Historic Fort Hays Site

Shortly after the Civil War, railroad builders and settlers began pushing into central and western Kansas with ever-increasing intensity, provoking resistance from the Native American inhabitants of the region. To provide protection, the federal government established military posts on both the Santa Fe Trail, a major immigrant route that passed through eastern and southern Kansas, and the Smoky Hill Trail, a stagecoach and freight road to Denver.

Early Fort History

Fort Fletcher, later renamed Fort Hays, was established on the Smoky Hill Trail in 1865. After the fort was virtually destroyed in a flash flood in 1867, it was relocated to a site now just south of the City of Hays. Unlike the military posts of the earlier eastern frontier, plain forts seldom had stockades or fortification walls. Instead, officers' quarters, barracks, headquarters, storehouses and other buildings were grouped around a central parade ground. At Fort Hays, a stone blockhouse, hexagonal in shape with rifle slits and two wings extending north and south, was built as a defensive structure. But Indians seldom attacked large-scale military installations and the building was remodeled and used as the post headquarters and adjutant's living quarters. A stone guardhouse was built in 1872. It contained a room for the officer of the guard, a guardroom, prison room and three solitary cells. Except for a small stone bakery, all other buildings were of frame construction.

Life At The Fort

Garrison strength at Fort Hays normally averaged three companies, or about 210 men. Fort Hays was home to the 7th U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Lt. Col. George A. Custer, the 5th U.S. Infantry, commanded by Col. Nelson Miles, and the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalries, better known as the "Buffalo Soldiers." Marcus A. Reno, George A. Forsyth, and Philip H. Sheridan were also among the noted military figures associated with the Fort.
In 1867, Hays City was staked out a mile to the north of the fort and with the arrival of the railroad in October, the fortunes of Hays City and Fort Hays became almost inseparable. The military post was used as a quartermaster depot that supplied other forts throughout the West and Southwest. Such an operation required a large number of civilian as well as military personnel and Hays City consequently experienced rapid development.

In those days, Hays City was a wild town, filled with saloons and dance halls. The legendary James B. "Wild Bill" Hickok served as county sheriff for a few months in 1869, but left town the next year after a brawl with some troopers from Fort Hays. Summing up her impressions of Hays City while she and her husband were encamped near Fort Hays, Elizabeth Custer said, "there was enough desperate history in that little town in one summer to make a whole library of dime novels."

Conflicts between the Native Americans and white settlers continued in the 1870's. As the white population increased, the great buffalo herds grew smaller, slaughtered by hide hunters and sportsmen and driven away as grazing lands were fenced, and the Plains Indians, deprived of their major food source, were forced to move to other areas. With less need for the post, Fort Hays was abandoned on November 8, 1889.

Recent History

In 1900, Congress gave the land to the state of Kansas to be used for a college, an agricultural experiment station, and a park. The college, now Fort Hays State University, evolved from the Western Branch of the Kansas Normal School of Emporia, while the KSU Ag Research Center, part of the agricultural program of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, became the largest dry land Research Center in the world. The public park, officially named Frontier Historical Park, was platted to include the remaining buildings at Fort Hays. Four of the original structures, the stone blockhouse, guardhouse and two frame officers' quarters survive today. Along with a modern visitor's center, they are administered by the Kansas State Historical Society.