Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Listen My Friends and I Will Tell of the Daring Ride of Lieutenant Averell

Many would consider Paul Revere's horseback ride in 1775, made famous by Henry Longfellow's poem Paul Revere's Ride, as the most incredible horseback adventure in American history. But for sheer thrills, intrigue, danger and superior horsemanship, the greatest horseback ride in American history is the little known, but startling journey of Lieutenant William Woods Averell through Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) at the beginning of the United States Civil War. On April 17th, 1861, Lieutenant Averell set off from Washington D.C. to hand deliver an order from Abraham Lincoln and the War Department to Union soldiers stationed at the US forts in Indian Territory. The order called for the immediate evacuation and removal of all United States Federal troops to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Averell, under civilian disguise, travelled by train to St. Louis. He then took a carriage from St. Louis, south, to the Arkansas River. He crossed the river by ferry and entered Fort Smith, only to discover it had already been captured by Confederates. Maintaining his disguise, Averell managed to buy a horse (wild and unbroken), and began his horse ride to Fort Arbuckle, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), 200 miles from Fort Smith. It is this horse ride, begun on April 27th, 1861 and completed on May 5, 1861 when Averell handed the War Department order to United States Colonel W.H. Emory at Fort Arbuckle, that is arguably the greatest horseback adventure in American annals--particularly because it involves one Union soldier traversing through territory buzzing with fight hungry Confederates, angry Indians, wild beasts and Oklahoma spring storms.

Background to Averell's Ride

With the Indian Removal Act of 1830, President Andrew Jackson and the United States Congress began forcibly removing the Indians who lived in states and territories east of the Mississippi. The government 'gave' to these Indians land west of the Mississippi, called Indian Territory, which encompassed the lands that would eventually become the states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The southern portion of Indian Territory, the territory that now represents the state of Oklahoma, was first officially surveyed for the United States government in 1828 by Isaac McCoy, a Baptist missionary to the Indians. McCoy wrote to President Jackson after his survery and suggested that the "Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, Seminoles and Chickasaws," be given this southern portion of Indian Territory (Oklahoma), because it was a suitable replacement for the woods, rivers and agricultural lands of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida--the places where these Five Civilized Tribes then lived east of the Mississippi. The Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, Seminoles and Chickasaws were called "civilized" because, unlike other Indian tribes, they had adopted Western customs, had purchased land for farming, and were integrating themselves into United States southern culture. But the whites wanted even these "civilized" Indians out of the states and territories east of the Mississippi.

The government agreed to Isaac McCoy's recommendation, and the Five Civilized Tribes were relocated to southern Indian Territory, within the boundaries of what we now call Oklahoma. The forced marches to the west endured by these civilized tribes, under the supervision of the United States Army, began with the Choctaws in 1831 and ended with the Cherokees in 1838/1839. These different journeys became known to each tribe, respectively, as their Trail of Tears. Tens of thousands of Indian men, women and children died on these ill-fated and poorly prepared for journeys. By the dawn of the 1840's, the eastern Five Civilized Tribes had completed their forced relocation and resided within the borders of southern Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

Forts Built In Oklahoma to Protect the Civilized Tribes

However, there was a problem with the relocation from the start. There were Indians already in Indian Territory. These "wild" Indians, known as Plainsmen Indians, resented the civilized tribes coming to their land. The Osage Indians were at war with the Cherokees, the Chickasaw and Choctaw found themselves fighting the Comanche and Apache, and the Creek and Seminole Indians were often raided by Plainsmen tribes who would steal their horses and cattle, ravage their crops, and even capture their women and children. The United States government was forced to build and then heavily staff some additional army forts in Oklahoma to keep the peace among the Indians. Fort Smith (Arkansas) had been established in 1817 and was considered to be the gateway into the unknown wilderness of Indian territory. Seven years later (1824), Fort Gibson became the first United States fort established within Indian territory. Fort Gibson became the receiving and processing place for all civilized Indians who were being relocated from the east during the 1830's. However, Fort Smith and Fort Gibson did not supply enough manpower to keep the peace among the Indians in Indian Territory. In 1842 General Zachary Taylor and was commissioned to build Fort Washita. Fort Washita, pictured here, still stands at its original location, nineteen miles above where the Washita River meets the Red River, near Durant, Oklahoma at the northern end of the modern man-made Lake Texhoma. Fort Arbuckle was built in 1851, at the northern base of the Arbuckle Mountains, about seven miles east of modern day Davis, Oklahoma. Ft. Cobb (1859) was the last fort built by the United States army in Indian Territory prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. By the time of the Civil War, nearly 1,500 United States infantry, cavalry and artillery troops were stationed at Forts Smith, Washita, Arbuckle, and Cobb. Fort Gibson had been temporarily closed due to widespread and severe illnesses among the troops. In addition to these troops, there were support personnel, family members, and other United States citizens stationed in an around at these forts.

