Today is mainly a driving day, with us getting between Dodge City, Kansas and Independence, Missouri. On the way, however, we plan a stop in Ft Larned, Kansas. This is the restored and maintained fort that provided protection for wagon trains, mail carriers, and settlers along this part of the Santa Fe Trail. The fort is just a little over an hour to the east of Dodge City.
The first thing that strikes me about the fort is that there is no “fortification” around the buildings. The buildings are arranged in a square (as most forts of this time period are), but there is no outside perimeter fence surrounding the acreage. Gwen suggests this is because the plain around the fort is so flat that seeing enemies coming from the distance would have been easy. In its short 19 year life (1859 to 1878) the fort was attacked only once (by Indians in 1864, when the site was manned by a small number of volunteers), so I guess this must have been at least part of the reason. There is a sign which tells us that Gwen was right, but adds that there just wasn’t the supply of logs necessary to build such a barrier around the buildings.
Two sides of the square (the side at the back of the officers’ quarters and the side at the back of the administrative offices and the enlisted men’s quarters) ran along the Pawnee Bend River that presumably provided water to the outpost. On the third side, across a wash is a flat and grassy section that was formed when an oxbow of the river was cut off and dried up.
This flat area was used as the fort cemetery, with rows of tombstones set in military order.
The side of the square that backed up to the wash housed the workshops for woodworking, metalworking, as well as the bakery. Outside the square, beyond the corner made by the blacksmith’s shop and the supply storage side of the square is an octagonal building or blockhouse, displayed as a jailhouse. This room had been a lookout originally, as it faced the only side of the fort which was open to surprise attack. The administration building is now where the visitor center is, starting in the corner closest to the officers’ quarters. On that side below the visitors’ center and the enlisted men’s quarters is the hospital. I suspect the stables for the horses to be opposite the hospital, along the supply storage side of the square. The central square itself is grass-covered, with a flag pole in the center.
Gwen and I toured the place. Each building had displays of furniture and paraphernalia related to its use along with notes talking about interesting aspects. The fort was built originally in 1859 (although originally some little distance away, and made out of sod). It was finally abandoned in 1878, as they say, the victim of its own success. During that time, the pony express was established and died, as telegraphy replaced mail for communication. During that time, the Santa Fe Trail wagon trains were replaced by the metal trains of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. During that time, the plains Indians of several tribes were corralled and established on reservations thus eliminating the need to reach out and find the plains Indians to establish treaties, or to try to maintain existing treaties.
In the early 1860s the buildings were built out of sandstone in their current locations. The Calvary and foot soldiers made up the primary military presence, and they came and went with the requirement of the challenges undertaken. Officers came and went as well. Over the period, they indicated that 238 officers were assigned to the fort, approximating 10 new ones each month. This level of turnover kept the whole place in a constant upheaval in leadership. An interesting aspect of the groups assigned to Ft Larned were the buffalo soldiers corps, who spent a lot of time here. One theory about how they got their name was the similarity of their hair to the hair of the buffalos, but the respect earned by the organization by its hard work and excellent service record may also have been another source.
We spend about an hour walking around and finding out as much as we could, and then we go on our way. The rest of the trip is long and boring, but not too difficult until we get into Kansas City. Our planning was not really that good in this instance – getting to a large city at rush hour on a Friday evening was not a good idea. However, we get to our hotel at dinner time, and after getting settled, walk next door to the Rib Cage, a restaurant specializing in various ways of preparing and serving ribs. Surprisingly (to us), they were not broad on their wine offerings, with only one red, and just two whites available. We get a glass each, and accept the shortcomings as part of the sacrifice for enjoying the meat. After dinner, we go back to the hotel for a restful evening.