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Nobody Cares About an Obsolete Dusty Old Fort, Do They?

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Yes, its purpose has passed, and many of its former inhabitant’s names are long forgotten. But the land remains; a few of its buildings have been rebuilt or restored. Who cares if those buildings are not original structures? This fort was commissioned and built in 1842 on a hill one and a half miles east of the Washita River and 18 miles north of the Red River. Fort Washita is the namesake of the Washita River. (1)


Fort Washita


Yet, there it is...Fort Washita…right there in Marshall County, Oklahoma, and only 13 miles east of Madill in Texomaland. Fort Washita was built ten short years after Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1832 (IRA). For several years, countless southeastern U.S. Indians walked to Indian Territory, today’s Oklahoma.


History documents that the reason for building Fort Washita was to prevent raids, wars, and further strife between Indian tribes. Fort Washita’s initial mission was to keep the peace between the Plains Indian Nations and the Five Civilized Tribes. The U.S. government expected culturally diverse Indian Nations to all get along with each other in tiny Indian Territory. However, the reality of Indian Territory was that the territory sat on top of a metaphorical powder keg filled with dynamite that would never lead to peace between the Indian Nations and the U.S. government in 1842.


The U.S. tried to help keep the peace with the construction of Fort Washita. What is not so admirable is that from the point of the Indian removal sites, the U.S. Army operated way stations every 20 miles or so along the way to Indian Territory. These way stations were supposed to help support the Indians on their long trek. That did not happen. The Indians received no food, supplies, blankets, shoes, or warm clothes, plus some were whipped like animals while forced to walk to a foreign land. (2)


What Were They Thinking?


I find a U.S. bureaucratic fallacy with its reason for building Fort Washita. General Zachary Taylor approved the site for Fort Washita in 1842. The Second Dragoons, commanded by Captain A. H. Blake, built the fort. (3) Since the U.S. decided to rehome the southeastern tribes and plant them a few hundred miles away in a territory used for hunting by the aggressive Caddo, Comanche, Kiowa, and Wichita tribes, I can only assume that it made sense to the U.S. Army to build a fort to stop the Indians from killing each other. Even though—at the same time—the U.S. military was killing the southeastern Indians passively and the Plains tribes through attacks and wars after breaking treaties.


Surviving Cherokees had been living in Indian Territory for almost three years by 1842. The army first built log barracks to house the troops, and by 1849, native stone houses were the order of the day. The U.S. Indian Agency to the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes operated near the fort. Indians and soldiers held slaves in the pre-Civil War south. Officer’s families lived inside the fort. The fort assigned enlisted men one-half of a bed. A settlement fast grew west of the new frontier fort for employees of the fort, and wives, children, and slaves of the enlisted soldiers.


In 1844, Colonel Harney built a pool hall, tavern, and bowling alley on the post, and then came a library and a newspaper. The settlement, named Rugglesville, * enjoyed a lively nightlife, for bordellos, saloons, and gambling joints stayed Rugglesville’s economy.


Fort Washita in the Mexican-American War


Fort Washita served as a staging area for supplying the troops fighting in the Mexican-American War in 1846. Its population of soldiers increased from 150 to 2,000.


Then Someone Discovered Gold…


Fort Washita was the southwesternmost U.S. fort in the country at the time. The early 1850s turned the Fort Washita post into a bustling community full of people moving west. People with gold fever wanted to travel through the south because of the weather. But, the number of dangers of traveling to California via a southern route matched the perils of the northern routes. Fort Washita was the last protected point on the southern route for California-bound emigrants.


By this time, Fort Washita housed a surgery, hospital, plus stables, corrals, and barns for the cavalry. Rugglesville, renamed Hatsboro, operated a general store, a post office, restaurants, and hotels.


United States Army Field Artillery School


Fort Washita’s military significance dwindled with the western migration. The Plains Indians grew accustomed to the southeastern Indians, The Choctaw and Chickasaw were growing communities and building towns and roads. Military forts began popping up ever westward as the frontier tamed its regions and moved through the Midwest.


In the mid-1850s, Fort Washita was transformed into an army field artillery school. Then, in February 1858, the army closed the post. The Comanche took advantage of military absence and began conducting raids on both sides of the Red River. The U.S. Army garrisoned Fort Washita once more in December, 1858.


The Civil War


In 1861, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Emory abandoned Fort Washita and retreated with his troops to Fort Leavenworth. Confederate troops immediately moved in and occupied the fort until 1865. Under Confederate control, Fort Washita did not see military action. It served as a Confederate supply depot under the command of General Douglas Cooper for most of the war. However, Fort Washita was important to the Battles of Middle Boggy and Honey Spings. Boggy Depot was located in Choctaw Nation and today’s Atoka County. Today, the exact location of the Middle Boggy Battlefield is not known.


The Union Army targeted Shreveport, Louisiana during its Red River Campaign. But in advance of that campaign, Colonel W. A. Phillips raided southeastern Indian Territory with 1,500 troops and planned to invade Texas via its northern border. Phillips ordered his troops to take no prisoners. From Boggy Depot, Phillips deployed Major C. Willets to wipe out the Confederate outpost at Middle Boggy in present-day Pontotoc County with 350 cavalrymen and artillerymen.


On the Confederate side, Captain Adam Nail commanded ninety men in Company A, First Regiment, Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles. Confederate Colonel John Jumper’s First Seminole Mounted Volunteers were camped nearby.


