In 1830, the Indian Removal Act set into law the general policy of the United States government aimed at the relocation of the Native American tribes east of the Mississippi River to land west of the river in the newly created Indian Territory of what is now Oklahoma. The Choctaws, with no real alternatives, were the first, ceding their lands in Mississippi and Alabama to the United States with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830.
The Cherokees, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, followed, and it soon became evident that the presence of the U.S. Army was needed to manage the removal and to protect the eastern tribes from the plains tribes to the west, the Comanche, Wichita, Caddo, and Kiowa. To that end the Dodge-Leavenworth Expedition of 1834 moved west and established Camp Washita, near the confluence of the Washita and Red Rivers. The army abandoned the camp after clearing roads to Fort Gibson in the north and Fort Towson to the east.
It soon became clear that Towson and Gibson were too far from new frontier line to afford adequate protection to the Chickasaws, who were moving in to the area. To provide that protection, in 1838, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs requested that the army build a permanent post on the Washita.
General Zachary Taylor had reconnoitered the ground in 1841 and had recommended that the army establish a post on the site. To that end, that Captain T. A. Blake brought Company A of the Second Regiment, United States Dragoons to the spot in April of the next year and set them to work.
The new fort was sited at a strategic point. Near both the Washita and Red rivers, it also commanded the Texas Road, an ancient trail connecting Texas to Missouri through the Indian Territory. In Texas, this road, called the Preston Trail, crossed the Red near Coffee’s Trading Post. In years to come, the crossing, at Rock Bluff, would see the coaches of the Butterfield Overland Mail, and the first of great herds of longhorns pushed up the Shawnee trail to Missouri and Kansas.
But for now, the fort’s mission was to protect the Indians from the Indians, to stop raids by the plains tribes against the Chickasaws. A secondary purpose was to show the flag in that remote corner of the country—at the time, Washita marked the army’s deepest penetration into the Southwest—and to discourage incursions by militia and regular forces of the Republic of Texas, a few miles to the south, across the Red River.
The first building completed was the south barracks. Finished in 1849, it was 120 feet long and 30 feet wide, with orderly rooms at either end of the second floor. Each of the two companies assigned to the barracks had a fifty-foot common room with a stone fireplace at one end to serve as their home. There were tall windows and a wide covered verandah, and the ground floor rooms did duty as mess hall and meeting place.
A second barracks rose on the west side of the parade ground in 1856. Of locally quarried limestone, it was used as a private home when the army eventually abandoned the post, and it burned in 1917, leaving only the thick stonewalls.
More buildings would go up over the years, and eventually there would be quarters for the chaplain, an adjutant’s office and school, a row of officers’ quarters, housing for the post’s laundress, freestanding baking ovens and a smithy. The garrison’s commanding officer would have a house, as would the surgeon, and a hospital was built that was somewhat advanced for its day. The commissary could hold three thousand barrels of provisions and supplies and had underground rooms for storing perishable items. Today, the only reminders of these structures are their stone foundations.
There were no palisades, no high stone walls or pointed pickets. Those are mostly the invention of Hollywood. Hostiles were not inclined to attack large groups of trained soldiers, whether protected by walls are not. It would not have made much sense.
For a time in 1843, it looked as if the post would be abandoned even before it was finished, but General Taylor protested, arguing the fort’s important location, and the work continued. The army officially took possession on April 23, 1843.
From the start, and through the 1850s, the post saw a regular rotation of infantry, cavalry and artillery units. An artillery training school was established and gunners practiced in the fields around the post. During the Mexican War (1846 -1848), the fort was a transit point for troops moving to Northern Mexico to support General Taylor’s army. Before the war, the regular garrison had been about one hundred fifty; during the war it rose to near two thousand. This created logistical problems as Washita was only post on the frontier with no access to steamboats. The end of the war brought other changes. The Chickasaw Nation moved father west in 1848, making the fort’s location less advantageous to their protection, and the influx of settlers bound for the California gold fields made the post a staging point. This led to building Fort Arbuckle and Fort Cobb in the Territory, and Fort Worth in Texas, now a part of the Union.
During this period, Fort Washita saw the service of many soldiers in the small family that was the regular army who names would rebound in the Civil War such as Dixon Miles, Randolph Marcy, George McClellan, Braxton Bragg, and Theophilus Holmes. With the first shots at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, Washita’s time as a viable post was marked. Colonel William Henry had consolidated the commands at Arbuckle and Cobb at Washita, but he quickly determined the fort was not defendable so close to Confederate Texas and on April 16, the stars and stripes came down and men in blue marched off to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
The next day Texas soldiers representing the Confederate States moved in. The confederates occupied the site until another spring four years later when the Civil War ended. The U.S. Army did not want the fort back after the war, and it passed from the War Department to the Department of the Interior in 1870. Eventually it passed through a variety of civilian hands. The state got the property in 1962, and the Oklahoma Historical Society started efforts to preserve the post and return the “living” to its history.
And if you are there at the right time, and if the south wind backs so there is less of a rustle in the trees, if you listen very carefully— There, can’t you hear the bugles blowing?