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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 2, No. 2
June, 1924
THE CENTENNIAL OF FORT GIBSON

Grant Foreman

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The month of April 1924, marked the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Fort Gibson, then the farthest and most important outpost of the United States upon the uncharted Louisiana Purchase. The story of Fort Gibson is an epic of the prairies; a tale of the winning of the great southwest; of the conquest of the fleet warriors of the plains; of the security of trade and contact with old Santa Fe and California. Fort Gibson saw the beginning and end of the covered wagon romance; the passing of the keel-boat and the whole career of the river steamboat.

But a few days ago, a sale by the Government of oil leases on lands of the Osage Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma added over seven million dollars to the great wealth of a little band of 2,000 people already the richest in the world. The relevancy of one event to the other is far from obvious, but in retrospect they have much in common.

In the early history of the United States the Osage Tribe was one of the most powerful and war-like of all the Indians; located between the Missouri and Arkansas rivers, long before the Louisiana Purchase, under both Spanish and French ownership, the Osage held undisputed dominion over a great extent of the southwest, carrying cruel warfare among the Caddoan Indians of Texas and Louisiana and the Kiowa, Comanche, Wichita and other prairie tribes as far west as the Rocky Mountains. The Spanish Government itself in Texas and Louisiana was driven to the expedient of enlisting the Western Apache Indians as allies against the dread Osage of the Arkansas.

After the Louisiana purchase, President Jefferson inaugurated the policy of inducing the Indians living east of the Mississippi river to remove to the great empire west of that stream, a business in which the government was engaged for the next fifty years; and the most of those former owners of the soil were finally located upon what became known as Indian Territory and more recently as Oklahoma. Among the early arrivals in the west were the Cherokee Indians who were located upon

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the Arkansas river on lands recently ceded to the Government in 1808 by the Osage tribe.

These new neighbors of the Osage were a kind of people different from those formerly known by the wild Indians. The Cherokee were agriculturists; they built permanent homes; cultivated fields; but most important they raised horses, cattle and hogs—property coveted by the Osage. The Osage Indians lived by the chase; they clothed and fed their families with the skin and flesh of the buffalo; they made slight effort at agriculture and mounted themselves on horses stolen from other tribes; skillful horsemen they rode hundreds of miles on horse-stealing expeditions, an avocation engaged in by nearly all the western Indians. The proximity of the Cherokee offered inducements too tempting to be overlooked. The stealing of their livestock was followed by reprisals; war parties from each tribe lay in ambush for hunters from the other.

The Osage would not work and scorned the providence of the white man. As the presence of the eastern Indians drove the game further to the west and the hazards of buffalo hunting were increased by the hostility of Pawnee and other powerful enemy tribes, the Osage were at times reduced to the direst poverty when they were driven to subsist themselves on roots and acorns and in such extremity many suffered starvation. Holding that the Cherokee had driven away the game, which was their staff of life, it is small wonder that the Osage ravaged the herds of the civilized Indians with a feeling of honest reprisal.

The Osage became a scourge to all the tribes in the southwest and a serious menace to the plans of the Government to remove the civilized and other eastern Indians to the west of the Mississippi. In 1817 a coalition of Cherokee, Choctaw and other Indians from north of Red River and Caddoan tribes from south of that stream attacked the Osage Indians at a place a few miles north of where Muskogee now is and inflicted great slaughter upon them. The Government then determined it was time to intervene by military force, and end the reign of warfare caused by the Osage. A force was sent to a point on the Arkansas River at the eastern boundary of the Osage country that was afterward called Fort Smith. Here they remained until April 1824, when, because of the continu-

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ed hostility and disorder of the Osage Indians living in the vicinity of the Three Forks, the confluence of the Arkansas Verdigris and Grand rivers, Colonel Arbuckle was directed to remove his command to the latter place, ninety miles above Fort Smith and establish a post.

In 1819 a mission was established near by on Grand river among the Osage Indians by a missionary family recruited in New York and Connecticut, and called Union Mission. Several trading houses were doing business at the mouth of the Verdigris and upon the arrival of Colonel Arbuckle and his command in April 1824, it was the center of such enterprise as existed in this western wilderness and the only settlement of any importance for hundreds of miles.

