Friday, April 24, 2020

Forts Ellsworth & Harker by Zina Abbott

One of the frustrating aspects of researching frontier forts is that there were often several military camps, cantonments, posts, and forts in the same general area, all with different names. If that were not confusing enough, when it came to Fort Ellsworth, there were two of them, and their existences overlapped.

The first Fort Ellsworth was constructed during the American Civil War in the weeks following the Union defeat at Bull Run. It was located west of Alexandria, Virginia and was part of the defenses of Washington D.C. It was in operation between 1861 and 1865.

The Fort Ellsworth this blog post focuses upon was Fort Ellsworth in Kansas. Built along the Smoky Hill River and Smoky Hill Trail, it served to protect the military road that ran from there to Fort Zarah located along the Santa Fe Trail near the big bend in the Arkansas River.

Fort Ellsworth by Mathew Brady

The camp occupied the same general site as a stagecoach station and a hunting and trading ranch. It was also the point where the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road crossed the Smokey Hill River in the present Ellsworth County in Kansas.

Daniel Page and Joseph Lehman established the hunting camp and trading ranch in 1860. The men gathered wolf and buffalo hides for trade. In 1862 the ranch became a station for the Kansas Stage Company. The station kept and fed mules that were changed when stagecoaches came through. The station was raided by Confederate soldiers in September of that year. [I also suspect those were the same Confederate raiders that in September 1862 descended upon Salina less than fifty miles to the east and stole most of the livestock, food, tobacco, weapons, and destroyed any firearms that they did not wish to take with them.] 

Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis
In August 1864, Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, the department commander, established a military camp four miles southeast of the stage and hunting ranch site. The fort's mission was to protect the area settlers from hostile indians. Soldiers from the 7th Iowa Cavalry, under the command of 2nd Lt. Allen Ellsworth, set up the fort. They built a two-story blockhouse using logs already cut and hewn on two sides found at the abandoned Page-Lehman ranch. The blockhouse became the nucleus of the fort. Other than that, since the fort was intended to be temporary, it consisted of hastily-constructed dugouts and log structures, which served as quarters for the soldiers. Other structures included a commissary, an officers' mess, and a makeshift shelter for the horses. Based on the descriptions, all of these structures were made largely from materials on hand--logs, sod, and brush.  Maj. Gen. Curtis named the post Fort Ellsworth for Lt. Ellsworth.

The 7th Iowa Cavalry no sooner arrived at the site than on August 7, 1864, Indians drove off and captured about fifty of the post's horses—most of what they had—and five mules belonging to the Kansas Stage Company. For some time, the post had only two horses. Col. James H. Ford, who visited Fort Ellsworth in January 1865, noticed the post still only possessed nine horses. Ford, in charge of the district that included the post, ordered an additional company of cavalry to garrison it.

Even though some buildings were constructed by the end of the Civil War, the men still lived in primitive housing. M. Wisner wrote his company arrived in January 1865 and had to build dugouts with mud chimneys. He also noted these dugouts were comfortable in the severe cold weather.

Gen Winfield S. Hancock
New man in charge, new changes. General Orders No. 22 issued on November 17, 1866 by General Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the Division of the Missouri, changed the name of the post to Fort Harker. It was named after General Charles Garrison Harker, who was killed in action at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in the American Civil War.

In 1867, the original Fort Ellsworth site was abandoned when a new site about a mile--(1.6 km or 0.99 mi) to the northeast was chosen for Fort Harker. Fort Harker, located in Kanopolis, Kansas, was an active military installation from November 17, 1866 to October 5, 1872.  

Construction on the new fort may have begun before the official order. Records show Fort Ellsworth had a master carpenter, a master mason, five carpenters, and fourteen masons on staff as early as September 1866. Based on the number of civilian contractors on the fort's payroll, major construction of the facility was likely completed by the summer of 1867. In June 1867, orders were given to tear down the remainder of the buildings at old Fort Ellsworth. Fort Ellsworth was sold to land developers and became part of the town of Ellsworth, Kansas.


