Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Intercourse Act of 1834, which declared that the land west of the Mississippi belonged to the American Indians, the United States built a series of forts from Minnesota to Louisiana to enforce the promise of a “permanent Indian frontier.” Erected in 1842, Fort Scott was among the line of forts established to maintain peace between white settlers and neighboring Indian tribes. Eventually, as the nation developed, tensions over the issue of slavery would place Fort Scott at the center of Bleeding Kansas and ultimately the Civil War. Today, Fort Scott National Historic Site stands as a witness to the history of the conflicts between various cultural groups important in the American story.
At its establishment, Fort Scott’s mission was to keep peace and prevent settlers from expanding further into Indian Territory. The atmosphere changed in the 1840’s, when the notion of Manifest Destiny encouraged settlers and the United States government to move further west. American Indians grew hostile toward settlers moving into their territory and often made the journey for whites difficult and dangerous. As a result, dragoon soldiers stationed at Fort Scott began escorting settlers who were traveling across the Indian frontier on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. Despite the presence of soldiers, tensions continued to increase. As the Gold Rush of 1848 further accelerated the nation’s westward expansion, Kansas opened for settlement in 1854 and more settlers moved west; with these factors combined, the idea of a “Permanent Indian Territory” died. The Osage Indians and other tribes in the area were eventually relocated to make way for settlers.
When the United States broke its promise to reserve the land west of the Mississippi for American Indians, the United States Army recognized that its services to protect the Indian frontier were no longer required and abandoned Fort Scott by 1853. The military post remained vacant until violent events in Kansas that erupted as part of the nation’s growing debate over slavery brought soldiers back to Fort Scott in an effort to restore law and order. The violence began in 1854, when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed people in Kansas and Nebraska to decide by vote whether to be a Free State or slave State. Proslavery advocates, abolitionists, and Free-Staters congregated in Kansas to influence the vote in their favor.
Eventually, the debate in Kansas over the peculiar institution turned into a violent affair that terrorized the State for more than five years. “Bleeding Kansas” offered a preview of what the nation would face in the Civil War. The town of Fort Scott divided over the issue of slavery. Before the Army reinstated Fort Scott, settlers on both sides of the issue gained control of the fort’s vacant buildings. The abolitionists took over the former officers’ quarters and named it the Free State Hotel, while on the opposite side of town square, the proslavery headquarters was at the Western Hotel, formerly the site of the old infantry barracks.
The Western Hotel increasingly became a haven for Border Ruffians, and radical proslavery advocates outnumbered Free-State settlers until James Montgomery’s abolitionist forces invaded the proslavery headquarters at Fort Scott. In 1858, Montgomery directed a number of attacks against the proslavery advocates in Kansas and on more than one occasion attempted to burn down the Western Hotel. As violent raids became a daily occurrence, the Federal Government ordered soldiers to return to Fort Scott in an effort to settle the political unrest. The soldiers briefly brought peace to the region, but the violence resumed, and by 1859, nearly 60 people had died in the struggle over slavery, including John Little, a proslavery advocate killed by Montgomery’s Free-State forces.
In time, antislavery forces would prevail, but by the time Kansas entered the Union as a free State on January 29, 1861, the Civil War was about to begin. South Carolina seceded from the Union and other southern States followed suit, and in April of 1861, the war between the Union and the Confederacy officially began.
As a result, the US Army returned to Kansas and established the State’s military headquarters in the town of Fort Scott. Troops reoccupied the military post’s old buildings and began constructing new fortifications that eventually stretched over 40 miles. Among other buildings, the Army constructed a general hospital for wounded soldiers, a few warehouses, some powder magazines, a blacksmith shop and a military prison.
With the new developments, Fort Scott would become the largest and strongest of the Union posts and a major supply depot for the Union armies in the West. The fort also offered shelter for displaced Indians, escaped slaves, and other refugees who eventually joined the Union Army.
During the Civil War, Kansas was the first State to recruit and train American Indians and African Americans to serve in the Union army. Among those sworn in at Fort Scott was the First Kansas (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first African American regiment to fight Confederate troops. Held in high regard by leading officers in the Union Army, the First Kansas (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment had a successful combat record throughout the Civil War. On April 24, 1864, Colonel James M. Williams declared, “The officers and men all evinced the most heroic spirit, and those that fell died the death of a true soldier.”
At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the US Army sold the buildings and military equipment at Fort Scott, closed the hospital, and let the soldiers go home. The Army returned to Fort Scott in 1870 to resolve disputes between settlers and the railroads and to keep the peace during the building of the railroad. In 1873, military involvement at Fort Scott ended.
At Fort Scott National Historic Site, visitors can see 20 historic structures, a parade ground and five acres of restored tallgrass prairie. They can tour 33 historically furnished rooms in the fort’s historic buildings and enjoy three exhibit areas. At the Infantry Barracks Museum, visitors learn about Fort Scott’s history. The Dragoon Barracks Museum exhibits feature stories of different soldiers, and the Wilson Goodlander House focuses on the construction of Fort Scott. The visitor center and bookstore are located in the historic post hospital.
Fort Scott National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System that has been designated a National Historic Landmark, is located at 101 Old Fort Blvd. in Fort Scott, KS. Fort Scott is open daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm, April-October and 9:00am to 5:00pm, from November-March. The site is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. Guided tours are available, as are middle school and elementary education programs. For more information, visit the National Park Service Fort Scott National Historic Site website or call 620-223-0310