Between 1822 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail provided one of the most important overland transportation routes in America. The trail allowed millions of dollars of commercial traffic to flow between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The flow of travelers, traders, and settlers moving west; the gold rushes of 1849 and 1858; and the acquisition of vast southwestern lands by the United States government after the Mexican War caused the American Indians of this region much turmoil. The great influx of people along the Santa Fe Trail disrupted their way of life and prompted them to retaliate. Fort Larned was established to protect travelers, trail commerce, and the mail because of the rising tensions between American Indians and those using the trail. Fort Larned National Historic Site preserves the buildings, stories, and historical themes associated with Fort Larned.
By October of 1859, rising conflicts between American Indians and westward travelers along the Santa Fe Trail prompted the United States army to build a military post to protect and maintain peaceful relations with everyone on the trail. This first post, called “Camp on Pawnee Fork” and eventually called “Camp Alert,” was set up near Lookout Hill (now Jenkins hill) on the bank of the Pawnee River about five miles from its junction with the Arkansas River. Less than a year later, in June 1860, the fort was moved three miles further west, near the confluence of the Pawnee and Arkansas Rivers.
At this location, the army constructed sod and adobe buildings, including an officer’s quarters, storehouse and barracks, a guardhouse, a hospital, soldier’s quarters, a bakery, a meat house, and a building housing a blacksmith, carpenter, and saddler shops. Named Fort Larned for Col. Benjamin R. Larned, the US Army paymaster, this fort would serve as one of the most important defense posts along the Santa Fe Trail.
Between 1866 and 1868, the government replaced the original sod and adobe buildings of Fort Larned with more durable stone and timber buildings. Visitors can see these buildings today at the Fort Larned National Historic Site. The fort complex of nine buildings arranged around a 400’ square parade ground includes barracks, a post hospital, two company officer’s quarters, commanding officer’s quarters, quartermaster storehouse, the old commissary, the new commissary, and a shops building. Visitors may walk around and explore seven of the nine buildings at the fort to get a glimpse of what it was like to live on a western fort during the 19th century.
As one of the most important defense posts along the Santa Fe Trail, Fort Larned served many purposes. One purpose was to protect the flow of commerce along the Kansas segment of the trail. After the Chivington Massacre at Sand Creek in 1864, the War Department forbade travel beyond Fort Larned without armed escort. Fort Larned prepared detachments for the protection of mail stages and wagon trains.
By 1867, Fort Larned became the base for Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s unsuccessful campaign against Plains Indian tribes. This campaign intended to intimidate and pacify the Indians with US military strength; however, it had the reverse effect and only intensified their hostilities. Hancock’s campaign caused a general outbreak of raids by the Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho. To respond to these raids, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan ordered Lt. Col. George A. Custer into the area around Fort Larned. Eventually, Custer’s campaign ended in the defeat of Black Kettle’s Cheyenne at the Battle of the Washita on November 27, 1868. The Battle of the Washita ultimately ended American Indians' organized resistance around Fort Larned.
While the military sought to prevent conflict along the trail, Fort Larned became the seat of other more peaceful efforts to reach out to the tribes throughout the 1860s. The fort served as the headquarters and principal annuity distribution point of the Indian Bureau. The Indian Bureau attempted to find peaceful solutions to conflicts between American Indians and travelers, settlers, and adventurers. The treaties of Fort Wise (1861), the Little Arkansas (1865), and Medicine Lodge (1867) supported these peaceful principles.
In these treaties, the United States government agreed to pay annuities to the Cheyenne, Arapahos, Kiowa, Comanche, and the Plains Apache tribes in return for keeping peace along the trail and for staying on their reservations. Annuities included items like bacon, wheat, flour, coffee, sugar, fresh beef, tobacco, clothing, beads, blankets, metal tools, cooking utensils, gunpowder, and lead bullets. Presented with the great opportunities the Indian Bureau created for commerce, traders flocked to the area surrounding Fort Larned and established the fort as a major trading center. By 1868, with the movement of the tribes to new reservations in Indian Territory, Fort Larned’s role as an agent for the Indian Bureau ended.
Fort Larned’s final function was to protect railroad construction crews. The building of the railroad ultimately led to the end of the use of the Santa Fe Trail, which the fort was originally constructed to protect. After the Civil War ended, Americans renewed their energetic push westward, laying thousands of miles of railroad track. The worn dirt-road ruts of the Santa Fe Trail could not compete with the high powered, fast, and efficient railroad. Fort Larned helped to protect the workers who completed laying the railroad line in Kansas by 1872. Nearly six years later, in July 1878, the military abandoned Fort Larned, because it was no longer necessary for protection and keeping peaceful relations along the Santa Fe Trail.
Fort Larned National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 1767 KS Hwy 156 in Larned, KS. The park is open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. For more information, visit the National Park Service Fort Larned National Historic Site website or call 620-285-6911.
Fort Larned National Historic Site has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.