The Story of Fort Scott is the story of America growing up. When the fort was established in 1842, the nation was still young and confined largely to the area east of the Mississippi River. Yet within a few years, Fort Scott's soldiers became involved in events that would lead to tremendous spurts of growth and expansion. As the nation developed, tensions over slavery led to the conflict and turmoil of "Bleeding Kansas" and the Civil War. Fort Scott's story takes you through these years of crisis and beyond to the time when the United States emerged as a united, transcontinental nation.
A Permanent Indian Frontier
As a young America grew, settlers hungry for land forced American Indians west of the Mississippi. When they arrived in this area, tribes were guaranteed land where white settlement would be forbidden. Established in 1842, Fort Scott served as one of a line of forts from Minnesota to Louisiana that helped to enforce this promise of a "permanent Indian frontier." Soldiers kept peace between white settlers, native peoples like the Osage, and relocated Eastern tribes.
Positioned on a bluff surrounded by prairie and rolling hills, Fort Scott (named for Gen. Winfield Scott) filled a gap between Fort Leavenworth to the north and Fort Gibson, 150 miles south. The fort was home to infantry soldiers and dragoons, elite troops trained to fight both on horseback and on foot. The infantry performed many of the fatigue duties, including fort maintenance, while the dragoons went on numerous expeditions.
In the 1840s, settlers flocked westward to Oregon and California. Conflict arose along the Santa Fe and Oregon trails: dragoons were called on to keep the peace. Two expeditions rode escort on the Santa Fe Trail in 1843. In 1844 and 1845, dragoons parleyed with Indian tribes that threatened settlers along the Oregon Trail. They also patrolled the Oregon Trail as far west as South Pass.
Both infantry and dragoons left Fort Scott to fight in the Mexican-American War (1846-48), which brought vast new lands into U.S. possession. Some Fort Scott dragoons served in New Mexico and California, while others fought at Buena Vista. Infantry soldiers from Fort Scott participated in Winfield Scott's overland march to Mexico City.
Westward expansion in the 1840s nearly doubled the country's size and fulfilled "Manifest Destiny"the idea that it was America's divine right to stretch from coast to coast. As the frontier extended farther westward, the idea of a "permanent" Indian territory died a quick death and the army abandoned Fort Scott in 1853. However, violent events in the region would soon bring soldiers back as the nation experienced growing pains over the issue of slavery.
Slavery divided the nation during its turbulent adolescent years. Conflict arose over whether to allow slavery in the new western territories. Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), Congress created Kansas and Nebraska territories, opening these lands for settlement. It declared that the residents of these territories could decide by popular vote whether their state would be free or slave. In Kansas, people on both sides of this controversial issue flooded in, trying to influence the vote in their favor.
Three distinct political groups occupied Kansaspro-slavers, free-staters, and abolitionists. Proslavery advocates, as the name implies, supported slavery, regardless of whether they personally owned slaves. Abolitionists wanted to rid the nation of the "peculiar institution" altogether. Free-staters didn't particularly care about slavery where it already existed, but were opposed to its extension westward. Conflict between these opposing factions soon turned violent. As a result, this era became forever known as "Bleeding Kansas," an era when violence, destruction, and psychological warfare prevailed in the region.
Fort Scott and the surrounding area were not immune from the turmoil. Sold at auction in 1855, the fort buildings became the new town of Fort Scott. The townspeople were primarily proslavery, while free-staters and abolitionists dominated the surrounding countryside. This division of opposing factions was illustrated on the grounds of the "old fort" by the existence of two hotels. One, a former officers' quarters, became the Fort Scott Hotel, nicknamed the "Free State" Hotel due to the political leanings of many of its guests. Directly across the square, an infantry barracks was now the Western Hotel, a headquarters for proslavery men.
By 1858, radical elements from both factions converged on the area. James Montgomery, an ardent abolitionist, became a leader of free-state forces that invaded Fort Scott, a haven for Border Ruffians (extreme proslavery men). During one raid, Montgomery tried to burn the Western Hotel; another raid took the life of John Little, a former deputy marshal.
During this era, soldiers returned periodically to Fort Scott to restore law and order, staying each time until violence abated, only to have conflict resume on their departure. By the time the territorial strife waned in 1859, nearly 60 people had died and hundreds were terrorized throughout Kansas in the struggle over slavery. Antislavery forces finally prevailed. Kansas entered the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861, but by then the fighting and violence, once contained to this area, threatened to engulf the entire country.
