Dappled sunlight broke through the gnarled
branches and sheltering leaves of the old tree, casting dancing patterns of light on the
curious old stone at the tree's base, The two little girls playing a childhood game of
jacks on the level expanse of the flat stone were unaware that their "table" was
the tombstone of General Douglas Cooper, a former Indian Agent for the
Chickasaw Nation and a Civil War commander of Fort Washita.
As the rubber ball bounced and the sound of metal jacks against
stone permeated the stillness of the afternoon, perhaps an old shade known
only as "Aunt Jane" watched the children's play and remembered other
children and their games from a day long past in the brief history that was
Fort Washita. The flat, curious stone began to whisper its story of ruined
The tattoo of the war drums had long been silent', the
shrieking cries of long dead warriors fading into history as the summer of 1841 drew to a
close. Prairie winds wrapped hot fingers of heat around the horseman as he sat, gazing
across the uneven surface of weaving buffalo grass to the wooded region beyond. General
Zachary Taylor, commander of the Second Military Department, surveyed the small detachment
of weary troopers who had accompanied him on the long trek from his headquarters in
Fort Smith, Arkansas. "Old Rough and Ready" Taylor ("Zachary Taylor-Twelfth
President 1849-1850") had accepted the mission to find a site for a fort in this new
Indian Territory that was to become Oklahoma. Taylor and his band of men had passed
through Fort Gibson in the Cherokee Nation and Fort Towson in the Choctaw Nation before
pushing on to the heart of the proposed Chickasaw Nation.
Taylor pondered the historical events that had brought him to this
southeastern frontier even as the small hard stones beneath the horses' shod hooves began
to whisper a story of a "Trail of Tears" traveled by the Red Man to reach this
promised ground. Five great Indian Nations were forced from their eastern ancestral homes
and settled anew in "Indian Territory". These Nations were the five
"Civilized Tribes" of the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Creek, the Chickasaw, and
the Seminole. The Chickasaws had negotiated their removal with the Federal Government and
agreed to move to Indian Territory peacefully if the government would protect them from
the hostile Plains Indians, the "Red Leggers" who raided from the Texas side of
the Red River, and other migrants who frequently crossed the Chickasaw lands. In 1834 the
Chickasaw treaty with the United States Government contained the agreement for protection
that the wary Chickasaws demanded.
In 1837, the Chickasaw Nation, last of the Five Civilized tribes to be moved,
headed west for the new land that would be their home. The land of the Chickasaw extended
from Arkansas west to the 100th Meridian and north from the Red River to the Canadian and
The Chickasaws found an untamed wilderness as their new home where thousands
of Plains Indian refugees from the Texas frontier lived, unknowing and uncaring that the
"Great White Father" had displaced them once again. The Comanche were raiders of
some ferocity and immediately began attacks on their milder-mannered red brothers, as well
as continuing their raids across the Red River into Texas. These raids brought the Texas
Militia charging across the river, venting their anger on any Indians in view. Many
Chickasaw settlers were killed and their homes destroyed before they were even completed.
The Chickasaws withdrew to the comparative safety of the Choctaw Nation bordering their
lands and began a cooperative tribal government and coexistence. The two tribes began to
collectively establish law and order and build schools and homes.
In 1838, William Armstrong, acting Superintendent of the Western Territory,
reported that the Chickasaws refused to settle on their assigned lands until the
Government gave them the promised protection that they had been guaranteed by treaty in
1834. Chickasaw leaders had requested that a fort be built at the mouth of the
River to provide protection for the beleaguered Nation. A.M.M. Upshaw, the Chickasaw
Indian agent, urged the government to construct such an installation.
Chickasaw pleas and demands may have fallen on deaf political ears but for
the fortunate circumstance of the need for a safe trail for west-bound white settlers,
eyes agleam with the glittering promise of the California gold fields. With the clamor for
safety from both groups, the government gave in and commissioned General Zachary Taylor to
select the site for a fort.
So said the stones as the man on horseback ceased his remembrances and
prepared to cross the prairie before him to the ridge he had espied as he mused on the
past. The band had viewed several sites before coming to this one and each had been
summarily discarded by the old General as if he were drawn onward by an unseen hand.
At the mouth of the muddy Washita River, just 18 miles north of the Red
River, the General marked a site on a ridge overlooking the "Twelve-Mile
Prairie". The site was a strategic location as one could see advancing travelers from
the prairie, consider bringing supplies by river navigation, and obtain raw material for
building from the heavily wooded areas surrounding the site.
Summer's green gave way to autumn's hues and the Indian
land turned to gold beneath the hoof beats of Taylor's troops as they began their homeward
trek back to Fort Smith. The music of the wind sang with promises to be kept and a destiny
to be fulfilled as it sent flurries of orange, brown, and golden leaves sailing across the
broad prairies behind the departing troops.
Autumn's gold would fade to white, as winter's breath would turn the prairie
into a desolate, icy plain. The buffalo grass, encased in frozen shafts, would snap and
crackle beneath the feet of a lonely hunter before spring would once again bring the
greening of the land and the 2nd Dragoons of Company A to begin the construction of
temporary quarters upon General Taylor's chosen site.
