilization and security well beyond the line of frontier settlement.


By 1866 Fort Larned no longer stood alone between Forts Riley and Lyon. Forts Harker (1864), Zarah (1864), and Dodge (1865) had been established to shorten escort distance and offer protection. According to Sherman's plans, these posts would now not only guard the roads, but also serve as support points for the cavalry organizations pursuing depredating Indians.

In May 1866 Maj. Cuvier Grover, the Fort Larned commanding officer, submitted plans for new buildings. However, with the exception of a commissary storehouse needed to store Indian annuities, no new structures were built. The reason was twofold. First, as we have seen, the Quartermaster General refused to approve the drawings due to their poor quality and lack of detailed cost estimates. Second, it had been suggested that the site of the post be moved several miles east. So long as the location of the post was questioned, no construction could begin.

In April 1867 Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock arrived at Fort Larned at the head of a large force on its way to show the flag to potentially hostile Indians gathered on the Pawnee Fork. While camped near Fort Larned awaiting communication with them, he appointed a board of officers to examine the fort's location. The brass-heavy board consisted of three brevet major generals, Andrew J. Smith, John W. Davidson, and George A. Custer, and one first lieutenant from the Corps of Engineers, whose opinion became the board's. The board recommended that the site be moved to a plateau near the Pawnee Fork crossing. The reasons were: too great a distance from the stone quarries, i.e., six miles and across the creek; too far from the trail it protected; and, the trenches and ox-bow did not provide defense, but rather gave ideal cover for attacking Indians. [32] In forwarding the recommendations of the board, General Hancock claimed nothing would be lost in the move, because the post trader, Mr. David Butterfield, was willing to take the existing two stone structures and in return not only quarry an equal number of stones but also place them at the new site. The rest of the public buildings were worthless, but some materials could be salvaged. [33]

When Hancock met General Sherman in May at Fort Harker, the recommendations of the board of officers were turned down. Sherman not only did not want to undertake anything that would increase his already skyrocketing construction costs, but he was also aware that the Indians rarely attacked a fortified position and felt confident that a small force could defend the fort.

With the question of location settled, Fort Larned was free to participate in the construction program already underway throughout the department. In June 1867 Capt. Almon F. Rockwell arrived to supervise construction. Rockwell, a regular quartermaster officer and not an acting assistant quartermaster assigned from a regiment, was also placed in charge of the Fort Zarah construction.

He immediately gathered a civilian work force and, although "the greater portion of the month of July was practically lost on account of the prevalence of the cholera," energetically pushed ahead. [34] From August 1867 until January 1868 a monthly average of 191 men quarried sandstone, crushed limestone, hammered, sawed, raised walls, shingled roofs, lathed, and plastered. In December an order from Quartermaster General Meigs cut the civilian work force, but by then the bulk of the job was complete. The construction of these buildings will be discussed in greater detail below.

Rockwell left Fort Larned in May 1868 and was replaced by 2nd Lt. John P. Thompson. During the Summer of 1868 Lieutenant Thompson completed another commissary storehouse as well as attaching kitchens to the two barracks and supervising the general completion of construction started by Captain Rockwell. Many of the old buildings were torn down.

In September 1867 Lieutenant Brown, the departmental engineer officer who had been at Larned with Hancock in April, returned to the post for the purpose of finally surveying a reservation. A map of the post accompanied the survey. In that it was drawn in September 1867, when the building program was in full swing, the buildings located around the parade are not completely accurate (see Plate 4). However, the map does present a picture of the post after it was rebuilt and shows the location of the trails, quarries, mail station (Ft. Larned had mail service since 1863), the bridge burned by the Indians in 1865, Hancock's march route, grave yard, and other interesting details.

Fort Larned changed very little in the years 1868 to 1878, the time of its abandonment. No new major structure was built and the only construction activity consisted of adding small support buildings to the existing. Small kitchens were built at the rear of two of the officer's quarters, the yards of which were fenced. In 1872 quarters for the hospital steward were built behind the east barracks, the east wing of which had been converted to the post hospital. New cavalry stables were constructed in 1870, when the existing stables burned down.

The decade from 1868 to 1878 marked the gradual decline of Fort Larned. This was due, if not to the final passing of the Indian frontier, then at least to the removal of the Indians from the neighborhood of the post. The size of the garrison dwindled from four companies in 1868 to one in 1878.