When Colonel Matthew Arbuckle arrived at the mouth of the Verdigris with his force of five companies of the Seventh Infantry he decided to locate on Grand river about three miles from its mouth and from the mouth of the Verdigris. For some reason he did not select the eligible site on the hill a mile distant where the fort was later constructed, but located on the low ground on Grand River in the midst of a dense canebrake which covered all the fine bottom land south and east of that stream. The men in his command were at once set to work cutting logs and splitting out clap-boards with which they built themselves log huts. The construction of these log houses was carried on for a year or more until there were sufficient buildings to house the regiment. The troops that first arrived were in a year or two augmented by the arrival of other companies that came by boat up Arkansas River until the greater part of the Seventh Infantry was stationed at Fort Gibson. The post was named Gibson after the Commissary General of that name. The fort itself was surrounded by a stockade 300 feet on a side with a block-house at the northwest corner and one at the southeast. Outside the stockade were log houses for quarters, hospital, and stables, a saw mill and on the river bank, sutlers stores. From the fort a road lead northwest to the falls of the Verdigris, where were located the Osage and Creek agencies and a number of traders stores.

On account of the location on the low damp ground in the cane-brake, the sickness and mortality at Fort Gibson occasioned great complaint on the part of men and officers. The

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number of deaths was so great that Cantonment Gibson was called the charnel house of the army. During the years 1834 and 1835, there were 292 deaths at this post, due mainly to the prevailing fevers. The log buildings required constant repair and reconstruction.

Fort Gibson was the farthest outpost of our southwestern frontier. Fort Towson was established a few weeks later and Fort Leavenworth was not established until 1827; Fort Coffee in 1834; Fort Washita in 1842 and Fort Arbuckle in 1851. It was from Fort Gibson that contact was first had with wild prairie tribes that knew almost nothing of white people except the Mexicans south of them.

In 1832 a commission was sent to Fort Gibson to negotiate treaties with some of the western tribes and arrange for the location on the lands of Indian Territory of tribes coming from the east. The commission was composed of Governor Montford Stokes, of North Carolina, Chairman; Henry L. Ellsworth, of Connecticut, and Reverend John F. Schermerhorn, of Utica, New York.

Mr. Ellsworth was the first to arrive, reaching the post in October 1832. With him came as guests, whom he had met on his journey, and whom he had invited to join him, Washington Irving, Count Portales and Charles J. Latrobe. Directly after their arrival they made an expedition of a month with a company of rangers under command of Captain Jesse Bean, his being the first company of that organization to rendezvous at Fort Gibson. The events of this expedition were recorded by Irving in his "Tour of the Prairie", and by Mr. Latrobe in his book called "The Rambler in North America."

Sam Houston came to the vicinity of Fort Gibson in 1829 after resigning his office as Governor of Tennessee and leaving his wife. Marrying a beautiful Cherokee woman, he was adopted as a member of the tribe and lived near the post where he conducted a little store for several years until he went to Texas.

In 1832 Congress provided for a regiment of mounted troops to be known as rangers, for service in the Black Hawk War, but as they were not in time for that service the few companies that had been recruited were sent that fall, to the frontier, part of them to Fort Gibson. The next year Congress

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authorized the organization of the First Dragoons, with which the rangers were merged; the companies that were recruited in 1833 rendezvoused at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis and, in the summer of 1834, marched to Fort Gibson under command of Colonel Henry Dodge, who was formerly territorial governor and afterward United States senator from Wisconsin. These troops were mounted and it was believed they would thus be able to cope with the wild prairie Indians, and protect the traders and trappers in the country to the west of Fort Gibson as far as Santa Fe.

In the summer of 1833 a military expedition composed of infantry and rangers was sent out from Fort Gibson to get in touch with some of the western tribes, but nothing was accomplished, though one of the rangers was captured by the Indians near Red River and killed. The next summer a more formidable expedition set out from the post under Colonel Henry Leavenworth who had recently arrived at Fort Gibson and assumed command. The terrific heat and hardships of this expedition caused the death of a large number of the men, including Colonel Leavenworth who died at a hospital camp near the mouth of Washita River, in July, 1834. The expedition continued its march under Colonel Dodge and succeeded in bringing back to Fort Gibson a number of chiefs of the Kiowa and Wichita tribes. When they arrived at Fort Gibson they had their first view of a civilized community. With this overture it was possible the next year (at Fort Holmes near where Holdenville, Oklahoma, now is), to negotiate a treaty with the Comanche, Wichita and their associated tribes and bands. This was the first treaty and the first recognition of American sovereignty by the wild Indians of the Southwest. Subsequently, a number of other important treaties were consummated at Fort Gibson with Indians who had not before come in contact with white men. The first treaty of 1835 laid the foundation for all subsequent efforts for subduing the western Indians and protecting the traders going to Santa Fe., and the Five Civilized Tribes that located in Indian Territory. Some of the most important conferences held west of the Mississippi took place at Fort Gibson. These had direct bearing on the civilization of the entire southwest.

