Articles and activities celebrating the 150 anniversary of Hancock’s War and the development of both Ft. Hays and Hays City have dominated the media. Those living in temperature controlled homes and driving vehicles down paved roads and highways easily forget what this region was like 1800 months ago. If you want to peek at prairie life then, read letters Dr. Theophilus H. Turner sent from Fort Wallace in 1867. To do so, link to Kenneth Almy’s journal article, Autumn 1987 Kansas History http://kshs.org/publicat/history/1987autumn_almy.pdf.
Dr. Turner was an easterner who served as a medical doctor during the Civil War. After mustering out in 1865, Theophilus re-enlisted in the army and found himself stationed on the frontier at Ft. Wallace, which is near Kansas/Colorado border. Little except the cemetery of that fort still exists, but pictures and drawings reveal a hospital, officers’ quarters, stables, supply, and administrative buildings. It was likely the most developed community on the plains between Fort Hays and Denver.
Dr. Turner, or Thof as family and friends knew him, relished life on the prairie. He enjoyed hunting and wrote that he’d hunted buffalo, ducks, and geese soon after his arrival. His early education prepared him to observe life beyond civilization. He remarks on the differences between white and native hunting practices. He remarks on the white’s wastefulness. In a letter to his brother, he explains three Indians spent the night with him and other officers in their quarters. He notes his guests were mystified by photographs, especially of people staying in the barracks with them. He commented, “a photography establishment among them would be a paying institution.”
Not only did he enjoy hunting and studying native culture, local geology intrigued him. Despite bad weather and Indian danger, Thof and Scout William Comstock rode over the country, noting landscape features and discovering marine fossils. One of these finds near nearby McCallaster Butte in what is now Logan County later fueled heated public disagreements between famed paleontologists. E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh.
Dr. Cope determined that Thof’s dragon, the 40-foot sea creature Turner and Comstock recovered, was an Elasmosaurus platyurus. When he assembled bones Turner found north of Ft. Wallace and sent to him, he mistakenly determined this was a long-tailed, short-necked creature. Marsh, his competitive colleague, corrected him, which led to the virulent disputes that constituted the infamous Bone Wars.
Unfortunately, Theophilus’s life ended soon after he retrieved and shared his ancient sea creature. He died at Ft. Wallace of acute gastritis in 1869. Before his death, he and Dr. Cope corresponded frequently. Fortunately, someone discovered those long missing letters as well as the ones Turner wrote to his family in time to enhance the Academy of Natural Sciences 1986 Discovering Dinosaurs Exhibit.
Currently, a group of local historians is filming a documentary about Dr. Turner and his life at Fort Wallace. Interested readers can keep up with their progress on the Facebook page, Thof’s Dragon. It weaves history and science from the past into the present, forming part of the tapestry we call Kansas.