Fort Scott title

15 best things to do in historic Fort Scott, kansas

Fort Scott, Kansas, honors heroes. I am the Fort Scott National Historic Site and want to tell you our city’s story. Fort Scott is about an hour and a half south of Kansas City, and it’s the perfect weekend getaway. Our city, beside the Marmaton River, has a rich history.

Roxie’s reliable report: Ride Dolly the Trolley for Fort Scott trolley tours. Rides begin at the visitor center. Call ahead for the schedule.

Visit Fort Scott sponsored my visit, but all opinions are mine. If you use our affiliate links, including Stay22, to make a purchase, we might earn a small commission for our time and website costs (at no additional cost to you).  These links are always disclosed. 

Table of contents

National Historic Site | First Kansas Colored Infantry | George Washington Carver | National Cemetery | Irena Sendler | Lowell Milken Center | Gordon Parks | Shop Fort Scott | Outdoor recreation | Courtland Hotel & Spa | Laura Ingalls Wilder | Dine in Fort Scott | Theater in Fort Scott | Frontier Military Historic Byway

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1. Take pride at Fort Scott National Historic Site

My heart swelled with pride in 1842 when my troopers hoisted the 26-star flag to the top of our flagpole, where it waved in the breeze for the first time. Let me tell you about the history of the Fort Scott National Historic Site. I bear Gen. Winfield Scott’s name. He commanded the Army in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and at the beginning of the American Civil War.

Related: Scott City and Scott County also wear the general’s name.

My dragoons came to keep the peace on the so-called Permanent Indian Frontier. “Permanent” only lasted a few years. My fate was ironic. Instead of keeping white settlers and indigenous people away from each other, my soldiers and I became a catalyst for vast American expansion. The natives were shunted aside. While I grieved for the natives’ fate, I also felt great pride in my soldiers’ service to their country. They protected traders on the Santa Fe Trail and settlers on the Oregon Trail.

Related: Fort Scott is one of our 12 best places worth visiting in Kansas.

Ad: Book these fun Kansas tours.

The 30-star flag in the barracks
Wisconsin’s admission in 1848 brought the count of stars to 30 on the barracks flag.

Fort Scott’s soldiers in the Mexican War

My soldiers marched off to war in 1846. I worried about them the entire time they were fighting Mexico. Some marched to California. Some fought in northern Mexico, and some warred in the south, from Veracruz to Mexico City. Those soldiers served under Gen. Scott. When the soldiers returned to me, I rejoiced and listened eagerly to my heroes’ stories. But then the government closed me in 1853. I wept when the soldiers lowered the 32-star flag above me for the final time. What would become of me now, I wondered.

Well and well canopy
The well was in the no-man’s-land between the Free State and the Western Hotels.

Fort Scott becomes a Bleeding Kansas battleground

The army closed me too soon. In the late 1850s, my namesake city, Fort Scott, and Bourbon County surrounding it, divided over slavery. When the army left, private owners took over my grounds. Two of my buildings became hotels—each one catered to opposing beliefs about slavery. Kansas Territory bled, and I shuddered at the violence. I helplessly watched murders. My heart bled as the murdered men’s lives drained into my ground.  I had to tolerate my officers enslaving people when I was a fort, and I detested it. But I didn’t want anyone murdered because of their politics. I grieved.

Related: Lawrence’s Eldridge Hotel started as the Free State Hotel.

ammunition stores
Fort Scott became the Union’s storehouse on the Kansas-Missouri border.

Fort Scott in the American Civil War

Civil war broke out in 1861. The Union Army reopened me in 1862. I was so thrilled to watch the 34-star flag waving above me. I became a Union storehouse. Eventually, the army extended my fortifications for 40 miles. My doctors and nurses treated the sick and wounded. Refugees poured into my protection. Some of the refugees were people who escaped slavery. Some refugees needed protection from persecution for their Union sympathies. Many camped at Buck Run south of Fort Scott, where the Buck Run Community Center now stands.

The First Kansas Colored Infantry

Pride filled my heart when I heard about the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. At last, the Star-Spangled Banner waved over the Land of the Free. I wept with joy and pride when the First Kansas Colored Infantry joined the Union service that year. They had already signed up for state service, but the federals finally accepted them after the proclamation. Those men were able to take freedom for themselves. I rejoiced to see them march with such dignity.

Leavenworth business owner William Matthews was the first to enlist. He became a captain and recruited others to join. By October 1862, the First Kansas had enrolled around 600 men. While still in state service, they marched into Bates County, Missouri, to fight guerrillas at Island Mound. After a two-day siege, the regiment and the Fifth Kansas Cavalry forced the Confederates to withdraw. The skirmish was the first time Black soldiers fought in the Civil War.

After Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the regiment became the First and Second Kansas Colored Infantry. The regiments mustered into service on the Fort Scott parade ground. Unfortunately, the unit’s federalization meant Matthews lost his captaincy because the federals refused to allow Black officers. He served as a non-commissioned officer instead.

Roxie’s reliable report: Matthews later became a first lieutenant in Douglas’s Independent Colored Kansas Battery.

Related: Black soldiers won their second battle at Milliken’s Bend during the Vicksburg (Mississippi) Campaign.

Carver’s first Kansas home

Famed Black scientist George Washington Carver attended the Fort Scott Colored Public School in the former army hospital from September 1878 to the end of March 1879. He studied English, history, mathematics, art, and science. Sadly, he left after watching the prelude to a lynching. The school building is now the visitor center.

Related: Carver went to Winterset, Iowa, for more education.

Related: William Johnson freed himself from slavery. As a Black artilleryman, he helped to overturn it.

The army remained on my grounds for only a few months after the war’s merciful end, but I would have one more life as a fort. I rejoiced as I watched the City of Fort Scott flourish. When the railroad came to Fort Scott in 1869, the final chapter of my life as a fort came with it.

Fort Scott’s soldiers vs. settlers

Instead of Fort Scott, the army named me the Post of Southeast Kansas. My headquarters were in the city instead of on my original grounds. This time, 37 stars were on the flag. Many of the desperate refugees who had sought my help during the war now squatted on land south of Fort Scott. They shot at the railroad crews when the railroad chased them away from their homes. My soldiers protected the railroad workers. They finished laying track in 1873, securing Fort Scott’s prosperity. But I felt bad for the squatters. With the railroad complete, the military closed Fort Scott’s operations for the final time. I went to sleep for many years.

Related: The 13-mile Kansas section of Route 66 is only an hour south of Fort Scott.


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Fort Scott NHS with flags
The 50-star flag waves above Fort Scott National Historic Site.

Fort Scott becomes a National Historic Site

Nearly 100 years later, I woke up again. In 1964, my community listed me as a National Historic Landmark. Joyful tears streamed down my face when the glorious 50-star flag waved above me.I felt so grateful that they understood what I had done to keep the peace and help them grow. Congressman Joe Skubitz served on the House Interior Committee and helped me gain recognition. I reopened in 1975. Finally, on May 18, 1979, the National Park Service accepted me as a National Historic Site. I welcomed my millionth visitor in 1993. I am so profoundly grateful that my soldiers’ sacrifices are still remembered by the nation they loved and served.

Joe Skubitz Plaza joins the Downtown Fort Scott to the fort.

In 2013, Fort Scott installed a memorial to three of her sons, Marine First Lieutenant William D. Hawkins, Privates George F. Pond, and William H. Longshore, in the plaza outside my gates. Each had earned the Medal of Honor, the ultimate American award for valor. Please come to honor them.

Eugene Ware Memorial in Fort Scott National Cemetery
The boulder is an unusual marker anywhere, but especially in a national cemetery.

2. Where heroes rest: Fort Scott National Cemetery No. 1

The original fort’s cemetery was on the city’s west side, but the war’s advent overwhelmed the original cemetery. In 1861, the post officers and citizens purchased the four-acre Presbyterian Graveyard for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The next year, Congress established 14 national cemeteries and designated Fort Scott as Cemetery No. 1. The original graveyard added an adjoining tract.

The cemetery’s road network creates a heart-shaped section. Most national cemetery headstones are the same white marble, but one marker in the heart-shaped section does not follow any cemetery’s pattern. Eugene F. Ware chose a red sandstone boulder for his marker. The poet named “Ironquill” liked the boulder’s beauty and simplicity.

Other notable markers include the First Kansas Colored Volunteers Monument, which honors the 13 soldiers who died at a battle near Sherwood, Missouri, on May 18, 1863, plus three more Kansas Colored Battery soldiers. The First Kansas Colored was the first Black regiment to fight Confederates, and the unit suffered more casualties than any other Kansas regiment. Eighty-eight other Black soldiers rest in the cemetery. Some indigenous soldiers left Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to fight for the Union. Seventeen of them are in the cemetery.

Some of the buried had served the Confederacy. A row with 14 prisoners-of-war is offset from the Union graves. Confederate stones have a point on the center top, unlike the Union graves’ arch. Supposedly, the point is to prevent Unionists from sitting on the Confederate stones.

Roxie’s reliable report: Every Memorial Day Weekend, volunteers place 7,000 flags, “Symbols of Sacrifice,” on Fort Scott National Cemetery’s Field of Honor.

Warsaw Ghetto gate in Lowell Milken Center
The Warsaw Ghetto, a place of terrible darkness, where Irena Sendler’s determination to save children shone like a blazing nova.

3. Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler story impacts the world

I started to hear about Irena Sendler in 1999. Five high school students, Gabrielle Bradbury, Elizabeth Cambers, Sabrina Coons, Megan Stewart, and Janice Underwood, had discovered her story. They were from Uniontown, 20 minutes west of Fort Scott.

Who was Irena Sendler?

Sendler rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. After she smuggled them out, she placed them with Polish citizens. She buried coded lists of their true identities in milk jars under an apple tree — across the street from German soldiers’ barracks. The Nazis caught her and tortured her. They intended to execute her, but before they could do it, the resistance bribed a guard. She escaped.

In 1999, people thought Sendler was dead. Instead, she was still alive.

Inspired, the students created a 10-minute play, Life in a Jar, for Kansas History Day. Their project took them to National History Day in Washington, D.C. With help from their community, Kansas City Holocaust survivors, and philanthropists, the students visited Sendler in Warsaw. Their help lifted Sendler from poverty during her final years and sparked a deep friendship between Sendler and the students. While Sendler has passed away, their presentation’s impact continues.

Unsung Heroes Museum
Fort Scott’s Lowell Milken Center celebrates unsung heroes like those who integrated Little Rock Central High School and those who supported them.

Fort Scott adds the Lowell Milken Center

In 2016, the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes opened a quarter-mile away from me in the historic town. Sendler’s story is a centerpiece there. Please bring tissues because the center is very emotional. Of course, I can’t visit the museum, but I listen as my visitors describe their experiences at the center.

Besides Sendler, the center tells other heroes’ stories. You’ll meet the Little Rock Nine, who integrated Little Rock Central High with Kendall Reinhardt and Ann Williams, students who supported them. Pavel Weiner and others published secret newspapers to document the horrors of life in Terezin, a Nazi transport camp in Czechoslovakia. To found pediatric cardiology, Helen Taussig overcame sexism, dyslexia, and severe hearing loss. She learned how to cure blue-baby syndrome and paved the way for open-heart surgery.

When people come to me after visiting the center, I shamelessly eavesdrop to hear about the unsung heroes’ stories.

Gordon Parks Museum sign, Fort Scott
Gordon Parks Museum honors Fort Scott’s multiple award-winning author, photographer, composer and film maker.

4. Honoring Gordon Parks in Fort Scott

I can’t say that I remember Gordon Parks while he lived in Fort Scott. He left in 1928 when he was 16 and moved to Minneapolis. He was waiting tables on a train when he discovered images of Depression-era migrant workers. The images inspired him, and he bought a camera to use as a weapon against racism. Parks’ style highlighted the beauty of the ordinary. He attuned his lens to capture both glamour and suffering, earning numerous assignments and awards.

I do remember his 1950 return. He was LIFE Magazine‘s first Black photographer, and they sent him home to track down his junior high classmates. Unfortunately, the magazine bumped the Fort Scott piece out of its lineup and was never published.

Director's chair from The Learning Tree.
Gordon Parks’ director’s chair from The Learning Tree.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1969, Parks became the first Black man to direct a major motion picture. The Learning Tree was Parks’s autobiography, thinly disguised. He returned to shoot the movie again, although he changed Fort Scott’s name to Cherokee Flats. He directed the film, but he produced it, wrote the screenplay, and composed the score.

In 1989, the Library of Congress selected The Learning Tree as one of the first 25 movies in the National Film Registry. Trace the filming on The Learning Tree Film Scene and Sign Trail. The trail extends north into Linn County.

Parks returns home

In 2004, Parks attended the first Gordon Parks Celebration at Fort Scott Community College. At his death in 2006, he willed numerous personal effects and memorabilia to the Gordon Parks Museum at the college. His family continues the tradition. Again, I cannot visit the museum, but I enjoy hearing stories about Parks.

Roxie’s reliable report: Parks rests with his family in the Evergreen Cemetery. A black marker displays Parks’ quotes about his hometown’s progress in combating racism. Medal of Honor recipients Pond and Longshore also rest in Evergreen. However, Hawkins’s remains are in the Punchbowl in Hawai’i.

Fort Scott has come a long way from the days when I endured watching slavery on my grounds. But we still have a long way to go.

painted ladies in Fort Scott, one of the best places to visit in Kansas
Fort Scott boasts many architectural treasures, including these Painted Ladies.

5. Shop Fort Scott

Stroll through our diverse downtown historic district. It’s filled with original buildings, including beautiful Painted Ladies. One of them is now home to The Artificers. The gallery isn’t a cold, minimalist space like many galleries are. Instead, it’s a place to curl up in a chair and envision where T.E. and Kate Freeman’s works will fit in your home. T.E. specializes in ceramic torches. He combines ceramics with found objects. Many of them have wired-together places, like the scars that all humans bear. The artworks seem to understand life’s glory and pain. Kate combines clay and paints to create her unique style. She loves bright colors, and the influence of Claude Monet, her favorite artist, is evident.

