What if? Historians aren’t supposed to answer this question, but it keeps getting asked just the same. Frederick Funston remains a big “what if” which might have altered his place in history, and the recognition he receives by history.

Funston was born in New Carlisle, Ohio on November 9, 1865. His family moved to Allen County, Kansas in 1881, where his father quickly placed himself in the community, being elected to Congress in 1884. Fred was only 5’5″, but that was no barrier to him. While he failed the admissions test to West Point, he attended the University of Kansas, where among his friends was the future editor of the Emporia Gazette, William Allen White.

Failing to graduate, he took a variety of jobs. He was a trainman for the Santa Fe Railroad. In 1890 he was a reporter in Kansas City. He joined a surveying expedition of Death Valley, then worked for the Department of Agriculture in Alaska.

funstonFinally, military experience came in the form of joining the Cuban Revolutionary Army in 1896. While at home on sick leave, he was appointed Colonel of the 20th Kansas Infantry in 1898. He led that regiment in the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, then the Philppine-American War. For bravery in that war, he would receive the Medal of Honor.

He would become a national hero when he took part in the capture of the Filipino President Emilio Aguinaldo in the latter war. This won him an appointment in the regular army.

Funston again won recognition in 1906 as the commanding general at the Presidio in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 Earthquake. He did receive considerable criticism at times for the way he carried out his duty, but he remained a top general in the army.

He was in charge of the army’s Southern Department at the time of Pancho Villa’s raid in 1916, sending his subordinate, John J. Pershing, after the Mexican general. This sets up the “what if.”

Before the American entry into the Great War, President Wilson favored naming Funston to head what became the Allied Expeditionary Force. But Funston was having health problems, and on February 19, 1917, Funston died of a heart attack at San Antonio. Pershing would get the command of the A.E.F.

We are left to wonder what might have been different had Funston been in command of the A.E.F. What would have happened to Pershing? Would we be talking about a WWI memorial at Funston Park in Washington?

Instead, there are tributes to Funston in San Francisco where he was remembered for his efforts in maintaining order following the earthquake, the training camp at Fort Riley would be named for him, and we remember Pershing more so than Funston. Such is the fate of history.


Blair Tarr is the Museum Curator of the Kansas State Historical Society. He oversees the three-dimensional collections of the Society, but has special interests in the Civil War, Wichita-made Valentine diners, and Leavenworth's Abernathy Furniture. In the last few years he has also done a lot of cramming on The Great War. He is a past president of the Kansas Museums Association and the Civil War Round Tables of both Kansas City and Eastern Kansas. He is currently a board member of the Heritage League of Greater Kansas City.