The Beginning of the Civil War

On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter, the United States garrison located in Charleston Harbor. The Civil War had begun. The War Department of the United States, with the approval of President Abraham Lincoln, decided that it was best to evacuate the United States military forts in Indian Territory and withdraw all troops and personnel to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Texas had already seceded from the Union (February 1, 1861), and word came to Washington that Arkansas would be next (Arkansas seceded on May 6, 1861). The U.S. Army forts in Indian Territory would be under attack by the Confederate Army soon, and Lincoln felt that the troops stationed at these Indian Territory forts would better serve the United States effort against the Confederates by evacuating the forts and handing Indian Territory over to the Confederacy rather than staying to defend the Indians.

But how could word be given to commander Colonel W. H. Emory, First United States Cavalry, the soldier in command of the district embracing Forts Washita,Arbuckle and Cobb in the Indian Territory that he and his troops were to evacuate? There was no telegraph capability in Indian Territory. How could this evacuation order from Washington D.C. be received by the Union commander in Indian Territory (Oklahoma)? A messenger needed to be sent.

Enter United States Lieutenant William Woods Averell and the most amazing horse ride in American annals.

From Washington, D.C. to Fort Smith

William Averell was born in Cameron, New York. As a boy he worked as a drugstore clerk in the nearby town of Bath, New York. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1855 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Mounted Rifles. His early assignments included garrison duty at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and the U.S. Army Cavalry School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1857 he was sent to Fort Defiance in New Mexico, where he was critically wounded in action in 1859 during a skirmish against the Indians. Woods was trasnsported back to Washington, D.C. where he was placed on the disabled list for two years. He had fully recovered and his readmission papers were signed four days after the firing on Fort Sumter.

On April 17, 1861, Lieutenant Averell was handed a special War Department order that was to be hand carried over 2,000 miles and given to the commander of the Indian Territory forts. His instructions were to proceed by train to St. Louis, then by coach to Fort Smith, where the quartermaster would outfit him with a horse and supplies that would carry him for the remainder of his journey to Fort Arbuckle (200 miles from Fort Smith), where Lieutenant-Colonel Emory was headquartered. Averell would travel in civilian clothes through the heart of the Confederacy. The special orders would be hidden on his person, and he was instructed to escort the Union troops from Fort Arbuckle north to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and then make his way back to Washington, D.C. as quickly as possible with a report on the success of his mission. Lieutenant Averell kept a diary that is part of the Official Record of the Union and Confederate Armies. Volume 53, pages 493-496. Averell's journey to St. Louis is in his own words:

"Providing myself with a rough traveling suit of citizen's clothing, I left Washington at 2.45 p. m. on the 17th of April, by the Baltimore and Ohio Railway. At Harper's Ferry, where the train stopped for a few minutes, I saw Capt. Roger Jones, commanding a detachment guarding the arsenal at that point, who informed me of his apprehensions of an attack, and that, aware of the insufficiency of his force to defend the public property, he had made arrangements to destroy it and withdraw his small force into Maryland. The towns and villages through which my journey to Saint Louis was made were alive with agitated people turning out volunteer in response to the call of the President. I arrived at Saint Louis on the evening of the 19th, and left on the morning of the 20th by the first train to Rolla, Mo., where I arrived, 115 miles distant, at 5 in the afternoon.