Guest artists exhibit and teach master classes. Not ready for a master class? Then sign up for adult and children’s classes. Adults tend to leak creativity; let The Artificers plug the leak as you play with clay. Remember those mud pies you made? These will look better and last longer.

The Fort Scott Farmers Market sets up at Skubitz Plaza, right in front of me. Appropriately for a fort that began a city, we have Fort Scott Munitions and Fort Scott Gun & Pawn. Lose yourself in the stacks at Hedgehog.INK, the best-organized used bookstore I’ve ever visited.

Shop the flea markets at Main Street Vintage & Co. and Treasure Hunt Flea Market.

6-11. Embrace the outdoors in Fort Scott

Besides the history, architecture, and art, Fort Scott offers numerous outdoor recreation opportunities. W.C. Gunn donated his namesake Gunn Park to the city in 1910. The state stocks the park’s Fern Lake with trout from October 15 to April 15. Anglers over age 16 need a fishing license and a trout permit. The park also offers an 18-hole disc golf course, seven shelters, camping sites, playgrounds, and trails for mountain bikes.

Lake Fort Scott offers 360 acres of fishing and boating. Flathead and channel catfish, largemouth and spotted bass await your lures.

Play in the water at Fort Scott Aquatic Center. Facilities include slides, diving boards, and a play area for younger children.

Hit the links at one of the state’s best municipal courses, the 18-hole Woodland Hills Golf Course.

Get dirty at Kansas Rocks Recreation Park. Sixty-five trails on 380 acres await off-roaders, hikers, and mountain bikers. You’ll never need to leave; just camp on-site.

Exploring will bring you to Bourbon Lake and Rock Creek Lake waterfalls.

Stop and smell the lavender at Lavender Patch Farm. They hold special events, including Lavender Fest.

Courtland Hotel Spa, Fort Scott
Get pampered at the Courtland Hotel’s spa.

12. Sit in luxury’s lap at the Courtland Hotel & Spa

Avoid a ho-hum hotel and stay in the Courtland Hotel & Spa. You deserve some pampering. The hotel was built in 1906 for railroad traffic. It originally had only one bathroom, but don’t fear bathroom traffic jams. A remodel added bathrooms for each suite. The first floor’s south side has a common area with a breakfast nook. The rooms are on the second floor, and the staircase is steep. However, owner Frank Adamson will carry up your luggage.

Each boutique hotel room is a different size, but all are welcoming and cozy with flat-screen TVs, individual heat and air conditioning, plus exclusive toiletries. A library and gathering place greet guests at the top of the stairs. The hall retains its original skylights. The natural light is perfect for reading at the table. You’ll want more than just an overnight stay.

The first floor’s north side is the spa, Cheryl Adamson’s domain. Luxuriate with a manicure, pedicure, facial, waxing, body wrap, or (my favorite) a massage. My aching back felt much better after a session with Sarah, one of the spa’s massage therapists, and she taught me a simple exercise to help me.

The hotel is an easy walk to Downtown Fort Scott’s boutique shops and the national historic site.

Laura Ingalls Wilder in Fort Scott

Fort Scott’s post office formerly inhabited the now-vacant lot across from the Courtland. The post office attracted Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder on August 21, 1894. She posted a letter there during the family’s move from DeSmet, South Dakota, to Mansfield, Missouri.

In 2020, Fort Scott Mayor Jeanie Parker proclaimed that every August 21 would be Laura Ingalls Wilder Day in Fort Scott.

13. Dine in Fort Scott

Fine dining is easy to find in Fort Scott. Sharks don’t swim in Fort Scott except at Sharky’s Pub & Grill. Try the Caribbean marinated pork chop. Drink a bourbon in Bourbon County with your seafood ravioli at Crooner’s Fort Scott. For a casual experience, savor barbecue at Luther’s BBQ and order diner classics at the Nu Grille.

14. Attend the theater in Fort Scott

Liberty Theater is a performance and event venue in a restored movie palace. Look for the murals of dragoons at the fort and Western settlers in Fort Scott. Visit the Fort Cinema for first-run movies.

15. Explore Frontier Military Historic Byway

The Frontier Military Historic Byway ties Fort Scott to Fort Leavenworth, passing through Kansas City and Leavenworth. Candidate Abraham Lincoln visited Leavenworth, Atchison, Doniphan, Troy, and Elwood in 1859.

More to explore

War didn’t end in Kansas until the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork, the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, and the Last Indian Raid in Kansas. During the Korean War, Jack Weinstein of St. Francis earned the Medal of Honor. Discrimination prevented him from receiving it for 63 years.

Read more about Southeast Kansas, Kansas, and the Midwest.

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