The sutler at Fort Scott played an important and varied role in the fort's society. He essentially ran a general store which provided a wide and diverse selection of goods. It also served as a bar, an entertainment center, the post office, and a news stand.
As with the department stores and supermarkets of today, the sutler strove to stock a wide variety of good to appeal to his diverse clientelle. Sutlers carried (among other things) bolts of cloth, blankets, ready made clothes, footgear, food, spices, writing equipment, china dishes, musical instruments, miscellaneous household furnishings, tools, general hardware, and an assortment of personal items (razors, soap, pipes, fish hooks, etc.). This represented quite an impressive display.
And so, troops had their tobacco, laundresses their needles and thread, while the wealthier families of officers could live in a manner befitting their station in life. Even the Army was a regular customer of the sutler's. The post quartermaster and surgeon would purchase small necessities such as vegetable seeds, tableware, cups, crocks, and other items that the army could not supply in a timely manner. Indians and fur traders were also welcome to buy, but their purchases represented a very minor portion of the business transacted.
Probably of equal interest to many inhabitants of the fort was the fact that the store functioned as post bar. One can readily imagine the need for artificial stimulation induced by the boredom and isolation of frontier garrison life. Beer and wine were the only alcoholic drinks permissible to sell to the enlisted men. Since the reasoning behind all this was to avoid intoxication on the part of the troops, drunken behavior would not be tolerated in the store.
The sutler store was a place where the soldiers could relax. Most sutler stores had a pool table and soldiers could also play games such as checkers or dominoes.
The sutler also served as postmaster. Soldiers would leave outgoing letters with him to be sent by freight wagon. Incoming letters, while eagerly sought, could also be costly to the soldiers.. In the 1840s, postage was paid by the recipient of a letter, not the sender. The cost of receiving a letter varied, depending on the distance involved. Beyond 400 miles, the rate was 25 cents per sheet of paper. A barrel of flour could ship for 2/3 of that cost.
Finally, the sutler store was a place where people came to hear the news and to catch up on the latest gossip. The sutler often had access to news sources the army didn't. The sutler was not as constrained by economic considerations as the army was. He could afford a newspaper subscription, while the army often went without. The sutler also heard news through the grapevine from his customers and during his travels to buy goods for his store.
The information on this page was written by staff at Fort Scott NHS. References used were an article on the life of a 19th century merchant found in Fort Scott's files and an article on the internet entitled, "Plunderers of the Public Revenue: Voluntarism and the Mails," by Carl Watner.
Last updated: July 26, 2016