It looks about like any other pasture along Big Creek, but the significance of the site was not lost to its visitors Sunday afternoon.
Members of the Smoky Hill Trail Association, in Hays for the group’s 10th annual conference, visited the original site of Fort Fletcher, the predecessor of Fort Hays, at a location southeast of what is now Victoria. The site is now on private property, and other than what time has done, has not changed much since the fort’s establishment in 1865.
Randy and Galen Huser, tenants on the property, mowed the prairie grasses for the group’s visit, revealing remnants of the defensive wall and trench the soldiers built, as well as ruts created by wagons and coaches traveling the Smoky Hill and Fort Hays/Fort Larned trails.
Randy Huser, who led the tour for the group, said he had been aware of the significance of the land, but it wasn’t until a tour last year by the Ellis County Historical Society that he “got hooked” on the history.
“There’s enough evidence here that can take you back in time,” he said. “You can see the wagon tracks. You can picture it just from the evidence.”
Some of that evidence included the remnants of lime kilns on the opposite side of Big Creek from the fort. The kilns were used to turn limestone into lime, which was then used for mortar. One kiln now has a tree growing out of it, but some of the stones that formed it still can be seen. Depressions in the ground indicate dugouts where some of the soldiers slept.
The original post was abandoned in 1866, but six months later was re-established about a mile north. In June 1867, torrential rains flooded the fort, drowning seven soldiers. The decision to move the post, now named for Gen. Alexander Hays, already had been made, and the new site was occupied 15 days later at its present location.
Elton Beougher, president of the Smoky Hill Trail Association and one of its founders, had been to the site once before when he was on the board of Historic Fort Hays, but said at that time, the grass was too tall to see much.
“It’s beautiful. This is how it was when soldiers were walking around instead of us,” he said.
For Jere DeBacker, visiting the site was a connection to his great-great grandfather, David Butterfield, founder of the Butterfield Overland Despatch. The freight trail ran just north of Fort Fletcher, and it was the post’s main mission to protect its freight and travelers.
“It’s amazing to be here. I really get a sense of my ancestor being here,” he said.
Trail guide Jim Gray said Fort Fletcher is his favorite site on the Smoky Hill Trail, which ran from Atchison to the gold fields near Denver.
“Just because of the earth defensive works they built here is so impressive and it connects back to the defensive methods used a few years earlier in the Civil War and even identified with Revolutionary War type defensives,” he said. “It gives you a mindset of what these men were thinking who had never fought Indians before.”
During the weekend convention, members heard talks about Gen. Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Hays and Elizabeth Polly. They also visited Lookout Station near Antonino to dedicate a memorial to three men killed in an Indian raid in 1867, and also visited the Philip Ranch, site of another station on the trail and Black Kettle’s camp.