In the 1800s, Fort Wallace in western Kansas was home to hundreds of U.S. soldiers and played a pivotal role in one of the most contentious times in the history of the Great Plains.
Today, the Fort Wallace Museum is home to a small army of volunteers who face the unique challenge of sharing the history of a place that no longer physically exists.
The National Register of Historic Sites is what it says is the sites where something happened, whether it was warfare or political debate.
Well, Fort Wallace is kind of this way.
There were hundreds or thousands of people there at different times.
The Native Americans were there.
Euro Americans were there.
They were freighting out of it.
They were settling.
There were railroad workers.
So it is just a bundle of historic activity that went on.
Today, there isn't a lot left of the original Fort Wallace, but the people around the vicinity have done an excellent job on preserving the history of it by their own museums, their own artifacts.
It's a sparsely populated area in the state of Kansas, so everybody chips in.
So there is a lot of knowledge that they have combined to do what is now Fort Wallace.
My name is Jayne Humphrey Pierce.
I am the president of the Fort Wallace Memorial Association, which operates the Fort Wallace Museum.
We are a almost 100 year old nonprofit that's been here in the community since 1925 to preserve the history of the whole area along the Smokey Hill Trail in Wallace County and preserve the clash of cultures that happened here 150 years ago.
This museum has grown quite a bit.
We had an original museum that was built in 1961, and that's the building.
The room that you walked into.
And then in 2017, we opened this North addition that was designed by our local young lady named Valerie Smith.
And has been lovingly brought to life by hundreds of people.
It's there's been efforts by so many that have brought these things to life.
It is definitely a work of passion.
There is no other explanation for it because we really love this history and we love to tell these stories.
We have a pretty broad amount.
We show a lot of military items here.
We have facades throughout the whole museum in the in this north side that recreate some of the buildings from the fort, some of the buildings from early Wallace.
Some of the businesses.
And of course, we are passionate about also the the Native American story.
These were the people that were here for thousands of years.
And we want to tell their lives what this land meant to them.
And so we have the story of the tribes and the imposing figure of Roman Nose that greet you as you come in to our main north gallery.
As you go in further into the museum.
We also have a giant plesiosaur, which is very unexpected in a western museum.
But there he is, and he's part of the Fort Wallace story.
This plesiosaur is an Elasmosaurus Platyurus that was found by the fort surgeon Theophilus H. Turner in 1867 and became a very prominent specimen of his time.
And those bones were sent to Philadelphia and were later cast by a gentleman in in Colorado.
And then that casting is what we have above our exhibit area here at the North End of the museum.
In fact, that specimen is still on exhibit there at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences.
We have a reproduction of our Wallace Hotel where Fred Harvey had one of his very first restaurants and then later on had his famous Harvey houses along the Santa Fe Railroad.
But he started here in Wallace in the early part of his career.
We have an old town that features the Madigan and Robidoux stores that celebrates these two great merchants who were in competition with each other during the boom times of early Wallace When the railroad was coming through around 1870 to 1890, when it was still the section point of the Kansas Pacific Railway.
We have a pump organ collection, which people are really surprised at, but we have around 60, handmade and fully restored pump organs that are here on display that have been lovingly put back together by Dick Ray, a local man who had just had a passion for these instruments.
And they're still playable and we love to play them and enjoy them even to this day.
These were their heart.
This is where they would make their music with their family.
It was an important part of psychologically dealing with a very harsh part of the country.
And there were women who said, if it weren't for my music, I think I would have lost my mind.
So these were cherished heirlooms in the family, and I just always imagined that this instrument was someone's treasure.
And I really appreciate that.
One thing that we really are really starting to enjoy is not only the stories, but the artistic response to these stories.
And so we have artists that have collaborated with us, and one is Melissa Rao, who created these figures that you see all around the Museum of Roman Nose and the Buffalo soldier Ruben Waller, and then Theophilus H. Turner, the doctor who's back here, and he's underneath the plesiosaur, looking up.
And then the figure of Hickcock that's in our front gallery.
Those are helping to illustrate the people that populated this places.
This is a story of people.
And so it's very important that we understand these personalities who helped shaped shape the western part of the history here.
