From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
Four Companies of Third United States Infantry Left Jefferson Barracks, Mo., April 17, 1827, in Keel Boats to Find Site for Cantonment.
Commanding Officer Ordered Troops to Construct Camp on West Bank of Missouri River Before the War Department Approved Location of Post.
Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of three articles on Fort Leavenworth, the city's military post which was established May 8, 1827, by Colonel Henry Leavenworth of the United States Army. Today's story concern events preceding founding of the garrison and the first three years of Fort Leavenworth's existence. The second article will appear in Tuesday's edition of The Times, and the final story will be published in Thursday's Times. The articles were written by Adelaide Gootee, editor for the past two years of the Saint Mary Taper, college newspaper.
It was the will-o'-the-wisp of Indian gold that lured Francisco Vasquez De Coronado to forsake the comparative familiarity of Mexican trails and to cross the pathless plains to Kansas in the spring of 1541. In vain, this first white man to gallop over Kansas soil roamed the country around Leavenworth seeking the fabulous treasure rumored to be nearby, and, after 25 days of failure, he returned with his little band to Mexico.
Another tiny band struggled tediously over the plains 286 years after the arrival of Coronado . . . a tiny band of weary soldiers who pushed westward along the Missouri river and settled finally on land destined to produce some of the greatest military leaders in the United States. They didn't hear the siren song of the gold that drew Coronado into the wilderness, for in their ears was the beseeching cry of settlers harassed by Indians and brigands . . . the settlers for whose protection they were to found Cantonment Leavenworth, last outpost of civilization in the west.
A new commercial era opened to the United States in 1821 when Mexico threw off Spanish trade restrictions and freed her vast trading resources from the domineering hand of the Dons. But between Santa Fe, N. M., trading mecca of the southwest, and Franklin, Mo., last outpost in Missouri, lay 800 tortuous miles of pathless, Indian-infested plain and desert land.
Congress spent $20,000 in purchasing a right-of-way through the Indian territory, but the sight of the caravans, laden with merchandise and ammunition, stifled the ethical principles of the Indians; and marauding Pawnees, Comanches, and Arapahoes opened hostilities on the wagon trains.
The traders, clamoring for government help, were aided by Senator Thomas H. Benton of Missouri, who persuaded Congress to have the route to Santa Fe surveyed. Accordingly, the band of government surveyors marked the route to the "Great Bend of the Arkansas" by mounds of earth and laid a safer route along the Arkansas river by way of Taos; the larger wagon trains, however, continued to wind daringly across the shorter, dimly-defined desert route to Santa Fe.
Indian encounters were frequent and fierce, and the government, in an attempt to give some degree of protection to pioneer traders, pushed its forts farther west along the trails--the forerunners of the Santa Fe trail, the Oregon trail, the California trail, and the Salt Lake trail--all of which were one day to radiate from Leavenworth.
Many of these military posts fell into disuse shortly after they were established. A camp at Bellfontaine on the Missouri river near St. Louis was abandoned in 1826, as were Fort Clark, later Fort Osage, near Sibley, Mo., about 40 miles southeast of the future town of Leavenworth, and Cantonment Martin on Cow island in Platte County, Mo. The command of the camp on Cow island advanced up the Missouri river and established Fort Atkinson at Council Bluffs.
The problem of the Indian menace to traders on the Santa Fe trail still was unsolved when Senator Benton suggested that a military station be established on the Arkansas river near the point where the trail crossed the stream.
Congress abandoned the resolution as impractical, but on January 11, 1827, Major General Jacob Brown, commanding the United States Army at that time, offered the suggestion that two companies of infantry and two supporting companies of cavalry should erect a cantonment on the Arkansas river for rendezvous.
During the ensuing discussion, the Missouri river was selected instead of the Arkansas river and Colonel Henry Leavenworth received orders from the adjutant general to take command of the selection of a site and the establishment of the new fort. An extract of the adjutant general's letter reads:
"Colonel Leavenworth of the Third Infantry, with four companies of his regiment, will ascend the Missouri, and when he reaches a point on its east bank near the mouth of the Little Platte river and within a range of 20 miles above or below its confluence, he will select such position as in his judgment is best calculated for the site of a permanent cantonment. The spot being chosen, he will then construct with the troops of his command comfortable though temporary quarters sufficient for the accommodation of four companies. This movement will be made as early as the convenience of the service will permit...."
The War department had made a wise an judicious choice when it selected Colonel Leavenworth to head this enterprise, for he had proved his worth again and again during his years in service. He had been Indian agent in the Northwest territory in 1816, had established Fort St. Anthony, now called Fort Snelling on the Mississippi, had concluded a peace treaty in 1823 with the Arikaree Indians on the Missouri, and had been placed in charge of a "School for the Instruction of Infantry" at Jefferson Barracks, Wis., in 1826. He knew and understood the Indians; he had the courage needed to enable him to face the long, tedious journey up the Missouri by keel boat and the strength to maintain order and high morale among the members of his command.
