The year 2004 marked the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark exploration up the Missouri River. As Lewis and Clark passed through the wilderness that eventually was settled as Cantonment Leavenworth they wrote in their journal of having seen the ruins of an early French fur-trading fort.
De Cavagnial – an outpost of probably no more than 50, consisting of a commanding officer and his wife, a handful of soldiers and traders and possibly some Indians – is believed to have been no more than a wooden stockade about 80 feet square. Within its walls were the commander's quarters, a trader's house, guardhouse and powder house.
Lt. Col. Michel Castilion, a French officer stationed at Fort Leavenworth in the 1980s, said De Cavagnial's primary purposes were to materialize the sovereignty of the king of France, to support the fur trade and trade with the nearby Kansa Indians, and to spread the Catholic faith.
The French outpost dates from about 1744. It remained active for about 20 years, until the French ceded the area to Spain. Abandoned, De Cavagnial was left to slowly rot away – the ruins that Lewis and Clark noted in 1804. Finally almost every trace of the old fort vanished, its precise location eluding searchers.
In 1966 the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society erected a bronze marker atop Hancock Hill. It reads: "Fort de Cavagnial 1744-1764. Somewhere within the area seen from this hill, France in the reign of Louis XV maintained a log fort to facilitate trade with the Kansa Indians and the Spanish in New Mexico."
But the exact location of the old fort continued to elude searchers who tried to find whatever might still be hidden there – foundations of the buildings, a button lost from a soldier's uniform, or possibly a coin or two.
Then the Army officer who eventually solved the mystery arrived at Fort Leavenworth. He was Maj. David L. Campbell, an instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Maj. Campbell thought whatever remained of De Cavagnial could be pinpointed, and in his spare time he began what proved to be a successful quest.
Maj. Campbell employed a technique called "templating," drawing a scaled diagram of the area based upon historical records and other facts. After the template is drawn, it is positioned on a map of the area and moved about, seeking to match the features of the two.
"I began by reading the history of the area," Campbell said. "Then, I zeroed in on specifics, on what was known of the French, and written descriptions. I read Lewis and Clark's reports in Leavenworth's museum. I'd heard it said they were the last two to see the fort. I couldn't believe that. As it turned out, I was right."
In 1983 Maj. Campbell's search utilized aerial infrared photography and began gathering clues for his templates. He said the process of elimination started by drawing existing and dried up watercourses on his first template. Lewis and Clark reported a stream that flowed into a turkey creek behind an Indian village. The major had read that the fort was located near an Indian village. An early report written in 1846 mentioned a stream that formed a natural moat to the north and east of the outpost. From these three clues Campbell pinpointed 21 sites in a relatively limited area that met his criteria. But more clues were needed.
Page 2 of 2 - In a 1987 article by Janet Wray, she said Campbell found help in a description of Lewis and Clark's expedition by Elliott Coues, who wrote, "…the situation of the fort may be recognized by some remains of chimneys." Campbell looked for possible locations and camp sites from where Lewis and Clark might have seen those chimneys, reasoning there was a maximum distance from the river they could have seen a chimney. All but five of the original 21 sites were eliminated.
Maj. Campbell continued to narrow his search. There was a reference to the fort being a mile inland from the Kansa village. Campbell made another template. The only thing he knew about the village's location was that it was near the bluffs, Wray wrote. He cut out the shape and positioned the template over the possible locations determined by the other factors. This eliminated 12 of the original 21 locations, including one of the five from the skylining template.
Now he had an area along the river bluffs that was three-quarters of a mile long. But he was searching for a point 80-feet square. A report in the Kansas State Historical Society's collection referred to "some people from Cantonment Leavenworth (later renamed Fort Leavenworth) who rode out to the Indian villages. This report indicated there was an Indian village across the stream to the north of De Cavagnial, Campbell said.
Campbell prepared another template that confirmed four of the five skylined locations. "By the second, third and fourth time those four areas showed up, I began to get the idea that the fort was somewhere along the little section of ridge."
At that point Campbell decided to visit one of the sites in the immediate vicinity of the Kickapoo Memorial Cemetery. He explained to the landowner why he had come. The man replied that he was well aware of the old fort. "Yes, it's right over there beneath those three trees," he declared.
Campbell discovered an old stone foundation where the landowner had pointed. He hoped to return at a later date for a closer look. "Twenty years of French presence should have left something substantial," he reasoned, "so I'm going to see if I can find the trash dump." Once having confirmed the location as the site of Fort de Cavagnial, it was his intention to leave any excavations to professionals.
That was several years ago. Maj. Campbell was reassigned to Tampa, Fla., and later retired. The landowner declined any further exploration on his property.
And so whatever secrets may exist from the first white presence in the region still remain to be brought to light.
Several items have been found and reported to me, by the man who unearthed them, while farming the land where the fort was located.