One such story was that of David Butterfield, shared by Mike Bond, who served as the first curator of the Butterfield Trail Museum in Russell Springs, Kansas.
A man by the name of David Butterfield, who came from Maine, I believe it was.
And he brought his family out to Denver.
And they were he was a merchant and he saw that the commerce that was coming from the Missouri River to Denver usually followed either the plant or the our Kansas.
And he was an entrepreneur.
And he decided that he could provide a quicker service Smoky Hill Route had been used.
Many years by the Native Americans for a trade route.
And then in 1849, when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California, the explorers and gold seekers used this route because it was shorter by far the Platte route or the Arkansas Route.
And especially when in 1859, when gold was discovered at Cherry Creek, it was quite a bit shorter.
It was only 600 and some miles this way.
The bad part of it was that it ran through the heart of the Indian country, the hunting country, and it was kind of short on water and provisions in places.
Deb Goodrich, historian in residence at the Fort Wallace Museum.
So the Butterfield Overland Dispatch, the stage line that goes through here is basically connecting Atchison, Kansas, and the Leavenworth area.
And on the very eastern edge of Kansas, along the Missouri River, to the gold fields and the mining camps in Colorado.
That's where they're going.
And the route is along the Smokey Hill River.
Dr. Leo Oliver, professor of history and author of a book about Fort Wallace.
That Smoky Hill trail became one of the most important trails across western Kansas after the Civil War.
1865, we find a whole number of new military posts being established, including along the Smokey Hill Trail.
This is a result of the Sand Creek massacre of November of 1864, when a peaceful settlement of southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho that had been guaranteed peace if they stayed in this village until a peace treaty could be signed, that they would be safe.
And of course, John Chivington, who was the commanding officer of the Third, the Colorado volunteers, he was sent out to fight Indians and he gets to Fort Lyon and learns that there's this camp.
And so he makes an overnight march and attacks this peaceful village kills over 250 people, mostly women and children, and touches off.
In 1865, a major uprising and retaliation.
So we find a number of new military posts being established in 1865 to protect these trails.
Fort Wallace was was one of those new posts founded in 1865, founded as Camp Pawn Creek, located on Pine Creek, moved a short time later.
A stone quarry was found, permanent buildings were constructed and it became quite a military post.
I mean, Fort Wallace played an important role.
Most of the attacks of the Cheyenne were occurring along the Smokey Hill Trail in the vicinity and west of Fort Wallace.
That's why Fort Wallace is here.
We are protecting the traffic on the Butterfield Overland Dispatch.
Who are we protecting it from?
We're protecting it from the Plains tribes who are already here.
And they see this encroachment on their hunting land.
We're interfering with the buffalo migration and and the numbers of buffalo that sustain them.
And, you know, what are we bringing with us?
You know, what are we bringing with this when we come?
So it's a it's such a complex and multilayered story.
You know, if we if we don't share the combined struggles and, you know, and try to understand history from just a point of one peoples, you know, the pioneers had their struggle.
The people that came out here and settled that followed the forts and followed the trail, you know, their their intestinal fortitude must have been great.
And, you know, they faced blizzard and prairie fire and Indian attack and terrible heat like we experienced this summer or a devastating blizzards.
But the Indians, the Native Americans had their struggle.
There was no commonality of religion.
There was no commonality of the origin stories.
There was no commonality of lifestyles.
And when those two clashed and clashed, then there had to be a break.
And I think that's one of the reasons I like to study history, that we have to look at both sides.
You know, why did this happen?
Could it have been avoided?
I just finished working on a film about the attack on the John and Lydia German family who were passing through just a few miles from where we are right now.
John and Lydia are Southerners.
He was a Confederate veteran prisoner of war, became a galvanized Yankee.
He took the oath.
He tries to escape.
He cares more about his family than he does whatever cause.
And he is headed westward in the hopes of finding a new home.
When they encounter a raiding party of led by a husband and wife, Cheyenne, Medicine Water and Moki, who are survivors of the massacre at Sand Creek and the attack on the Washita.
My name is Philip Caldwell, Son of Charles Little Coyote of the Southern Cheyenne.