Leaving Rolla by the first stage coach at 5 a. m. the 22d, with several prominent Southern gentlemen as fellow-passengem, I proceeded, with changing horses, mails, and passengers, toward Fort Smith, through towns wild with secession excitement and rumors of war. The unruly temper of the people and their manifest readiness to embrace any pretext for violence made it necessary for the safety of my dispatches and their suceessful delivery that my name and character should remain unknown. Having assumed a name and purpose suitable to the emergency, I experienced no great difficulty in passing safely through several inquisitions. I was obliged to drive the stage a greater part of the distance between Classville and Bentonville, on account of the drunkenness of the driver, there being no other male passenger. At Evansville I met the intelligence, which momentarily astounded me, that Fort Smith had been captured by a force of secessionists 800 strong, which had come under the command of Colonel Borland from Little Rock. Near the foot of Boston Mountain, on the southern side, the rumor was confirmed by the passengers of a eoach from Fort Smith which we met, happily in a pitchy dark night, which prevented my recognition by some of the lady passengers, wives of army officers who might have known

Trouble in Fort Smith

After avoiding recognition, Averell crossed the Arkansas River by ferry and arrived in Fort Smith on the morning of April 27, 1861, ten days after leaving Washington. However, as he came near the fort he discovered that it had been overtaken the day before by Confederates, the quartermaster who was to resupply him and give him a horse to finish his journey into Indian Territory was in the brig. Averell describes what happened next in his diary.

"Exchanging my gold watch and a little money for a horse, saddle, and bridle with a man whose principal incentive to the trade was his apprehension of losing his horse by public seizure, I mounted for the remainder of the journey. It was 260 miles to Fort Arbuckle (ed. note: Averell overestimates the mileage here). Having been out of the saddle two years on account of my wound, and having just completed a toilsome, jolting journey of 300 miles in a coach, I was in poor condition for the struggle before me. The horse was unbroken to the saddle, and after a fierce but unsuccessful effort to throw me ran wildly away through the sucessive lines of drilling troops, but I managed to guide him in a westerly direction and mastered him before reaching the Poteau River. This stream, 100 yards wide, was bank full and the bridge destroyed. Removing my heavy black overcoat, I swam the horse across, after a fearful struggle, in which I lost my overcoat and also suffered some injury from being struck by the horse."

The Greatest Horse Ride in the History of America

The journey by horseback from Fort Smith to Fort Arbuckle is the stuff of a modern Hollywood adventure movies. Averell is recognized as a Union soldier just a day out of Fort Smith by some Confederates and is chased through the wooded mountains of eastern Oklahoma. He manages to escape, and finds an Indian guide to help him navigate the strange territory, but he becomes lost, as well as loses his guide, during a fierce Oklahoma spring storm. He manages to eventually get back on track and has several encounters with wild beasts and a few Indians, only to eventually meet up with the Union soldiers for whom he came to give the special War Department order. When Lieutenant Averell handed the order of the War Department to Colonel Emory, this very dramatic scene set the course of the Civil War in Indian Territory. The meeting took place on the Fort Washita-Fort Arbuckle military road near the vicinity of present day small town of Reagen in Johnston County, Oklahoma on May 3, 1861. Averell's amazing journey is detailed in full in an article written by Muriel Wright in the 1961 Oklahoma Historical Chronicles. William Averell left Washington, D.C. on April 17th, 1861, just five days after the firing on Ft. Sumter. His entire trip to the heart of Indian Territory took less than three weeks, an astonishingly fast trip considering the circumstances under which he had to travel (train, carriage, horse), and the knowledge that if he were caught as a Union soldier on a mission in civilian clothes, he would be shot or hung.

