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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 7, No. 2
June, 1929
A VISIT TO OLD FORT WASHITA

BY W. B. MORRISON, PH. D.
Durant, Okla.

Page 175

The writer recently had the privilege of visiting the ruins of Fort Washita, in the extreme northwest corner of Bryan County. While rapidly disintegrating and disappearing, these ruins are still very extensive and very interesting to those who may be inclined to study the history of Oklahoma in the days long gone by. The westward progress of the white man was marked by the construction of forts, which became the centers of military and government control, but were often deserted after the waves of migration had passed on towards the setting sun. In some cases, however, trading points and eventually towns and important cities sprang up about these posts, and continued to thrive after all evidences of military occupation had disappeared. Our great cities of Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Paul are the outgrowth of Forts Pitt, Dearborn and Snelling, and many other such cities as Fort Worth, Fort Smith and Fort Wayne have a similar origin. But old Fort Washita was not one of those destined to live. It was built in 1844 under the instructions of "Old Rough and Ready" Zachary Taylor, then in command of the U. S. Troops in this section, who selected the site and gave the fort its name. As General Taylor afterwards became president of the United States, this post may justly be proud of its origin.

When Washita was built the Choctaws and Chickasaws had been in Oklahoma only a few years, and it was in fulfillment of the treaty promises that caused the Government to erect this post, which was at the time probably the farthest western outpost of the nation. To the west was a wilderness held to a large extent by wild and dangerous Indians, principally the Comanches. To the south was Texas, at that time an independent nation in the throes of its contest with the Mexicans. There was no other white settlement of any importance at this time nearer than Fort Gibson. The rich prairies of Eastern Oklahoma were covered with waving grass and fed vast herds of buffalo and wild horses. Just ten years before General Leavenworth, who gave his name to the important Kansas fort and city, while chasing buffalo

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probably within the limits of what is now Bryan County, fell from his horse and received injuries which resulted in his death a few weeks later. It may not be generally known that General Leavenworth lay sick for some time on the little promontory of land where Washita River empties into Red River—on the Marshall County side.

Fort Washita soon became an important place for those days. A few years later came the great movements of white people to California and to Texas. One of the approved trails to the "Golden West" came from Fort Smith up the Arkansas and South Canadian, turning southward by the present site of McAlester, thence to Boggy Depot and on to Fort Washita. Here the immigrant parties would stop and prepare for the dreaded trip across the Texas "desert." Among the great tames associated with the early history of Fort Washita is that of General R. B. Marcy, soldier, author, hunter, and guide, who for a number of years represented the government as its official guide to California. Among those who worked with him in those days was a young lieutenant who afterwards became his son-in-law, George B. McClellan, late commander of the Federal Army during the Civil War, and democratic candidate for President against Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

Down to the opening of the Civil War, Fort Washita was always well garrisoned, generally with cavalry troops. Remains of the ample stables may still be seen on the hillside southwest of the old fort. One of the most notable garrisons, however, shortly after the Mexican War, was the famous artillery regiment under command of Braxton Bragg, afterwards the distinguished Confederate general. It was this command that won fame in the battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War, where General Taylor gave his famous order, "Give them a little more grape, Captain Bragg."

Deserted by the Federal forces in 1861, Fort Washita was promptly seized by the Confederacy and garrisoned until 1865. During this period it was frequently visited by all the notable men who led the Southerners in this section—Albert Pike, soldier, statesman, poet, and Free Mason; General Douglas H. Cooper, long agent for the Choctaws and Chickasaws, and commander of the tribal troops during the war; General S. H. Maxey, and others. At the close of the war,