What the Contested Plains movie is about is about the German family and were they at the wrong place or the right place at the wrong time or vice versa?
No one really knows for sure.
It's just that the Cheyenne came upon them that morning and the family met their demise.
And it's only because of what happened at Sand Creek and Washita.
Was it a revenge thing?
I think it was not so much as revenge.
I think it was more of anger and hurt and pain.
But in this story here we have Little Woman who steps in to save the children, along with her husband, Black Moon, and they keep the children safe from the rest of the group that they're with and while the others were being killed and mutilated.
The attack on the German family is horrific.
The attacks at Sand Creek are horrific.
What happens at the Washita is just unimaginable.
Those stories are so complex because people are complex.
And one of the things, as we look back in history that we are all so prone to do, we want to draw a line and we want to put people on either side of that line.
People won't stay there.
They just will not stay and they're just back and forth and it's a mess.
So now we have the opportunity to really bring it about and show you that there was good on each side as well as bad.
It's complicated and it's messy, and we rarely have the time or take the time to understand who people were and where they were coming from.
You know, and when we do, we may not excuse their actions, but we sure understand a lot better.
And I think that's part of studying history and what they like to do here.
You say, well, you know, here you have this and that develop because of this.
But we also have the Indian history.
They were defending their land.
You know, how would I feel in Brewster, Kansas, if somebody come to it, came in and attacked my way of life?
That's what the Indians were doing.
And so that that that's what the story they try to portray here is the the balance of what happened.
This was a real crossroads of the West.
This this place, it just tells you, it's along a trail.
And so everybody that was going around the central United States through Kansas was coming down the Smokey Hill Trail, coming along the Kansas Pacific Railway.
And so you've just got this intersection of history.
Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong, Custer, Miles Keough, Wild Bill Hickok.
We've got Calamity Jane that's been reported that she stayed in the railroad house right here in Wallace.
Supposedly, Walt Whitman spent a night here later on in Wallace County's history.
You had Theodore Roosevelt that spoke and went to church in Sharon Springs.
You've got great Indian warriors such as Roman Nose and Black Kettle.
You've got these giant personalities like Fred Harvey that shaped all of American history because he's the first franchise.
You think about somebody who's taking a business model where you're bringing your suppliers and your customers along the same route and keeping your quality and your prices consistent, and voila, Then it turns into McDonald's.
You know, years later.
We've got Ruben Waller, who was born a slave, and then he learned to read and write.
And then Ruben Waller witnessed the surrender at Appomattox.
He enlisted in the 10th Cavalry, was here at Fort Wallace, wrote extensively about his experiences, and then went on to live in El Dorado to the age of 105 and have distinguished descendants such as Judge Greg Waller.
And you've got stories of tragedy and you've got stories of humor.
You've got tragedy that turns to triumph and it's all...
There's epic human stories here in this place.
We have a very singular collection as you pull around at the end of our of our exhibit space, and that is our Floris Wieser, collection.
One of the premiere displays, the have or artifacts were donated by an educational archeologist by the name of Floris Wieser.
This is the work of a man who for 33 years haunted all areas of Western Kansas.
He was extremely knowledgeable on the Smokey Hill Trail on all of the Butterfield Overland Dispatch stations.
He was a businessman that for many, many years he was studying records from the National Archives in the local history and had a metal detector and was going out and locating primarily historic sites.
Those of the 19th century, it went anywhere from the first settlers in the area, but also the indigenous people, the Native Americans, the Cheyenne, Kiowa, the Arapaho, some Southern Sioux.
And he not only hunted artifacts, but he documented every single one down to the foot that he found it.
And he put it in the context of what the story was.
He knew where the encampments were.
He knew where the trail places were, he knew where the campsites were.
And he proved that with the things he found.
So he was find the sites.
He did an excellent job of recording these sites.
So they're of great scientific value from what he did.
And he said, He told me one time, I can't remember how many miles.
It was something like 10,000 miles.
He he estimated he walked.
I mean, it was some astronomical sum over 33 years.
He walked these trails.
He knew every inch of them and he metal detected and documented everything he found.
