An Early, Early Account of the Indian Territory

Through the eyes of Major Jacob Fowler, we are privileged to glimpse the raw, unspoiled beginnings of the Indian Territory, a land not quite a wilderness, but very few roads, no bridges, and no supply depots. Travelers survived on their wits and the kindness of strangers, often the indigenous population at that time.

In 1821 Major Fowler was the journalist that accompanied Colonel Hugh Glenn and 20 other men on an expedition to find and explore the headwaters of the Rio Grande River in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Their route took them through the lands west of Fort Smith that would become the Indian Territory, a short twelve years later.

His manuscript of his 1821 expedition was passed down from generation to generation of his relatives, until it came to light, and was published in 1898. The manuscript descended from Major Fowler’s only daughter Abigail Fowler, to her daughter Frances Scott, then to her daughter, Mrs. Ida Symmes Coates, a great-granddaughter on the maternal side, of Major Fowler.

Major Fowler was born in New York in 1765, and came to Kentucky as a young man, an accomplished surveyor in the employ of the U.S. Government. His surveying took him to the great unsettled stretches of western part of this continent.

Major Fowler married the widow Esther Sanders, of Newport, KY, described as a lady of great beauty and great accomplishments. While Major Fowler’s assignments took him far from home, his vineyards and orchards prospered under her expert care and management, in accordance with the knowledge she inherited from her French ancestors.

However, there were occasions Esther traveled with her husband in his surveying expeditions. During those times, extra baggage and supplies were certainly required. A description of their camp might read something like this: “The tent floor was nicely carpeted; a comfortable bed invited repose after the toil of the day; dainty china, bright cut glass and shining silverware, handsome enough to be preserved as family heirlooms by their descendants, were used on the camp table.”

The Journal of Major Jacob Fowler, 1821-1822

Memorandum of the Voige [Voyage] by Land from Fort Smith to the Rocky Mountains and to the headwaters of the Rio Grande.  

Thursday, 6th Sept 1821

We set out from Fort Smith on the Arkensaw and crossing that river passed through a bottom of Rich Land well-timbered and much Kaine – thence over Low Ridges, the land poor and in some places rocky – at 30 miles crossed the tallecaw, a crick about 150 feet wide [the Tahlequah River].

Large bottom on both sides and at ten miles farther crossed the Illinois River about 80 yds wide and about one mile farther stopped for the night as Beens Salt Workes. This is the second night since we left the fort.

The works [are] one small well with a few kittles. About 55 gallons of water make a bushel of salt, and the well afford water to boil the kittles about three days in the Weake [week]. Been and Sanders has permission of the govem [government] to worke the Salt Spring. They sell the salt at one dollar per bushel.

From here we passed over some high poor hills, some valleys, and some prairie lands about twenty miles to a large bottom, well covered in parts with Caine and well-timbered, through which we passed about eight miles to Grand River or SixBull [early name for the Neosho River]. This is fine bold stream of clear water about 150 yd wide which we forded but not without some doubts – the Water running with great force.

About one mile above the mouth of this river is the mouth of the Virdegree [Verdigris], a river of about one hundred yds wide deep and muddy at the mouth and up it to the rapids about four miles where there is a Trading House.

But we stopped at the Trading House of Colonel Hugh Glenn, about a mile up the Virdegree where we remained till the 25th Sept, making arrangement for our gurney [journey] to the mountains.

Here five of our hunters left us and went home, this circumstance much dispereted [dispirited] more of our men, though we still determined to precede, and on the 25th of Sept 1821, we found ourselves 20 men in all, and under the command of Colonel Hugh Glenn.

We had thirty horses and mules, seventeen of which traps and goods for the Indian trade – and each man mounted on horseback. We left the Trading House in the afternoon, North 50 West about five miles to a small crick which runs west into the Virdegree. The bottom between the SixBull and Virdegree in high and rich, well-timbered with some Caine and is about one and a half miles wide to the hills, from what we could learn, there is not Caine about this on the Arkensaw.

We passed today some prairie cirted [skirted] with wood land. Some timber on the Crick. It rained hard. We packed up our goods and covered them with skins to keep them dry and pitched our tents for the night, Colonel Hugh Glenn having left us and gone by the mishenerys [missionaries], and to meet us somewhere ahead.

Editor Notes: In 1821 Fort Smith was the original military post built on the right bank of the Arkansas River at the mouth of the Poteau River. The site of the fort was selected in 1817 by Major Long and called Belle Point in allusion to its peculiar beauty. From this starting point, the Jacob Fowler expedition proceeds on the road to the Neosha River, vicinity of present Fort Gibson, I.T.

