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Forts of the American Frontier 1820-91: Central and Northern Plains (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Alexander Cook
By Ron Field, Illustrated by Adam Hook
Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2005

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: Although most old Westerns of the Indian vs. cavalry variety show soldiers in stockade forts defending themselves against Plains Indians, that was not usually the case on the Great Plains. For one thing, the Indians had enough sense not to attack heavily defended positions; preferring to ambush small detachments of soldiers outside military posts. For another, as author Ron Field writes, "Many of the forts built on the Plains of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas, were not typical forts protected by stockade walls or other forms of defense works."

In this open country, where timber was at a premium, open forts were usually the order of the day. Many were based on the pattern established by Colonel Henry Leavenworth at Cantonment Leavenworth in 1827. Fort Laramie, the most famous post on the Plains, was an open fort after the Army transformed it from Fort John, a fur traders' post, beginning in 1849. But, yes, there were some stockade forts, as well, most notably Fort Phil Kearny in Dakota Territory (present-day Wyoming).

Illustrator Adam Hook provides a wonderful color diagram of it on pages 18-19. The fact that the fort is consistently but incorrectly spelled "Kearney" is only a mild annoyance. Fort Snelling, built of limestone quarried near the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, was a prime example of a stone-built fort, and there were also partially adobe forts (such as Fort C.F. Smith, with its high adobe walls to guard against Red Cloud's Sioux on the Bozeman Trail) and even brick ones (Fort Assinniboine in what would become Montana).

Along with the types of forts, Field deals with the principal elements of defense (stockade walls, blockhouses, ditches, breastworks, etc.), life in a frontier fort, the forts at war, the fate of the forts and the forts today. The text and many illustrations cover just 64 pages, but each page is a visual delight and has plenty of good information. For anyone who wants more detailed information about Fort Laramie and two other Wyoming forts, try a longer (288 pages) 2004 book, Army Architecture in the West: Forts Laramie, Bridger, and D.A. Russell, 1849-1912, by Alison K. Hoagland (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman). These forts and others that Hoagland visited proved to be "very different from each other, neither monolithic nor uniform. And they were rather unimposing in architectural appearance…not the forts of my imagination."

Forts of the American Frontier 1820-91 is No. 28 in Osprey's "Fortress" series. Other recent Osprey releases include American Indians of the Pacific Northwest, by Elizabeth von Aderkas, illustrated by Christa Hook, No. 418 in the "Men-at-Arms" series; and American Frontier Lawmen 1850-1930, by Charles M. Robinson III, illustrated by Richard Hook, No. 96 in the "Elite" series. Most of the information in the latter will be familiar to anyone into 19th-century Western gunfighters and lawmen, but Robinson, a frequent contributor to Wild West Magazine, makes the most of his limited writing space.

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