The Kansas museum has more than a few soldier surprises.
The soldiers of the past are, naturally, well represented at the Frontier Army Museum in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Visitors will see plenty of guns, uniforms and equipment used west of the Mississippi River, from the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804 to General “Black Jack” Pershing’s search for Pancho Villa early in the 20th century. But among the 5,000 items are some surprises, such as a carriage that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and a sleigh that belonged to George Armstrong Custer.
The original collection was organized in 1939 when the wagon shop on the post closed and the vehicles were relocated and called the Old Rolling Wheels Museum. In 1960 the facility was officially recognized as an Army museum. Some of the items are directly related to the historic fort, itself perhaps the most interesting artifact of all.
Museum Director Steve Allie acknowledges the museum’s location, in the heart of this historic Western fort, is its greatest attribute. The fort was established in the spring of 1827 by Colonel Henry Leavenworth to protect trade on the Santa Fe Trail. For decades, the Missouri River fort stood on the edge of the “permanent” Indian Territory, keeping white settlers from encroaching on Indian villages to the west. Mounted regulars called dragoons replaced infantry troops at Leavenworth in1834.
As tensions grew between Mexico and the United States, the fort became the base of operations for the Army of the West. Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny and his troops left the post in 1846 to secure New Mexico and California. Other troops outfitted at Fort Leavenworth served under Alexander Doniphan, Sterling Price and Philip St. George Cooke.
During the “Bloody Kansas” period in the 1850s, Colonel Edwin Sumner, stationed at Fort Leavenworth, struggled to keep the country from all out war. In the Civil War, now Confederate General Price led an invasion into Missouri, with the arsenal at Fort Leavenworth his ultimate goal. The notorious military prison was established at Leavenworth in 1875 and remains. In 1881 General William T. Sherman founded what would become the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) for the instruction of Army officers.
The artifacts in the Frontier Army Museum reflect this history, from Colonel Henry Leavenworth’s dress coat to the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny biplane used in the search for Pancho Villa. Director Allie, who has worked at the museum since 1984, says that much progress has been made in redesigning the galleries. Gone is the old fluorescent lighting, and with it the warehouse ambience. They have been replaced by spotlights in a more intimate setting wherein cases of artifacts jut into the room rather than line the walls, making them easier to view. Items are also coming out of storage, such as an exhibit of Indian art never displayed. A newly designed exhibit on the buffalo soldiers is taking shape.
D.K. Clark, who writes curriculum for the Army and is an expert on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, suggested that the museum’s “coolest item” arrived several years ago in a trunk addressed to “Museum, Fort Leavenworth.” Inside were the personal belongings of Lieutenant Henry Jackson (a member of the 7th Cavalry who was on detached service in Washington, D.C., at the time of the 1876 battle), including a set of buckskins that the cavalrymen preferred to government-issued wool.
Ed Kennedy, also from the CGSC, said his favorite story is that of the Pancho Villa Expedition veteran who donated items taken from Villistas he had shot. Before he died, however, the old man confessed that he had actually won the Sharps carbine, serape and sombrero in a crap game.
The Frontier Army Museum is open to the public and admission is free. Be sure to bring a photo ID to get onto Fort Leavenworth and be prepared for your vehicle to be searched. Normally, the procedure just takes a few minutes, and it’s worth the effort to see this historic post and the museum that houses its treasures.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.