The Evacuation to Kansas

Another reason I find this story so fascinating is because the route taken by Averell, Black Beaver and the Union troops leaving Indian Territory for Kansas led them right through my hometown of Enid, Oklahoma. In 1861 Enid was not a city. The land on which the city now sits is in the middle of what was known in 1861 as The Cherokee Outlet. The United States had promised the Cherokees in eastern Oklahoma a route to the Colorado mountain hunting grounds, unencumbered by white settlers, so the land was "given" to the Cherokees as an "outlet" to Colorado "as long as grass grows and the waters run." The several hundred Union soldiers and loyalists who were evacuating Forts Arbuckle, Cobb and Washita in May of 1861, heading to Kansas, were being led by a Delaware Indian scout and tracker named Black Beaver. Their journey north took them directly through the heart of the Cherokee Outlet. The caravan stretched over one mile long and included many wagons, a few cannons, all the supplies from the forts including horses, hound dogs, a few cattle, plus over two hundred women and children. Black Beaver had been a captain in the United States Army during the Mexican War (1846-1848) and had once lived among the Cherokees himself. He was familiar with the Indian routes taken during hunting season, and he knew that, where the city of Enid now sits, there were five natural springs that flowed into a natural watering hole that gave cool refreshment in a portion of Indian Territory that had few such watering holes. Black Beaver guided the U.S. troops north and on or around May 14, 1861, one thousand United States soldiers and U.S. citizens either refreshed themselves or encamped at what we now call Government Springs Park, the heart of what is now the city of Enid. Black Beaver would successfully and safely lead the troops, including Lieutenant William Averell and Colonel Emory, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, arriving the last week of May, 1861. Hearing that Black Beaver had led the Union troops north, the Confederates who had moved into Indian Territory from Texas and Arkansas took over the abandoned U.S. forts and intentionally destroyed Black Beaver's home and crops. The United States government never fully reimbursed paid Black Beaver for his heroic work on behalf of the U.S. troops at the beginning of the Civil War. Eight years later, in 1969, at the urging of Colonel Emory, the War Department finally gave $5,000 to Black Beaver, though his losses in 1861 amounted to well over $20,000. Late in life Black Beaver would come to faith in Christ and became a Baptist preacher in Oklahoma, I.T., dying on May 8, 1880 at the age of 74. His body is buried, with honors, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and his grave is registered as a National Historic Site.

The Chisholm Trail Follows Black Beaver's Trail

During the Civil War an Indian trader named Jessie, Chisholm who had moved to Wichita, Kansas, from Indian Territory at the start of the Civil War as well, would sometimes make his way back into Indian Territory to trade goods with the Indians. He would continue this practice after the Civil War as well, loading up on supplies in Wichita and taking wagons south to trade with the Indians near Council Grove (Oklahoma City). The route that Chisholm followed as he went south, and then back north, was the same trail that Black Beaver had blazed four years earlier. The route could still be seen by Chisholm because f the deep impressions and ruts left in the ground by the mile long U.S. Army caravan in May 1861. Chisholm died in 1868, but for twenty years after his death, Texas cattle drovers moved their longhorns from Texas to Kansas following the same trail through Enid, Oklahoma. Millions of steers were driven along what the cowboys called The Chisholm Trail in honor of Jessie Chisholm, but was more accurately called the "Black Beaver Trail" by the Indians in honor of the Black Beaver's sacrifice on behalf of the United States government in leading the U.S. troops out of Indian Territory in 1861.

William Averell's historic ride from Washington D.C. to Indian Territory, to Fort Leavenworth and then back to Washington D.C. from April to June 1861 is a little known historic ride which caused a ripple effect on other events through the end of the century. The abandonment of Indian Territory by Union soldiers led to the Confederates invading Indian Territory unapposed, and the Five Civilized Tribes, for the most part, signed treaties with the Confederates and fought against the Union army during the duration of the war. It was the Indians decision to side with the Confederates that led the U.S. government, after the war, to break the contracts signed with the Indians prior to the war that gave the land in Indian Territory to the Indians "as long as the waters run." Still the waters run, but we whites now live in Oklahoma because the United States government opened up Indian territory to white settlement in the late 1880's and 90's through a series of land runs, including the largest land run in the history of the world, The Cherokee Strip Land Run of September 16, 1893. On that day, Enid, Oklahoma, was founded. The government land office was located at the famous natural springs used by Black Beaver and the Union troops thirty two years earlier, and the city was plotted around those springs, renamed "Government Springs." The Cherokee Land Run was popularized in the movie commemorating the 100th anniversary of the run, the 1993 Ron Howard movie Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

But back to William Averell.

For his bravery, Lieutenant Averell was promoted upon completion of his historic ride. He went on to lead Union troops in several successful battles against Confederates in the east. On retirement from the military, Averell would hold the rank of general. After his military retirement, Averell was appointed general consul to British North America (1866-1869). William Averell was particularly innovative and he died a multi-millionaire after profiting from several inventions, including American asphalt.

I find the Civil War connections to Enid, Oklahoma, including the fascinating John Wilkes Booth, Boston Corbett, and Abraham Lincoln connection, to be nothing short of extraordinary. I hope to compile a short book documenting several of the more startling ones.

In His Grace,

Wade Burleson