The struggles of an adolescent America became a full-fledged rebellion in 1861 as the issues of slavery and self-determination drove the nation apart. The war brought the U.S. Army back to Fort Scott. Union commanders viewed the town as a strategic point in southeast Kansas to establish a base of military operations, where the army could protect Kansas against a possible Confederate invasion. Troops reoccupied many of the old fort buildings, including the stables and hospital, and began constructing a variety of new buildings and over 40 miles of fortifications.
Fort Scott served as a major supply depot for Union armies in the West, a general hospital for soldiers in the region, and a haven for people fleeing the wardisplaced Indians, escaped slaves, and white farmers. Many of these refugees joined the Union Army, greatly diversifying its ranks. American Indian and African American regiments were recruited in the area, including the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. Sworn in on the grounds of Fort Scott, this was one of the first African American regiments to engage the Confederates in combat.
Fort Scott's military stores made it a target of Confederate Gen. Sterling Price, who made two unsuccessful attempts to capture it during the war. Guerilla warfare, which plagued the region, also threatened the town. Intense fighting on the Kansas-Missouri border between pro-Union Jayhawkers and pro-Confederate Bushwhackers kept the military occupied. The Union presence likely spared Fort Scott the pillaging and destruction suffered by other towns.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the nation began to heal and to unify. Railroads built across the continent played a major role in tying the country together. Fort Scott's town leaders saw a railroad line as a means to build prosperity by tapping into the trade of Eastern markets. By 1869, their efforts succeeded as the first railroad reached the city. As workers laid tracks south of town, they came into conflict with squatters who forcefully opposed the railroad. The military returned and established the Post of Southeast Kansas (1869-73) to protect the railroad workers. This set the stage for a rare instance when U.S. troops took up arms against American citizens to protect the country's business interests.
From 1842 to 1873, Fort Scott played a significant role in events that helped transform the United States from a young divided republic through the growing pains of conflict and war into maturity as a united and powerful transcontinental nation.
Life at a Frontier Outpost
Soldier life at Fort Scott in the 1840s was one of boredom and monotony. Outside contacts were few and came mostly from Indians, travelers on the military road, and missionaries and traders on Indian lands. Social contacts were confined mostly to the post. Daily activities ranged from guard and fatigue duties to roll calls and drills. Periodic expeditions to patrol trails, escort wagon trains, and meet with Indians alleviated the routine.
The soldiers lived in tents and log huts until permanent quarters were completed. Food was shipped by wagon from Fort Leavenworth, over 100 miles away, and consisted mostly of salt pork, salt beef, rice, and beans. Fresh vegetables from fort gardens supplemented this. Items not supplied by the military could be purchased from the post sutler.
While illness and injury were constant threats to Fort Scott's soldiers, combat was not. Nobody was killed in battle while stationed here. Work was rigorous during the years of construction, but once the post was built little was demanded of the garrison except general maintenance. All in all, Fort Scott had relatively good food and comfortable quarters, and the health of the soldiers was good.
From Frontier Fort to National Historic Site
From 1842 to 1873, the buildings of Fort Scott stood witness to epic events that helped shape the country. In the years after the army left, the city of Fort Scott thrived and expanded. The old fort buildings continued to serve as residences and commercial properties for many years. Eventually some were destroyed by fire, while others were torn down for new structures.
In the 1950s a group of Fort Scott's history-minded citizens, proud of their town's military origins, argued for restoring the fort to its late 1840s appearance to attract visitors and commemorate its nationally significant story.
Federal funding paved the way for the fort's rebirth. Archaeological investigations determined the location of missing buildings. Structures not original were torn down, while most historic buildings and features were restored or reconstructed. In 1978 it became a national historic site. Today, Fort Scott's buildings endure as memorials to the legacy of a young and vibrant America.
For your safety: Use caution on uneven walkways and use the handrail on steep stairs. Steps may be hazardous, especially during wet weather. Seek shelter in buildings during thunderstorms. Climbing on walls, wagons, cannon, and other features may cause serious injury. Keep a safe distance from horses. Smoking is not permitted in fort buildings or near the tallgrass prairie.
Fort Scott Today
Open doors and exhibit signs indicate displays. Inquire about accessibility at the visitor center. Buildings open to the public are briefly described below.
