Photographer Lindsey and I ventured here more than a month ago. We found little left of any of the sites, although we really didn't know where to look.
I want to thank Robert Yarmer for his help in sharing his wife's family history. Here's a little bit from my latest dead town story.
In the summer of 1855, when prairie pioneers Williams Allison and Francis Booth came to what would someday be Barton County, there was nothing here but windswept prairie, Indians and buffalo along with the occasional schooner heading toward Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail.
Fort Larned wouldn’t be established for another few years and there was little settlement west. Nevertheless, the two men decided to build a settlement along Walnut Creek on the trail – offering supplies and respite to those making the journey.
These days, there is little left of the settlements that sprang up along the trail just east of Great Bend – a few stones in a field, remnants of dugouts and a handful of civilian graves deep below a field of greening wheat.
|The autumn 1966 cover of the Kansas Historical Quarterly features a water color of Fort Zarah on the Santa Fe Trail as illustrated by Henry Worrall.
A trading post
William Allison, a man with just one arm, and Francis Booth had become familiar with the route as former conductors of the monthly mail, according the Kansas State Historical Society. They had encountered Indians along the trail and knew of the hazards of the prairie.
Therefore, 132 miles beyond Council Grove, they established a trading post on Walnut Creek, located in the domain of the nomadic Plains Indian tribes and of the buffalo range.
The July 1855 issues of the Independence, Mo.-based publication, the Occidental Messenger, gave this account of the pioneers.
‘Mr. Wm. Allison and Booth, known as famed prairie men, have determined to make a settlement at Walnut Creek on the Santa Fe road. A short time since . . . they started on an expedition to the gold region; their mules and provisions giving out, and not being able to purchase any on the road from any train, they abandoned the idea of going further toward the Wichita diggings, and returned here, determined to settle on Walnut Creek. Booth left a month or two since, and Allison this week, and from last reports of Booth’s progress, he was busily engaged in building houses and corrals.
This is the first attempt at building by citizens made West of Council Grove, and we hope it may grow up in a short time a flourishing settlement. The men at the head of this enterprise are well known here, and distinguished for their energy and determination, they have no fear about them. ... This settlement will be another stopping point on the route to New Mexico and will make, in a little while, the road less dangerous by lessening the distance between civilized points and affording those in danger or want an opportunity to obtain relief.”
On August 25, the Occidental Messenger also reported that Allison and Booth’s post was nearing completion, with the men hoping to open trade to Indians and any travelers who needed “provision and aid as they journey.”
In December 1856, a post office was established at the ranche, with Allison as postmaster, according to the historical society.
In February 1857, the Santa Fe Gazette published this notice that Allison and Booth had established a trading house and general depot at Walnut Creek on the trail, having on hand groceries, provisions, forage and corrals, according to the historical society article. However, by September, the partnership ended. An article in the Santa Fe Gazette a month later reported: The Mexican who brutally murdered Mr. Booth and Walnut Creek last month, by splitting his head open with an ax, was arrested in San Miguel County last week.”
Meanwhile, according to the historical society, Allison continued to prosper as train traffic boomed. Those venturing toward Pikes Peak in search of gold took the mountain branch of the road to head to Colorado.
Despite his success, Allison died in 1859 of heart failure.
Peacock and Rath
Following Allison’s death, George Peacock took over the ranche.
Peacock’s time at the post, however, was short. Kiowa war chief Satank was arrested after almost passing out from drinking too much at Peacock’s post. Satank escaped but asked Peacock to write a letter of introduction saying he was a good Indian. Not counting on Satank having the letter translated, Peacock instead headed warning to those who read it – saying the Indian was treacherous and dangerous.
According to the state historical society, in the fall of 1860, Satank led warriors to the ranch and killed Peacock and five other men and stole all of the livestock.
Trader and buffalo hunter named Charles Rath took over the trading post next, and he expanded the operation, even helping establish a toll bridge across Walnut Creek.
Meanwhile, as attacks subsided, the military abandoned Fort Zarah in 1869.
|Unearthing remains of the ranch house at Walnut Creek Crossing of the Santa Fe Trail (near Great Bend) as supervised by State Historical Society archeologists May 31, 1969. The photograph was taken looking north along the west footings.
Not long after Fort Zarah’s abandonment, a town by the same name was formed on the edge of the fort’s property, just north of Allison’s Ranche, Yarmer said.
It was 1870, says Yarmer, adding his wife’s great great uncle, Titus Buckbee, a cattleman, was one of the founders.
Back then, Yarmer said, “everyone wants to start a town, sell lots and be a mayor. That was where the money was.”
Buckbee had been in the Civil War before venturing west. His prison stay at Andersonville during the war hindered his health, Yarmer said.
Zarah would have a blacksmith, a grocery and a livery, among a handful of other stores. In 1871, Buckbee became the town’s postmaster, becoming the first postmaster since Barton became a county.
It also had a murder. Buckbee’s brother-in-law Zach Light was minding the store for Buckbee when a man came in asking for crackers, according to the book “Deadly Dozen: Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West, Volume 2” by Robert K. DeArment. The man wanted cheese for his crackers. Light said he had none.
“This is a hell of a town,” the man said, adding Zarah was letting Great Bend “get away with things.”
Light said if he didn’t shut up, he would shoot, according to the book. And he did, hitting the man in the forehead. Light fled and, despite being arrested by authorities, never stood trial for the killing.
The town went on for a time, but Zarah’s existence wouldn’t last. Great Bend leaders were working to gain the county seat title. Formed in 1871, town leaders knew survival depended on whether they could secure the honor. An election in 1872 decided the towns’ fates. Ellinwood would receive 22 votes, Great Bend 144 and Zarah 33.
Also, Yarmer said, Santa Fe Railroad had reached Barton County that year and didn’t put a depot in Zarah.
“Politicians from Illinois – they knew how to grease the skid,” Yarmer said, adding the story is these Great Bend officials “bought cases of whiskey and dined the railroad. Zarah tried to do the same, but didn’t have the moxie to do it.”
Angry, Zarah folks moved most of the buildings to Ellinwood’s downtown. Fires destroyed the buildings, Yarmer said.
Today, there is little left of this area’s early settlement. A sign on the side of the road near Great Bend tells the history of Fort Zarah, although the park isn’t located on the actual fort site. A display at the Barton County Museum also shows artifacts found from digging exhibitions, Neuforth said.