May/Jun 2000

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Stop for history on byway - military sites

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Tears of Blood
Military road in Kansas divided a nation

At Fort Scott in Kansas (above), re-enactors take time for a picnic./ ©Jack Olson photo; Mine Creek Battlefield in Linn County, Kan., is a tranquil place today. During the Civil War, however, one of the cavalry’s biggest battles took place there./©Michael Snell photo
By Sally M. Snell

Driving the Frontier Military Scenic Byway in Kansas, a legacy of violence, hope and despair shimmers like a heat mirage over each rise. It has, in turn, been part of the “permanent Indian frontier,” a country divided in war, and a bridge to commerce and a prosperous future in the West. Mounted dragoons dressed in their finery are as much in the past as the military road they traveled, but U.S. Highway 69 and several connecting highways, designated as the Frontier Military Scenic Byway, spotlight attractions that bring frontier history to life.

The eastern border of Kansas has alternately been a barrier and a bridge to settlement. In the early 1800s, American Indian populations were relocated to a permanent Indian frontier stretching from Fort Snelling in Minnesota to Fort Jesup in Louisiana, and west to the eastern face of the Rockies. Access to the Indian lands was restricted to government personnel, authorized traders, agents and missionaries.

A permanent Indian frontier

The Fort Leavenworth-Fort Scott-Fort Gibson Military Road was constructed between 1838–1845 to link the military presence that patrolled the middle border.

“It provided a means of communications and transportation between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Gibson for military traffic and government business,” said Arnold Schofield, historian of the Fort Scott National Historic Site in Fort Scott, Kan. “It was the job of the army to police and protect the permanent Indian frontier.”

Several sites along the byway allow a glimpse of life during this period: Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site, Johnson County Museum of History, Trading Post Museum and Fort Scott.

A nation turned against itself

The Territory of Kansas opened to Euro-American settlement on May 30, 1854, and the old military road became a territorial road. Earlier legislative action had banned slavery in unorganized territory of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36' 30" parallel, but the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act reversed the earlier decision and left the issue of slavery to be decided at the ballot box by Kansas settlers. Raiding parties regularly crossed the border to destroy crops, murder and rob, especially along the Missouri border.

Many skirmishes and battles were retaliations for early incidents that were sparked by even earlier battles. One such battle occurred after the Pottawatomie Massacre that spurred Missouri border ruffians to cross again into Kansas in August 1856. There they found and killed John Brown’s son, Frederick Brown, who had been returning to the Adair Cabin outside Osawatomie. In retaliation, John Brown gathered his forces, but was unable to prevent the destruction of Osawatomie by the border ruffians.

In 1858, a group of pro-slavery men from Missouri met at Trading Post in Linn County, Kan., and captured 11 free-state men. Though the abolitionists were unarmed, they were forced into a ravine and gunned down. Five were killed.

Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861, and the former military road became a state road. The southern U.S. senators and representatives had already left Washington when Kansas officially joined the Union. The Civil War began in April 1861.

“During the Civil War the road became a major military transportation route for materials, supplies and men for the army,” said Schofield.

Confederate Gen. Sterling Price crossed into Kansas in 1864 and camped near Trading Post. The next day, Union troops gathered to defeat the invading force at Mine Creek.

“It was one of the largest cavalry battles during the Civil War,” said Kip Lindberg, site curator, “and had more cavalrymen than the Battle of Gettysburg the year before.” Though Union troops were outnumbered more than two-to-one, they decisively defeated Confederate forces.

Excellent resources for the “Bleeding Kansas”and Civil War era are: the Adair Cabin/John Brown Cabin, Marais des Cygnes Massacre State Historic Site, Mine Creek Battlefield and State Historic Site, and Linn County Museum; Trading Post; Fort Scott National Historic Site, and Baxter Springs Historical Museum.

Toward a new century

Western expansion continued after the Civil War ended in 1865. Wagon trains and stages gave way to railroads on new tracks crisscrossing the country, easing travel and commerce. Life along the old military road eased forward into the next century until it was finally little more than a memory. But the indomitable spirit of soldiers and settlers along the old military road remains.

To learn more about the post-war settlement period of Kansas, visit the Mahaffie Farmstead and Stagecoach Stop in Olathe, Legler Barn Museum in Lenexa, and Lanesfield School Historic Site in Edgerton.

Exploring the Frontier Military Scenic Byway gives today’s traveler a sense of the sometimes tumultuous history in Kansas, and the hardships our ancestors endured for freedom’s sake.

Sally M. Snell is a contributor from Topeka, Kan.

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