Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Visit to Fort Hartsuff

I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that I try to project to my readers that I am a sophisticated well traveled adventuress, I had never before been to Burwell, Nebraska. This isn't quite as bad as it sounds as I have now rectified that particular deficiency, but nonetheless, there it is.

However, I have made a previous trip to Fort Hartsuff, which is about ten miles south of Burwell, so I have been in the vicinity. On a recent business trip (I use the term loosely, but it WAS for business, as you'll see in a later post), The Mister and I had a chance to revisit this historic fort. It brought back wonderful memories, as my first trip to the Fort had been on one of our wonderful road trips with the Number Two Daughter.

Fort Hartsuff was completed in about 1874 or 1875. General George Hartsuff never visited the Fort, but as he had passed away shortly before completion of the fort, it was deemed fitting to name it after him. It was abandoned in 1881, so had a short but important lifespan.

It now is one of ten State Historical Parks operated by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. While it is not the largest in Nebraska (that distinction goes to Fort Robinson), it is the most complete in that it contains ALL of the original buildings. It is the most complete 1870's era fort in the entire USA!

Below is an exterior shot of the enlisted men's quarters.Fort Hartsuff is unique for a number of reasons. First, it is the only fort in the US whose primary mission was to maintain the peace between two Native American tribes. At the time of its commissioning, the local Pawnee were on a reservation to the east, near Genoa Nebraska. The Lakota whose primary residence was to the northwest, considered this entire area their hunting grounds. These two tribes were mortal enemies were constantly raiding one another, with the settlers being caught in the middle.

Let me admit right now that I am of caucasion European descent, able to trace her heritage back an entire two generations to the early teens of the twentieth century, so it wasn't MY ancestors infringing upon Native lands. OK, so the Mister can trace his Scots-Irish ancestry back to about 1740 in North Carolina, but hey, they still weren't in Nebraska!

Not to sound crass or anything, but I'm just telling you how it was told to me, not necessarily how it SHOULD have been or what was right.

Anyway, so Fort Hartsuff was unique in that one of its missions was to keep the peace between two factions of Native Americans.

Below is an interior view of the enlisted mens' quarters. The second reason Fort Hartsuff is unique, is that it is constructed nearly entirely from the equivalent of concrete. Even though you will see abundant trees in the pictures I took of the Fort, at the time it was built, there was only one tree in the area. Frequent prairie fires kept the trees burned off even the river bottoms. However there was abundant gravel, and there was a limestone kiln available near Coatsville, Nebraska, so that is what they built the fort out of.

The walls are nearly two feet thick, which had the added advantage of being cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Also, it insured that the fort would survive through the many years of private use once it was abandoned.

Below is a view of the kitchen area of the enlisted mens quarters. Back in the day, there was one company stationed at the fort at all times, which supposedly consisted of 60 infantry men. In actuality, records indicate that there were probably 39 to 55 men stationed at Fort Hartsuff at any one time.

The third thing that sets Fort Hartsuff apart from other frontier forts is that three soldiers garrisoned at the fort were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for one skirmish.

It happened like this. One day, a band of Lakotas stole a turkey from some settlers. Naturally, the settlers were unhappy with this turn of events and asked the soldiers stationed at the fort to intervene on their behalf. It was a turkey, after all!

The soldiers cornered the Indians in a blowout (hence the name "Battle of the Blowout"). During the clash one soldier was killed. Night fell, and in the darkness all of the Indians escaped. However, three soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their role in the fighting.

Below is the Officers Quarters, which is a duplex, both sides being mirror images of each other. Housed here would have been two Lieutenants, the post surgeon, their families and servants.
According to one informational plaque in the home, as many as 14 people at one time may have lived here. In addition to being beautifully restored, the home is filled with period furnishings, including some that would have belonged to people who actually lived here.

Behind this house in the Sandhills is the fort's water supply, pumped by a windmill. It was surrounded by a stockade, the only one on the post, which could be reached using an underground tunnel and ditch. The women and children would have retreated here in case of a threat. Here are two people who called Fort Hartsuff home, at least for awhile. Lt. Thaddeus Hurlbut Capran and Cynthia J. (Stevens) Capron. Kind of makes the whole thing real to see their photographs hanging in the home in which they once lived. This is the view across the parade ground from the front porch of the Officers Quarters. Remember, back in the day there wouldn't have been a tree in sight! The building in the center is the guardhouse. Twelve men would move from the barracks to the guardhouse during their time on duty. There would have been four men patrolling the grounds at all times.

Inside the guardhouse are tiny boxes that would have been used for serious offenders. When I say tiny, I mean tiny! Maybe about eighteen inches wide and about four feet long and high. I would have minded my P's and Q's if that was to be my fate! Also here are more traditional cells used for minor offenses, as well as for any lawbreaking civilians.

The flag pole is a reproduction, and at 95' tall is 2' shorter than the original. It was obtained from the York Public Power District and hauled to the site by helicopter, then set by a dragline. It weighs 5 tons! The original one was cut near Long Pine Nebraska, and hauled using three wagons more than 80 miles. There is no record of how it was set, but can you imagine setting a pole weighing more than 5 tons with nothing but manpower?
This building is very interesting to me, although it isn't open to the public. For many years, it was the home of the park Superintendent. The current Superintendent lives off-site, so this completely modern home sits empty while the Game and Parks tries to decide what to do with it.

Oh, ask me, ask me! A thoroughly modern, spacious and historic home set in the middle of the Nebraska Sandhills on the grounds of one of the most historic forts in Nebraska if not the United States? Can you say bed and breakfast? I doubt it would be vacant very often, and should command top dollar. The fort is open all year long, so even in the winter it would be an attractive place to stay.
This much smaller building is the hospital, and is also filled with period furnishings, as well as artifacts found during the restoration of the fort.
Beyond that are the Quartermaster Storehouse, the Blacksmith and Carpenters Shop and the Stable, all beautifully preserved

On the far southwest corner of the fort is the laundress quarters, bakery and Commisary Sgt. quarters (not pictured). Up until a few years ago, a local baker would fire up the huge brick ovens each weekend and bake bread for visitors. The ration was a one pound loaf of bread for each soldier, so you can imagine the amount of bread that had been baked here. The entire process is shown on a film that you can watch in the baker's quarters.
We found it strange that the only building not made out of concrete was the Blacksmith shop. Wouldn't that have had the most chance to catch fire?
There you have it, your whirlwind tour of Fort Hartsuff. You really should make the trip yourself, because these pictures and the story don't come close to capturing the beauty, serenity and historic feel of the place.

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

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