In one of the companies of the dragoon regiment that came to Fort Gibson in 1834 was young Jefferson Davis who

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had been graduated at West Point in 1828 and had seen service at Fort Crawford, on the Mississippi River, under Colonel Zachary Taylor. It was while stationed there that he fell in love with Taylor’s daughter. He resigned from the army in the summer of 1835, left Fort Gibson and went to Kentucky and married Miss Taylor at the home of her aunt, her father refusing his consent to the marriage.

Beside Colonel Arbuckle, some of the other officers who commanded at Fort Gibson were Lieut. Col. James W. Many, Col. Stephen W. Kearney, Lieut. Col. Richard B. Mason, Lieut. Col. Pitcairn Morrison, Col. Alex Cummings, Col. Gustavus Loomis and General W. G. Belknap. Other famous officers who served at Fort Gibson were Generals David Hunter, Philip St. George Cooke, John K. Burgwin, Thomas Swords, Andrew Jackson Smith, Edwin V. Sumner, Braxton Bragg and Daniel H. Rucker. These and many others were well known for their subsequent service in the Mexican and Civil Wars. Many West Point graduates saw their first service at Fort Gibson, some classes sending as many as ten or a dozen young officers to that remote garrison.

Fort Gibson became the centre of such social life as the wilderness afforded; trappers assembling at the trading post near by to barter their packs of beaver and buffalo skins, and passing traders to Santa Fe and Mexico, stopped to visit at the garrison and requited the hospitality they found there with tales of adventure and strange people. Busy little river steamboats brought visitors and news from the outside world. Social amenities were observed within their rude limitations, dinner parties in the log quarters of the officers sat around bountiful tables of wild provender—turkey, buffalo, bear, wild fowl and wild honey became commonplace.

Gaiety and pleasure were not impossible and the tedium of garrison life far from civilization was relieved by dances and gatherings graced by feminine loveliness from near and far. Beside the daughters and wives resident at the garrison, charming and accomplished maidens of the Cherokee tribe, some of them educated in eastern schools, formed part of the social life at Fort Gibson. Propinquity and charm,—romance nurtured by the sylvan surroundings on the banks of beautiful Grand River, led to many happy marriages between officers and enlisted men and Cherokee girls.

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Even from far away Fort Smith and other Arkansas towns, daughters of the early settlers regarded an invitation to a dance or a visit at Fort Gibson as an outstanding event. One related to an appreciative granddaughter how, as a girl before the Civil War, she rode horseback the ninety miles from Fort Smith carrying in her saddle bags the evening frock she had worked on so hard with visions of the alluring picture she was to make before handsome young officers at Fort Gibson.

Captain Nathan Boone, a son of Daniel Boone, came to Fort Gibson with the dragoons in the summer of 1834 and served at the post for many years. He had been a surveyor in Missouri and surveyed a number of the lines in the vicinity of Fort Gibson including the boundary line between the Creek and Cherokee nations. Captain B. L. E. Bonneville served there many years and in 1825 secured a leave of absence that he might accept the position of secretary to General Lafayette, the friend of his father, and accompany him to France. Again, in 1830, he left Fort Gibson on leave and engaged in an extensive trading and exploring expedition in the Rocky Mountains, and he sold his notes to Washington Irving who made a book of them entitled "The Adventures of Captain Bonneville."

In the latter part of November, 1855, Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston arrived at Fort Gibson in command of the newly organized Second Calvary numbering 750 men and 800 horses. Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee was second in command of this regiment, George H. Thomas was a major, Edmund Kirby Smith was a captain, and John B. Hood a Lieutenant. They stopped at Fort Gibson on their way from Jefferson Barracks to Texas where the regiment was engaged in fighting Indians until the Civil War.

June 23, 1857, owing to the unhealthful condition of Fort Gibson it was abandoned as a military post, the troops were withdrawn and on September 19th, of that year the reservation and buildings were formally turned over to the representatives of the Cherokee Nation. On November 5, 1857 pursuant to the recommendation of Chief John Ross, the Cherokee council passed an act creating the town of Kee-too-whah on the site of the reservation, and providing for the survey of the lots and their sale to citizens of the Cherokee tribe.

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However, on April 5, 1863, the post was reoccupied by troops of the Union Army, including three Indian regiments, four companies of Kansas Cavalry, and Hopkins’ Battery, all volunteers, an aggregate of 3150 men, with four field pieces and two mountain howitzers; they threw up entrenchments and constructed a considerable earthwork at a point just above and within sight of old Fort Gibson which was occupied until the close of the war under the name of Fort Blunt, in compliment of Major General James G. Blunt, then commanding the district of the frontier.

