Restored Nebraska fort shows what life was like for 1880s soldiers

March 30, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Fort Hartsuff sits on the eastern edge of the Sandhills (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

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There’s an old army fort on the edge of the Sandhills that offers a glimpse into the life of soldiers 140 years ago. For this NET News Signature Story, Mike Tobias takes us on a tour of Fort Hartsuff.

VIDEO: "Fort Hartsuff on the Sandhills Frontier," segment from NET's "Nebraska Stories"

Fort Hartsuff as it looked in the 1880s (photo courtesy Nebraska Game and Parks)

Fort Hartsuff parade grounds (all photos below by Mike Tobias, NET News)

A small fence helped keep animals off the parade grounds.

Commanding captain's house.

Inside the barracks for enlisted soldiers.

Jim Domeier, Fort Hartsuff superintendent.

Mary Hughes, Nebraska Game and Parks.

If you were an 1880s soldier looking for action, looking for excitement, this was not where you wanted to be stationed. Fort Hartsuff, near the North Loup River on the eastern edge of Nebraska’s Sandhills between Ord and Burwell.

“They talk about how bored they were, that there really wasn't a whole lot going on other than like the drills on the parade ground,” said Mary Hughes, who helps run the Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park.

Today Nebraska Game and Parks maintains the fort the way it looked when it was an infantry post from 1874 to 1881. Nine permanent buildings line the open parade grounds of the 1200 acre facility. Aside from the boredom, it wasn’t a bad place to live back then. Soldiers slept and worked more comfortably inside buildings with thick lime concrete walls, a material choice driven by the lack of trees around at the time.

“It was like the cream puff of all of the forts,” Hughes said, “because the thick walls kept the buildings comfortable and up on the hill behind this building is the cistern and the well and so they had pressurized water down on the outside of each of these buildings. So that was very uptown for the 1870s.”

The commanding captain had his own elaborately furnished two-story house. Next door, framed by two towering Ponderosa pines imported by the soldiers, is another elegant house shared by two other officers.

“To see what the officers, what they lived in and how nice it was when you consider at that time most of the settlers are living in one room sod houses or dugouts, the officer quarters had to look pretty impressive to them as a residence,” said Jim Domeier, superintendent of Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park.

The rest of the troops lived in the barracks, with simple beds lining each side of a long, narrow room. At the time a full company was 60 soldiers.

“But it was pretty rare to have a full company because the desertion rate was pretty high at that time,” Domeier said. “There's always somebody gone, somebody sick.”

“And then when they discovered gold in the Black Hills, then the desertion rate was up pretty good,” Hughes added. “It was like 25 percent. So we never ever had a full company here.”

Enlisted men made about $13 a month, less than the civilian laundresses who lived on the grounds. Soldiers paid them to wash their uniforms, a process that took several days. Laundress was a high-turnover job, though.

“Women were scarce out here and a lot of time they’d get married and they’d be gone,” Domeier said.

A hospital served soldiers and locals from the area. Typhoid fever killed one of the three soldiers who died while at Fort Hartsuff. Another was killed during a skirmish with Sioux warriors, the only significant battle for Hartsuff soldiers; three survivors were awarded the Medal of Honor. The third death involved a low, white, wooden fence built with crisscross pickets.

“He drank a little too much that day and was pretty intoxicated, and story goes that he got sick and was always getting sick over that fence and got his neck between the pickets and supposedly hung himself,” Domeier said.

For the most part there wasn’t a lot of danger here. The small picket fence was more for keeping animals off the parade grounds then protecting the fort from attack. With a 97 foot pine flag pole in the middle, this is where soldiers spent a lot of their time, drilling and practicing maneuvers two or three times a day. Occasional social events helped break the monotony.

“They would celebrate whenever they had a chance,” Domeier said. “They would hold a lot of balls here. They had a big Thanksgiving ball. At Christmastime the soldiers would put on skits and plays and melodramas and things like that. Whenever they could, and they would invite all the settlers in the area, so it made life a little more enjoyable for the soldiers and gave the settlers something to do to.”

The fort was put here to protect these new settlers, but also local Pawnee Indians from their traditional enemy, the Sioux. By 1881 the U.S. Army decided it wasn’t needed anymore and Fort Hartsuff was abandoned. Years later it was restored. Today Domeier and Hughes said Fort Hartsuff is a secret to some, but a place that serves an important educational purpose.

“This gives the people of Nebraska a chance to step back in time and just see what it was really like,” Domeier said. “They get an idea what furniture was like and when we do living history events out here they get a chance to see just what the soldiers did at that time period. This is probably one of the most complete forts of this time period, anywhere in the whole country.”

“It’s just a great place. Part of Nebraska history,” Hughes added.