This entry includes a virtual tour! Take the tour.
Fort Hartsuff stood as a buffer between settlers and Native Americans. It also provided protection to the Pawnee from the Sioux in the North Loup River Valley from September 1874 to May 1881. Because the main fort buildings were constructed of a lime/concrete mixture, many have survived. The Fort is named after Major General George L. Hartsuff. When the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission obtained the site in 1961, restoration began. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Because of its size and condition, Fort Hartsuff is one of the most complete forts of this time period anywhere in the country.
Backstory and Context
Fort Hartsuff is one of nine state historical parks managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Construction of the Fort began in September of 1874. The Fort is named after Major General George L. Hartsuff, a Civil War veteran who died shortly before the construction of Fort Hartsuff was completed. It was a military custom to name forts after famous generals who had passed away. Three things make Fort Hartsuff unique from other Forts of this time-period.
One reason was the location. The first settlers came up the North Loup River Valley in 1872 and settled between two groups of Indians that also lived in this area. To the northwest, the Lakota Sioux, a hunter/gatherer tribe, considered all the river systems that ran from northwest to southeast, including the Dismal, Calamus, Cedar and Loup River valleys their hunting grounds. The Sioux Indians lived in tepees and could pick up and move very quickly. When white settlers came and settled in their hunting grounds, the Sioux were upset. To the southeast, near the present-day town of Genoa, Nebraska lived the friendly or more peaceful, Pawnee Indians. The Pawnee lived on a 15-mile x 30-mile reservation of land granted to them by the treaty of Table Creek, signed on September 24, 1857. In that treaty, the United States government promised to protect the Pawnee in their homes, along with some monetary consideration, training, and other provisions. The Pawnee were farmers and lived in permanent earth lodges. At certain times of the year, they would leave their villages and go hunt.
The Sioux and Pawnee were mortal enemies. The Sioux would come down into the area to hunt, and make raids on the Pawnee. The Pawnee, being brave warriors, would naturally retaliate and raid the Sioux. In the film “Dances with Wolves,” it was the Pawnee making a raid on the Sioux camp. When these two Indian groups would move back and forth, the settlers would get caught in between them. If a band of Indians came across a settlement, they would help themselves to horses, cows, chickens, or any livestock the settlers might have. This stealing upset the settlers.
An event in January of 1874, near the present-day town of Burwell, triggered the settlers into action. Some trappers had a cabin in the area, and a small band of Sioux Indians ransacked the cabin and helped themselves to supplies. When the trappers returned and saw what had happened, they tracked the Indians north of the river and caught up with them on Pebble Creek, across the river, a couple of miles north of present-day Burwell. The trappers tried to get their supplies back, and a battle ensued. One of the trappers, Marion Littlefield, was shot in the head and killed, which ended the skirmish for the time being. It prompted the settlers of the area to petition the US government for protection. Construction of Fort Hartsuff began in September of 1874, not only to protect the settlers but in part as the fulfillment of the provision in the Table Creek Treaty with the Pawnee. The treaty stated that if the Pawnee lived on a reservation, the government would protect them from the Sioux. Fort Hartsuff became the first and only Fort built to protect one group of Indians from another.
The second thing that makes Fort Hartsuff unique is its construction, and after all this time, it is still here. Most forts of this time period were made of logs, sod, adobe, or wood structures. When these forts were abandoned, it didn’t take long, and they disappeared due to fire, erosion, or people using the materials in them for other purposes. However, Fort Hartsuff was made of concrete, and so today, all nine of the original concrete buildings have been restored and furnished with period furniture. The reason concrete was chosen for construction was the frequent prairie fires that occurred back then, which left few trees in the area. When construction on the Fort began, those who worked on it said that they could look out and see only one tree. There was some timber on islands in the river and in the steeper walled canyons north of the Fort where prairie fires didn’t burn. One such canyon was Jones Canyon, about six miles north of the Fort. This is where they cut trees and hauled them back to the Fort. They had a steam-powered sawmill and cut the trees into lumber to be used for framing doors and windows and as rafters for the roofs. They also cut cedar shingles for the roofs. However, there was not enough lumber in the area to construct an entire fort. There was a good supply of gravel in the area, and they could get lime from the Beebe Ranch about 30 miles to the south of the building site, near present-day Cotesfield. These materials could be used to make a lime concrete, called grout. They used a little cement in the mixture, but they had to travel to Grand Island to get the cement, as Grand Island was as far as the railroad went at the time. It was a five day round trip with mules or horse-drawn wagons.
The third thing that makes Fort Hartsuff unique began with a skirmish between soldiers at Fort Hartsuff and the Sioux. With the Fort’s location near hostile Indians, there was always the chance for conflict. Only one major battle took place in the seven years that the Fort was in existence. It occurred on April 28, 1876, and it was called “The Battle of the Blowout.” A small party of Sioux raiders stole some things from settlers near the present-day town of Burwell, including some turkeys. Some civilians pursued them, and the Indians holed up in a sandhills blowout about a mile and a half north of what is now Homestead Knolls Campground on the Calamus Lake. The civilians sent word back to the Fort and Lieutenant Charles H. Heyl, 23rd Infantry, and eight enlisted men were dispatched to pursue the Indians. When the troops arrived, it was near sundown and fearing that the Indians would escape, Lieutenant Heyl and three soldiers charged the Indian’s position. In the unsuccessful assault, Sergeant William H. Dougherty was shot in the heart and killed. The Indians escaped after nightfall, and the soldiers and civilians returned home. The unique thing about this event was that three soldiers received Medals of Honor for their gallant charge. They were Lieutenant Charles H. Heyl, Corporal Patrick Leonard, and Private Jeptha Lytton. It was very rare for an Infantry soldier to earn a Medal of Honor as such honors were usually given to Calvary soldiers.
The Fort was abandoned on May 1,1881, due to the fact that the railroad had extended into the valley and the threat of hostilities with the Indians had ended.It was purchased in 1897 and transformed into a farm headquarters by private investors. It was later donated to the State of Nebraska in 1961 by Glen and Lillian Auble. When the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission obtained the site in 1961, some buildings were in better shape than others, and restoration began. The original walls that were left were kept in place, and new walls were poured around them to fill in the gaps. It was named to the National Register of Historical Places in 1978. Because of its size and condition, Fort Hartsuff is one of the most complete forts of this time period anywhere in the country.
Domeier, Jim. "The Guide to Fort Hartsuff (1874-1881)." . .
Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, Nebraska) · 17 Dec 1898, Sat · Page 12
The St. Joseph Gazette (St. Joseph, Missouri) · 3 May 1876, Wed · Page 1