The Missouri Republican of St. Louis under date of April 19, 1827, gives part of the meager information obtainable regarding the removal of the troops from Jefferson Barracks and the subsequent journey:
"Four companies of the Third regiment of the United States Infantry left Jefferson Barracks April 17, 1827, in keel boats under the immediate command of Captain W. G. Belknap for the Little Platte on the Missouri."
It is believed that Captain Belknap was placed in command of the troops in the absence of Colonel Leavenworth who probably had gone ahead to reconnoiter and to select a suitable site for the camp. After the troops' departure from St. Louis no news was received until Colonel Leavenworths' report arrived at department headquarters in St. Louis, dated May 8, 1827. He sated in his letter he had been unable to find a good site for military purposes on the seas bank of the Missouri within the distance mentioned on the general order, but he had found an ideal site 18 or 20 miles up the rive on the west bank of the Missouri.
It was not until September 19 that he received approval of the adjutant general, but Colonel Leavenworth, using foresight and initiative, already had established a tent camp and, later, a camp of log and bark huts on the general site of the square known now as the Main parade. The rough stone wall constructed under his orders as a protection against possible Indian attacks has been restored and still is standing.
The post order of the day of the garrison, October 31, 1827, listed 14 officers and 174 enlisted men of companies B, D, E, and H of the Third Infantry at Fort Leavenworth. The absence of Colonel Leavenworth's name from the report seems to indicate he returned to Jefferson Barracks to take up his work in "School for the Instruction of Infantry" following approval of his site and establishment of Cantonment Leavenworth.
Despite the fact that Colonel Leavenworth had selected the camp site with a view to the maintenance of health, the soldiers suffered greatly with malaria fever, a disease common to settlement along the river. At one time, only 32 men were free for military duty, 74 members of the garrison being ill and 65 others being required for nursing duty. The Indians along the frontier were adding to complications with frequent raids of such seriousness that the secretary of war was forced to concede that the isolated garrisons, of which Fort Leavenworth was one, would inevitably become the first victims of Indian fury in case actual war should break out between the pioneers and the redmen.
The first pages of the history of the establishment of Cantonment Leavenworth are pages of hardship and sacrifice. Supplies were difficult to obtain as there was no wagon road, and beef, bacon, lard, and vegetables had to be purchased from the few settlers across the river in Clay County, Mo. The garrison was increased by other companies of the Third Infantry in the summer of 1828, and soldiers were detailed to cut a road from the cantonment to the town of Barry near Liberty, Mo., about 28 miles from Leavenworth.
A license was given to Zadock Martin to operate ferries across the Missouri and the Little Platte rivers where the new road crossed. Martin built a two-room cabin and later a tavern below the "falls" of the Little Platte and became one of the outstanding figures of the era, strongly dominating the surrounding territory.
On May 29, 1829, a postoffice was established with Philip Rand as postmaster. Before this, the mail had come over the rough, 26-mile trail from Liberty, or up the river by a chance steamboat or slow keel boat.
During the spring of 1829 malaria ran like wildfire through the companies, and the War department ordered the depleted garrison to proceed to Jefferson Barracks by steamboat.
A battalion of the Sixth Infantry was sent to replace the Third Infantry with orders to spend the unhealthful, summer months in escort duty on the plains and to use Cantonment Leavenworth for winter quarters only.
The troops undertook the task of caravan protection for the first time under Major Bennet Riley in June, 1829, when they escorted 20 wagons and four ox carts to Sand creek on the trail to Santa Fe. On the way to Mexico they had several skirmishes with Indians and camped on the Arkansas river to await the return of the caravan in the fall.
October 10, the wagon train returned under a Mexican escort headed by Colonel Viscarra, inspector general of the Mexican army, who had offered the traders his protection to the American camp. The caravan and its Leavenworth command arrived at the cantonment. November 8 and took possession of the wretched huts vacated by the Third Infantry the preceding May.
In keeping with the policy of the Leavenworth Pioneer Days committee to furnish as much entertainment as possible for the residents of Leavenworth and their visitors during the coming four-day celebration, a member of the committee announced yesterday the Indian ceremonial program to be held at Abeles field will be free of charge.
Thus an opportunity has been provided for Leavenworthians, children and adults alike, to see the "real thing" in Indian dances and ceremonies.
Jack Miller, who has been dealing with Chief Henry McKinney of the Potawatomi tribe, said yesterday the chief has agreed to bring 18 of his best dancers from the reservation at Mayetta, Kas.
The Indian program will be held Friday night, May 23. In addition to appearing at Abeles field the Indians will appear in the big Pioneer Days parade Friday afternoon.
At Abeles field they will adopt a brave into their tribe, smoke the peace-pipe and present a number of their tribal dances. A short pageant depicting the meeting of Coronado with the Indians also will be presented.