Fort Gibson’s Bicentennial - 405 Magazine

Fort Gibson’s Bicentennial

The long history of an Oklahoma landmark. Fort Gibson, the first military post in what would become the state of Oklahoma, celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.

One of the original barracks at Fort Gibson in 1934. A reconstructed version of the fort is open for visitors. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society

In 1824 Col. Matthew Arbuckle, leader of the 7th U.S. Infantry and namesake of the mountains near Turner Falls, opened Cantonment Gibson. The garrison at nearby Fort Smith in Arkansas was relocated to the new post, later renamed Fort Gibson in honor of Revolutionary War hero George Gibson.

The frontier outpost was established to maintain peace between the Cherokee and Osage tribes. Some Cherokees were already in the area before the forced relocation of Eastern tribes from 1830 to 1850 during the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory. Historians say the Osage people had been living nearby for centuries.

During the height of the removal, Fort Gibson had the largest garrison in the nation, with many noteworthy men either serving there or passing through — including Henry Leavenworth, Jefferson Davis, Sam Houston, Zachary Taylor and Nathan Boone, youngest son of Daniel Boone.

Situated on the Grand River near its confluence with the Verdigris and the Arkansas Rivers at a place known as Three Forks, Fort Gibson was farther west than any other military post at the time. Its nearby boat landing and easy river navigation were important, but the location soon proved a poor choice: The log fort was built in a low area that often flooded, creating stagnant pools of water that caused illness and death among the troops. Rotting logs needed constant repair. One officer described the location as “the bottom of a sinkhole.” During a 5-year period, deaths totaled 500. 

During the 1840s and ’50s, the sale of liquor to Cherokees had become a problem and at the persistent urging of tribal leaders, Congress agreed to abandon the post. Political debates about relocation continued for years, and construction finally began in 1845 on higher ground not far away. The fort’s role diminished in the 1850s as tribes settled on their new lands and the need for military protection declined.

In 1857, the property was deeded to the Cherokee, who established the village of Kee-too-wah on the site but later sold the land and buildings. The fort became essential again during and after the Civil War and remained in federal hands until 1865.

Protection and peace-keeping efforts on the frontier were successful for more than 50 years, with no battles or massacres. In summer 1890, the fort was once again abandoned but later used as the headquarters of the Dawes Commission to enroll members of the Five Tribes. 

Today, a smaller, reconstructed version of the early fort and stockade is open to visitors. Up the hill, nine original buildings of the latter fort, many made of stone instead of logs, are still standing. Some have become personal homes; others are occupied or being restored. Visitors can see a film and exhibits at the Commissary Visitor Center on Garrison Hill, and the fort’s original stone oven is in the bake house.

The state-run Fort Gibson Historic Site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated a National Historic Landmark. It played a crucial role for many decades and remains an important part of Oklahoma’s history.

Interested in more Oklahoma history? Check out this story on Turner Falls.