Nearly 140 years ago, on a bitterly cold morning in January of 1870, a lone sentry patrolled the grounds around the U.S. army military outpost called called Fort Gibson, Indian Territory (present day eastern Oklahoma), and discovered the body of one of the fort's soldiers, a young private the soldiers called "Thomas," lying across a grave in the cemetery just north of the fort. The body was taken to Fort Gibson's infirmary, and as the doctor began to perform his examination to determine cause of death, a shocking discovery was made: the soldier was actually a woman..
The doctor immediately reported the strange discovery to the Fort Gibson's commanding officer, and an inquiry began to determine how female soldier had managed to pass herself off as a man and get into the United States Army. It was known that "Thomas" had enlisted in the U.S. 6th Infantry, stationed at Fort Gibson, just a few weeks earlier, but nobody knew the background of young Thomas. Eventually, a minister who assisted the soldiers at Fort Gibson's came forward with one of the strangest stories in American military history. It seems that just a few days before "Thomas" had told the pastor her secret. As the commanding officer and chief medical officer listened minister tell the story of a the young woman named "Vivia Thomas," events were being set in motion that would eventually lead to her burial in the Officer's Circle of Fort Gibson's Military Cemetery.
Vivia's Life as a Boston Brahmin
Vivia Thomas was born into a wealthy family from Boston. From a child, she received all the special privileges of the Boston Brahmin, including the finest education and invitations to all events involving Boston's upper society. It was during one of Boston's elegant parties at the conclusion of the Civil War that Vivia met and fell in love with a handsome Union Army officer.
Boston, Massachussets in the 1860's
The courtship continued and deepened for several months until one day Vivia's family excitedly announced that Vivia was engaged to be married. Wedding plans were announced to the Boston elite, and Vivia's dreams of marriage and family seemed to be on the verge of fruition. Those were happy days for Vivia Thomas.
Sadly, just prior to the wedding day, the young United States Army officer disappeared. He left Vivia a lengthy, apologetic note and explained that though he loved Vivia, he was unsure married life was for him. He wrote that he felt his heart was pulled toward the western frontier and that he had made arrangements with the U.S. Army go west. He wanted adventure. Though he would not specify his post, the letter detailed that he would be stationed at one of the many frontier army outposts of the United State. He did not feel it would be fair to force his wife to leave the comforts of Boston to endure the wilds of the frontier. For this reason, he was breaking the engagement and going west alone.
Broken hearted, and deeply embarrassed for the humiliation she had brought to her own family, young Vivia Thomas determined to leave Boston and go west in search of her lover. Through offical inquiries Vivia learned that her fiance was being stationed at Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory, and one day she suddenly and secretly left her home and family to go find her lover. Her journey west began.
Vivia's Journey West
During the several months it took for Vivia to reach Indian Territory, which included river rafts down the Ohio and Missisippi, and up the Arkansas River, Vivia cut off all of her long, flowing hair and started dressing in men's clothing. She rarely spoke, and would avert anyone's gaze, and would often roughen her face with dirt and coal. At first, her motive had simply been to disguise herself for protection while traveling through rough country as she headed to the frontier to find her lover. The disguise, however, proved successful. Vivia soon became known as "Thomas" and upon arrival at Fort Gibson, Indian Territory via the Arkansas River, she determined to get close to the young officer who had jilted her by enlisting in the 6th U.S. Infantry stationed at Fort Gibson. In those days, when the Army would often receive substitute solders, it was not uncommon for enlisted men to join the ranks of Army Infantry with little knowledge of the soldier's background.
In the weeks that followed, as "Thomas" went about doing various jobs at the fort, including patrolling for Indians, cooking, cleaning and sundry other tasks assigned enlisted men, she was able to hide her identity well. She carefully stayed away from her former lover; but she would watch him closely. Vivia would often find herself vacillating between thoughts of revenge for her hurt and a reunion that would end in an embrace of long lost love.
One night Vivia decided to secretly follow her former lover as he left the fort. The young officer travelled a short distance from Fort Gibson where Vivia observed him greet with a hug and a kiss a young Indian woman. It seems that the officer had begun a courtship with an Indian woman who lived a short distance from the fort. Vivia would soon discover that her fiance had been making regular evening trips to visit his Indian lover. Vivia followed him through the darkness on many occasions, each time growing more and more bitter.
How could he leave Boston, Massachussets and let her face the humiliation of family and peers? How could he move west and fall in love with an Indian! How could he? The more she thought about what he had done to her, the more the cloud of bitterness descended over her soul.
On a cold winter evening in December 1869, Vivia followed her former lover on his nightly rendezvous with his Indian girlfriend. She waited for him behind an outcropping of stone, debating whether or not to confront him. The longer she waited the more her bitterness motivated her to not reveal herself, but to extract revenge by simply ending his life in payment for how he had ended hers. When the officer finally headed back to Fort Gibson that evening, he rode by on his horse, and Vivia shot him. She never said a word. She never revealed herself to him. She simply shot him, hitting him in the chest and knocking him off his horse. Immediately, she was overcome with overwhelming remorse. She went to where her former lover lie on the ground, only to discover she had shot him dead. With tears streaming down her face, she quickly made her way back to Fort Gibson, where she slipped into her bunk, quietly grieving over the murder.
The next morning, the body of the officer was discovered by a passerby and brought to the fort. The soldiers at the fort assumed that he had been killed by Indians. A small cavalry from the fort went out to search for clues, but in a few days the case was closed. The Indians had ambushed an officer of the United States military.
The guilt over what she had done overwhelmed Vivia. She continued to leave her quarters every night, but this time she would make her way to Fort Gibson's cemetery. She would go to the young man's grave and weep uncontrollably, praying for forgiveness. Within a couple of weeks, she broke down and told her story to the minister of the fort. She knew he would be honor bound to not divulge her confession. But a couple of nights later, with temperatures below zero degrees, on January 6, 1870, Vivia went to her former lover's grave. This time she stayed for hours, well into the early morning of January 7th. At reveille, a soldier walking the grounds of the cemetery found the body of the soldier he knew as "Thomas" lying prone across a recent grave. Vivia Thomas had frozen to death.
Upon hearing the story of Vivia Thomas from the minister, the commander and military officers made a decision about the burial for this young lady. They had never liked her fiance in the first place because of his various attachments with the local Indians, and they all felt deep admiration for Vivia because of the courage it took for her to traverse the United States - alone - to find her lover. In their own small way of acknowledging that never in the history of the United States military had a woman ever been enlisted in the infantry, and in appreciation of her dogged determism and heroic courage, they gave to Vivia Thomas a plot in the prestigious officer's ring of the Fort Gibson National Cemetery.
Next time you are near Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, take time to find her tombstone. Every grave holds a story, and Vivia's is one of the more remarkable ones.
In His Grace,