Thursday, June 4, 2015

Fort Gibson and Fort Towson

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

Sam Houston in Cherokee garb
In the last blog I described the day that Karon and I spent at historic sites of Denison. From Denison we intended to launch a long postponed trip to Fort Gibson and Fort Towson in Oklahoma. Last summer we took a multi-state research trip on the trail of Sam Houston, from his birthplace in Virginia to other points of his life before he reached Texas. Our final stops were scheduled for Oklahoma, where Houston spent a couple of years with the Cherokee. But in Tennessee we had an unexpected late-night encounter with a deer on I-40. We were unhurt, but our vehicle was totaled, and we had to finish the trip without getting to Oklahoma.

Officers' Circle at Fort Gibson National Cemetery
During the past year I completed the manuscript, Sam Houston: A Study in Leadership. But I still wanted photo ops, and because it had been many years since I had visited these places, I wanted to be sure that my “feel” for Forts Gibson and Towson was accurate. As an adventurous teenager, Sam Houston had lived for three years with a Cherokee tribe in Tennessee. Two decades later he returned to his tribe, now removed to “Indian Territory.” Houston had resigned as Governor of Tennessee under the cloud of a disastrous marriage and a highly public separation. He opened a trading post near Fort Gibson, which was established in 1824 as the military’s farthest west outpost. Houston took a Cherokee wife, Tiana (or Diana) Rogers, who actually operated the trading post. Houston drank heavily during this period, and he led tribal delegations to Washington, D.C. After two years and perhaps, as rumor suggested, at the urging of his mentor, President Andrew Jackson, Houston decided to try to resurrect his career. In the informal way of the Cherokee, Houston divorced Tiana/Diana, giving the trading post to her as a fair mean of support – in compliance with Cherokee custom.
The stone of Tiana/Diana Rogers, wife of Sam Houston,
bears the incorrect name of "Talahina. "
Tiana/Diana died in her late thirties in 1838 and was buried in the Officers’ Circle at the Fort Gibson Cemetery. In 1868 this burial ground was designated a National Cemetery. As Oklahoma’s only National Cemetery, it stretches across a vast area. We arrived at mid-day on Friday, May 22 – the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. Many people were on the grounds, including family members seeking specific gravestones. There were countless flags, large and small. Karon and I have visited numerous National Cemeteries, but this visit was especially impressive. As Karon pointed out, it was the first time we had been to a National Cemetery on a Memorial Day weekend.
The row of two-story buildings just inside the Fort Gibson
stockade provided quarters for officers and headquarters.
Fortifications at Fort Gibson included a stockade
and blockhouses.
Sam Houston headed south toward Texas, stopping at Fort Towson five miles north of the Red River. Cantonment Towson, later elevated to “Fort” status, was founded in 1824. Fort Towson became a handsome post, but the Army abandoned it in 1854. Towson soon became dilapidated, in part because of “midnight requisitioning” of building materials by civilians. During the Civil War Confederate forces took over the old outpost. At Towson on June 23, 1865, Brigadier General Stand Watie – the highest ranking “Confederate Indian” – surrendered his Cherokee command, the last Confederate band to surrender to the Union.

The new Visitor Center at Fort Towson soon will
be opened to the public.
Fort Towson still was growing when Sam Houston arrived late in 1832. He crossed the Red River to Jonesboro, Texas, on December 2, 1832, destined to become a Lone Star icon. Today Fort Towson features only scattered stone ruins, although a visitor center soon will open. Shortly after leaving Fort Towson, Karon and I drove across a Red River bridge not far downstream from Sam Houston’s 1832 crossing.
Appearance of Fort Towson during Houston's visit
Fort Towson ruins today

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