In 1859, Fort Larned was opened. Its purpose was to protect western mail routes, the Santa Fe Trail freighters, and the settlers that were moving into the area. For years many American Indian tribes had lived along the route of the Santa Fe Trail. These included the Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne. Once the traders began moving through their lands and settlers followed, the fighting between the two increased. Not only were the tribes losing their homelands, but also the buffalo were being killed.
The freighters (large wagons) heavily loaded with trade goods became easy prey. Oft en they had large herds of horses with them, which were valued prizes for the Indians. After many requests from the freighters, the United States government responded by building a series of forts along the trail to offer protection. Fort Larned was one of these. Other forts built along the trail in Kansas included Fort Zarah, located to the northeast and Fort Dodge to the southwest. Fort Hays located about 60 miles north was nearer the railroad route that eventually replaced the wagons on the Santa Fe Trail.
The buildings at Fort Larned were constructed from sandstone blocks. Unlike some other forts, no wall surrounded it for protection. The fort was located on the Dry Route of the Santa Fe Trail, which follows the Pawnee Fork of the Arkansas River. It was just a few miles north of the Wet Route, which follows the Arkansas River. Fort Larned’s troops patrolled the Santa Fe Trail for seventy miles in either direction from the fort. Sometimes, the soldiers escorted wagon trains down the Trail to try to prevent attacks.
Major John C. McFerran reported, “It is a proper place for a military post, and should be the depot of supplies for any troops acting against Indians on that line.” As the railroad crossed Kansas, the fort was no longer needed. It was closed in 1878. Today, Fort Larned is a National Historic Site and a unit of the National Park System.