Fort Scott, Kansas, initially called Camp Scott and named in honor of General Winfield Scott, was established on May 30, 1842, at the Marmaton River crossing of the Fort Leavenworth-Fort Gibson Military Road. It was among nine forts originally planned to line the area between the Great Lakes and New Orleans to separate proposed Indian lands and white settlements.
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.
As a young America grew, settlers hungry for land forced American Indians west of the Mississippi River. 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 the peace between white settlers, native peoples like the Osage, and relocated Eastern tribes.
Positioned on a bluff overlooking the confluence of Mill Creek and the Marmaton River, Fort Scott filled a gap between Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to the north and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma 150 miles south. The fort was home to infantry soldiers and the dragoons, an elite unit of troops trained to fight both on horseback and on foot. The infantry performed many of the fatigue duties, including fort construction, while the dragoons went on numerous expeditions.
In the 1840s, settlers flocked westward to Oregon and California. When 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. The next year, dragoons from Scott and Leavenworth marched into Pawnee country to persuade that tribe to cease hostilities against the Sioux. In 1845, they patrolled the Oregon Trail as far west as South Pass, Wyoming parleying with Indian tribes as they went.
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 marched with Stephen Kearney into New Mexico and California, while others served with Zachary Taylor at Buena Vista. Infantry soldiers from Fort Scott also fought with Taylor and participated in Winfield Scott’s overland march to Mexico City.
Westward expansion in the 1840s brought about a growth spurt that 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 further 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 Kansas-proslavers, 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”. Free staters didn’t particularly care about slavery where it already existed but were opposed to its extension westward. The 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 to the turmoil. Sold at auction in 1855, the buildings of the fort became the new town. 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 a conflict resume on their departure. By the time the strife waned in 1859, nearly 60 people had died and hundreds terrorized throughout Kansas Territory in the struggle over slavery. Anti-slavery 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 Kansas threatened to engulf the entire country.