A bit of US military history…

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Ft_Hartsuff_parade_groundQuick: what is the only installation built by the United States military during the settling of the interior of the continent to protect Indians from Indians (rather than settlers from Native Americans, or for some other purpose)?

Out in the middle of North America, in what is now the state of Nebraska, near the North Loup River, near the modern community of Elyria, is a Plains infantry outpost called Fort Hartsuff. The outpost was active from 1874–1881. Since some of the major buildings were constructed with concrete-like walls, they have survived to this day. Fort Hartsuff is now a Nebraska State Historical Park.

In short, the Pawnee were an agricultural peoples in the 1850s, growing crops and supplementing their foodstuffs with meat from seasonal bison hunts. Because they were semi-sedentary, they were afflicted more European diseases like cholera and small pox than their nomadic neighbors, the Lakota Sioux. During this period, the Lakota population increased, they gained hunting territory, and harassed the Pawnee.

As Gary Wells notes:

By 1857, the Pawnee were so destitute that they signed the Treaty of Table Creek, giving up rights to all of their land in Nebraska in exchange for a small reservation of thirty miles along the Loup River, fifteen miles wide (present day Nance County), small annual payments and protection from the Lakota, by the U.S. Army.  The U.S. Government did a poor job fulfilling their part of the treaty, as the Civil War diverted money and soldiers away from the west.  Retaliation for the Pawnee against the Lakota finally came in 1864, when the Department of the Platte (district army headquarters) requested Pawnee volunteers to join the Army in their fight against the Sioux and Cheyenne, under the command of Frank North, as the Pawnee Scouts.  Frank had worked at the Pawnee Agency for many years and spoke fluid Pawnee.  He and his brother Luther North led the Pawnee Scouts on numerous engagements, including protecting the workers building the Transcontinental Railroad in Nebraska, and removing the Cheyenne from the Republican Valley in the Campaign of 1869, with General Carr commanding and Buffalo Bill Cody as scout.  During this campaign, Major Frank North was credited with the killing of the Cheyenne Chief Tall Bull, at the Battle of Summit Springs, and honored by the Nebraska Legislature in 1870 for his part in the Campaign.  The Pawnee called him the “Great White Father”.

Few settlers had pushed into the Loup River Valley before 1870, probably due to the proximity of the Pawnee Reservation on the lower Loup.  Even though the Pawnee were relatively harmless, it would have taken real courage for early settlers to travel through their villages, to reach the rich farmland beyond.  That same year, the Paul brothers (J.N. and N.J.) and the North brothers (Frank and Luther) departed from Columbus with a small group of men, and went up the Loup to the forks on a hunting trip.  That trip resulted in dreams of a cattle ranch and the determination to establish a new county called “Howard”.

Once Howard County was formed, it drew new settlers into the Loup Valley, but the Lakota were still using the trail down the Loup River Valleys, to raid the Pawnee on their reservation.  The Norths and the Pauls knew that these new settlers would need to be protected, so a request was sent to General C. C. Auger (Christopher Columbus Auger), commander of the Department of the Platte, in Omaha, to send troops.  The government had been lax on protecting the Pawnee, but with the white settlers in danger, two companies of soldiers were dispatched.

It took a while for Fort Hartsuff to be established. Wells continues:

By early September of 1874, the new permanent fort construction was underway.  It was across the river near the famous trail on present-day Bean Creek.  By December of 1874 some of the new fort’s buildings were complete.  All government supplies, soldiers and tentage had been removed to the new site and Camp Ruggles was soon forgotten to all but a few.

This new permanent fort was not to be made out of wood, but a lime, gravel and cement mixture, resembling today’s concrete.  Rather than transport large amounts of lime from eastern Nebraska, the quartermaster advertised locally for a contractor to supply the lime.  Joseph “Doc” Beebe, a close friend and neighbor of the North family in Columbus, bid and won the contract.  Doc built three lime kilns in the hills east of the North Loup River in northern Howard County (east of present day Cotesfield) and burned chalk-rock, taken form the nearby side-hills, in the kilns, using wood from the surrounding canyons, to produce his quick-lime product. (All three kilns are still visible today.)

On completion of Fort Hartsuff, Doc Beebe started construction of a two-story hotel, using the same construction techniques used at the fort.  The new hotel became known as the “Concrete Hotel” or the “Half-Way House”, as it was on the main supply road, half-way between Fort Hartsuff and the rail line in Grand Island. The eighty-mile trip was too long to travel in one day, so those traveling back and forth would stop at the Half-way House to eat and spend the night.

Where to find it