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The Smoky Hill Trail, established in 1859, was the shortest way to the gold fields of the western part of the Kansas Territory, now Colorado. Its route went through Indian land, and as a result, the Indians took exception to the white people encroaching on their hunting lands. Very few people were using the Smoky Hill Trail until 1865 when David Butterfield established the Butterfield Overland Despatch to run freight and stagecoach services via the route. The BOD was almost 600 miles between Atchison, Kansas and Denver, Colorado. Of the 40+ stations along the trail, four of them were in Ellis County. Forks of Big Creek (five miles south of Walker), Big Creek Station (eight miles west of Forks of Big Creek), Lookout Station (eight miles west of Big Creek Station), and Louisa Springs (seven miles west of Lookout Station). Louisa Springs was abandoned for another station further down the route in Trego County called Stormy Hallow. Butterfield asked for military protection and received it when several military posts were established along the trail later in the year. Fort Ellsworth (later named Fort Harker) was already in place having been set up in August 1864. Fort Fletcher (later named Fort Hays), Monument Station and Camp Pond Creek (later named Fort Wallace) were all established in October 1865.
The Indians took advantage of the low number of troops and the distances between the forts by continuing to create problems for the BOD. In March 1866, David Butterfield sold his company to Ben Holladay, who then sold it to Wells Fargo and Company in November 1866. By this time, the railroads were coming through and the military leaders shifted their attention and aid to them because the railroads were becoming a significant development in the opening of the West. The Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, which became the Kansas Pacific Railway in 1870, built its tracks along the Smoky HIll Trail. Once the line was built to Denver in 1870, the mission of the forts was changed to guarding the railroad.
Fort Fletcher was located fourteen miles southeast of the present city of Hays. After being abandoned on May 5, 1866, Fort Fletcher was reactivated on October 17. A month later, its name was changed to Fort Hays to honor General Alexander Hays from Pennsylvania. General Hays was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864.
The military headquarters wanted to move Fort Hays closer to the railroad that had reached Ellis County by 1867. Before they made the decision to move, however, a flood hit the post on June 7; seven soldiers and two civilians were killed and the fort grounds were destroyed. On June 23, 1867, Fort Hays was occupied at its new location about one mile south of the railroad near the now extinct town of Rome. Just east of Rome, there were three sections of land that had been purchased by the Big Creek Land Company from the railroad. That land was registered on July 23, 1867 at Ellsworth County; at the same time, the Big Creek Land Company made an agreement with the railroad to provide a station and a depot in the new town called Hays City.
Even though Fort Hays was established to protect the travelers along the Smoky Hill Trail from Indians who lived in the area, the Indians did not attack the fort nor did the troops get into a major Indian fight. Later on, as the troops provided protection for the railroads, they did get into some skirmishes with Indians who were protecting their rights to hunt buffalo.
After 1869, the Indian raids in the area declined, and the troops continued to provide security as settlers came into the area. It was in 1889 that the fort was abandoned and by 1900, there were plans to transform the fort's lands to house an experiment station and a Western Branch of the State Normal School.
“At Home in Ellis County, Kansas 1867-1992.” Hays, KS: Ellis County Historical Society, 1991.
Oliva, Leo C. "Fort Hays: Keeping Peace on the Plains." Topeka, KS: Kansas State Historical Society, 1996.
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