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Nineteenth-century military map of Indian Territory
(ITMAP.0214, Oklahoma Historical Society Map Collection, OHS).

Lt. Col. George A. Custer, center, leaning on pole, in camp in Kansas (undated)
(7405, Frederick S. Barde Collection, OHS).


More than any other part of the United States, Oklahoma was the product of military intervention. The U.S. Army was a major factor in the development of Oklahoma from the United States' acquisition of the area in 1803 to the last land run in 1893. It is possible to distinguish at least seven phases in the story of the military's presence and activity in the state.

The first phase, 1803–19, was largely a time of exploration, which began with the purchase of the vaguely defined territory of "Louisiana" from France. By the late 1810s the federal government had decided to use much of the new territory as a resettlement area for eastern Indians, meanwhile permitting non-Indian settlement immediately west of the Mississippi River. The first eastern Indians to be relocated were some Cherokees, who, beginning in 1808, voluntarily emigrated to the area that soon became western Arkansas. There was violent competition between the Cherokee and the local Osage over hunting grounds. The army attempted to stem the bloodshed by establishing Fort Smith (1817) on the Arkansas River. As the fort's location was part of Oklahoma until it was transferred to Arkansas in 1905, Fort Smith may be considered the first U.S. military post in present Oklahoma.

The second phase of the army's presence, 1819–30, witnessed the creation of a so-called "permanent Indian frontier." The Indians of the newly created territories of Missouri (1816) and Arkansas (1819) were displaced west of their boundaries. Then, between 1819 and 1827, a line of seven new military posts, reaching from present Minnesota to the state of Louisiana, was established. The posts were in part intended to reassure territorial settlers. However, the most active of the forts were those assigned to keep the peace between the Indians who had been relocated and the Indian nations that were already resident west of the frontier.

The military's activity in Oklahoma intensified in the third phase, 1830–48, which began with the Indian Removal Act and ended with the conclusion of the Mexican War. During the 1830s Pres. Andrew Jackson signed nearly seventy Indian removal treaties. These required the nations that had supposedly agreed to relocation to migrate to the "Indian Country" or "Indian territory" in the West. Most of the Indians were directed to the present states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. As removal was partially carried out by coercion, the army was called upon to enforce the removals.

Several of the treaties obligated the United States to provide protection for the "removed" eastern Indians from the "wild Indians" of the Plains. The relocated Indians also had to deal with outlaws and whiskey runners from Arkansas and with brigands and horse thieves from the American colonies within Mexican Tejas (the independent Republic of Texas after 1836). Conversely, Comanche and Kiowa raiders began to use "Indian territory" as a refuge after preying on the American settlements in Tejas/Texas. In response to the various demands for protection the U.S. Army reestablished Forts Gibson and Smith and founded Forts Coffee (1834), Wayne (1838), and Washita (1842). A system of military roads, the first genuine roads in today's Oklahoma, were blazed to connect such posts.

During the 1830–48 phase of military activity soldiers took part in four expeditions in the Oklahoma portion of Indian territory. All of these efforts were partially intended to further the work of the Stokes Commission. The commission, established in 1832 by the secretary of war, sought to discourage the raiding of removed eastern Indians by Plains Indians. Capt. Jesse Bean's 1832 expedition of volunteer "mounted riflemen" and Capt. James B. Many's 1833 expedition of infantry and riflemen failed to make contact with the Plains nations they sought. However, Capt. Henry Dodge's "Dragoon Expedition" of 1834 (dragoons are heavily armed, mounted troops) was able to persuade some Kiowa, Comanche, and Wichita in southwestern Oklahoma to meet with U.S. representatives. The Dragoon Expedition was significant as the first major mounted military expedition in U.S. history. A year later the Stokes Commission sent out Maj. Richard B. Mason with another party of dragoons. The 1835 Treaty of Camp Holmes secured by the Mason Expedition was the first U.S. treaty with southern Plains or southwestern Indians.

At least two of the expeditions mentioned above were also concerned with protecting the burgeoning trade with the Mexican province of Nuevo Mexico via the Santa Fe Trail. Some of the Indians engaged in raiding the caravans were based in what is now western Oklahoma. The Many Expedition doubled as a show of strength after an attack on a party of U.S. traders. The Mason Expedition attempted to secure a promise that the Plains Indians would not make further raids on traders. The expeditions of 1832–35 provided training for the U.S. Army units that fought in the Mexican War more than a decade later.

The fourth phase of military engagement in Oklahoma, 1848–61, took place between the end of the war with Mexico and the beginning of the Civil War. This period was one of intensified settlement in the new state of Texas (1845) and the new territories of Nebraska and Kansas (1854). Today's Oklahoma was the recipient of the Indian populations of Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas as they were forced out. There was, accordingly, an increasing tendency to refer to present Oklahoma as the Indian Territory. Once again, the army was called upon to be an instrument of coercion in Indian removal. As the fiction of the "permanent Indian frontier" disappeared, Forts Gibson and Towson were closed. In their place came Fort Cobb (1859), which received Indians from Texas, and Fort Arbuckle (1851). The latter post sought to protect the Choctaw and Chickasaw, as well as overland emigrants, from increasingly numerous raids by Kiowa and Comanche holdouts in Texas.