Fort Gibson, which was not in existence in 1821, was located on the left bank of the Neosho River near its mouth. Early travelers and hunters referred to the Neosho River as the Six Bulls river.

The Bean and Saunders’s Salt Works were begun in the spring of 1820 about a mile up a small creek which flows into the Illinois River at or near where the Fowler party crosses the Illinois.

Hugh Glenn was a well-known Indian trader in those days, his trading house located about a mile above the confluence of the Virdegris and Arkansas Rivers.

26th Sept – We set out early along the Road leading to the Osage Village through fine prairie lands, a little rolling and skirted with timber. The ground is black and rich and the view the most delightful. We this day made 20 miles through the rain which continued all day. At night camped on a crick about 50 feet wide runs west with an extensive bead of stone coal in its bottom. There is some wood along the Crick but the country is mostly prairie, a little rolling, skirted with groves of timber. Here the rain continued all night. Here one of our hunters, Slover, lay out all night but came in in the morning.

Chief Clremont
Chief Cler-mont, 1836, by George Caitlin

Editor Notes: The Pike Expedition followed this same route as does the Long Expedition. Major Long refers to this group as “Osages of the Oaks.” Their most influential man in that time was Clermont, surnamed the “Builder of Towns.”


27th Sept – We set out early along the path through the Prairie, timber still to be seen in groves and along the branches. We made 20 miles and camped on a small crick. Well timbered. Here we found Findley – he left us two days ago, and was here waiting for us this day. Was clear and pleasant. Robert Fowler killed a large buck. One horse gave out – was left.

28th Sept – Rained all day. We remained in camp.

29th Sept – The weather clear, we set out early and was soon over taken by Colonel Glenn and soon after, in sight of the Osage Village. Here we were delighted. With a view of the number of hills or mounds nearly of the same height, from 70 to 80 feet but of different shapes. Some round and pointed like a stack, others square and flat. And the top of one near the village, contains about 15 acres of rich black land – and great part of the Bluff faced with a parpendickler [perpendicular] rock – so that with but little labour, a few men might keep off a large army. Here is one of the most delightful piece of Country I have ever seen – of rich limestone mixed with woodlands, the prairie is more extensive than woods.

Here we find not one sole in or about the village, the Indians are all gone a Buffelow Hunting and are not expected to return till in the Winter. We find our journey to this place one continued course North 50 West. Here we crossed the Virdegree and got on higher grounds and nearly covered with rocks in some places and steered North 70 West ten miles to a small Crick, running South and well timbered.

Here we camped for the night. We seen this day some Wild Horses. Game is scarce. We this day find our Horses too heavy loaded and concluded to leave part [of their loads].

Editor Notes: The unusual shaped mounds are the Blue Mounds on the Verdigris, near Claremore.

30th Sept – We this morning Berryed [buried] or Cashed [cached] as the French call it, 32 Beaver traps, 2 cases of tobacco, and fifty pounds of Brass Wire on the West Bank of the Creek 200 yds above the large Road and 50 below the small path on which is a Connu [canoe] marked on an oack [oak].

1st Oct – We set out early and steered North 50 West to the Little Virdegree where a large Indian Road crossed it. This river is about 30 yds wide with clear water and high banks – and large encampment on the East Side. Here we crossed to the West side and followed the North fork of the Road about one mile to another Branch of the same river but not more than ten steps wide, both streams running south with rich timbered bottom between the both.

After passing this fork we steered the same course through rolling prairie ten miles to a mound to the North and East. The country is a little rolling, mostly Prairie with timber along the branches. On our left, the mountains or High Hills appear at from four to five miles distance. Here to avoid the Hills which continue on our left, we steered North 30 West six miles and camped on the Little Virdegree. Peno went off to hunt in the forepart of the day and did not return –

2nd Oct – We set out early and passed over high level prairie lands North 45 West three miles to the High Hills crossing a small branch running north at the foot of them. We after some time gained the top of the hills and found the country rolling and partly timbered and partly prairie. At twelve miles farther we crossed the Little Virdegree again and camped on the North Bank. Here Douglas got lost in the evening hunt and lay out all night.