The metallic sound of the axe rang over the prairie and woodlands,
interrupting birdsong and accompanying the strange sound of the white man at work on
Indian land. Many Chickasaw families had migrated to the site with the advent of the
soldiers and set to work to help feed the workers by showing them how to "live off
the land" as foodstuffs were often scarce and supplies unreliable. The Indians
hunted, fished, farmed and helped cut the logs needed to construct "temporary"
quarters that would be used well into the 1850's.
General Taylor returned in May 1842, a month after construction began and
recommended that permanent structures be erected that fall. This trip, he christened the
site as "Fort Washita" as he stood on the expanded banks of that rolling river
in its springtime flood stage.
Summer rolled in on chariots of fire and baked the laboring men to a turn
before fall brought cooler weather and welcome reinforcements in the person of Major T.J.
Fauntleroy and his Company F of the 2nd Dragoons and Company C of the 6th Infantry.
Major Fauntleroy replaced Captain A.H. Blake as post commander and counted his command as
198 men. In addition to officers and enlisted men, the post also had one bugler, one
fifer, one drummer, and a farrier. The number of men assigned to Fort Washita fluctuated
throughout the next few years, usually averaging 200, more or less.
Besides the resplendent Dragoons and Infantry, many companies such as the
U.S. Riflemen, the Light Artillery, and Calvary companies found themselves stationed at
Fort Washita along with their many distinguished commanders. First and foremost of Fort
Washita's "alumni" must be General Zachary Taylor, a future President of the
United States. Colonel Braxton Bragg of Company C, 3rd Artillery, had gained
fame as he served under General Taylor in the Mexican War. It was in this battle that
General Taylor gave the famous order, "Give them a little more grape, Captain
Bragg!" Another notable was a young lieutenant, George B. McClellan, who would become
commander of the Federal army during the Civil War and the Democratic candidate for
President against Abraham Lincoln in 1864. He also became the son-in-law to General R.B.
Marcy, who acted in the governmental capacity of official guide to California, land of
Golden Dreams. Major Henry Hunt, commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac, took his
turn at command of Fort Washita in 1853 when he was a Captain and relatively unknown.
Captain Eugene Carr, another Fort Washita resident, later won the Medal of Honor for his
actions in the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in 1862.
Some notable, but certainly less "famous" contributors to the
history of Fort Washita must be named for posterity. John Beall was a steward at the post
hospital and enjoyed certain popularity among his fellows as he was in charge of the mail,
a soldier's chief reading material on the frontier. John and several of his friends
bemoaned the lack of reading material at the fort. Due to the isolated location of the
fort and the difficulty in getting even survival-type supplies brought in by wagon over
the rough terrain, it was a dismal hope that "frivolous" things such as books
would be allotted space on a supply train. On one moonlit night in late autumn, Beall and
three men he counted as intimates sat around their small campfire, the flickering flames
illuminating the faces of men hungering for diversion in this rough frontier life. The
young Prussian, Frederick Reeder, had run away from home to escape medical school. He had
joined the army when he became alarmed at the possibility of pursuit from his homeland.
The literary dearth punished him now. The bluff, ruddy-faced P. Irwin was eager for
self-improvement. L.A. Reese, the eldest of the "literary quartet," was a
one-time magazine publisher and a former editor of a small country newspaper. Beall spoke
fondly of a post newsletter at his last assignment and the idea was born and almost was
extinguished as the four would-be publishers suddenly remembered the imposing figure of
Captain Woods, the somewhat dour Commanding Officer of the Fort. Rekindling their
enthusiasm, Beall proposed using "nom de plumes" for their writing venture. So
was born the Fly Leaf, appropriately named as the Fly on the Wall, i.e. (anonymity, yet
all knowing) The first issue was evidently well received and the second offering came out
March 15, 1859. The "paper" continued successfully for many weeks while Captain
Woods searched to find the writers known only as "Mutus," Ranger," Guy
Oakleaf," and "Error." The four errant publishers were in a constant state
of apprehension lest they were discovered and punished, unaware that Captain Woods
appreciated their periodical and only wanted to lend his assistance to their efforts.
Beall gave in to the questioning and admitted to being a parent of the manuscript
newspaper at last. Captain Woods and the Post Chaplain then proceeded to provide adequate
space and supplies for the men to continue their literary endeavors.
In the years of the Fort between 1842 and 1861, a murder took place, which is
said to haunt the ruins to this day. The woman was known only as "Aunt Jane" and
lived in a cabin on the grounds with her husband. Rumors of hidden gold reached wicked
ears and "Aunt Jane" merged with the history of the Fort with her murder and
beheading. Her shade is said to be seen walking the grounds late at night searching for
her gold, or perhaps, her head.
During the years before the Civil War, Fort Washita was
very important to the great exodus of white people from eastern points. One of the
"approved" trails to points west was from Fort Smith up the Arkansas and South
Canadian, turning south by the present-day site of McAlester, on to Boggy Depot and then
to Fort Washita. The travelers enjoyed the brief respite from their journey. While resting
at the fort, laundry could be done "down at the Washita", and other preparations
for the longer trek still to come over the "desert" that Texas was considered to
be by many.