A strategic connection was now developing between the posts in present Oklahoma and those in Texas. Indian Territory forts were linked by road to a first (1849) line and then a second (early 1850s) line of "Comanche frontier" defenses in Texas. In 1858 most of the future state of Oklahoma became part of the U.S. Army's Department of Texas. That same year two campaigns were launched from Texas against Comanche and Kiowa operating out of Oklahoma. Texas Rangers led by John S. "Rip" Ford on May 12 struck Indians concealed near the Antelope Hills of western Oklahoma. On October 1 the Second Cavalry Regiment under Capt. Earl Van Dorn attacked a Comanche band encamped on Rush Springs Creek in southern Oklahoma. (Unknown to Van Dorn, the band's leader, Buffalo Hump, had traveled from Texas to discuss peace terms with the commander of Fort Arbuckle.)

The army was also committed to protecting non-Indian wayfarers who passed through present Oklahoma. These included emigrants traveling the Texas Road and, later, passengers of the Butterfield Overland Mail and stage line. In 1849 a small command under Capt. Randolph B. Marcy was ordered to accompany a party of emigrants and prospectors from Arkansas as far as New Mexico. The Marcy Expedition's more important objective was to determine the feasibility of a central route for a national road.

Westward emigration and Plains Indian warfare necessitated the expansion of the peacetime army. The military experience in Oklahoma had done much to make this need evident, particularly the need for more mounted troops. In 1855 the army was expanded by two infantry regiments and two cavalry regiments. The latter were "true" cavalry, adapted for mobility, versus the dragoon and mounted riflemen regiments from which they evolved. The army was further expanded in the 1850s through the 1870s by the recruitment of Indian Territory Indians as guides, translators, and other auxiliaries.

The practice of pitting Indians against Indians reached its peak in the next phase of military activity, the American Civil War of 1861–65. Several factors drew the Indian nations of present Oklahoma into this conflict. One was the hope that siding with the United States or the Confederacy might increase the prospects of preserving the Indian Territory nations from being dissolved. Another consideration was the opportunity to settle long-standing political and familial rivalries. A third factor was concern over the withdrawal of the protective garrisons in Indian Territory so that the troops might take part in the campaigns east of the Mississippi River. This transfer was accompanied by the wartime suspension of promised annuity payments.

Confederate Indian Commissioner Albert Pike skillfully played upon the resentments felt by many Indians toward the United States. He was thus able to negotiate alliances with factions of ten Indian nations. The defense of Indian Territory against outlaws and Plains Indian raiders was left either to Confederate troops and Texas frontier guards or to volunteer regiments from Union states and territories. However, the principal target of the Confederate and Federal units was not marauders, but each another.

Indian troops faced off in the important campaigns within present Oklahoma. The first major encounter was the aborted Union Indian Expedition of summer 1862. Another Union effort in 1863, which culminated in the Honey Springs campaign, was successful. Most Confederate sympathizers and allies were driven south of the Arkansas River. This was followed by the Texas Road operations of 1864, which succeeded in dispersing many of the Confederate Indians in the southern part of the territory.

During the war around 5,000 Indian Territory Indians were recruited into eleven Confederate Indian regiments and eight battalions. On the opposing side, about 3,350 Indians joined three Indian Home Guard regiments. The Indian military experience in the Civil War became an important factor in Indian assimilation within Euroamerican society. For one thing, many Indians joined or fought alongside non-Indian volunteer regiments from states and territories that adjoined Indian Territory. For another, the Indians' treaties with the Confederacy provided the U.S. government with an excuse to impose the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866. These postwar treaties were a blow to Indian autonomy and territorial integrity.

The sixth phase of military activity in Indian Territory, 1865–75, extended from the close of the Civil War to the end of the Red River War. This period saw the concentration of the southern Plains tribes within Indian Territory and the Plains Indians' resistance to the reservation system. During and following the Civil War the southern Plains Indians experienced many grievances. Gold prospectors had continued to travel through their hunting grounds even during the war. Some of those same miners participated in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of Southern Cheyenne in Colorado in 1864. By 1867 the new states of Kansas and Nebraska successfully demanded the expulsion of nearly all Indians from their borders. Railroads and cattle trails further violated lands claimed by the Plains peoples. A rapid postwar increase in non-Indian settlement on the Plains also increased opportunities to carry out the Indian tradition of raiding.

The Department of the Interior's optimistic response to the growing friction was a series of treaties negotiated at Medicine Lodge Creek, Kansas, with a minority of Indian leaders. These 1867 treaties authorized Cheyenne-Arapaho and Kiowa-Comanche reservations in present Oklahoma. From the outset, the new reservations were plagued by administrative corruption, the depletion of game and grazing, and the inability of the army to prevent incursions by horse thieves, cattlemen, and hunters.

