Our last stop on the Oklahoma tour is Fort Gibson. I found Fort Gibson very interesting, and I encourage you to visit if you are in the area. The historic Fort Gibson is located in the town of Fort Gibson, which is just east of Muskogee, over the Arkansas River. Muskogee is 50 miles southeast of Tulsa. A little traveler’s tip, if you are planning on using the toll roads in Oklahoma, take some change with you. The toll booths are unmanned and do not give you the option to use bills.
The town of Fort Gibson is also home to the Fort Gibson national cemetery on the other side of town from the historic fort. Fun Fact: The Union soldiers who died and were buried during our last stop, the Battle of Honey Springs, were dug up and reburied after the war at the Fort Gibson Cemetery. The cemetery is a sobering place to visit, and I highly recommend it.
I’m not going to go deep into the history of Fort Gibson, but just tease several historic facts that are based around the fort. The fort was established in 1824 on the eastern bank of the Grand River just a short distance from where the river met the Arkansas River. River travel was key for supplying the fort. The downside of being near the river was that the fort flooded often and at one point the original fort was moved several hundred years up the slope to the north to try and avoid the flooding.
The fort was established as one in a line of forts meant to protect the western edge of the United States. For Oklahoma, then known as “Indian Territory,” it also meant protecting civilization from the perceived threat from the Native American tribes that lived in the territory. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. This act ordered most eastern tribes to relocate to land that had been set aside for them in the Indian Territory. Fort Gibson was repurposed to become the “welcoming center” for these eastern tribes into the territory. The fort would be the first stop for migrating tribes such as the Cherokee. Fort Gibson is often considered the end of the “Trail of Tears” for that tribe. Newcomers would stop at the fort to register and be given supplies and told where they could settle.
There was a great deal of conflict between tribes early on because the Plains Indian tribes, such as the Osage were not thrilled to have the new tribes coming and living on the land that they felt belonged to them. For many years, soldiers at Fort Gibson acted as a peacekeeping force for the various Indian tribes which had built camps and towns very near the fort. During the height of Indian removal, the Fort boasted the largest garrison in the country, with many famous names having served there such as Robert E Lee, Sam Houston, and Jefferson Davis.
The fort was closed before the civil war but opened again as a supply depot for the union army during the war. It was the destination for the supplies coming from Kansas that were discussed in the post about the Battle of Cabin Creek. Later it would become the main processing center for the Dawes Rolls, which were a method for the government to track the Indians in the territory and know which tribe they belonged to. The Dawes rolls are still used today by some Native American tribes to track genetic membership.
One last point related to Oklahoma’s history is that most of the land had been divided up and given to the tribes. There was a small portion right in the middle called the “unassigned land”. (See image) This is what was opened to white settlers in the Indian Appropriation Bill, which preceded what we know today as the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. The images you see of the settlers lining up and getting ready to charge into the “unclaimed land” and stake their claim show exactly what happened. The people that were pushing this bill were called, “Boomers”. Some settlers snuck in early and staked their claim before they were legally allowed, they were called “Sooners”. Thus, the Oklahoma mascot “Boomer Sooner”.
And that is my Paul Harvey “The Rest of the Story” for this post.