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Fort Coffee: How an Old Fort Helped Shape Southeastern Oklahoma

Updated on October 2, 2017
Fort Coffee, artist sketch
Fort Coffee, artist sketch | Source

The U.S. Army’s Presence in Indian Territory

Just past the Arkansas border in old Indian Territory, an old military fort existed high on top of a rocky outcropping that overlooked the Arkansas River.

Starting in 1816, the U.S. Army established quite a number of these forts in Oklahoma. At this time, the army was not as we know it today. Being officially less than 50 years old, the entire army consisted of 6,283 active men. Of those, the western division only consisted of 2,458. The majority of the soldiers of the U.S. Army were sent to Florida to help provide aid in the ongoing Seminole wars.

Those remaining men of the western division were ordered to build a defensive wall of forts running north and south. This was a time of great expansion, and also of great suffering. The U.S. had been pushing a campaign to secure Native American lands, which had caused unrest among most of the Native Americans. These forts initially provided protection for the frontier settlements. Later, many of these forts were tasked with providing protection for the resettled members of the Five Civilized Tribes from their new western neighbors.

As a necessity to the construction of these forts, new military roads were established all across eastern Oklahoma. One of the most traveled roads ran from Ft. Smith to Ft. Towsen. These old roads established the basis of today’s modern roads.

Even with the roads, soldiers were required to traverse rough terrain for weeks at a time. Once they finally arrived at the destination of the new fort, they were forced to live in tents and crude shelters. Many died from the weather, illness, or poor diet.

During the 1820’s, the U.S. Government was making plans to resettle large portions of Native Americans into what would become Indian Territory. Mississippi’s largest Native American group, the Choctaws, was the first ones to accept relocation. In September 1830, The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was finalized. This stated that the Choctaws would receive land west of the Mississippi. In return, they would abandon their lands in Mississippi to the U.S. Government.

The Military Base at Fort Coffee

Fort Coffee was established on June 16, 1834. Prior to 1838, the western boundary of Arkansas had not been clearly defined. In fact, Indian Territory wasn’t established until 1824; it had been part of Arkansas Territory previously. Indian Territory was further defined with the establishment of Fort Coffee, but the border wasn’t clearly defined until around 1838.

The old fort was built on a high bluff named Swallow Rock that overlooked the Arkansas River. This bluff was nearly surrounded on three sides by the Arkansas River, providing an excellent view of river traffic. It was named in honor of General Coffee from Tennessee. Coffee was a close friend of President Andrew Jackson, a veteran of the war of 1812, and was instrumental in helping with the removal of the Choctaws from Mississippi. He died on July 7, 1833, almost a year before the new fort named in his honor was commissioned.

Soldiers of the Seventh Infantry labored under the command of Captain John Stuart. Stuart served nearly all of his military life in the Indian Territory. He was a precise man, very perceptive and interested in his surroundings, and extremely so in the Native Americans whom he was in contact. He was a well respected captain and his men followed him without question. At Fort Coffee, he had a total of 44 men under his command.

The buildings constructed for the fort were crude. They were one story structures built out of hewed logs with porches in the front and back. They were covered with shingles, used rough cut lumber for the floors, and had batten doors and window shutters. Each building was built 100 feet long and 100 feet wide, with a hollow central area and a wide entryway that faced the river. In the center of each square was a magazine for the fort. Near the edge of the bluff a large guard house had been constructed.

Initially, the fort was constructed to receive the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Two routes into the new Indian Territory were taken; one by land, the other by river. Those who came arrived by steamboat were sent to Ft. Coffee, where they landed at a natural beach just below Swallow Rock.

Shortly after resettlement, representatives from the Choctaw Nation called upon the U.S. War Department to construct a fort along the Arkansas River. They requested this to help stop the flow of illegal contraband into the nation along the river. In addition to protecting the Choctaw Nation, preventing this influx of illegal contraband became one of the top priorities of the fort. Because of the abandonment of Fort Smith earlier, those bringing whiskey and other contraband had easy access to the Choctaw Nation.

