Master's Theses



Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


An American president once remarked that “the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry.” 1. The present thesis, which narrates two separate movements to explore and retain a natural passageway across the Great Plains during the era of the civil war, demonstrates that commercial ventures by whites to occupy that passageway led to conflicts with the original tenants of the land and to militarism by both whites and Indians. In both periods under inspection, from 1858 to 1860 and from 1864 to 1866, a similar progression, from peace to openly declared war, can be seen. The Smoky Hill Route was known to the public primarily from explorations conducted by John C. Fremont in the 1840s. 2. It was the third choice, at best, in travelling from the Missouri River to the central Rocky Mountains, since the Platte River Road and the Santa Fe Trail had both been extensively travelled long before Fremont first went west. The land between the Platte and the Arkansas had been occupied by the Cheyenne and Arapaho people without much dispute since their arrival and their right to this land had been affirmed by the 1651 Treaty of Fort Laramie. In the excitement of the gold rush of the late 1850s in the central Rockies, hundreds of people attempted to travel to the Denver area by following the Smoky Hill River to its source. These Fifty-niners, however, were on the whole inadequately equipped and poorly informed, and by journey’s end were more to be pitied than feared by Indians. Nevertheless the U.S. Government sent two columns of troops through western Kansas Territory the following year in order to chastise those Indians who had raided on the major routes. Impending civil war, diminished expectations from the mines, and a spate of horror stories from Smoky Hill travelers effectively put an end to travel on the route for a few years. The second movement up the Smoky Hill was planned in 1864 by David A. Butterfield, whose experiences as Sunday-school teacher, sheriff, miller, realtor, ware houseman, grocer and freighting agent in Kansas and Colorado Territory led him to conceive of a freight and passenger express service designed to beat the competition on the other two routes. Most historians have featured Butterfield's stagecoach business prominently, but in fact the freighting business was by far the more profitable concern. His stagecoaches were not often even half-filled with paying customers. Those few journalists whom he invited as propagandists for the line had occasion to witness the retaliation of young Indian warriors against the invasion of their domain by Butterfield's stagecoach employees. The newspapermen thus ironically broadcasted to a national readership the Indians' message instead of Butterfield's. To some extent Butterfield influenced the decision by U.S. Army officials to place troops along the Smoky Hill Route in late 1865. The history of Fort Fletcher illustrates in brief the danger and boredom a soldier could experience while serving at a frontier post while guarding a private enterprise. The collapse of Butterfield's business in the spring of 1866 antedated the decision to close down Fort Fletcher by about a month and perhaps by only a few days. This fort, abandoned in May, 1866, was re- established with the same name about half a mile northeast of the original site on October 17, 1866, by orders issued six days earlier. On November 17, 1866, it was rechristened as Fort Hays. A ruinous flood on June 7, 1867, impelled a move to the final site alongside the route chosen by the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division, for its railway to Denver. This post was active until 1889. The present thesis, however, is concerned only with the first of these forts. A corollary purpose of this thesis is to demonstrate that while latter-day writers may choose to represent the passageway along the Smoky Hill River as a "trail," it was during the time of its use known as a road or a route. A "trail" suggests discomfort; a "road" suggests relative ease of travel, exactly the image the promoters of the Smoky Hill Route wished to extend to the wayfaring public. Other features of the Indian-white conflict support the thesis of commercial rivalry leading to war on the plains. White poaching of the buffalo herds was repeatedly matched by Indian abduction of herds of mules, oxen and horses belonging to whites, and these acts are here given due attention. The chain of events leading to the Sand Creek Massacre began with such an episode, and in fact the few Indian complaints that came to the attention of whites in those years usually dwelt on white men's violation of proper buffalo herd management. To whites the buffalo ran amok over the hills in incalculable numbers; to Plains Indians the buffalo were property, to be eyed nervously and to be killed religiously. Foremost in the conflict, though, was the contest over the ownership of the land, waged at treaty councils as well as on battlefields. White factions were sometimes at odds with each other over business prospects, but all such factions united in opposition to the claims of the aboriginal owners. The conflict was not that of civilized man versus savage, but man quarreling with man over property. The first chapter of this thesis narrates the exploits of over three hundred gold rush migrants on the Smoky Hill Route, and relates the brief business history of the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express Company. The second links the aftermath of this mass movement to the beginnings of the post-bellum movement. David A. Butterfield's biography is here briefly sketched, as are a number of expeditions through northwestern Kansas during the Civil War years. Here also is described an Indian encampment during the summer of 1864 situated near the mouth of Big Creek, a site controlled the following year by the garrison at Fort Fletcher. The third chapter follows Butterfield's freighting and stagecoach operations in 1865. Indian attacks that October and November, and the governmental course of action in proposing and establishing Fort Fletcher. The fourth chapter outlines life at the fort, depicting conditions in the first white settlement of any duration in present-day Ellis County, Kansas. In a brief space I cannot sufficiently thank the people whose lives touched mine as this thesis was slowly put together. I heartily acknowledge the assistance and encouragement of Rev. Blaine E. Burkey, O.F.N. Cap., the first archivist-historian of the Ellis County Historical Society; Dr. Raymond Wilson, my thesis advisor at Fort Hays State University; Dr. Wilda M. Smith, chair of the History Department, Fort Hays State University; Dr. Helmut Schmeller, History Department, Fort Hays State University; Marc Campbell, Inter-library Loan Librarian, Forsyth Library, Fort Hays State University; James D. Drees, present archivist-historian of the Ellis County Historical Society; Louise Barry, the historian of pre-territorial Kansas; Dana and Jo Steele Kraus, of the Sandbur Ranch; my parents, Roland and Bonnie Lou Nelson Staab, for their lasting love; and Jolene Ruder and Jasper William Staab, for intimacy.


Raymond Wilson

Date of Award

Spring 1985

Document Type

Thesis - campus only access


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