Soon after the completion of major construction, the railroad arrived at Fort Harker. The Union Pacific Eastern Division completed a line to Fort Harker in July 1867. The rail line ran through the fort, and a depot was established just outside the fort. Two large warehouses were built next to the line, which became the principal resupply route for the fort. By the end of 1867, the fort supported a four-company garrison, the supply depot and over 75 buildings.
Junior Officers' quarters
In the summer of 1867, an Asiatic cholera outbreak began amongst the soldiers of the four companies of the 38th Infantry stationed at the fort. The disease may have arrived with the men of the 38th, who traveled to the fort from St. Louis, Missouri where a cholera outbreak was also occurring. The first case of cholera at the fort was diagnosed on June 28. Within days, one civilian and one soldier had died from the disease, and the epidemic had spread to other soldiers and civilians at the fort, as well as settlers in the surrounding area. The post quartermaster reported that 58 citizens were buried during the month of June. The epidemic continued through the remainder of 1867, and by the end of the year the official report shows 392 cases with 24 deaths among the white troops and 500 cases with 22 deaths among the black troops stationed at or near the fort. 

Fort Harker

Although no battles were ever fought at the fort itself, troops stationed at Fort Harker were involved in the ongoing Indian Wars between the United States Army and the natives of the Great Plains. In 1867, the troops stationed at Fort Harker performed more escorts of wagon trains (possibly oxen-pulled freight trains) in one year than troops stationed at any other frontier fort in the post-Civil War era. 

Railroad bridge near Fort Harker
Once the railroad arrived at the fort in 1867, the need for escort patrols began to shift to the west. By 1868, the primary role of Fort Harker changed to that of a supply depot and troop staging site.

Fort Harker was a major distribution point for all military points farther west and was one of the most important military stations west of the Missouri River.

  • In the fall of 1868, General Philip Henry Sheridan moved his command headquarters from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Harker, from where he commanded the campaigns against the Native Americans in the winter of 1868-1869. 
  • On August 25, 1869, Brevet Colonel Joseph G. Tilford was sent to Fort Harker, where he commanded two troops of General George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry. After wintering at the fort, Tilford and the cavalry set out on a campaign in February 1870.
  •  In May 1870, General Custer and the remaining troops of the 7th Cavalry passed through Fort Harker on their way from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Hays to engage the Native Americans farther west.
According to an 1870 military report, both Fort Ellsworth and the later military post Fort Harker were established to furnish a point from which operations could be carried on against the Indians, who were very troublesome during this time in Kansas History.

By 1871, Fort Harker had declined in importance in the Indian Wars. Native Americans living in the area of the fort had been displaced by white settlers, and the scene of conflicts had shifted to the west. An expanding railroad network diminished the importance of the fort as a distribution point for supplies. In March 1872, the 15th Infantry stationed at Fort Harker redeployed to Fort Union. On April 5, the remaining companies of the 5th Infantry departed from the fort as well. Official orders to abandon Fort Harker were received on April 8, 1872. Soldiers of the 5th Cavalry left Fort Harker on May 7, leaving behind a small garrison of two officers and five enlisted men from the 5th Infantry. The base was completely abandoned by October 5, 1872.

Fort Harker was located at the site of the present-day town of Kanopolis. The Ellsworth County Historical Society maintains three of the original buildings of Fort Harker as a museum commemorating both Fort Ellsworth and Fort Harker. These include the guardhouse, Commanding Officer's Quarters, and Junior Officer's Quarters. The museum also features a train depot with salt mine and later 19th-early 20th Century exhibits.


I have two books so far in which Fort Ellsworth serves as part of the setting. In Hannah’s Handkerchief, book 24 in the Lockets & Lace series set in 1865, Jake Burdock often finds his quartermaster duties take him to Fort Ellsworth. Hannah’s Handkerchief is now available. To find the book description and purchase link, PLEASE CLICK HERE.


In Mail Order Roslyn, book 9 in the Widows, Brides & Secret Babies series set in 1866, my heroine finds herself and her baby in the Ellsworth Stage Station near the town and Fort Ellsworth. At that time, hostile tribes, particularly the Cheyenne, frequently attacked stagecoaches and stations in an attempt to capture livestock and either kill or drive away the white Americans invading their favored hunting grounds. This book is not on preorder, but is due to be published next week. Please look for it.



Julie Lence said...

Fascinating history, Zina! We've traveled through Kansas many times along Interstate 70 and see signs for some of the forts and whatnot. Going to have to stop one. Thank you for sharing, and for All your research!

Pauline Wikkerink said...

My daughter was stationed at Fort Riley Kansas. Spent 2 weeks there with her and visited other forts sites. Great history you are sharing.

I hope you write a book for each fort. Love your books.