If, however, the post declined in size and importance, it increased in comfort and convenience. As troop strength dropped, the companies were redistributed in the barracks. Instead of one company occupying one squadroom, each company now had two squadrooms. A post library moved into one of the vacated messrooms. Officers received more space, much to the satisfaction of their wives. The old adobe hospital, which every post surgeon wanted replaced, was finally abandoned in 1872. Storehouse capacity, never really lacking at a post with three storehouses, became even larger. It is probable that the commissary officer had a nice office, and the issue rooms were large. Plate 5, the historical base map from the Fort Larned Master Plan, shows all the structures built at the post during the historical period. Eight of the structures scheduled for restoration will be discussed in greater detail below.

1878 — Present

The Santa Fe Railroad passed through Kansas in the early 1870s. As its coming signaled the demise of the wagon train, it also marked the end of the necessity for a fort to protect the Santa Fe Trail. During August 1867 fourteen wagon trains going east and west, consisting of 743 men accompanying 605 wagons, registered at Fort Larned. [35] From 1872 on, traders and settlers thought of Fort Larned not in terms of a safe oasis in an uninhabitable desert, but rather were interested in business opportunities in the town of the same name or the price of land in the area. A few might have asked where the railroad stop derived its name.

On May 9, 1878, the Secretary of War ordered the discontinuation of Fort Larned as an active post. Shortly thereafter the quartermaster packed the government property and shipped it to Fort Dodge. The last company marched to the station in Fort Larned and boarded a train for Fort Hays.

The usual practice upon abandoning a military reservation was to turn the land and buildings over to the General Land Office, Department of the Interior, which in turn auctioned the reservation as surplus government property. However, before the bureaucratic mill could grind, Maj. Gen. John Pope, who once again commanded the Department of Missouri, wrote division headquarters, advising that Larned not be abandoned. In case of a future Indian outbreak, similar to Dull Knife's break for the north, troops might have to be stationed there. [36] General Sheridan, now division commander, opposed retention, flatly stating that in his opinion there was "not at present and never will be any military necessity for occupation of Fort Larned." [37] He recommended that the building be torn down, the stones used to enlarge Fort Dodge, and the site given to the State of Kansas in lieu of Fort Hays. Although Sheridan wanted to abandon the post, the army accepted Pope's recommendations. Local citizens had put political pressure on the Army.

From 1878 to 1883 detachments from Fort Dodge, consisting of a sergeant and a couple of privates, were rotated at Larned to protect the government property. They policed the ground, occasionally ran off a settler stealing wood, and drank heavily. In the meantime local entrepreneurs, never adverse to a government installation and its payroll, petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the post be considered as a location for an Indian school. An act of Congress in July 1882 had stipulated that abandoned military posts be used for the purpose of removing Indian children from a state of nature and instructing them in the benefits of trades and religion. The Office of Indian Affairs turned down the petition, much to the annoyance of the Congressman representing Pawnee County. On April 27, 1882, a bill was introduced in Congress to sell the reservation. Appendix A is a copy of this bill. In February 1883 the land and buildings became the responsibility of the General Land Office.

That agency sent three impartial assessors to Fort Larned to appraise the value of the property. It was then put up for sale at a public auction. One F. E. Sage, representing the Pawnee Valley Stock Breeders Association, purchased both land and buildings for $4,000. However, as often occurred when western lands were at stake, an energetic land office agent discovered that Sage had bribed a potential competitor not to bid. The true value of the property was set at $12,056 and the Breeders Association paid the $8,000 difference. [38]

Dwight Stinson gives the history of land ownership after 1884:

The land was in the possession of the United States Government until March 31, 1884, when it was sold at public auction to the Pawnee Valley Stock Breeders Association. On May 1, 1886, the Pawnee Valley Stock Breeders Association mortgaged the land to the Lombard Investment Company of Kansas City, Missouri. The Lombard Investment Company assigned its interests to George B. Wilbur of Boston, Massachusetts. The Pawnee Valley Stock Breeders Association had by this time defaulted. A Quiet Claim transferred the land from George B. Wilbur to Charles A. Wilbur and wife.

On January 5, 1893, Wilbur sold the land to Johanna Frorer. On July 1, 1902, Frorer and husband sold it to B. B. Frizell. In 1967 the National Park Service, Department of Interior, purchased the fort site from the Frizell family. [39]

From 1884 to 1966 the fort was the headquarters of a prosperous Kansas Farm. Plates 6 and 7 are photographs from this period. In 1961 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Thanks to the interest of the Kansas congressional delegation in preserving the state's historical heritage for constituents, the landmark was declared a National Historic Site in 1964. After purchasing the and buildings from the Frizell family, the National Park Service assumed responsibility for continuing the work of the Fort Larned Historical Society in preserving and restoring this guardian of the Santa Fe Trail. Park Service goals and objectives in regard to Fort Larned are outlined in the Fort Larned National Historic Site Master Plan.

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Last Updated: 30-Nov-2009