He spent the time on them for preserving stuff in an abstract way.
He did not destroy anything he collected and interpreted.
That's an incredible collection that says a lot about the history of the immediate area It's absolutely incredible.
And he did record all of this in a very professional way.
So it is preserved and it can be used by scientific studies for a long time in the future.
We're very fortunate that he shared his collection with us, and we have a special gallery built by the Smith family that is put together with the art of Jerry Thomas.
Jerry Thomas was Floris Wieser's really good friend.
They hunted and discussed history for long periods of time, and now Jerry's works illustrate Floris Weiser's artifacts.
And it's just a great image to put all of that into context.
The artifacts prove the pictures.
The pictures illustrate the artifacts, and it's a powerful collection and one of a kind.
So by 1882, the fort is decommissioned when Fort Wallace is decommissioned, it already has kind of a skeleton crew.
At that point, the fort is dismantled in almost no time because you've got wood and you've got dressed stone.
So you've got all those building materials for those new settlers coming west and it essentially disappears when the military reserve then is later sold.
It becomes farms and homesteads.
The Fort Wallace Memorial Association, you know, when they started out, they had really nothing to go on except an interest.
I mean, the only thing left of that fort really is a cemetery.
There are buildings in the community that are, you know, old buildings from the fort.
But in a way, I'm grateful for that.
I'm grateful that we don't have the buildings to deal with because that's a blessing and a curse.
And we have Fort Larned as a national historic site.
Fort Wallace would have looked very similar.
You know, most of these forts are built along the same pattern and that's wonderful.
If you want to go see what that Fort looked like, you've got it.
We've got the stories and we don't have we're not limited by those buildings in telling the stories.
And I think the community long ago saw the need to preserve the story of Fort Wallace and everything it entailed.
You know, our organization, the memorial Association, is going to be 100 years old in just a couple of years.
You know, that these people came in and saw we need we need to make sure that story is saved.
But they started with this little museum effort and it expanded.
And today I think they have one of the finest museums in Kansas that everybody should visit.
And they just they just keep adding to it.
It's been a wonderful thing.
And again, I have to say, it's the whole community.
It's not just the people here in the museum.
It's the whole community and a broader community.
We have people that come to our programing from hundreds of miles away to be here and be part of telling the story or learning about it.
They sponsor magnificent programs.
I mean, they have got big name people to come and speak at Fort Wallace and do all sorts, all sorts of programs there and in the region.
Since 2017, we've been having what we call a history exposition.
And that's when we bring in experts.
We have demonstrations, we have music, we have people gather and we all share history together.
And it's just kind of this explosion of history right here at Fort Wallace.
And this last three years, we've really had the passion and the fire in our belly to educate young people.
And so on Fridays, we've been having an outdoor education day where we have stations all over the museum and we bring in a thousand school kids and we share this history with them.
And it's been, I think, working really well.
And it's very important that this history is both known and appreciated.
We don't try to put judgment on it.
We just tell the story and then we make sure that the story is perpetuated.
We try to tell all the all the viewpoints that you can and present it and preserve.
The Fort Wallace Memorial Association is a group of private citizens.
It is not state owned, the site isn't.
And so it's the people of the community, Wallace County and surrounding counties and parts of eastern Colorado that want to maintain the history of the post and are doing a lot of work to preserve all of the history of the post.
They have the history of it.
There is the interest of it and ran by the local people trying to do as good a job as they possibly can, which is a great job because they're all working together.
So it is excellently done.
You know, people come out here like we have these incredible events and people come out and they look around and there there's nobody nobody lives here.
How does this little bitty community do this?
You can buy a lot of things.
You can buy buildings, you can buy books, you can buy artifacts.
You can't buy passion and commitment.
You can foster it, but you can't buy it.
And that's and that's what we have.
Well, this is a completely volunteer run organization.
And so this place runs on passion and for telling the story and sharing it with others.
And it's a circle of friendship.
And then we do have fun together and work very hard and enjoy the fruits of what we do.
And a lot of it is, is sharing of the history and the fellowship together and so this is a volunteer driven organization, and that's probably part of the secret of it, is that the energy comes from the volunteer