The arrival of wagon-trains was not the only socializing done at the fort.
Parties were common at Fort Washita with the Chickasaws often invited, especially those
with pretty daughters! Dancing was enjoyable, at times, even dangerous. Several accounts
have been related regarding some soldier being a "mite-too-inebriated" and a
"mountain-too-friendly" with one of the local maidens; however, fighting between
the local tribes and the soldiers was not common.
In 1845, under General Order number 37, 182 men of Companies A, G, and I, 2nd
Dragoons departed Fort Washita for Austin, Texas, leaving the troop number at
approximately 100 men. The census would remain there or less for the remainder of the
1840's as relative peace settled over the land.
In 1858, Fort Washita was temporarily abandoned as its need was seen as
diminished with the long period of peace, but by December of that year, the Comanche
threatened an uprising along the southern Great Plains and Captain Thomas J. Wood led two
companies of the 1st Calvary back into Fort Washita to protect the surrounding
settlers and the occasional travelers. There they would remain until the gathering storm
of the Civil War exploded with the thunder of cannon over Fort Sumter in 1861.
Rumors of war, as early as the first months in 1860, circulated throughout
the Indian Territory. It was whispered that the secessionists planned to converge on the
territory and "take" all military installations. This, of course, caused concern
at Fort Washita, especially among the soldiers quartered there. When South Carolina
officially left the Union in 1861, tension mounted further. It was believed that an attack
by the Confederate forces in Texas was imminent.
The location of Fort Washita, that had been such a blessing as far as
protecting the Indians and settlers, now became a liability. Deep in the south,
secessionist sympathizers surrounded it. The Indians were also of a
"Southern-bent." They held slaves, but this was not the main reason for their
choosing the southern "side" in the war. Although the Tribes had been made
numerous promises by the Federal Government, most had been delayed or broken. In addition,
the Indians had not forgotten The Trail of Tears.
Taking all issues into consideration, Lieutenant Colonel W.H.
issued "Special order number 16," abandoning Fort Washita on May 1, 1861, and
withdrawing Federal forces from the Indian Territory barely a day before a company of
Texas Rangers from Jefferson, Texas occupied the Fort in the name of the Confederate
States. Fort Washita served the Confederacy as a base of operations, supply base, and
hospital, as well as affording the protection necessary to encourage a large number of
Confederate Indian refugees to locate nearby to wait for the war to end.
The end of the "noblest cause" came in 1865 with the surrender of
Lee at Appomattox. The strains of "Dixie" were fading sadly into history as the
skies over Fort Washita boiled black with the smoke of burning buildings as friendly
Indians burned all behind the disbanded Confederate troops to prevent the old Fort from
becoming a rendezvous for the wilder Indians from the west or a viable outpost for the
victorious northerners. It is said locally that the Confederates melted down Confederate
gold into the shape of cannon balls and fired them into their retreat path as they
dispersed to keep resources from northern captors. Treasure hunters have claimed one
"find" to this day.
Notable names from the Civil War era are General Albert
Pike and General Douglas H. Cooper. General Pike was remembered by old residents of Bryan
County as late as the 1960's as a striking man with long, gray hair.
Prior to the war, Douglas H. Cooper was the government agent for the Choctaws
and Chickasaws and had headquarters near Fort Washita. As a native of Mississippi, he was
an ardent secessionist. His position gave him great influence with the Indians and he used
his power to sway the tribes to the cause of the Confederacy. At the outbreak of the war,
he was made Colonel of the 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw regiments of the Confederacy. His
sporadic drunkenness and unscrupulous habits kept him from fame, however, and he returned
to Fort Washita after the war a broken, poverty-stricken man. He died in 1879 and was
buried in an unmarked grave at the Fort cemetery.
Fort Washita reverted to the Chickasaw tribe after the
Civil War and was allotted to the Colbert family until the Oklahoma Historical Society's
acquisition in 1962 began its ongoing restoration.
The Chickasaw National Cemetery is cordoned off today;
lying alongside the remains of Marcy's old wagon-train road early settlers traveled to the
California gold fields. Many children's graves are found in the old Fort cemeteries, their
childhood games and laughter silenced by death much more frequently than present times.
The rock foundations of old barracks, horse stables, hospitals, and wells are visible,
giving visitors a glimpse into the past when the old Fort was a first line of defense for
an emerging Nation. These rock ruins are known locally as "Whispering Stones"
and it is said they tell their stories of the past to those who can hear. "Listen to
me, listen to me..."
As the afternoon sun began its inexorable slide to the
horizon, the softening shadows caressed the grounds of old Fort Washita. Two women walked
from the ruins of the old barracks to their parked cars in front of General Cooper's old
cabin. The children with them were clamoring excitedly, "Grandma, where did you and
great-aunt Carolin play jacks on the tombstones?" Perhaps the shade of "Aunt
Jane" heard and smiled as she turned and started for her resting-place for the coming
night. The time for remembering would come again as the stone ruins whispered their
stories of the days that were.
Loretta is a former
East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. Loretta presently lives in Tishomingo. This
essay was written in October 1998 for an English Composition class.