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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

Soldier and Brave
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

The recent surge of popular interest in the West, inspired by television, motion pictures, books, and magazine articles, has heightened the attraction of historic sites and buildings associated with the Indian and the Army. As a result, they are prominent in the itineraries of vacationing Americans and foreign visitors. A profusion of such places exists. In fact, among the various phases of western history, only the miner's frontier has bequeathed more tangible remains.

Army forts predominate. Of the hundreds that once speckled the landscape west of the Mississippi River, the remains of scores have survived. Because the Plains Indians posed one of the greatest barriers to the westward movement in the 19th century, most of the forts are in the Plains region. Logically, they are also concentrated along historic routes of transportation and communication such as the Missouri, Yellowstone, Platte, Arkansas, Columbia, and Gila Rivers, and the Rio Grande; the Oregon-California, Santa Fe, Southern Overland, Smoky Hill, and Bozeman Trails; and the Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, Kansas Pacific, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific Railroads.

Only mounds of earth or foundations mark some fort sites. In other cases the remains are extensive and well preserved. Between these extremes are scores of adobe, frame, and stone ruins in varying stages of disintegration, as well as numerous reconstructions. But even the best preserved fort is a far cry from the Hollywood and literary protoype—palisaded log fortresses with corner block houses and massive gates. The real forts were another matter. Few had stockades. Utilitarian, often simple or even crude in construction, and sometimes only tent cities or a motley collection of sod huts or dugouts, the posts were usually constructed of more durable materials. But, to facilitate Army mobility, they were often semipermanent.

Battlefields where Indians and soldiers clashed are also numerous. The sites of almost 50 major engagements, mostly in the Plains States, may be identified. At many the natural setting remains unscarred, facilitating visualization. Farming and ranching operations have destroyed a few sites, but most have been marked by Federal, State, and local agencies, or private individuals. Many have been set aside as historical monuments.

Exemplifying other aspects of Indian affairs than the military are agencies, missions, reservation trading posts, and fur posts. Scattered about the West are the remains of numerous agencies, most dating from the late 19th century; some of the best examples are in Oklahoma, the Dakotas, and Montana. Fine Indian missions may be seen in Kansas, Idaho, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest. A superb example of a reservation trading post, where the ritual of Indian trading is displayed, is Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, Ariz. Time has ravaged most fur posts, but the National Park Service plans to reconstruct Bent's Old Fort, Colo., and is exploring the feasibility of reconstructing part of Fort Union, N. Dak., two outstanding posts.

Many factors have hampered historic preservation in the West. Foremost is the damage done by flood control and irrigation programs. In most of these instances the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution initiated advance historical and archeological studies and salvaged the maximum possible data and artifacts from inundated areas. Other adverse considerations are the increasing westward shift of population and the activities of vandals and "pot hunters." Weathering and aging processes have taken their toll, especially on log and frame structures.

Particularly destructive to forts was the dismantling done by settlers seeking building materials after the Army moved out. Adobe walls, deprived of roofs, doors, and windows, were left exposed to the elements. Today, as a result, at many sites adobe ruins are rapidly melting away. Stone forts are less vulnerable to the eroding influences of wind and rain, but they too provided ranchers and farmers with building materials—stone blocks already quarried and shaped. Nevertheless, the ruins of stone forts are usually more imposing than those of adobe.

Among the conditions tending to protect western sites from man and nature have been aridity and, until recently, sparsity of population. Continuous use by the Army or Bureau of Indian Affairs and the establishment of Veterans' Administration or State hospitals and institutions have also saved many forts and Indian agencies from destruction. Cities have sometimes grown up around forts, and the buildings have become private residences or business establishments.

But the most effective antidote to the loss of sites has been the vigilance of Federal, State, and local preservationists. The National Park Service preserves and interprets many of the most significant places. The U.S. Army commemorates the history of active forts. Most Western States maintain historical societies or other agencies that have taken a leading role in protecting, maintaining, surveying, and marking sites. Tribal councils, corporations, and private individuals have also done much commendable work.

Described in the following pages are some of the more significant sites and buildings illustrating Indian affairs and the Indian wars in the 19th century. They are divided into three categories: National Park Service Areas, National Historic Landmarks, and Other Sites Considered.

The principal aim of the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings is to identify nationally important sites that are not National Park Service Areas, but no survey of historic places would be complete without including them. Further information about a particular area may be obtained by writing directly to the park superintendent at the address listed immediately following the location.

National Historic Landmarks are those sites judged by the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments to meet the criteria of national significance in commemorating the history of the United States (pp. 395-397). As historic sites of national significance, they have been declared by the Secretary of the Interior to be eligible for designation as National Historic Landmarks. Some have already been so designated and others will be when the owners apply.

Other Sites Considered consist of those sites deemed by the Advisory Board to possess noteworthy historical value but not national significance. The list of sites treated in this category does not purport to be exhaustive; it is merely a representative sampling, all that is possible because of space limitations.

As time goes on, many sites in the Other Sites Considered category in all phases of history will be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, maintained by the National Park Service's Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation. This register consists not only of sites in the National Park System and National Historic Landmarks but also those of State and local significance nominated through appropriate channels by the various States.

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005