On February 13, 1864, Willets shelled and attacked Nail’s men for thirty minutes. Nail lost half his men and withdrew to the Seminole column a few miles away. Willets did not follow. Jumper and Nail returned to the battlefield, found no Union troops, and saw that Willets had executed his wounded men. Even though Phillips had marched 400 miles into enemy territory, Phillips's treatment of civilians and wounded soldiers only reinforced the Confederate willpower. Nail counted 47 of his men killed in action or by execution.


Fort Washita Confederate troops saw action at the Battle of Honey Springs on June 17, 1863, when the Union took control of Indian Territory north of the Arkansas River.** Other Confederate leaders during the Civil War at Fort Washita included Albert Pike and Stand Watie. Most of Fort Washita burned up in 1865. The fort’s arson is attributed to Confederate troops before they abandoned it. The U.S. Army never garrisoned Fort Washita after the Civil War. (5) (6) (7)


A Reenactment of the Battle of Middle Boggy is hosted at Fort Washita from November 1st to the 3rd, 2019. 


https://chickasawcountry.com/events/battle-of-middle-boggy-reenactment


The Fort that Would Not Die!


The U.S. War Department handed Ft. Washita over to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1870 where it sat in ruins and deteriorated. In 1887, the Dawes Act forced the tribes to exchange tribal lands for individual ownership of allotments of land. This process took a long time to enact. In 1897, Fort Washita was part of the Chickasaw tribal lands which were divided into allotments for individual ownership by Chickasaw citizens. The Chickasaw Colbert family ended up owning Fort Washita.


Charles Colbert turned the west barracks into his home. For the next 60 years, the rest of its buildings served as living quarters and agricultural barns. The Colbert’s adopted Fort Washita’s cemetery as their family cemetery, plus they allotted some of its land to other Chickasaw families. The west barracks home burned to the ground in 1917. ***


In 1962, the Oklahoma Historical Society acquired Fort Washita and restored and rebuilt some of its original structures from the ruins. Finally, Fort Washita was inducted as a National Historic Landmark in 1965. It is home to four cemeteries: the Fort Washita post cemetery, the Confederate cemetery, the Colbert cemetery, and a Chickasaw burial ground. (4)


Fort Washita Is All Grown Up!


Today, the Chickasaw tribe owns Fort Washita. It is an impressive site with a museum, yearly events, storytelling, outdoor movies, seasonal and holiday events, and group tours. I recommend calling the main line for information because there is so much to do and see at different times of the year. But, not everything you can do at Fort Washita is listed on one website.


Click this link for contact info, location, and hours:


https://www.chickasaw.net/Our-Nation/Locations/Fort-Washita.aspx


Every April, Fort Washita Hosts a Fur Trade Rendezvous:


https://chickasaw.net/News/Press-Releases/Release/%E2%80%98Rendezvous%E2%80%99-fur-trade-offers-peek-into-the-past-a-50395.aspx



Some of Fort Washita’s Former Inhabitants Did Not Completely Die…


I want to camp at Fort Washita; I really do.


“Sometime between 1842 and 1861, either thieves or soldiers murdered a lady of fortitude known as Aunt Jane. She had buried her money and would not tell them where. Her money was never found, and her grave is in Fort Washita. Reports of Aunt Jane’s manifestations find her a headless apparition in a flowing white gown floating near the fort’s ruins, riding a horse galloping through the fort with her long black hair flowing behind her, and haunting former resident, Dr. Stalcup, by possessing his daughter, Molly. One night, Aunt Jane threatened to cut off all of Molly’s hair. When Mrs. Stalcup kneeled in fervent and intense prayer, Aunt Jane backed down and stopped her nonsense” (9)


Fort Washita offers candlelit ghost tours in the fall beginning in October. These tours are not actual ghost investigations; they are tours of the grounds with historical storytelling about the ghosts.


https://chickasawcountry.com/events/fort-washita-ghost-tours


Art Bell (June 17, 1945 – April 13, 2018) is off the air permanently. Ann, a Cherokee reenactment actress at Fort Washita years ago called Art's radio show with this compelling 1994 Fort Washita ghost story. 



Notations


* Named for Major Daniel Ruggles, commander of Fort Washita after the Mexican-American War.


** Battle of Honey Springs https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/honey-springs


*** A Fort Washita home burned again in 2010 in a consuming fire; see picture here: https://www.news9.com/story/13220629/fire-burns-historic-fort-washita


Sources


1. https://www.laketexoma.com/blog_article.php?baid=5561&src=myacc


2. This is an authentic account of a U.S. army private soldier who accompanied Cherokees to Indian Territory in 1839. https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/soldier-recalls-trail-tears


3. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=FO046


4. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/ok-fortwashita/


5. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=FO046


6. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=MI006


7. https://civilwartalk.com/threads/forgotten-forts-series-fort-washita-ok.87327/

8. http://www.hauntedhouses.com/states/ok/fort_washita.htm



Pictures


1. Fort Washita Arial Map, Photo of, Courtesy, civilwaralbum.com, which is a defunct website today. 
2-4 Stone Ruins
5. Entrance to Fort Washita
6. Early Fort Washita, Courtesy, Chickasaw TV, https://www.chickasaw.tv/events/fort-washita
7. West Barracks, 1975, From United States Department of the Interior - National Park Service - National Register of Historic Places - Property Photograph Form - Historic Sites Survey - Photo credited to Joseph Scott Mendinghall
8. April Fur Trade Rendezvous
9. Co. B, Morehouse Guards, 3rd La. Regiment, 1984, in front of the Colbert Home
10. Colbert Family Home




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