Hospital (1843) Surgeons treated sick and wounded soldiers here during the 1840s and in the Civil War. It now houses a visitor center and bookstore. An upstairs ward is refurnished. Restoration
Infantry Barracks (1844) Home to infantry soldiers, this became the Western Hotel in the 1850s, a proslavery headquarters. The present building contains a museum and a film. Reconstruction
Dragoon Stables (1843) Eighty horses with their feed, tack, and hay could be sheltered here. Later it served as a Civil War storehouse for up to a million rations. Reconstruction
Dragoon Barracks (1844) Dragoon soldiers slept on the second floor and ate in the mess hall on the first floor. During Bleeding Kansas, it housed a land office and courtroom. Reconstruction
Post Headquarters (1848) In this building's offices, the fort's commander oversaw post operations and convened courts martial. In 1858, a man was killed here while it operated as a general store. Reconstruction
Officers' Quarters No. 1 (1844) These quarters contained two bedrooms, a dining room, parlor, and kitchen for an officer's family. Guests stayed here in the 1850s after it became the Fort Scott Hotel. Restoration
Officers' Quarters No. 2 (1845) Originally a comfortable home for officers and their families, this duplex became a private residence for Hiero Wilson, a town father and former post sutler (storekeeper). Restoration
Quartermaster Storehouse (1843) This storehouse fueled the military with food and other supplies needed to put a fighting army into the field. It played a similar role during the Civil War. Restoration
Bake House (1848) Bread was a staple of the soldier's diet. Enlisted men took turns at baking the daily ration of bread in ovens located inside. Restoration
Guardhouse (1848) This contained rooms for guards and the officer of the day along with cells for prisoners. Part of Civil War hospital complex and later became the city jail. Reconstruction
Powder Magazine (1844) An adjacent lightning rod and thick walls helped provide safe storage to the fort's explosivespowder, cartridges, fuses, and primers. Also used by the Union Army (1863). Reconstruction
Source: NPS Brochure (2018)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Archeological Investigations at Fort Scott National Historic Site, Burbon County, Kansas: 1992 Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report No. 28 (Caven P. Clark, 1993)
Archeological Monitoring, Installation of Fire Suppression System, Fort Scott National Historic Site, Bourbon County, Kansas: 1997 Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report No. 57 (Scott Stadler, 1998)
Baseline Water Quality Data Inventory and Analysis, Fort Scott National Historic Site Technical Report NPS/NRWRD/NRTR-99/230 (August 2000)
Historic Structures Report, Part II Historical Data Section: Fort Scott (HTML edition) (Erwin N. Thompson, 1968)
How might future warming alter visitation? Fort Scott National Historic Site (N.A. Fisichelli and P.S. Ziesler, 2015)
Impacts of Visitor Spending on the Local Economy, Fort Scott National Historic Site, 2011 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR-2012/606 (Philip S. Cook, December 2012)
Memoirs and recollections of C. W. Goodlander of the early days of Fort Scott (Charles W. Goodlander, 1899)
Memoirs and recollections of C. W. Goodlander of the early days of Fort Scott (Charles W. Goodlander, 1900)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms
Fort Scott (Ray H. Mattison, May 4, 1959)
Fort Scott Historic Site (David Arbogast, May 31, 1976)
Prairie Restoration Project, Summer 1994: Fort Scott National Historic Site (D. Compton, 1994)
Prairie Restoration Project 1995: Fort Scott National Historic Site (D. Compton, 1995)
Prairie Restoration Project 1996: Fort Scott National Historic Site (D. Compton, 1996)
Prairie Restoration Report 1996-1997 (D. James, 1997)
Prairie Restoration Report 1998-1999 (D. James, 1999)
Reclaimed from Obscurity, Preserved for Posterity: An Administrative History of Fort Scott National Historic Site, Fort Scott, Kansas. (Emily Greenwald and Joshua Pollarine, December 2013)
Site Visitor Study: Summer 2011: Fort Scott National Historic (M.F. Manni, et al., 2012)
The Original Military Post Road Between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott (Eloise Frisbie Robbins, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 1 No. 2, Summer 1978)
The Post on the Marmaton: A Historic Resource Study of Fort Scott National Historic Site (Daniel J. Holder and Hal K. Rothman, 2001)
The vegetational analysis of the prairie restoration area at the Fort Scott National Historic Site (J.R. Jackson and R. Knoblauch, 1985)
The Why of Fort Scott (Mary L. Barlow, 1921)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 31-May-2022