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How the many, varied stories of Fort Wallace fit into the American experience

WALLACE, Kansas – Some people call it the middle of nowhere.

In the High Plains of Kansas, where antelope far outnumber the residents and the land stretches to the horizon, the Fort Wallace Museum is about to tell a story.

Indeed many stories.

“You have to look past the malls and the Pizza Huts to find the Great American Story,” said Jayne Humphrey Pearce, president of the Fort Wallace Memorial Association near the Kansas-Colorado border. “And we’re right in the middle of it.

“Here on the Plains, we are part of the story of the Westward journey and the clash of cultures.”

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The museum is indeed a wealth of stories from the American West – from legendary names like George Armstrong Custer, Southern Cheyenne Chief Roman Nose and Buffalo Bill Cody.

More than 150 years ago, some of the most violent clashes of cultures took place here, as Native Americans fought over their way of life, soldiers followed orders, and pioneer families were sometimes caught in the middle.

Fort Wallace soldiers bore most of the brunt of Indian warfare in Kansas and eastern Colorado.

It’s the story of rural Kansas – of droughts, storms, snowstorms, crop failures and sweltering summers.

And then there are the people who populate the region, many of them with pioneer and Native American ancestors.

Wallace County has a population of about 1,500, almost half of whom live in Sharon Springs, the county seat. It is the least populated of the state’s 105 counties.

“And so people say, ‘What’s out here?’ ” said Humphrey Pearce. “And what’s out here is a story. Many stories – all interwoven. It’s incredibly rich and endlessly fascinating.”

There is American history of transportation – of horses, stagecoaches, railroads and finally highways.

“They speak of an ancient Native American trade trail … which becomes the shortest distance between Leavenworth and Denver and leads almost immediately to the establishment of Butterfields Overland Dispatch in 1865,” said Humphrey Pearce of the famous stagecoach line. “And then… the Kansas Pacific Railway, which follows the same route along the Smoky Hill Trail. And I-70 and (US) 40 also follow the same route.”

This is an area of ​​Kansas that attracts commerce that attracts the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock.

“You have Fred Harvey, who had his very first restaurant here in Wallace before he went to the Santa Fe and established his standards,” said Humphrey Pearce. “You have Mary Berry, who was a female manager for Fred Harvey at a time when that was a bit unusual, and then her kids let Calamity Jane sleep in her bedroom … when she stopped at the railroad, which is what some of her celebrity trips were.” .”

It is the stories of the Apache, Southern Cheyenne, Northern Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapaho, Kiowa, Sioux, Pawnee, and Plains Apache that can be found on a mural in the museum.

“These are the names of the tribes in their own languages,” said Humphrey Pearce. “The way we look at it, it seems like these names are floating in the wind here in a Kansas sunset because these voices are still speaking.”

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Jayne Humphrey Pearce, President of the Fort Wallace Memorial Association

But the stories here stretch back further, as far back as 87 million years to the Cretaceous Period, when much of Kansas was covered by a vast ocean. The museum’s exhibits include a cast of a 40-foot plesiosaur excavated in 1867.

Rich and extensive, the stories are both personal and universal. The middle of nowhere is now suddenly everywhere in our daily lives.

Humphrey Pearce isn’t a longtime Kansan in the way small-town Kansans sometimes measure underdogs. She grew up on the beaches of North Carolina and married into a Wallace County rancher family when she met her future husband in the Singing Sergeants, the official choir of the United States Air Force.

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Since then, she has become an active force in helping tell the stories of Fort Wallace. Humphrey Pearce’s favorite artifact is a tiny gold baby ring that’s part of the museum’s Floris and Viola Weiser Collection, a massive display of arrowheads.

“It actually belonged to a white woman who was being held captive by Cut Nose’s band,” she said. “When Floris found the baby’s gold ring, he knew exactly who it belonged to and when they had camped there.”

The stories may originally have come from the Wild West, but they’re finding renewed interest and popularity on another modern path: the Internet.

“We know we’re in the thick of things – which can be difficult to get to,” said Humphrey Pearce. “So we’re trying to share the story as much as we can – through films, lectures that air on Facebook, through our newsletter and all kinds of social media.

“We’re trying to tell that story.”

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