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the friendly Indians burned the buildings to prevent them from becoming a rendezvous for the wilder Indians from the west, and the place was deserted. The Federal government, having made Fort Sill its western headquarters, gave up all posts farther to the east. Fort Washita, and whatever improvements remained reverted to the Chickasaw tribe. The site of the fort was allotted to the well known Bryan County Colbert family. The walls of one of the main barracks buildings was used as a basis of a large farm house but this was destroyed by fire a few years ago while occupied as a residence by Charles Colbert, present owner of the property, and one of the old and respected citizens of Bryan County. With the exception of a small log rent house, built around one of the heavy stone chimneys of the old fort buildings, Fort Washita presents to-day a picture of ruin and desolation. A number of sturdy chimneys are still standing, as are the walls of the building referred to as having been converted into a farm house, all built of the shell limestone so plentiful in that locality. The foundations of practically all the other buildings once connected with the fort may still be seen, though trees a foot or more in diameter are growing up through many of them. The plan of the fort was evidently that of a hollow rectangle. The situation a mile or more above the Washita River, gives a fine view over the rolling Twelve Mile Prairie to the east. On the south side of the rectangle may still be seen the remains of the officers’ barracks and the Commissary. The latter was a building about eighty feet long and wide in proportion, with a full basement. In these latter days the basement has served well the unmilitary purpose of a cattle pen. Not far from the Commissary is the well-preserved ruin of the great stone bakery, whose ovens furnished bread for the hungry soldiers of long ago. Still further down the hill to the southwest, near the stables referred to above, is the ruins of the blacksmith shop, always an important place at a cavalry or artillery post. Down this hill to the west may be seen the outlines of what was once a paved road leading to Hatsboro, or Rugglesville as it was called at various times. This was a little town about a half mile to the west, where a number of civilians lived, traders and the families of soldiers for the most part. Here, after the war, General D. H. Cooper lived and died in a little shanty. He is buried in an unmarked grave

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either at Hatsboro, or in the country north of the fort, to which we shall refer later. Nothing at all is left of Hatsboro, save a few old wells, and dim traces of where houses stood, and its site is now regularly farmed, save where a few nameless graves are spared.

A little to the north of the main barrack building, and running east and west are the ruins of a series of buildings, one of which was the post hospital—always an important place. Still farther to the north, and only a few hundred yards away is the old cemetery, where many a poor fellow was laid away for his last sleep, far from friends and loved ones. Most of those definitely known to be soldiers were years ago removed to the cemetery at Fort Gibson, but the sunken and half-filled cenotaphs are still visible here. The only one of these marked was that of General Belknap. A heavy limestone slab, half fallen into the empty tomb, bears these words: "Brigadier General William G. Belknap, U. S. A., Died Nov. 11, 1851." General Belknap was, at the time of his death, commander of U. S. forces in the Southwest, and died in a hospital wagon near Fort Washita, while on an official trip from his headquarters on the Brazos River in Texas to the posts in the Territory. He was the father of General W. W. Belknap, Secretary of War under President Grant, who was impeached for malfeasance in office in 1876.

This cemetery has been enclosed and it is still used as a burying ground by the people of the vicinity. There are, however, evidently a number of old graves on the west side not within the present enclosure. Some distance down the hill to the west are two graves, known to, the people of the locality as those of "Aunt Jane" and her husband. Tradition does not preserve the surname, but states that "Aunt Jane" met an untimely death at the hands of a robber who believed she had money hidden in her cabin. The superstitious will tell you that "Aunt Jane" may be seen any night, still wandering among the ruins of the old fort.

Up within the rectangular parade ground may be seen the great well that furnished drinking water to the fort. It was carefully walled up with heavy stone, and until the present dry summer has never been known to fail in supplying an abundance of palatable water.

The rent house referred to above has at one of its en-

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trances a heavy walnut door, pierced with thirty-two bullet holes, some evidently shot from within, the remainder from without. The story goes that this door belonged originally to another house nearby, since destroyed, and that on one occasion it was the scene of a battle between bandits and regulators who had trapped them in this house. The bullet holes are mute witnesses of the fierceness of the battle, though details of the casualties are lacking.

Fort Washita is one of the most interesting historical remains in Bryan County, or in all Oklahoma, for that matter. Our citizens should take much interest in its splendid history, and it is to be hoped that concerted steps may be taken to preserve this and other historic landmarks from further decay, save that brought by the relentless hand of time.

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