MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Columns

October 29, 2011

Fort Gibson’s graveyard turned spooky

— When Matthew Arbuckle and the Seventh Infantry built Fort Gibson on the bank of the Grand River in 1824, it seemed the ideal location for an Army outpost. Accessible by navigable rivers and the already well-worn Texas Road, the fort could easily be kept supplied. In fact, Fort Gibson, as the Army’s westernmost post, was often the billet for more troops than all the other frontier forts combined.

But this “ideal location” soon proved deadly. The rivers overflowed each fall and spring, frequently flooding the fort. Mosquitoes and disease were rampant.

The crowded fort’s hospital was often swamped with soldiers suffering from fever and dysentery. Serving at Fort Gibson truly proved to be “hazardous duty,” for more soldiers died from disease than from any other cause. In Army circles, Fort Gibson was called “the graveyard of the west.”

The fort’s actual graveyard filled rapidly with soldiers and civilians who were hastily buried, wrapped in the blankets from their beds, to prevent any further spread of disease.

The site for the cemetery was also poorly chosen – it sloped toward the river.

When Fort Gibson National Cemetery was established in 1868, many of the remains in the fort’s graveyard were moved to it. However, many graves at the fort had lost their markings, so some remains were left in the old graveyard. 

Over time, rain and floods had washed many grave markers into the river, and the soil began to wear away from the slope, creating deep gullies through the old cemetery. The graveyard fell into neglect and was soon covered with brush and weeds. Many people forgot that it had existed.

That changed in 1898 when the Fort Gibson Post reported that F.J. Boudinot was walking through the area of the old cemetery one day when he happened upon a gruesome sight. Stepping into one of the gullies, he found the gleaming white bones of a skeleton, exposed by erosion.

The blue cloth of a soldier’s uniform was badly deteriorated, but the gold buttons and insignia remained. A rusted sword lay nearby, apparently buried with its owner.

Boudinot took the skeleton and sword to a doctor who displayed them in his office, creating shivers of dark fascination among all who came to view them.

The newspaper sent a reporter to the old graveyard, where he too discovered several skeletons, glistening in the sunlight and exposed to the ravages of time and the elements.

The Post reported that some people who lived in the “Old Town,” as the early section of Fort Gibson was called, claimed “that when the north wind howls dismally and the nights are dark and moonless, weird-looking lights may be seen flitting to and fro and strange noises [can be] heard in the vicinity.”

Stories of “haunts” soon circulated among the highly superstitious, and no one wanted to be caught out near the graveyard at night.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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