Forts subject of 150th lecture
Scattered about the state, place names provide a reminder of the isolated frontier military outposts that changed the history of the Great Plains.
But as Jim Oyler will relate in the latest in a yearlong series of De Soto sesquicentennial lectures, the eight forts had different and evolving missions during their 19th century heyday.
Oyler, principal chief of the Untied Tribe of the Shawnee, will share his observations in a presentation called "The Great Desert; Forts of Kansas" and a film "The Kansas Fort Network" produced in the 1990s by Kaw Valley Films and Video of Shawnee and televised on public access educational stations. The presentation will be at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at De Soto City Hall, 32905 W. 84th St. Admission is free.
"It's a good film," Oyler said. "I think people will enjoy it."
The film summarizes the role of the forts as changing from protecting the frontier to expanding it.
Only two of the forts -- Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley -- remain active. The others, Fort Dodge, Fort Harker, Fort Hays, Fort Larned, Fort Scott and Fort Wallace, were closed as the Indians in their regions proved peaceful or were removed to distant reservations.
With the exception of Fort Wallace near the Colorado border all or parts of the frontier forts still survive and are open to the public.
Oyler said the two oldest installations, Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott, were part of a chain of forts running north and south that were meant to separate whites settlements from the land given to tribes resettled from the East, such as the Shawnee Indians who were relocated from their Ohio Valley homeland to a reservation that included Johnson County.
The military road that connected to forts eventually became U.S. Highway 69, Oyler said.
Fort Leavenworth was founded in 1827 and is the oldest fort west of the Mississippi. Its strategic location on the Missouri River ensured its survival long after other frontier forts were abandoned.
Fort Scott was established in 1842 with the anticipation that would be needed in defense against native Osage Indians, who had a history of warring against white settlers in Missouri and other Native American tribes. That proved not to be the case, and the fort was soon obsolete and removed from the action on the ever-expanding frontier. It was abandoned in 1853 but again garrisoned troops during the Civil War.
The combined forces of the two oldest forts became the Army of the West that conquered New Mexico and California for the United States in the Mexican War of 1846-1847.
The new mission to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail led to the introduction of cavalry, then called dragoons, to Fort Leavenworth.
The forts that would follow, starting with Fort Larned (established in 1857), would be built to protect trails, stagecoach routes and railroads. They also served as re-supply depots and staging areas for campaigns against prairie Indian tribes, such as William Armstrong Custer's ill-fated 1876 campaign.
The film looks at the harsh life in the forts where drunkenness and disease were common. Soldiers, it is said, spent long days of boredom and monotony interspersed with brief moments of intense action.
The western Kansas forts were abandoned in early 1880s with the defeat of the prairie tribes, greatly aided by the destruction of the buffalo that provided food for them. Fort Riley, the last home of Custer, survived as the home of Army Cavalry School.