The work was constructed from April 14 to April 30, and consisted of a main work, embracing 15 to 17 acres, with angles and facings, situated on a commanding hill with rear bluffs on Grand river. From this extended a line of earth works about one and one quarter miles in length, the whole defense being regarded as strong enough to resist a force of 20,000 men. From this time the strength of the post was increased, until on the 31st of July, 1863, it aggregated 5240, and on the 31st of August, 6014, with eighteen field pieces. As finally completed the post included a number of handsome stone buildings erected for officers quarters, a hospital, guard house, magazine, store houses, barracks, married soldiers quarters, adjutant’s office, chapel, blacksmiths and carpenter shops, corral, hay yard, etc. Being the most important fortified point in Indian Territory, it served as the headquarters of military operations in that vicinity during the remainder of the civil conflict. A number of engagements took place in the vicinity, notably the battle of Honey Springs, about twenty-five miles south of Fort Gibson, and the battle of Fort Wayne, northeast of Tahlequah. Pike, Steele, Stand Watie, Cooper and Cabell wire among the leading Confederate officers and Blunt, Phillips and others were the most noted commanders involved on the Union side, but the latter held Fort Gibson until the end of the Civil War. On the 20th of May, 1863, the Confederate General Coffee, at the head of a force of five regiments, made an attack on the fort but was driven back to the south side of the Arkansas. The second meditated attempt, under Generals Steele and Cooper, led to the battle of Honey Springs, probably the most sanguinary conflict fought in Indian Territory.

On the 17th of February, 1866, the detachment of regular troops from the First Battalion of the Tenth United States

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Infantry, under command of Brevet Maj. James M. Mulligan, in obedience to orders from Brevet Maj. Hunt, commanding the district, arrived at Fort Gibson, and relieved the 62nd Illinois Volunteers, which then constituted the garrison. The post remained garrisoned under the name of Fort Gibson, up to September 30th, 1871, when pursuant to general orders it was abandoned as a military post but was temporarily retained by the quartermasters department as a depot for such transportation and other means as were necessary to enable paymasters and other officers to communicate with Fort Sill. It was reoccupied in July, 1872, by two companies of the Tenth Cavalry under Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, and was regularly garrisoned thereafter until its final abandonment in 1890.

The organizations most closely indentified with Fort Gibson, were first, several companies of the Seventh Infantry, that established the post and remained there until February, 1839, when they left for service in Florida against the Seminole Indians; these were succeeded by the Fourth Infantry, which saw much service in Indian Territory before it was sent to the Mexican War. One of the best known organizations of course was the First Dragoons, which came to Fort Gibson in 1833 and part of which served there for many years. A stage route extending from Baxter Springs, Kansas to El Paso, Texas passed Fort Gibson and many travellers from the states east of the Mississippi to California passed that way. From Fort Gibson to Red River, the route followed much the same course as that afterward adopted by the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad.

On this centennial anniversary of the birth of Fort Gibson, the pretty village of that name, in sight of Muskogee and dominating the bluffs overlooking Grand River, contains a few building and ruins of others that were part of the historic garrison built after 1863; but there is little to recall the stirring days when the old post played such an important part in winning to civilization Oklahoma and the great Southwest.

The Osage tribe of Indians, whose vigor and fierce restless war-like spirit caused the establishment of Fort Gibson, reduced, by poverty, sloth and their white environment, to less than one-fourth their numbers a hundred years ago, moved hither and yon by the Government, at last were placed on a little tract of land now co-extensive with Osage County, Okla-

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homa, and formerly part of the great domain over which their ancestors held insolent and undisputed sway. In their last trek they were beckoned by the hand of Midas who guided them to a part of their ancestral home where the tribe formerly hungered, hunted and fought for food, and located them on one of the world’s richest oil deposits, from which liquid gold is produced by the white man; and these aborigines, part of the handful of indigenous Indians remaining in Oklahoma, figuratively and literally roll in wealth.

Such are the mutations of fate that these Osage who yesterday with their women and children, ponies and countless dogs trekked hundreds of miles across these prairies in quest of buffalo meat, now loll flaccid in the lap of oppulence. Fort Gibson which was by turn their Nemesis and their refuge, which disciplined the unruly or fed the starving women and children of the tribe when, in times of stress, acorns and roots could no longer beguile their empty stomachs,—Fort Gibson knows them no more. Fort Gibson, the sturdy pioneer that blazed the trails through the forests and across the plains of the uncharted southwest, that tamed the fierce red warriors who had acknowledged no master, that made of this country a fit habitation for the tide of white population that has flowed over it, she and the men stationed there did their heroic part and passed away from the sight of their beneficiaries; and we but make an honest acknowledgment of our obligations to the instrument that wrought these changes by pausing to note a few of these things on this 100th birthday of Fort Gibson.

Grant Foreman.

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