Fort Coffee was given a new purpose during the Texas Revolution of 1835 and 1836. Captain Stuart and his men now helped guard the western boundary of Arkansas against Mexican incursion. While no action was seen at the fort, it served as an arms depot for the Arkansas militia.

In October 1838, two years after the end of the Texas Revolution, Ft. Coffee was abandoned. With the re-establishment of Fort Smith, that eliminated the need for Ft. Coffee. Captain Stuart and his men went on to establish Fort Wayne on the Illinois River.

Swallow Rock
Swallow Rock

Fort Coffee Academy for Boys

In 1843, the Choctaw Nation purchased the property and the buildings. They worked with the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish a new learning academy, named the Fort Coffee Academy for Boys. This was one of 8 missionary schools established in Indian Territory before 1860. This became one of the most famous training institutions in the region.

New Hope, located just five miles away, was established around the same time. This was the Methodist’s girl’s academy and served as a branch of the Fort Coffee Academy.

During the days of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, the Fort Coffee Academy was one of many stops along the way from Ft. Smith to California.

Reverend William H. Goode was appointed superintendent, with Henry C. Benson as the instructor. After they arrived at the old fort location, they spent the night on the lower beach and then set to work the following day. Since the fort had been abandoned for some years, many of the structures were in disrepair. Roofs leaked, doors and windows were broken, and the plaster had started coming out of the log walls. All of the porches and floors had to be replaced.

Once the buildings were repaired, a ten acre farm was cultivated to help feed the missionaries and students. This was worked while Rev. Goode returned to Indianapolis to purchase the rest of the supplies for the academy.

By the time it was completed, it served as one of the finest academies in the region.

The Civil War and its Consequences

The demise of Fort Coffee came when the United States plunged into Civil War. Because of its strategic placement on the Arkansas River, Indian forces sympathetic with the Confederate cause took control of the old fort in 1861. These Native American troops were ultimately under the command of Stand Watie.

In October 1863, a surprise union raid captured and destroyed the old fort. Orders were sent to set fire to all of the primary buildings. For a few months following, those union forces remained in the last structures remaining before finally abandoning the fort altogether. By the time they left, only the rock foundations remained.

At the end of the Civil War, the Choctaw were required to sign the Reconstruction Treaty of 1866. This forced them to release any slaves they owned. The majority of those who were freed chose to remain in the Choctaw Nation. Until 1885, they worked essentially as indentured servants. That year, many were adopted into the Choctaw Nation, which qualified them for land allotments as prepared by the Dawes Commission.

Today, the old fort site is on private property, however, there’s not much left to see. Much of Swallow Rock is gone. During the late 1960’s, the U.S. Corps of Engineers quarried a significant portion of the rock for the construction of the Kerr Lock and Dam. All that remains to mark the passing of this once instrumental fort is a small historical marker on the highway nearby.

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      Jack Gatewood 2 weeks ago

      Excellent article! Regarding the Arkansas border, in the Leflore Co. court house are old plat maps that show the Poteau River, south of Garrison Avenue in Ft Smith, making a loop into OK and then back into Arkansas, only to flow directly back into Oklahoma still further south. The land in the loop, technically part of OK, has no direct access t0 OK. By the 195o's, homes had been built in the loop but were taxed by Ft. Smith authorities, rather than Arkoma or Leflore Co. In the 50's or 60's, Leflore Co. officials demanded that Ft. Smith cease and desist the taxing, etc. I'm not sure how it was resolved. I think OK and AR agreed to cede the loop land to AR.

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      Peggy Woods 2 weeks ago

      What a fascinating history of Fort Coffee! My grandfather was always interested in reading all of the historical markers alongside roads that he would travel. Since there is not much left to see that historical marker along with this post of yours helps to inform people of that portion of our nation's history related to that old fort and how it was utilized.