By John Bartlett Meserve.
The romantic annals of Eastern Oklahoma are enriched by the interesting career of Governor Montfort Stokes whose grave at Ft. Gibson has become a shrine for the patriotic societies of the State. He was a soldier in our war for independence, and, so far as now known, is the only hero of the Revolution to rest within the confines of Oklahoma. He was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia, on March 12, 1762 and at the age of fourteen enlisted in the merchant marine. In 1776, at the outbreak of the Revolution, he enlisted in the Continental Navy under Commodore Stephen Decatur and later in the same year was taken a captive by the British and held in confinement in the British prison ship "Jersey" off New York harbor. The sufferings and hardships endured by the prisoners on this ship were unspeakable and some eleven hundred of the fellow prisoners of young Stokes perished from starvation and vile sanitary conditions.
After seven months detention, Stokes was released and upon the conclusion of the war, went to North Carolina and became a planter. He was elected clerk of the state senate and served from 1786 to 1790 and in 1790 was chosen clerk of the superior court of Rowan County, North Carolina. With a modesty quite unexplainable, he declined the election to the United States Senate in 1804 although he was to serve subsequently in that position. It was about 1812, that he removed to Wilksboro and in 1816 was again chosen to the United States Senate, serving in that august body from December 4, 1816 until March 3, 1823. From 1826 to 1829, he was a member of the state senate, which was followed by a two year term in the state house of representatives.
As an evidence of the interest of Mr. Stokes in matters of higher education, it will be observed that he served as a trustee of the University of North Carolina from 1804 to 1838 and served at three different times as its president. In 1830, he was chairman of the board of visitors of the United States Military Academy at West Point and also served as a presidential elector from North Carolina in 1804, 1812, 1824 and 1828.
He became governor of North Carolina in 1830 but resigned in 1832 to accept an appointment at the hand of President Jackson as a member of a newly created Board of Commissioners to deal with the Indians in the West and shortly thereafter removed to Ft. Gibson. This Commission consisting of three members of which Governor Stokes was chairman, was authorized by an act of Congress of July 14, 1832 and was directed to organize at Ft. Gibson; to compose the differences between the Creeks and Cherokees; to make peace between the immigrant Indians and the native tribes; to undertake the removal of the Osages; and to accomplish many other plans which were never realized during the two years of its existence. The services rendered by this Commission were largely performed by Governor Stokes who exhibited the fullest sympathy with the Indians and omitted no effort to voice their complaints in the strongest terms to the authorities at Washington.
Upon the expiration of the life of this Commission, Stokes was designated a commissioner to negotiate treaties with the various Indian tribes in the South and Southwest, in which he rendered a most efficient service and in 1837, was appointed Indian Agent for the Cherokees and served in that capacity until 1841. He became agent for the Senecas, Shawnees and Quapaws on September 8, 1842, but died shortly thereafter.
Governor Montfort Stokes died at or near Ft. Gibson on November 4, 1842, closing a most interesting career which is ever linked with the early formative days of our state history. It is difficult to appraise his choice to resign the governorship of North Carolina and become a soldier of fortune among the semi-savage Indian tribes in the West among whom conditions were, at that time, in a most turbulent situation. The service which he rendered was most unselfishly performed and he enjoyed the fullest confidence of the Indians to whose best concerns he devoted the years of his penance among them. At a meeting of the officers and citizens at Ft. Gibson on the funeral day of the Governor, Dr. J. R. Motte expressed himself, "He was of the sternest moral rectitude and integrity, he died full of years and of honors, leaving no stain upon his fair fame and believing that honesty and integrity should be rewarded hereafter. Although far from home and
kindred, he received, during his last illness, all the kind attention that children would bestow upon a father. His last hours were soothed by the presence of his many friends and his exit was without a struggle." These words, contemporaneously uttered, should reflect the character of the man.
Of the domestic life of Governor Stokes, very little is known. He had several children, one of whom, Major Montfort S. Stokes served with distinction in the Mexican War. It is related that at some time before coming West, he fought a duel at Mason's old field near Salisbury, North Carolina with one Gen. Jesse D. Pierson and was quite severely wounded.
The grave of Governor Montfort Stokes at Ft. Gibson is suitably marked by an imposing marble shaft.1