About six miles west of Larned, Kansas, the Fort Larned National Historic Site preserves the 1859 military post of Fort Larned. On October 22, 1859, Captain George H. Stewart, commanding Company K of the First United States Cavalry, was sent out with his company to establish a mail escort station on the line of the Santa Fe Trail. On October 22 he selected a site on the south bank of Pawnee Fork, eight miles from the mouth of the river, and established a camp, which was first called the “Camp on Pawnee Fork.” The original structure was built of sod in the heart of Indian hunting grounds.
On February 1, 1860, the camp was renamed “Camp Alert,” and just a few months later, it moved 2.5 miles west on May 29, 1860, and was renamed again to Fort Larned, in honor of Colonel B. F. Larned, the current paymaster-general of the United States Army.
The reservation initially included a four-mile square tract of land, but it would be years before it was developed extensively. Its objectives grew as it not only protected traffic along the Santa Fe Trail but also served as a base of military operations against hostile Indians.
In 1861, it also became the Indian Agency for the administration of the Southern Plains Indians by the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the terms of the Fort Wise Treaty of 1861. In addition to attempting peace with the Indians, it also provided a more centralized point for distributing annuities to the Indians.
Until 1862, the post was garrisoned only by a small number of troops and could not prevent many attacks on wagon trains by the Kiowa, Apache, and Arapaho tribes. However, that year, they were reinforced by Colorado and Kansas Volunteers and were better able to provide defense along the Santa Fe Trail.
In 1865, Fort Larned began to rebuild its structures with adobe, and just two years later, in November 1867, the Department of Missouri ordered that more permanent buildings of sandstone blocks be erected. Completed in 1868, the post included officers’ quarters, barracks, a hospital, a blockhouse, and stables.
In the late 1860s, Fort Larned became a key post during the Indian Wars, provided military protection for federal land surveys, and emerged as a significant federal commissary for supplying the increasing number of Indian agencies in Indian Territory south of Kansas. It also played a part in a number of treaties, including the Medicine Lodge treaties of 1867. At the time, the fort was exceeded in importance only by Forts Leavenworth and Riley. The fort hosted several famous men during these critical times, including Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill Cody, General George Armstrong Custer, and other famous Indian fighters. From 1867 to 1869, the 10th U.S. Cavalry, an African-American regiment more familiarly known as Buffalo Soldiers, were stationed at the post.
In the early part of 1870, frame additions were made to the junior officers’ and more improvements were made in 1872, when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was completed to the fort. By 1878, however, the Indians had been moved to various reservations, and the communities of Larned, La Crosse, and Kinsley had been formed, which served the farmers and the ranchers of the area. The Army deactivated the post in June, and it was abandoned on July 19, 1878.
In January 1880, Senator Plumb, from the Committee on Military Affairs, recommended the passage of a bill to provide for the sale of the reservation to area settlers.
Though the bill did not pass at the time, Congress later approved an act on August 4, 1882, which directed the Secretary of War “to relinquish and turn over to the Department of the Interior, to the public domain, the Fort Larned reservation, to be sold to actual settlers at the appraised price, not more than a quarter-section to any one purchaser.”
The land and buildings were then sold, and for the next 80 years, the property was privately owned. Amazingly, the buildings remained intact, and in August 1964, Fort Larned became a national historic site and a unit of the National Park System.
The buildings were then extensively restored, and one was turned into a museum and gift shop. Unfortunately, the oldest building, the hexagon-shaped blockhouse, had been torn down years ago but was rebuilt in 1988, partly with stones from the original building.
Today, the National Historic Site displays nine restored buildings, including officers’ quarters, barracks, a blacksmith shop, commissary, and more, and is one of the best examples of Indian Wars period forts. Many of the buildings include period furnishings, and the Visitor Center includes a museum, introductory slide show, library, restrooms, and a gift shop. A nature trail still provides views of wagon ruts left in the ground by the many pioneers who traveled the Santa Fe Trail.
Various programs are available throughout the summer months where historians in period clothing staff the buildings and provide demonstrations.
Fort Larned is located six miles west of Larned, Kansas, on Highway 156.