Historic Structures Report
Part II — Historical Data Section
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The new post quartermaster, Capt. Thomas Swords, arrived at Fort Scott from Fort Leavenworth in July 1842. He found the officers and men of the 1st Dragoons living in crude log cabins at the new post, then only two months old. With his characteristic energy, Swords undertook the construction of permanent buildings on the high bluff overlooking the junction of the frontier military road and the Marmaton River. A graduate of West Point, which then emphasized engineer training, he had been assigned to quartermaster activities since 1838. Fort Scott was fortunate to get the captain for he was considered to be one of the brighter assistant quartermasters in the Army. For the next four years, until the Mexican War, he was to labor against difficult problems to erect the necessary buildings around the parade ground that would provide relative comfort for the dragoons and infantrymen stationed at the frontier post.

Located ninety miles from navigable water—nearly all frontier forts at that time could be reached by boat—Fort Scott would rely wherever possible on native materials such as stone and woods—walnut, ash, and oak. Nails, glass, paint, etc., would be transported from St. Louis first by water then by wagon. [1] To assist him, Swords acquired a water-powered sawmill and a kiln for drying lumber. From time to time he employed skilled civilians to work as carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons, joiners, and glaziers. But usually he had to depend on finding skilled workers among the enlisted men of the post.

Swords and his successors experienced many frustrations during the 1840's, as construction crawled toward completion. Ever mindful of economy the Quartermaster General periodically reduced the number of civilians the post could employ. As a further aggravation, the post quartermaster very often found that few enlisted men possessed any building skills that might be of use. Then, too, the sawmill failed to live up to its promises. From time to time it would break down; and spare parts took weeks to travel from St. Louis. Furthermore, the water in Mill Creek was too low for the greater part of each year to operate the mill anyway.

Despite the trials, the fort gradually took on the appearance of permanency as conceived by Swords, "The buildings are all to be finished in a plain and substantial manner but at the same time as much neatness of appearance to be preserved as is consistent with a proper economy." [2]

By the end of the 1840's the fort stood completed much as Swords had conceived it in the beginning. Its total cost to the government lay somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000. [3] The permanent structures included four sets of officers quarters (each designed for two families), three barracks, a headquarters-ordnance building, a quartermaster-commissary building, a dragoon stable, a quartermaster shop and corral compound, a hospital, a guardhouse, a bakeshop, a magazine, and a number of outbuildings. Only rarely were either the officers quarters or the barracks crowded. The largest number of officers ever assigned to the post was eleven, and then only briefly. The average commissioned strength at Fort Scott was six. At one time the number of enlisted men reached the high point of 202—about 70 to each rather crowded barracks; but generally the enlisted strength was about one-half that figure. [4]

By 1853, the frontier had moved so far westward that the Army abandoned Fort Scott. One year later the Territory of Kansas came into existence, and settlers crossed the Missouri border to establish new cities in the wilderness. The Army put the buildings at Fort Scott up for sale in 1855, recovering only $5,000 from its investment. [5] The old officers quarters became residences, and the former barracks, stables, and hospital witnessed the coming and going of businessmen. Fort Scott became the leading town in southeast Kansas, providing services and goods to farmers and travelers. During the late 1850's it was part of the turmoil of "Bleeding Kansas," as its citizens struggled violently to settle the issue of slavery in the new territory. The old parade ground became a town plaza. The town itself quickly spread over the old Fort's boundaries and bustled along the south bank of the Marmaton. However the old fort structures continued for a while longer to be the focal point of the community.

When the slavery issue blossomed into a national civil war in 1861, Fort Scott again became a military headquarters in the western theater. Where once a couple of hundred soldiers had seemed a crowd, there were now thousands. Some of the old fort buildings renewed their military roles. One of the new post commanders was Charles Blair, a resident of Fort Scott and who already lived in one of the old officers quarters. The hospital again was filled with wounded and sick. The old dragoon stables became a storehouse for army supplies. For four years the town wore its military appearance proudly, growing ever larger as a military headquarters, a supply depot, and the site of a general hospital.

Following a temporary lull after the arrival of peace in 1865, Fort Scott again experienced a boom with the construction of a railroad in 1869. Troops were once more called in, if briefly, to keep the peace between the settlers and the railroad, who were quarreling over land ownership. The old fort was barely affected by this short time of troubles. Instead, its buildings continued to serve as hotels, boarding houses, and schools. As the city, sparked by the development of coal mining, spread around it, the area that comprised the old post became isolated by a wall of ever more imposing business houses along Market and Wall Streets. The local newspapers referred to it less and less often until, by 1875, it virtually disappeared from the columns of local news.

But neither the site nor its history ever completely disappeared. One hundred and twenty-five years after its founding, the old fort is still identifiable. Some of its handsome quarters still line the tree-shadowed parade ground. A dormer window, a deep verandah, or a shadowy hallway remain to remind the imaginative visitor of Captain Swords' workmen who in building Fort Scott pushed the frontier a little farther west.

1. Officers Row, from the left, HS 1, 2, 3, and 4. Fence around parade ground built in 1860's.

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Last Updated: —2009