The treaties were soon followed by a renewal of Southern Cheyenne assaults in Kansas and Nebraska. These attacks coincided with Kiowa and Comanche raids into Texas and Kansas from the haven of the new Plains Indian reservations in Indian Territory. The commander of the U.S. Army's Division of the Missouri, which included much of the Great Plains, was Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. Sheridan met the violence with the West's first major winter campaign. A column under Lt. Cols. Alfred Sully and George A. Custer departed Kansas to establish a campaign base camp, Camp Supply, in northwestern Indian Territory. On November 27, 1868, Custer attacked a Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne camp on the Washita River. Tragically, it proved to be the encampment of a "peace chief," Black Kettle. The strike did, however, manage to demoralize many of the more aggressive Cheyenne and Arapaho. Led by Maj. Andrew W. Evans, another column out of New Mexico surprised a Comanche and Kiowa village at Soldier Spring on Christmas Day 1868. Evans's victory in westernmost Indian Territory encouraged several hostile Indian bands to disperse.

As increasing numbers of Indians capitulated on the reservations, Fort Sill (1869) was established to keep watch on the Comanche-Kiowa Agency and Fort Reno (1875) to guard the Cheyenne-Arapaho Agency. The founding of Fort Sill proved timely, as there was a resurgence of Kiowa and Cheyenne raiding by 1871. The conflict this time was aggravated by the incursions of buffalo hide hunters into traditional Indian hunting areas and by a prohibition against the army pursuing Indian raiders onto the reservations. The violence escalated into the Red River War of 1874–75.

The Red River War was the greatest Indian war fought in Indian Territory. To win the conflict, Sheridan planned a five-pronged invasion of the hostile Comanche and Kiowa stronghold in the Texas Panhandle for autumn and winter of 1874–75. One of the columns originated at Fort Sill. Of the fourteen engagements fought during the war, three took place in present Oklahoma. By June 1875 the last of the belligerent leaders had surrendered to officials on the Comanche-Kiowa Reservation. By then more than seventy war leaders had been arrested for transfer to a military prison in Florida. Near the Darlington or Cheyenne-Arapaho Agency, a Southern Cheyenne warrior named Black Horse broke and ran while being shackled. Panic set in among others in the vicinity, and this resulted in a stiff engagement known as the "Sand Hill Fight" on April 6, 1875.

The last Indian conflicts and the end of the reservation system were the first major events of the last phase of military activity, 1875–93. A relocation of Northern Cheyenne to the overtaxed Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation resulted in a Northern Cheyenne flight from Indian Territory. The initial pursuit of Dull Knife's and Little Wolf's bands in 1877 was the last significant event in Indian warfare in present Oklahoma.

In 1887 the Dawes Severalty Act called for an end to reservations. The act established the Dawes Commission (not created until 1893), which broke up the communal reservations and distributed individual land allotments. The measure created considerable distress, as it destroyed traditional Indian life and invited land fraud.

Called upon to deal with any violent resistance with the allotment process, the army also found itself in another law enforcement role as it attempted to capture David Payne's "Boomers." Between 1882 and 1885 cavalry detachments were repeatedly dispatched to capture these armed parties of squatters and escort them back to Kansas. Nevertheless, the would-be settlers' demand for free land finally succeeded. As a result, the army was in 1889 made responsible for regulating the Unassigned Lands land run in central Oklahoma. The army was again called upon to prevent fraud by "sooners" and claim jumpers during the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation run of 1892 and the Cherokee Outlet land run of 1893. Overseeing the 1893 land run represented the last duty of the old frontier army.

Michael A. Hughes


Brad Agnew, Fort Gibson: Terminal on the Trail of Tears (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).

Edwin C. Bearss and Arrell M. Gibson, Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas (2d ed.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979).

William Y. Chalfant, Without Quarter: The Wichita Expedition and the Fight on Crooked Creek (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

Peter Cozzens, ed., Eyewitnesses to the Indian War, 1865–1890, Vol. 3., Conquering the Southern Plains (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2003).

LeRoy H. Fischer, ed., The Civil War Era in Indian Territory (Los Angeles: L. L. Morrison, 1974).

Grant Foreman, Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953).

William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959).

Jerome A. Greene, Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867–1869 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).

Stan Hoig, The Battle of the Washita: The Sheridan-Custer Indian Campaign of 1867–69 (1976; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979).

Stan Hoig, Fort Reno and the Indian Territory Frontier (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000).

Stan Hoig, Perilous Pursuit: The U.S. Cavalry and the Northern Cheyennes (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002).

Michael Hughes, "Nations Asunder, Part II: Reservation and Eastern Indians During the American Civil War, 1861–1865," Journal of the Indian Wars 1:4 (2000).

David La Vere, Contrary Neighbors: Southern Plains and Removed Indians in Indian Territory (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

John H. Monnett, Tell Them We Are Going Home: The Odyssey of the Northern Cheyennes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001).

Wilbur S. Nye, Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill (3d ed., rev.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969).

Francis Paul Prucha, The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783–1846 (1969; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1891 (1973; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

Robert M. Utley, Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848–1865 (1967; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981).

Robert Wooster, The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865–1903 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Michael A. Hughes, “Military, Nineteenth Century,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=MI025.

Published January 15, 2010

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