3rd Oct – This morning our horses were much scattered and took us till a late hour to collect them. Douglas found the way to camp – and Peno came in with some venison, having killed three deer. Here we found a large Indian Road going up the crick and crossing some of its branches South 30 West and the hills being high, we followed the Road. The lands poor with short oack [oak] and hickory for about fifteen miles where the country begins to appear with fine rich prairies well bordered with woodlands of a good quality. We this day got one deer and some turkeys. Game is getting more plenty. We made 20 miles and camped on a small crick running South –

Editor Notes: At some point the Fowler party crosses the meridian of 96 degrees West, leaving the Indian Territory and traveling through the NW corner of the Osage Reservation [as the boundaries existed in 1898], not far from the South border of Kansas. The Fowler party then travels nearly parallet to the Kansas border through the “Cherokee Strip.”

4th Oct– We set out early and at three miles crossed a crick 50 feet wide running North 45 West – and at about three miles farther in, an open prairie. We found a large Buffelow bull lying dead, supposed to be killed by the Indians. We now begin to hope soon to kill some Buffelow ourselves as we have nothing with us, but salt only what we kill ourselves. Here we find ourselves in an open and extensive prairie, scarcely a tree to be seen but as we progress, we find sign of Buffelow. We see some deer and some Caberey [antelope].

In the evening on our left, we seen Ward, one of our men on horseback running a Buffelow. Some of us put off to assist him but he killed the large Buffelow bull before we overtook him. After taking what meat we wanted, we went on making 23 miles and camped on a river about 50 yds wide running west, supposed to be the Bad Saline. The water is clear and deep at this place. Some sign of beaver. Our course this day is North 60 West.

The prairie through which we passed this day is nearly level with a rich black sandy soil. There is not other rock except that of limestone, which only appear in spots on the side of branches and on the top of some of the highest ground, for there is no hills. Here there is some timber along the branches.

5th Oct – We set out early, crossing the river a little below our camp where there is a good ford and at about two crossed a large Crick 100 feet wide, its course South East and about 10 miles crossed a Crick 50 feet wide, all so running South East. Here the prairie is a little more rolling – and at 18 miles crossed a crick – and 19 miles encamped on a Crick the West fork of the same that meet below where we crossed. Here the country still continues to be a little rolling, the land rich. The limestone appears in some places along the bluffs which are not high or steep.

Here we seen great numbers of poor Buffelow Bulls and blame our hunters for not killing fat cows when there is not one to be seen, for we could not tell them apart at so great a distance and it was in vain for our hunters to tell us there was no cows among so many Buffelow as we could see at all most any time. Course this day North 50 West, 19 miles.

Editor Notes: The actual course of the Fowler party is not known; they are thought to reach the Little Arkansas and travel toward the future site of Wichita, Kansas, at one point, camping along the Little Beaver Creek.

6th Oct – We set out early over beautiful high prairie level and rich and at eight miles West, we fell on the Arkensaw River. Here there is plenty of timber all along the river on both sides as far as we could see. We are now out of meat and blaming our hunters for not finding Buffelow cows. They have neglected to kill the Bulls when they could and they are not so plenty as they were and we believe have been lately drove off by the Indians as they are now shy.

We now steered north leaving the Arkensaw River on our left hand, believing the High Hill and bluffs near the river would be difficult to pass with loaded pack horses – at six miles over high rich limestone prairie. We camped on a Crick 60 feet wide, where we killed some turkeys in the evening. We were all so informed by some of the party that Indians were camped at no great distance –

7th Oct – We moved West up along near the Arkensaw River over some high rocky bluffs and through a large sandy bottom to the bank of the river, making five miles and camped near the Indians. From them got some dryed meat, corn, beans, and dryed pumkins for [which] we paid them in such artickels as they wanted – these are the Osage Indians and the first we met with on our Route. They were friendly.

The weather is now getting cold with high winds. Cloudy and rained through the night. The timber in the bottoms and hillsides is a kind of Jack Oak and very low cottonwood and willow grows along the River. We stopped at this place for the purpose of purchasing horses, having left two behind and three more unfit for service makes us bad off for horses, and the prospect of provisions is not promising as we hear the Indians are camped for a long way ahead of us through where we must pass; left one horse with an Indian.

8th Oct – We moved up the River North 45 West two miles and camped. The rain still continues. Here Colonel Glenn purchased one poor horse at a high price and hired one Indian to go along with us. Some of the Hands killed ten turkeys.

9th Oct – We set out early and steered North, leaving the River at right angles over rising beautiful prairie three mile to White River [now known as Walnut Creek] about 70 yds wide running West into the Arkensaw. This river has a continued grove of timber all along its course as far as we could see and the land rich. We crossed this river, leaving it on our right and up it at eight miles camped on the South West side for the purpose of purchasing horses. Succeeded in swapping two and purchasing two at a high price.

