Little Fort On The Prairie

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At the post headquarters, on the far corner of the parade ground, I dropped in on the commandant’s office, whose spareness was warmed by a white cloth over the worktable. Posted on the wall was the transcript of an actual court-martial held here in 1843: Pvt. Thomas Fraser deserted while a prisoner, was caught and brought back for a thirty-dollar reward two days later and sentenced to “fifty lashes on his bare back, well laid with a raw hide,” plus forfeiture of pay, six months’ hard labor, and repayment of the thirty dollars that had bought his recapture. It was a trying life guarding a disappearing frontier.

From there I went next door to the officers’ quarters—later the Free State Hotel, but first the home of Capt. Thomas Swords, the quartermaster who built the fort. It is a warm, comfortable, roomy place, with none of the military spareness of the rest of the fort. In the dining room a woman was arranging things on a table set lavishly for eight, with lace tablecloth, silver flatware, fresh flowers, and nineteenth-century Christmas decorations. This was to be part of the town of Fort Scott’s “Homes for the Holidays” tour of local interiors. She asked me where I was from and warmed at once when I told her. “Captain Swords was from New York,” she said, “and he tried to make these quarters as much as possible like the elegant homes there.” He did surprisingly well. Not long after he arrived at the site for the fort in 1842, Swords wrote, “We are going to make it the crack post of the frontier.” And he did.

By the time I left the fort, after a turn through the well-supplied quarter-master storehouse, the little bakery, and the guardhouse, I felt not only instructed but immersed in the texture of post life. Then I squinted at the twentieth-century community next door and began to adjust. Over the next couple of days, I got to know the town a bit too. The crowds are almost all out at the Wal-Mart a mile off now, but as Main Street hangs on, the town obliges the tourism that the fort pulls in by offering trolley-bus tours of all the local sites.

I took the bus—the last one of the season, as it happened, since this was December—and as we rolled around, the driver imparted bits of information, many of which seemed to reflect more historical misfortune. “George Washington Carver lived here once for a few years, but he pulled out after two other black citizens were lynched. . . . On the west side of the tracks”—a Burlington Northern line runs parallel to the highway—“the streets are all named for Free-Soilers, on the east side for pro-slavery men. Here’s the town’s Civil War blockhouse. It’s a replica. The original was sold off for fifty dollars.”

Up at the national cemetery, built on the hillside, the driver pointed out a handful of graves marked “USCT” for United States Colored Troops, thirteen of Confederate soldiers who died in prison camps, and sixteen of Indian scouts with names like Set-Them-Up and Stick-Out-Belly: “We don’t know how any of them died.” As we drove down one of many brick streets, he said, “This town had a big brick industry once; Fort Scott made the original bricks for the Indianapolis Speedway. In the 1930s the WPA could find so little useful to do here that it turned over every brick in every street.”

I came to like this desultory, very friendly town. It has just one remarkable thing about it, but that thing is truly amazing: Right at the end of Main Street you can step across and into a time and place balanced forever on the nervous edge between a young United States and no-man’s-land.

—Frederick Alien TO PLAN A TRIP