REVIEW: Fort Scott: Courage and Conflict on the Border (1994)

A book by Leo E. Oliva

On my recent Trip to Fort Scott, Kansas, I wanted to make sure I nabbed a book to read about the fort itself. I have been trying to read a book for every museum trip I take this year, a feat that seems daunting, but has largely gone well. Sadly, like with Fort Osage in Sibley, MO, there were not too many well documented occurrences there that require large volumes of material in many ways, so any specialized books are fairly scant. Like, there wasn’t a battle in the actual fort itself, nor a massive catastrophe involving Native Americans. Usually it just gets mentioned in documentation of other Civil War battles as a prominent Union base and supply center. Luckily, The Kansas State Historical Society did a series of books on historic forts in the 90’s, and they are still in Print to this day. The information presented isn’t too different to that of the video that one would watch as part of the fort’s museum experience, but having a print version is preferable as I have already forgotten a lot of the video. It’s a short book, but it’s full of information and photos that give you an appreciation for Fort Scott’s place in the history of the frontier and Kansas as a whole.

“Charged with protecting Indians and settlers, Fort Scott was established in 1842 in southeastern Kansas on the border of the “permanent Indian frontier.” During the next two decades this army post engaged in dual conflicts as trouble brewed between western expansionists and eastern Indian tribes, and the “Bleeding Kansas,” dissension between proslavery and free-state forces escalated into the Civil War. Volume 1 in the Kansas Forts Series published by the Kansas State Historical Society, documents the history of eight important Kansas forts. Each book features a variety of historic photographs, illustrations, and maps.”

I think it’s most interesting to note that the Fort was only in service officially from 1842 to 1853, then abandoned and sold off literally months before these so called “Bleeding Kansas” episode of pre-Civil War history began. If there is any time in the history of Kansas that absolutely needed a military presence on hand, I find it ironic that there was none in place. This book talks about that a little bit, discussing the fact that the Fort was auctioned off and then later commandeered for use during the Civil War. Who knows what would have happened had it had continuous service the entire time? That appears to be the story of all of the forts in this area, as they were seen to be useless in the lead up to around the War of 1812, most were left completely abandoned and others sold off. It seemed that the real reason why the Fort was closed was that the Indian presence was pretty much moved out of the state in the 1840s, due to becoming more belligerent and aggressive towards settlers in the area.

I was shaken by the contrasting differences between how frontiersman and the Osage Indians built relationships in the 1830s and 40s vs the turn of the century when Fort Osage near Sibley Missouri was in operation. In my Fort Osage readings, the Indians were described as being fairly joyful people (but The Kansa not so much), ones that were excited for the cooperation between the white settlers and the natives. A lot of this probably has to do with a monetary stipend that was supposed to go to the Indian tribes on a monthly basis. This payment was to keep them out of trouble and sustain them in an effort to eventually move them into civilized society. Of course, Congress reneged on this in every way, and this money eventually dried up entirely (I’m sure President Andrew Jackson didn’t help either). Fast forward thirty years or so to this book, and suddenly the Osage Indians or ransacking towns and harassing settlers, stealing property and murdering people. It makes me wonder if they were provoked into this, or the years and years of shady dealings that the white settlers brought with them had boiled over to where it was no longer possible for the two groups to coexist. Perhaps a deeper look would be a good thing for me to do.

The type of soldier stationed at Fort Scott was a particular class of mounted infantry referred to as a Dragoon. Dragoons had the benefit of moving on horseback for mobility, but generally did most of their fighting on foot with infantry weapons. Outside of protecting frontiersman from Indians and your typical outlaws and brigands, they were usually dispatched to protect people on the various trails leading into areas such as Texas and New Mexico. As for the Dragoons at Fort Scott, the last expedition they participated in was a trip into the Rocky Mountains to basically intimidate Indians in the area. This later paved the way for an all out war with Mexico that ultimately lead in America’s conquest of modern day New Mexico and California. Note that the Mexican War was the place where many noted Civil War generals first got battle experience. This shifted the so called “frontier” drastically to the West and altered the importance of Kansas territory in the grand scheme of things in terms of American settlement.

All in all, this was a very informative book on Fort Scott, it thoroughly explained every point in the fort’s history that had any sort of importance and was chock full of beautiful photographs if available, or artist renderings to convey the information within. Considering the size of the book, it’s a very quick read; an average reader can blow through it in one or two sittings. That said, the book does not feel anemic in any way – the entire history of the Fort is explained thoroughly and there were no points where I was left looking for blanks to be filled in. This book can be purchased at the Fort or is also easily accessible via Amazon to which there are used copies that are very cheap. Truthfully, I probably paid more than I should have, but with many of these books that I’ve been reading, it was an impulse buy at the museum itself.

If you would like to purchase your own copy of this book please click HERE This article is part of my summer series History Boy Summer, which you can keep up with by following this LINK.

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