Discover the Oldest Town in Kansas

BOB WESTON/iStock via Getty Images

Written by Katie Melynn Wood

Updated: November 8, 2023

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Kansas, also known as The Sunflower State, played an important role in American history, especially as settlers went West in search of riches, land, and new opportunities for themselves and their families. Fort Leavenworth was established to protect individuals as they journeyed west. Proving itself a vital strategic military location, the city of Leavenworth grew as the Fort increased in prominence. Today, it is one of the top places for Army leaders to study and train.

Fort Leavenworth played an important role in protecting the starting points of both the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails.

History of Fort Leavenworth

This city was founded as an Army post in 1827. It remains an Army Installation, although other aspects of the town have developed around it. The Army is still one of the driving forces in the economy of Fort Leavenworth and nearby Leavenworth, Kansas. Numerous historic markers, museums, and monuments mark the importance of various sites in the history of the area.

In its beginnings, the Fort was an important stopping point both for the Army and civilians moving through the area. It was situated near the Santa Fe Trail, a route that many wagons took from Franklin, Missouri all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was originally called Cantonment Leavenworth after the Colonel who established it. He had orders to find a post suitable for the protection of the Santa Fe Trail. Military leaders realized quickly the importance of the site, as both the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails began there. It was an important show of strength before wagons began the long and dangerous journey. It was renamed Fort Leavenworth in 1832.

The Kansas state flag waving along with the national flag of the United States of America. In the background there is a clear sky. Kansas is a state in the Midwestern United States

Kansas became a state in 1861, many years after the founding of Fort Leavenworth.

The Rookery was built to house bachelor Army officers just after its renaming. It remains the oldest building in Kansas still standing. It served as the state’s capital in later years. The Rookery is still located at its original site on Fort Leavenworth.

Up until 1854, Kansas was mostly uninhabited by settlers. The majority of the people who lived in the area were American Indians. Tribal nations that lived in this area included the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kansa, Kiowa, Osage, Pawnee, and Wichita. But in 1854, Kansas became a territory and in 1861, Kansas joined the United States as the 34th state. Throughout its path to statehood, there were many disputes about its borders.

Much of the Fort’s history includes conflicts with Native American tribes in the region. Because of its strategic location, it was important to both keep the area secure for settlers as well as outfit troops moving west. It was on high alert during most parts of the Civil War. However, Confederate troops never actually attacked. The Fort remained under Union control.

Sante Fe National Historic Trail Oklahoma

Segments of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail run through five states.

Establishment as an Academic Hub

The current reputation of Fort Leavenworth as a strong academic and training location for Army leaders traces back to the founding of the School of Application for Cavalry and Infantry in 1881. This would evolve into its current role as the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Senior Army leaders, including generals, often study and train for strategic roles at Fort Leavenworth. During World War I, graduates were exceptionally prepared to develop expeditionary plans, which proved vital to the success of the war effort. The same was true during World War II. Notable students include Generals Patton, Bradley, Macarthur, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Fort Leavenworth is still the site of advanced military studies programs as well as command preparation courses for military officers and senior leaders. Courses and programs are only open for Army personnel, with limited exceptions. In some cases, military leaders from other countries have come to study at Fort Leavenworth, increasing the partnership and trust between nations.

Notable Sites in the Area

Nearby Leavenworth, Kansas is the civilian counterpart to the Army installation. It has must-see sites as well. A restored 1913 carousel, a 28-block historic district with local shops and boutiques, and the Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum are all great places to visit. Access to Fort Leavenworth is easy.

Kansas City is also close to the area and has many great places to visit. It is the home to the Kansas City Royals baseball team and the Kansas City Chiefs football team. The zoo, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and countless world-class barbecue restaurants complete a great visit to KC.

Parts of Fort Leavenworth are open to the public, although you’ll need to stop by the Visitor’s Center to get access. There are museums, static displays, and a moving tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers, Black soldiers who specialized in conflicts in this area. These regiments were crucial to the safety of American westward expansion.

Hopefully, you won’t experience a visit firsthand, but Fort Leavenworth is also home to an Army disciplinary barracks, the only maximum security facility in the Army. The Leavenworth Penitentiary is also located here. Prisoners housed within its walls over the years included Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Another space that holds significant meaning is the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery. Then-President Lincoln established the cemetery in 1862. There are soldiers from the War of 1812, and the Civil War, as well as numerous more recent conflicts buried in the cemetery. Currently, space is only available for those who have family members already buried in the cemetery. While a visit is a solemn occasion, it is a good place to remember those who served.

Mesmerizing view of a beautiful Missouri river, a bridge at Leavenworth Kansas

The Missouri River, seen here under a bridge at Leavenworth, Kansas, is the longest river in the United States.

Where is Fort Leavenworth?

Fort Leavenworth is on the border of Kansas and Missouri, next to the Missouri River. Leavenworth, Kansas is just south of the military installation. Kansas City to the southeast is the closest large city. While part of Kansas City is located in Kansas, the majority of the metropolitan area is actually in Missouri. Topeka, Kansas is to the southwest, around 65 miles.

Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City is the closest major city to Fort Leavenworth.

Kansas City International Airport is the closest major airport to Fort Leavenworth. Located just 20 miles from the gate, it includes international flight options as well as domestic travel routes. The Sherman Army Airfield, located on Fort Leavenworth, is smaller but is open to both military and civilian aircraft through an agreement between the Army and the town of Leavenworth. Civilian flight operations are limited to private and corporate aircraft.

Where Is Fort Leavenworth Located on a Map?

Fort Leavenworth is located in northeast Kansas, sitting on the border of Kansas and Missouri. The largest nearby city, Kansas City, is 33 miles southeast of Fort Leavenworth.

Wildlife You’ll Find in Kansas

There are plenty of amazing animals in Kansas. Fort Leavenworth is on the Missouri River. It is home to many aquatic animals and others found throughout the state. Walleye, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and catfish swim through the Missouri River and are easy to catch with the right bait in this area. You will need a fishing license to fish.

The bison is the official state mammal but others common in this area include prairie dogs, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and rabbits. Because of its proximity to the Missouri River and other smaller creeks and streams, beavers are also plentiful.

Fort Leavenworth is a great place to observe birds. The eastern meadowlark is the state bird. You can see them throughout Kansas, especially in places where there is plenty of natural prairie. Northern cardinals, house finches, robins, and woodpeckers are also common in Kansas.

Copperheads, timber rattlesnakes, prairie rattlesnakes, and black widow spiders are some of the more dangerous animals in Kansas. While they aren’t normally aggressive, these venomous snakes and insects should be avoided whenever possible. They can attack if they feel threatened.

Bass fishing lure. Caught bass fish in fisherman hands. Largemouth perch

You can catch largemouth bass in the Missouri River near Leavenworth.

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About the Author

Katie is a freelance writer and teaching artist specializing in home, lifestyle, and family topics. Her work has appeared in At Ease Magazine, PEOPLE, and The Spruce, among others. When she is not writing, Katie teaches creative writing with the Apex Arts Magnet Program in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. You can follow Katie @katiemelynnwriter.

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