“The Far Quarter,” an oasis on the Kansas prairie

Timothy J. Kloberdanz
Special Contributor
Timothy J. Kloberdanz

To be honest, there’s not much to see today. But if one looks closely, the rocky outlines of an old but tiny settlement are visible. The place is known as “El Cuartelejo,” Spanish for “The Far Quarter.”

The site is located in Lake Scott State Park north of Scott City. Back in 1964, the “El Cuartelejo” ruins were designated a national historic site.

Although the outpost has a Spanish name, it was more of a Native American settlement. Scholars believe it was founded by Pueblo Indians fleeing from Spanish oppression in northern New Mexico in the 1660s. At various times, the Far Quarter was home to sizeable numbers of Pueblo and Plains Apache Indians. Tipis were pitched alongside small buildings made of native stone and adobe.

Wild game was abundant so the Indians hunted buffalo, deer, and water fowl. They also grew corn, beans, squash, and other vegetables. Because there were once so many springs in the area, a crude but effective form of irrigation was used. On the windswept prairies of western Kansas, a veritable oasis eventually took shape.

The small settlement had a central plaza with a large wooden cross erected by the Spanish. Although many of the Apache Indians were not baptized, they frequently wore crosses, rosaries, and holy medals. One Indian leader even adorned his horse with a tinkling silver bell that had the words “Jesus Maria.”

In July 1720, a Spanish expedition of more than a hundred men stopped at the Far Quarter. The group included Pedro de Villasur, the lieutenant-governor of New Mexico. Other notables were the famous scout Joseph Naranjo and the pioneering Franciscan priest Father Juan Minguez. All three would perish in a bloody battle on the Platte River in Nebraska only a few weeks later.

Indeed, nearly half of the entire Villasur expedition was annihilated by Pawnee and Otoe Indians. The wounded survivors somehow made their way back to the Far Quarter. There, they were bathed and doctored by the Apache. The survivors included Alonso Rael de Aguilar, an officer who had been scalped and wounded nine times. He went on to become a mayor of Santa Fe. Another survivor was Francisco Montes Vigil, a proud descendant of the great European emperor Charlemagne.

The homesick and ravished men were given simple food but it was “comfort food” in the truest sense: buffalo stew, corn soup, venison, ears of roasted corn, beans, cooked squash, tamales, stewed plums, and sweet melons.

When the survivors made it back to Santa Fe on Sept. 6, they carried with them their scars and the shocking news that the soldiers of the mighty Spanish Empire had been defeated by Plains Indians.

The days of the Far Quarter also were numbered. By the 1730s, due to enemy Indian raids, the little settlement was largely abandoned. Much like the ill-fated Villasur expedition, the Far Quarter soon faded into the misty realms of memory, myth, and legend.

Dr. Timothy J. Kloberdanz is a professor emeritus of anthropology at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He is a frequent visitor to Kansas and has studied the Volga Germans and other ethnic groups of the Great Plains. He is the author of many articles and books, including the recent novel, “Once Upon the River Platte.” He can be reached at Timothy.Kloberdanz@ndus.edu.

Fr. Juan Minguez was one of the famous individuals who visited the Far Quarter.  He is shown here (center) carrying a cross in a bison hide painting of the Villasur battle of Aug. 14, 1720.  The original painting is in the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe.