Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fort Sill Oklahoma

Old infantry barracks, Ft. Sill
An Oklahoma vacation or simple road trip offers many historic sites to see and a western adventure for the whole family. Oklahoma's history includes the Native Americans, the cowboys and the oil barons. Whether it's a day trip, a weekend getaway or an extended vacation, Oklahoma is a treasure for all history buffs. Oklahoma's historic sites are everywhere throughout the state. One of those sites dating back to the days of the Indian Wars on the southern plains is Fort Sill.

Fort Sill Oklahoma is one of the most unique army installations in the United States. One very significant historical fact is that Ft. Sill was the first posting of a 2nd Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper, pictured below right, who was the first former slave to graduate from West Point. Flipper was assigned to the Buffalo Soldiers in 1877 while they were stationed in Oklahoma. Another fact is that Fort Sill military base is the only fort still in operation today that was built during the southern plains Indian Wars. Fort Sill history therefore is quite extensive and interesting.

The site of Ft Sill OK was decided upon in January of 1869 by General Philip Sheridan. The General was leading a campaign against the Comanches, southern Cheyennes, Kiowas and in some instances Apaches who were targeting white settlers in the area of western Oklahoma and Texas. The fort was established only one year after the Washita River Battle where George Armstrong Custer had destroyed the village of Black Kettle, killing he and his wife in the process.

Cadet Henry O. Flipper
The Comanche unrest was going on for quite a long time. It was a significant part of the plains wars and had been going on as far back as to the early settlement days of Texas in the 1830's and 1840's and actually prior to that involving the Spaniards and Mexicans. Like every other Indian conflict, the cause was the rapid western advancement of white settlements. Army forts as a rule were established along the western line of settlement and history of army action during this time was usually along that line. In the case of Fort Sill, it was built within Indian Territory. This was the area of Oklahoma where reservations were established. The army's goal was to resettle the Native Americans within these reservations and away from the white settlers. Because of Fort Sill's location it was quite active during the latter part of the 1800's. The camp was first named Camp Witchita and later took the name of Sheridan's West Point friend Brigadier General Joshua W. Sill, photo shown below left.

Brig. Gen.Joshua Sill
Fort Sill found itself in the spotlight during the 1874 Red River War. A Comanche named Quanah Parker was one of the most successful of the warrior leaders. Quanah Parker is pictured below left in later years dressed in European attire. Parker was actually a half breed Comanche who was the son of a female white captive (Cynthia Ann Parker)  taken during a raid in central Texas in 1836. Most of her family was killed during the raid. Just prior to the Red River War Quanah Parker was leading a war party for a second assault at Adobe Walls located in the Texas Panhandle. The raid wasn't successful mostly because buffalo hunters were present with their very long range Sharps bison rifles. The story is that Quanah Parker had his horse shot out from under him at an amazing range of 500 yards. This was enough for the warriors to call off the attack. This attack on Adobe Walls caused Washington to reverse their prior peace initiatives and essentially ignited the Red River War. It should be noted that by the winter of 1873-1874, the Plains Indians were in a lot of trouble. They were having a difficult time even surviving. The reduction of the buffalo herds with the help of the Sharps buffalo rifle decreased the size of the herds to unbelievably low numbers. At the same time the buffalo hunters were decimating the herd and white settlement to the west increased. The Indians were really between a rock and a hard place.

Indian Territory 1885 (Oklahoma) Courtesy National Archives
As a result of the Adobe Walls affair, General Sheridan sent five army columns to the Texas Panhandle. A Red River battle was imminent. Three of the five columns sent were under the command of Colonel Ranald MacKenzie who would go down in history as being one of the most effective army Indian fighters in the southern plains. At one time MacKenzie was commander of Fort Concho just outside San Angelo Texas. Another column in this expedition was commanded by Colonel Nelson Miles who also went on to be a key figure in the surrender of Geronimo during the Apache War in what is now southern Arizona. There were more than twenty battle encounters during the campaign with the army being highly aggressive. The cavalry wanted to engage the Indians as many times as it took to win. It was purely an offensive operation and Fort Sill troops took a major part in this campaign.

Quanah Parker
The campaign worked for several reasons. One big reason was that the Indians were in no position to engage in a full scale battle. Their supplies were very low or non-existent. They were tired of the running and in most cases fled rather than fought when chased by the cavalry. It was obvious that Sheridan's troops were better armed than the enemy. Sheridan's full scale assault plan was probably his best option. It was believed that he too recognized that the Comanches and Cheyennes didn't have the resources to fight effectively and his massive show of force would conclude things relatively quickly.

Today, Fort Sill army base is an active military installation where the field artillery is joined by the air defense artillery and electronic warfare branches to create the Fires Center of Excellence. The Fort Sill Fires Center of Excellence trains, develops and educated soldiers and leaders.

Fort Sill is a 21st century modern base which has evolved considerably since General Philip Sheridan first chose this location for his base of operations during the southern plains Red River War. The Fort Sill National Historic Landmark Museum, opened in 1935, is truly a glimpse into the past. It also presents a lot of information about Fort Sill field artillery history. The museum serves both the general public and the military with all aspects of Fort Sill's historic past. The museum is a depository of artifacts, photographs and documents pertaining to Fort Sill's colorful past. More information can be found on the museum's website.

Admission is free and open to the public. Forty-six of the original Fort Sill structures are still in use and in excellent condition. Fort Sill is located in southwest Oklahoma, Comanche county, and next to the city of Lawton. It is about 90 miles southwest of Oklahoma City and about 60 miles north of Witchita Falls Texas just west of Interstate-44.

Comanche County Oklahoma
Fort Sill is a 'closed' post. In order to gain access you must show a valid photo Identification Card (ID). If you are driving into Fort Sill you must show proof of your current driver's license, state vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. You must register your vehicle on post as soon as possible after you sign in. The registration form is provided to you at the Welcome Center during in processing

(Photos and images are in the public domain)

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