The U. S. Army established nine principal forts in Kansas during the 19th century. Before and after the Civil War, troops garrisoned at these frontier outposts escorted freighters and settlers using the Santa Fe and Smoky Hill trails, protected railroad construction crews, and waged several years of war against the Plains Indians who made this protection necessary. In Kansas, as elsewhere in the West, these military installations consisted of officers' quarters, soldiers' barracks, stables, military storehouses, and headquarters buildings arranged around a parade ground. Although they were centers of considerable activity during the 1860s and 1870s, in most cases their usefulness to the army was short lived and only two of the nine forts remain active today.
Originally known as Cantonment Leavenworth, Fort Leavenworth (renamed in 1832) was established in 1827. It was the first permanent U. S. Army fort established in Kansas and was intended for use in protecting the Santa Fe Trail. It later served as the chief unit in the army's frontier defense system and as the headquarters of the various department commanders. Fort Leavenworth remained an important military facility in the 20th century and for many years has served as the site of the army's command and general staff college. (See Fort Leavenworth: Gateway to the West.)
Located on the Marmaton River in what became Bourbon County, Fort Scott was established in May 1842. It was designed to protect the military road between Fort Gibson, Indian Territory (present Oklahoma), and Fort Leavenworth. The fort was virtually abandoned when troops were transferred to Fort Riley in 1853. It remained closed until 1862 when the army re-established the fort for three years during the Civil War. (See Fort Scott: Courage and Conflict on the Border.)
Established as a supply headquarters in 1853, Fort Riley'ss location made it a focal point of activity during the Indian wars of the post-Civil War period. Its main function became organizing and drilling troops, as well as headquarters for supply. The regiment that came to be identified with George Armstrong Custer, of the 7th U. S. Cavalry, was organized there in 1866. Fort Riley has continued to play an important military role in the 20th century. (See Fort Riley: Citadel of the Frontier West.)
Located on the Santa Fe Trail a few miles southwest of the present town of Great Bend, Fort Larned was established as the "Camp on Pawnee Fork" in 1859. The next year the name was changed to Camp Alert and then Fort Larned. It was designed to provide protection to travelers on the trail and for the distribution of annuities for the various Indian tribes who had reached treaty agreements with the U. S. government. Fort Larned was abandoned in 1878. (See Fort Larned: Guardian of the Santa Fe Trail.)
Located in Barton County just three miles east of the present site of Great Bend, Fort Zarah was established in 1864. It remained active for only five years.
Originally built in 1864 as Fort Ellsworth, Fort Harker was relocated to the east in what is now Kanopolis. Named after Civil War General Charles Garrison Harker, it opened in 1866. Shortly after construction was completed, the railroad arrived. General Philip Henry Sheridan was assigned commander at the fort from 1868-1869. In 1870 General George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry passed through Fort Harker on its way westward. The fort was abandoned in 1872 after the worst of the Plains Indian wars had ended. (See Fort Harker: Defending the Journey West.)
Originally known as Camp Pond Creek, Fort Wallace was built in 1865 and abandoned in 1882. For thirteen years following the Civil War, Fort Wallace bore the brunt of the Indian warfare in Kansas and part of eastern Colorado. (See Fort Wallace: Sentinel on the Smoky Hill Trail.)
After experiencing a destructive flash flood, Fort Fletcher was relocated on higher ground in June of 1867 and renamed Fort Hays. It was important in the protection of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and quartered many troops assigned to western Kansas for this purpose. From 1867 to 1870, Fort Hays was frequently the home base of Custer's 7th Cavalry. It was abandoned in 1889 but is now operated as a state historic site by the Kansas Historical Society. (See Fort Hays: Keeping Peace on the Plains.)
Fort Dodge was established in April 1865, named for Brigadier General Grenville M. Dodge. The site was Located on a camping ground at the intersection of the dry and wet routes, the forts primary mission was to protect wagons on the Santa Fe Trail. General Philip Henry Sheridan was assigned to command the fort in summer 1868. General Alfred Sully was appointed commander in fall 1868. When he was nearly ready to begin a winter campaign, he was sent home and General Custer completed the campaign. The fort was abandoned in 1882. (See Fort Dodge: Sentry of the Western Plains)
Entry: Frontier Forts
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 2001
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.