Sunday, March 19, 2017

Oklahoma History: Fort Towson, A True Frontier Fort

Sketch of Fort Towson, Courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society

By Alanna Radle Rodriguez

In 1824, the western frontier of the U.S. started with the Appalachian Mountains, and extended down into the Ozark foothills, then ended essentially on the western border of what is now the state of Arkansas. It was a rough-and-tumble sort of area. It was ruled as much by the U.S. Army, as by the law of the gun. In an effort to help secure the western border against the plains tribes, the army decided to establish several forts. While I was researching an earlier blog, I came across mention of seven different forts in Oklahoma, four in the east, and three in the west. I have written about a couple of them, so here is the next edition in the Oklahoma Fort Series!

Fort Towson was established in 1824 by the 7th Infantry under Colonel Matthew Arbuckle, the same officer who started Fort Gibson, as a cantonment, or temporary encampment on the fork of the Kiamichi and Red Rivers, in what is now Choctaw County, Oklahoma, between the towns of Hugo and Idabel. The cantonment was named after the war-hero of 1812 and Army Paymaster General Nathan Towson. The fort was charged with many duties, including building a road to Fort Smith, Arkansas, building a road to Fort Jesup, Louisiana, maintaining border security with the Mexican territory of Texas, serving as a hub for the Choctaw Trail of Tears, and keeping a buffer zone between the plains tribes and the notably peaceable Choctaw tribe. 
Fort Towson, Courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society
The cantonment was abandoned by the Department of the Army in 1829 with its garrison being moved to Fort Jesup. It was reestablished after the signing of the treaty between the Dancing Rabbit Creek and the Choctaw tribes in 1830 as Camp Phoenix. In 1831, it was renamed Fort Towson. This indicated the change in the focus of this being a temporary frontier camp to a more permanent frontier fort.

The new fort was more substantial. It was built with the north side up against the bluffs of Gates Creek, the officers’ quarters took up the northern three buildings of the rectangle, the other buildings in the fort included the sub-officer quarters, schoolhouse, quartermaster’s office, hospital, stables, shops, amusement parlor, gardens, kitchens, dining halls, and barracks. During this time, it had numerous notable persons that were known to have visited the fort. These names include Jefferson Davis, Congressman Davy Crockett, Benjamin Bonneville, Sam Houston, and Steven Austin. During the Mexican War, it served as a staging area for the army traveling south to invade Mexico.

It was during this time that another fort, Fort Washita, was established approximately 80 miles to the west with the expansion of the western frontier. Fort Towson was once again abandoned, and the troops were moved to the newest fort in 1856 and turned over to the Choctaw agency. Within a few years, storms and fire destroyed all the buildings save for one of the barracks and the hospital. 

Ruins of Fort Towson, Courtesy of Trip Suggest
During the War Between the States, the Choctaw joined the Confederacy and turned the fort over to their forces, under the command of General Samuel Maxey. Throughout the war, it remained as the headquarters for the confederates. General Stand Watie, known as the last Confederate General to surrender, did so on June 23rd, 1865 in the local town of Doaksville.

At the end of the war, the fort was once again abandoned, with the soldiers that were buried in the cemetery being moved to the federal cemetery at Fort Gibson.

The fort sat empty until 1902 when the Arkansas and Choctaw Railway came to Choctaw County. The fort became populated once again, and absorbed the local town of Doaksville, to form the town of Fort Towson. 
Cannon and Ruins of Fort Towson, Courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society 
In 1960, the fort site was purchased by the Oklahoma Historical Society. Little remains of the original fort, however, it is being partly rebuilt and continues to be maintained by the OHS.


  1. I love seeing glimpses into history like this. It's really a shame more of the fort hasn't survived.

    1. It sure is a shame. But it sure does leave a lot up to the imagination! *huge grin*