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ISSN: 1936-0479

Fort Bissell's Mission Impossible

By Dorothy Rieke

My husband and I often travel Highway 36 to Norton, Kansas. On these trips, we are always anxious to learn more about Kansas history.

Recently, we discovered Fort Bissell at Phillipsburg, Kansas. There is a small segment of Kansas history at this location with the story of how and why this fort was established.

At Fort Bissell, this Glade, Kansas, depot houses railroad memorabilia. (Photo by Country Livin' Photography)

Kansas history is a narrative of exciting events consisting of great feats and shattering disappointments. The colorful cattle towns, pioneer settlements, stagecoaches, Conestoga wagons, gun fights, outlaws, and sarsaparilla were all part of Kansas history.

Most of us have been terrified by events shown in Hollywood western movies. Perhaps, the West was not all that bad. However, many people at that time, even those living in “civilized” towns, were beyond the reach of law enforcement. There were places where murder, mayhem, and mischief took place daily without the interference of sheriffs or U.S. Marshals.

Buffalo hunters, bullwhackers (wagon train drivers), muleteers, cowboys, pioneers and others all traveled across Kansas. Also, Native Americans, friendly or unfriendly, were living in some areas. Many scores were settled with gun fire in shootouts. Settlers needed protection. That protection was often provided by forts.

Before, during, and after the Civil War, a number of military camps, forts, and blockhouses were established in Kansas because this state had become not only a crossroads for travelers but a place to settle.

During settlement years, 27 forts were located in various parts of this state. In June of 1854, there were three established military forts, Fort Atkinson, Fort Riley, and Fort Leavenworth. These eastern-based forts protected travelers and settlers who traveled beginning the journey west and those already settled on the land.

Admittedly, these first forts were built by the military. However, once the Civil War began, certain communities, realizing the safety value of forts, built them for protection of citizens. Most of these forts were built of logs, and some were nearly impregnable. In Humboldt, one fort was a fortified mill; in another settlement, one was a fortified dry goods store. Fort Drinkwater was a post office, and Fort Montgomery (Eureka) was a schoolhouse. Surprisingly, some of the civilian-built forts were actually more defendable than those built by the military.

The major reason for building numerous forts at this time was the realization that the Army could not possibly rid eastern and central Kansas of Confederate guerrilla attacks and attacks by other lawbreakers.

Forts contained groups of buildings and sod-roofed dugouts where food and ammunition were stored in case of attack. Later, these structures were used as post offices and as Native American agencies.

At this time, in some areas, Native Americans posed a threat as they wanted to keep the white men out of their occupied areas. After the Civil War, new threats appeared from displaced soldiers or guerrilla forces that used their fighting skills to take what they wanted from others at gunpoint.

Fort Bissell (1872-1878) in Phillipsburg, Kansas, was never a Federal Military Post. It was built by the members of the community for the protection of settlers in that region. Unlike other military posts with histories of bloody encounters with the lawless, this fort became the scene of some very unusual, almost comical, events.

This wagon is one of the features on display at Fort Bissell.

By late spring in 1872, Native Americans, living on the Plains, began attacking white settlements and travelers in the western two-thirds of Kansas. Fort Bissell was constructed in haste for fear of one of these attacks. One day, Charlie Fredericks rode into the area from Fort Hays, excitedly exclaiming that Native Americans were preparing to attack Phillipsburg and other northwest Kansas settlements.

Undoubtedly, this news terrified Phillipsburg residents. Being shortly after the Civil War, people had felt comfortable as there were veterans living in the community who were especially skilled in the use of weapons. However, this possible occurrence brought fears to reality. After discussing what could be done, residents hurriedly built a fort for protection. In case of an attack, it would house the people and also provide storage for food and weapons.

The fort was built on land owned by John Bisssell on a bend of Bissell Creek 27 miles west of the Coop Refinery. This was an ideal location as it was protected on three sides by steep banks. Builders used the locally grown cottonwood trees cut with points for the outer barriers. Within the circle of posts was a cabin for storing provisions and a lean-to for protection from the elements.

The group elected attorney W. H. Pratt to be their commander who directed food and ammunition storage. Certain selected skilled horsemen were on alert to perform “Paul Revere” rides to warn those in surrounding settlements in case of attack.

After all the labor of building and equipping the fort with what was needed, people fearfully awaited the arrival of hostile Native Americans. However, no Native Americans appeared in the following months. Then came several reports of an imminent attack. Excited men raced to the fort searching for their weapons and stored ammunition. In the confusion, it took them at least a half hour to locate the items necessary to prepare for a fight. Then, to their dismay, they discovered that the attackers were nothing but a herd of galloping wild-eyed horses spooked by several mules. Gratitude for their safety warred with their embarrassment.

On another occasion, when a gun was fired, courageous men raced to the scene ready to fight for their lives. Believing the enemy would attack at sunrise, excited men spent a tense night ready to defend the fort. However no threats appeared, so finally during the next morning’s hours, they decided to search the area. All they discovered was a dying calf lying on a creek bank. Undoubtedly, some were livid, some were relieved, and others were disappointed.

After six years of such incidents, the fort was abandoned. In 1878, after the Cheyenne Massacre in Decatur County in which forty settlers were killed, the fort was torn down. The citizens decided that the last of the Native American troubles were over in the area.

Even though the fort was never used as intended, the very presence of such a facility must have given residents a certain security and feeling of peace of mind. After all, the fort was accessible to all at all times.

Today, a “reconstructed” fort holds many pleasant surprises for visitors who relish historical memorabilia. A valuable firearm collection entices those interested in past weaponry. The Lutjeharms cabin, built in 1872 on Prairie Dog Creek near Woodruff, was moved to Fort Bissell in 1961. Another “resident” cabin, built by Fred Albright, was originally located on Cactus Creek northwest of Logan. The 1887 one-room rural school, Dayton School, District 97 originally located twelve miles northwest of Phillipsburg, has original furnishings.
Another 1885 building, the Fort Bissell Mercantile, came from Woodruff. There are also a wagon house and depot from Glade which houses railroad memorabilia.

Today, this interesting fort site represents human fears and foibles at a time in Kansas history that was turbulent and, at times, very frightening. Forts, necessary structures for frontier survival and security in a time of upheaval, represented the presence of Army involvement or a community creating a secure sanctuary for those who were in danger. Forts required cooperation, concern, and a sense of involvement. They represented protection, refuge, safe havens, and shelter. They were necessary, needed, and appreciated. They were the “safe houses” of Kansas!

Fort Bissell opens to tourists on Memorial Day. It is open from Tuesday through Saturday. It closes on Labor Day. It is located at the western edge of Phillipsburg, Kansas.

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Last Updated August 28, 2015
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