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Fort Ellsworth

14EW26, Kanopolis Lake

William F. Cody, reportedly at Fort Ellsworth

Fort Ellsworth was established in June 1864 to secure routes of transportation and protect local settlements. Company H of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry, under the command of Second Lieutenant Allen Ellsworth, constructed the fort near the junction of two trails, the Smoky Hill/Denver Express Road, and the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road. Intended to be only temporary, the fort consisted of hastily-constructed dugouts and log structures. In November 1866 Fort Ellsworth was renamed Fort Harker, and in January 1867 the old site was abandoned and a new site for Fort Harker was established approximately one mile to the northeast. A succession of units served at Fort Ellsworth, including Company C of the Second U.S. Volunteers, one of the units of "Galvanized Yankees," or Confederate prisoners who earned their release from prison by volunteering for Western duty. Notable individuals associated with Fort Ellsworth include Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody.

The Fort Ellsworth site (14EW26) is located in Ellsworth County in central Kansas in the physiographic region known as the Smoky Hills. It is situated near the confluence of the Smoky Hill River and Spring Creek, on the east bank of the Smoky Hill and on both sides of Spring Creek. Presently the area is timbered along the streams with unbroken prairie and cultivated fields beyond the timber. Approximately 85 percent of 14EW26 is located on Government-owned land at Kanopolis Lake, a multipurpose project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District (KCD). The remainder of the site lies on private lands adjacent to Government-owned land. 14EW26 contains no standing structures but consists entirely of archeological remains. Archeological test excavations, conducted in the summer of 1995 by the KCD under the direction of Robert J. Ziegler, demonstrated the existence of undisturbed archeological features and artifact deposits associated with the fort. Based on the 1995 archeological testing, the KCD has concluded that 14EW26 is eligible for listing to the National Register of Historic Places because it is likely to yield archeological data important to the understanding of the material aspects of everyday life at a small, temporary military fort on the Kansas frontier.

The site is well known locally and looting by artifact hunters is a serious problem that endangers the integrity of the site. Several collections in the possession of local residents are reported to have been excavated from Fort Ellsworth. During inspections of the site by KCD archeologists and Kanopolis Lake rangers over the past few years, holes dug by metal detector-using artifact collectors were encountered on several occasions. Fencing that includes a locked gate prevents direct vehicle access to the site, but artifact hunters still find means of entry by foot or by vehicle via private land. Effective policing or even frequent patrolling of the site is impractical for the one or two Kanopolis Lake rangers on duty, whose base of operations is the Lake Project Office at the opposite end of the lake, some 24 miles away. Data recovery is seen as the best means to preserve important information before it is lost.

Within the general research goal of reconstructing past lifeways, three specific research domains are addressed in the proposed research: (1) site structure or the built environment of Fort Ellsworth, including the types of structures present, their condition, and their distribution over the landscape; (2) subsistence or the foods consumed at the fort; and (3) material culture or the artifacts used by the fort's inhabitants to cope with their physical and social environment.

No plan drawings, sketches, or photographs of Fort Ellsworth are known to have survived; consequently, little is known about the layout of the fort or the structures that were present. However, it is possible to piece together a limited picture of the fort in 1864-1865 based upon contemporary descriptions. Taken together, these accounts suggest that Fort Ellsworth consisted of a loosely organized collection of temporary structures not surrounded by any type of stockade. Dugouts and log huts served as quarters for the soldiers. Other structures include a blockhouse, a commissary, an officers' mess, and a makeshift shelter for the horses. Based on the descriptions, all of these structure were made largely from materials on hand--logs, sod, and brush. Descriptions of permanent frame or stone buildings are conspicuously absent from the accounts, but logs were often used in the construction of the dugouts. Archeological excavations are needed to confirm that the surface features identified in the 1995 testing are the remains of dugouts or other fort structures. Data from excavations may also help define the sizes of these possible structures and identify the materials from which they were made. Surviving structural elements, postmolds, glass, nails, and building hardware would provide data useful in understanding these structures.

At frontier outposts, the mainstays of the common ration were likely to be salt port, beans, hard bread, and coffee. Soldiers supplemented their diets by hunting, fishing, gathering wild plants, and cultivating vegetable gardens. Officers' families often kept livestock. Soldiers spent their own money to buy extra food from the post trader or sutler, but it is not clear when or even if Fort Ellsworth had a sutler. Little is known regarding the composition of the diet or the quality of the food supplied to the troops at Fort Ellsworth. Data from Army records and personal accounts are needed to determine what food were supplied through the military supply system, and archeological data can identify foods actually consumed at the fort. Animal bones, botanical remains, and container fragments should provide evidence for consumption of certain types of foods and beverages.

At frontier military posts the purchase of all military supplies except commissary and ordnance stores was the responsibility of the quartermaster department. Sutlers provided a great variety of non-food goods. Much regarding the material life at Fort Ellsworth remains unknown. Archeological deposits are most likely to be the best source of data regarding those items actually used at the fort and the activities they imply.

Entry: Fort Ellsworth

Author: Robert J. Ziegler

Author information: Kansas Anthropological Association

Date Created: June 2011

Date Modified: July 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.