In the wooded valley of the Red River, the Oklahoma
Historical Society has preserved the remains of Fort Towson, Oklahoma's
second oldest military outpost and an important site in the history of
the U.S. Army's role in maintaining peace on the frontier.
Establishment of the Fort
In 1824 Indian Territory was at a crossroads in history.
Despite the proximity of warlike Indian tribes, American settlement was
encroaching from the east and south, with settlers clearing land and
establishing farms on the frontier in both southwestern Arkansas and
northeastern Texas. Also, the federal government was in the process of
removing the Five Civilized Tribes from the American Southeast to Indian
Territory. Both Indian policy and white settlement forced the U.S. Army
into the role of peacekeeper on the frontier.
In January of 1824, confronted with these problems, General
Winfield Scott recommended that a fort be established on the Red River
near Arkansas. The following May Colonel Matthew Arbuckle chose a site
on Gates Creek near the confluence of the Kiamichi River with the Red
River. Arbuckle's men cleared the site, built temporary log structures,
and named the outpost Cantonment Towson in honor of the army paymaster,
Nathan Towson. From this strategic location on the cutting edge of the
frontier, soldiers regulated trade between white settlers and Indians
and helped maintain peace in the region by limiting raiding and open
During this early period of the fort's existence, the
federal government appropriated funds to build a road from Cantonment
Towson to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and from Towson to Fort Jesup in
Louisiana, an important link in the development of southeastern Indian
Territory. Despite this progress, the fort was abandoned early in 1829.
Settlers from Arkansas burned the remaining log structures.
In 1830 the federal government concluded the Treaty of
Dancing Rabbit Creek providing for the removal of the Choctaws to Indian
Territory. In order to supply the immigrants and to protect them from
white settlers as well as Plains tribes, the army reestablished the fort
with the appropriate name of Camp Phoenix. One year later it was renamed
The fort was an active place, as more 12,000 Choctaws
eventually moved into the region. Officials opened a sutler's store,
built stables, and in 1833 built new log structures to house the
By the early 1840's the army began reinforcing its
southwestern forts due to instability in U.S. relations with Mexico.
With the threat of war, a new detachment was sent to Fort Towson with
orders to strengthen its defenses. In 1842 Colonel Gustavus Loomis began
a reconstruction campaign which replaced many of the dilapidated wooden
structures with stone and plank buildings. The stone was quarried from a
bluff behind the officer's quarters.
The new construction program located the buildings in a
"U" shape opening southerly. The fort stood on a bluff
overlooking Gates Creek to the north. All of the buildings were built
upon foundations of locally quarried limestone, and the superstructures
were built of walnut logs, sided over and painted sky blue. Along the
north side of the parade ground were three officers' quarters. The
commanding officer's quarters was in the center, flanked by barracks
housing the officers of the garrison.
On both sides of the parade ground running south from the
line of the officer's quarters were storerooms. The east side of the
parade ground was bounded by a storeroom, a guard house, and two
barracks for enlisted personnel. The west side of the grounds was
defined by a storeroom, a combination laundresses' quarters/school, and
two enlisted barracks.
Located on the parade ground were several broad walls and
streets, as well as the flagpole and two wells. At the far south end of
the parade ground, once approached by a broad avenue, was the hospital
and post commissary. The fort's shop buildings, including bakeshop,
carpenter and blacksmith shop, and the stable complex, were located in a
line east of the officers' quarters. The post powder magazine, a large
brick structure, was in the northeast corner of the parade ground
between the east officers' barracks and the east storeroom.
With construction of forts further west and the settlement
of hostilities with Mexico, Ft. Towson's role became increasingly less
necessary. The fort was officially abandoned in 1856. The fort however,
remained locally significant. The Choctaw Nation utilized the buildings
as its agency for tribal functions until a fire brought to a close the
usefulness of the remaining buildings.
None the less, during the Civil War Fort Towson served as
the Confederate command post under General Sam Bell Maxey (CSA). General
Stand Watie surrendered the last organized resistance of the war near
here. After the war Fort Towson served as a dispersal point for
Confederate veterans, bringing to a close its military role.