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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Noted American author Washington Irving (1783–1859) was returning to New York during the summer of 1832 after a seventeen-year stay in Europe when he met Britisher Charles J. Latrobe (1801–75) and his companion, young Swiss nobleman Count Albert-Alexandre de Pourtalès (1812–61). This chance meeting was followed by another on a Lake Erie steamer headed for Ohio when the trio met Indian Commissioner Henry Ellsworth (1791–1858), who was on his way to the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) to hold treaty talks with tribes there. Irving and his new friends eagerly accepted Ellsworth's invitation to go west with him. At St. Louis Ellsworth introduced the three men to Col. Auguste P. Chouteau, who resided near present Salina, Oklahoma, and operated a trading post on the Verdigris River. The frontier-wise Chouteau agreed to escort Irving and the others on west. Following an Osage trail from Independence, Missouri, the party rode south to Chouteau's home on the Grand River.

During the trip Irving made copious notes regarding experiences on the trail. He described Chouteau's plantation-style Grand Saline home, which constituted the first white settlement in Oklahoma, as a "house formed of logs—a room at each end—an open hall with staircase in the center—other rooms above—in the two rooms on the ground floor two beds in each room with curtains—white washed log walls—tables of various kinds-Indian ornaments." From there the party rode on to Fort Gibson, and Irving met with Col. Matthew Arbuckle and Sam Houston, the former Tennessee governor who had come west to live among the Cherokee and operate his Neosho Wigwam trading house. Irving characterized "Gov. Houston" as a "tall, large, well formed, fascinating man—low crowned large brimmed white beaver—boots with brass eagle spurs—given to grandiloquence. A large and military mode of expressing himself."

Irving also described the scene at the juncture of the Verdigris and Grand River with the Arkansas, it being known to the Indians as the Six Bull and to whites as Three Forks: "It [Colonel Chouteau's post] consisted of a few log-houses on the banks of the river. [It was] a motley frontier scene [with] some [men] on horseback, some on foot, some seated on the trunks of fallen trees, some in frock coats made of green blankets, others in leathern hunting shirts, stately Osages with blankets about their waists, their hair cropped close, except a bristling ridge on the top, like the crest of a helmet, with a long scalp-lock hanging behind, a gaily dressed party of Creeks, a sprinkling of trappers, hunters, half-breeds, Creoles, [and] a strapping negro shoeing a horse."

There Irving, Latrobe, and Pourtalès joined a party of rangers who were preparing to explore the unknown lands west of Fort Gibson. The march under Capt. Jesse Bean took them up the Arkansas River to the Cimarron, then up that stream past present Guthrie, south through a stretch of scrub oak and brush known widely as the Cross Timbers, and past present Arcadia and Oklahoma City to the area of present Norman before turning back northeastward to Fort Gibson. During this adventure-filled journey Irving noted exciting encounters with black bears, bison, wild horses, wolf packs, and even elk that then frequented the region, as well as an Osage war party—all fixtures of early Oklahoma. At night, Irving observed, the party "slept in the open air under trees with outposts stationed to guard us against any surprise by the Indians."

After twenty days in the wilds Irving and his friends returned to Fort Gibson, there finding that they were unable to sleep at night without the company of an open sky and sparkling stars to which they had become accustomed. On November 10, 1832, the three men boarded a steamboat heading from Fort Gibson down the Arkansas River to Little Rock. A month later Sam Houston left the Three Forks, mounted on a bob-tailed nag, heading to his destiny in Texas.

From the notes Irving had made on this trip into the area that was then the home of the Indian, in 1835 he published his American classic, A Tour on the Prairies, which will forever provide readers with a incisive, presettlement look at the lands that eventually became the state of Oklahoma.

Stan Hoig


Steve Gragert, "Washington Irving, Henry Ellsworth, Albert-Alexandre de Pourtalès and Charles Latrobe, 1832," Frontier Adventurers: American Exploration in Oklahoma, ed. Joseph A. Stout, Jr. (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1976).

Washington Irving, A Tour on the Prairies, ed. John Francis McDermott (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Stan Hoig, “Irving, Ellsworth, Latrobe, and Pourtalès Expedition,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=IR004.

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