Bleeding through the frigid winter

Fort Row in Wilson County served as the site of some of the worst atrocities against Native Americans in Kansas. Thousands headed to the fort from Oklahoma. They were attacked by Confederates, then found the fort was not prepared to handle their arrival. What followed was gruesome.



June 28, 2021 - 9:28 AM

Near the site of Fort Row, north of Fredonia, one can find a large white sign with fading black letters that describes some of the horrors that took place there. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

The past is full of horrors.

And although they have seemingly passed, such events still haunt in the present, demand our attention and force reevaluation of our values.

One such nightmare occurred at a place called Fort Row in northern Wilson County, just east of Coyville along the southern banks of the Verdigris River.

Likely the best depiction of Fort Row is a charcoal sketch by Joseph W. Allen, of Neodesha, from 1965.Courtesy photo

The fort sprung up in fall 1861, built by local mounted militia to protect against the Confederate guerillas who were terrorizing Kansas from the east.

Indeed, Humboldt had just been burned to ashes by Bushwackers and proslavery men from Missouri, and hence their fears were far from unfounded.

John R. Row, the fort’s namesake and veteran of the Mexican-America War, was selected as militia captain, and he eventually had upward of 70 to 80 men in his company.

A mural in Le Roy depicts Muskogee chief Opothleyahola, who led thousands of indigenous people to Kansas in search of aid during the Civil War. Courtesy photo

Remnants of their occupation of the river banks are few, though a large white sign with black lettering was erected not far from the site a couple decades ago, though has since fallen into disrepair.

Fort Row was built on a fairly flat area not far from the “green-gray-bark-waters” of the Verdigris, in order to provide a wide view of the surrounding terrain.

The steep river banks also served as a natural shield to interlopers, and I myself can attest to the near-impossibility of scaling them.

There were three log blockhouses inside the fort’s perimeter, and a horse stockade that backed up to the river’s edge with rifle portholes cut into its walls.

Row’s militia made the fort their home during its first winter, but in spring 1862 they abandoned their posts in order to join up with the 9th Kansas volunteers.

Shortly after Fort Row was abandoned, however, it bore witness to one of the most devastating human tragedies of the Civil War.

It began when Muskogee/Creek chief Opothleyahola was unsuccessful in his attempts to keep the tribe neutral during the conflict between states.

Capt. John Row, namesake of Fort Row in northern Wilson County, is buried in Toronto Cemetery.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

Not wanting to be drawn into the war, Opothleyahola set out from Oklahoma Territory to Kansas, along with 9,000 Muskogee and 2,600 people from other tribes, including Seminoles, Delawares and Cherokees.

(3,000-4,000 of an even larger original group defected to join the Confederacy).