The Indians advise us to cross the Arkensaw and steer West course and strike the Arkensaw at the big timber near the mountains but the season is late and want of wood and water renders it a hazardous undertaking. The Indians say it is about two days travel to the Little Arkansas. The hunters brought in four deer, one very fine Buck, the first good meat we have had.

The land on this Creek is rich and well-timbered along the bottoms. The bluffs furnish abundance of limestone for all purposes of building and fencing, and is capable of making one of the finest settlements in the United States, there being a number of the best of Springs.


Mr. Fowler’s account of the journey continues for many more pages. The last day recorded was Saturday, July 6th, 1822. We pick up their struggles several days before their arrival at Fort Osage, Kansas.

4th July 1822 – We set out early to follow the wagon road but here the prairie has been burned in the Spring and the grass so gown up so that we cannot find it. And after winding about for about two hours, steered North 45 East six miles and fell on a road running nearly East and West, along which we took the East end where we found the wagon tracks. A large body of timber on our left and is shorly [surely] the Mesurey [Missouri] or the Caw [Kaw] River and at about six miles stopped for dinner.

While here the lost came up. They were much worn down, their feet sore and mogersons [a type of heavy shoe] worn out. We went ten miles in the evening along the road, crossing one Crick, which runs North. The large body of timber still continues on our left, the general course of this road is North 80 East.

5th July 1822 – Set out early and at five miles, crossing a large Crick 50 yds wide, runs North. The bottoms and hillsides are well covered with timber. We here went up a high steep hill over some rocks and continue over high rolling ground, partly covered with timber and brush for about four miles, then six miles over rolling prairie to a Crick where we stopped for dinner.

There is plenty of timber here and the guide tells us that he now knows where we are, and that it is about ten miles to Fort Osage. We set out in the evening and at three miles came to a deep Crick where the men had to carry the baggage all over on their heads and drove the horses through. The water was so deep that it was over the men’s shoulders and none but the tall ones could carry the packs.

We then set out for the Fort, where we arrived about ten o’clock at night but our company was much scattered, having sent Mr. Roy and Battes forward from the Crick to prepare supper at the Fort before the Party. On our arrival we called for them but they were not to be found, nor could we find any person for some time but a negro man – and thunder gusts coming – he showed us into Mr. Sibley’s porch where we spent the balance of the night.

6th July 1822 – Early in the morning we found Mr. Boggs, the Assistant Factor, who showed us into an empty house in the garrison, to which we moved our baggage, expecting to remain there till some provisions could be procured.

The garrison at this time was commanded by one officer of the United States Army. Having two men under his command, both of them having deserted a few days ago and carried off all his ammunition. Now it appears that Mr. Boggs had not advised him of our removal into the garrison, nor did we suppose from the shattered situation of everything we see, that any Command of men or officers was there.

But when he looked up in the morning and seeing our men and baggage, he said to Mr. Boggs that he did not like to see the garrison taken in that kind of style. But on receiving that information from Mr. Boggs, and the officer not calling on us, we thought it proper not to be longer in his way and moved about two hundred yds to a Spring and camped, where after some difficulty, we procured some provisions.

It may here be remarked that we were treated here with more coolness than amongst any Indians or Spaniards we met with, but we feel grateful to Mr. Boggs for His Politeness. He in the morning procured for us a small beef. And Mr. Sibley sent us some four and bacon, which with cornmeal and bacon we purchased from one of the citizens, we made out pretty well.

For two days to rest and purchased two Conus [canoes] with a platform and shipped all our baggage with ourselves, leaving four men to bring on the horses to Cortsand, Ca [?], and we proceeded to St. Louis, where I remained two days and then took a passage in the steamboat Calhoun to Louisville and from that, in a small steamboat to Cincinnati – and got home [to Covington, Kenton, KY] on the 27th day of July 1822 – having been gone thirteen months and thirteen days.

***Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***

Artwork:  Dusty Bison by Christian Maria McGowan; visit her website.

Painting of Chief Cler-mont by George Caitlin at the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK

Book: The Journal of Jacob Fowler, available at GoogleBooks.

One thought on “An Early, Early Account of the Indian Territory

  1. This is a long blog. In case you didn’t read every word – lol- one of the more interesting comments was the memtion that the Fowler party ran into wild horses several times as they trekked along the Arkansas-Verdigris river pathway. Another eye-opener – at least to me – is learning that the name Tahlequah is a very old, old word, pre-dating the Cherokee Nation in NE Oklahoma. Major Fowler on Sep 6 writes about crossing the “tallecaw crick”. Chime in if you know about the history of this word

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