Fort Wallace: A historical gem in western Kansas
On the High Plains of Kansas, antelope are more numerous than the vehicles on U.S. 40.
Wallace, a town near the Kansas-Colorado border, has 56 residents. But on the second weekend in July, 500 history buffs are expected to descend to explore the history of the region.
On July 6-9, the Wallace Memorial Association is hosting an 1867 Western History Exposition and symposium with speakers, re-enactors, booths, displays, bus tours and history performances.
“We are doing this because it is good economic development,” said Jayne Humphrey Pearce, president of the association.
“With the symposium and exposition, we are taking our strengths and making it accessible and available to the public.”
Most Kansas historians agree that this region of the state, in terms of Kansas and American history, is as important as Bleeding Kansas.
This is where the Indian Wars began and a cholera epidemic played out. Legendary names such as George Armstrong Custer and “Medicine Bill” William Comstock spent time here.
“The power of a good idea and story rallies people,” Pearce said. “We have such a big story.”
The Wallace Memorial Association is expected to raise — and spend — more than $35,000 to host the symposium and exposition and a concert by cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey.
“We are in the middle of nowhere,” Pearce said. “I guess the story just calls for us. It calls our name.
“I don’t know how else to say it.”
The purpose of the symposium and exposition is to focus on what happened in western Kansas 150 years ago.
“What happened here in 1867 is pivotal not just to the state of Kansas but the nation,” Pearce said.
It is where some of the most violent clashes of cultures took place as Native Americans fought to keep their way of life, soldiers obeyed orders and pioneer families were sometimes caught in the middle.
Fort Wallace soldiers bore most of the brunt of the Indian warfare in Kansas and eastern Colorado.
But the stories here go back further, as far as 87 million years ago to the Cretaceous and Permian periods when much of Kansas was covered by a vast ocean. The sea-bottom mineral deposits helped create one of the best fossil beds in the world — and later one of the most controversial plesiosaurs in world history.
But for a tiny town to tell a story that big, it takes money, passionate volunteers and good connections. Wallace has those.
Pearce is not a longtime Kansan — in the way small-town Kansans sometimes measure outsiders. She grew up on the beaches of North Carolina and married into a Wallace County ranching family when she met her future husband in the U.S. Air Force’s Singing Sergeants.
She moved to Wallace County 26 years ago, and together she and her husband have raised a family.
“I thought it was desolate at the same time I thought it was fascinating,” Pearce said. “It didn’t make any sense to me at first.
“I say to people it is the most beautiful and awful place I have ever seen. Sometimes, the pioneers said the same thing.”
A year ago, Kansas historian Deb Goodrich moved to the area when she married Jake Bauer, a veterinarian near Oakley and history re-enactor. She grew up in Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I love this geography,” Goodrich said. “I love the wind. I love the feel of the High Plains.”
The area, Goodrich said, is a historian’s delight.
At the Fort Wallace Museum, Patty Lock is the curator and greeter; anywhere from 2,300 to 5,000 visitors annually tour the grounds. Her family has lived in the area for generations.
“Some days you don’t have anybody and other days there will be 15 to 20 people who stop,” Lock said.
What to see
The museum has rich, diverse displays depicting life at Fort Wallace, which began in 1865 and was first named Camp Pond Creek.
The Pond Creek Stage Station was built at Pond Creek by the Butterfield Overland Stage, a freight and stage company that ran from Atchison to Denver. The fort was renamed in honor of Gen. William H.L. Wallace, who died from wounds he received in a Civil War battle.
Soldiers from the fort served with Custer and several companies of the 7th Cavalry. In 1867, cholera swept the fort and 22 soldiers died during the epidemic.
In November 1868, troops of the 5th Cavalry left Fort Wallace to join Custer’s troops in the Nov. 27 attack on Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle’s village in Oklahoma, known as the Battle of the Washita.
Although the fort during its heyday had as many as 40 stone and lumber buildings and could support as many as 400 soldiers, no buildings are left at the fort’s original site, two miles northeast of the museum.
The museum is located along U.S. 40 near Wallace and has several buildings, including the Pond Creek station. The station includes bullet holes from Indian attacks as well as an escape door where a station agent could slip under the floor of the building during attacks.
Other buildings include the Weskan Depot, Bethany Lutheran Church from Weskan and the Sunderland-Poe building, a red metal outbuilding that was created in 2003 to house restored Conestoga wagons and farm implements and machinery.
The old fort and the cemetery are southeast of the current museum.
The museum’s exhibits include a cast of a 40-foot plesiosaur, which was excavated in 1867 by a detail from Fort Wallace, led by the fort’s surgeon, Theophilus Turner.
The fossil became controversial in 1868 after Turner shipped it to Edward Drinker Cope, a paleontologist who assembled the plesiosaur but put the tail where the head should have been. It caused a great controversy among other paleontologists.
The original fossil is in Philadelphia at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
“You go upstairs in the Academy and it is like ‘Indiana Jones,’ it is hallways of rocks and fossils and all kinds of stuff,” Goodrich said. “I got to hold one of those vertebrae and it was scary.
“It freaked me out thinking how old this was and the world this creature had lived in. The story just turned me on.”
Consequently, the museum is working on a documentary about the controversial fossil.
The museum was made possible, in part, because the Kansas Department of Transportation needed restrooms along the highway — so it helped fund the building.
“This is a private museum,” Goodrich said. “It is not a state museum. It is operated by the membership and board of directors.
“It is amazing what this little community has been able to do.”
If you go
Great Fort Wallace and Western Kansas 1867 Exposition
When: July 7
Where: Fort Wallace Museum, on U.S. 40 east of Sharon Springs
What: The symposium is one of four days of events highlighting the history of the Plains Indian Wars and settlement of the region. Other events from July 6 through July 9 include bus and car tours, an extensive encampment and historical performances.
Speakers: John Monnett, author and emeritus professor of history at the Metropolitan State University of Denver; Leo Oliver, author and former Kansas history professor at Fort Hays State University; Mike Baughn, historian and speaker from Brewster; Rod Beemer, author and historian from Minneapolis; Lt. Col. (ret.) Dennis K. Clark, Lansing; Mike Everhart, author and paleontologist from Derby; and Chris Gabel, professor emeritus with the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
Registration: Begins at 7:30 a.m. Mountain time. Presentations begin at 8 a.m.
Reservations: E-mail the Fort Wallace Memorial Association at email@example.com.
For more information, visit ftwallace.com and look for Fort Wallace on Facebook.