In 1837 a cordon of military forts along the western frontier was proposed by Charles Gratiot. Born in St. Louis to a family of traders which included the wealthy Chouteau family on his mother’s side, Gratiot was appointed to West Point by Pres. Thomas Jefferson, and later served as Chief of Engineers, 1828-1838, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This period in the U.S. saw the government pursuing an aggressive agenda of river, harbor, road, and fortification construction under Gratiot’s guidance. This period also included a massive displacement of Native American peoples to lands west of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, including all the tribes which were removed to the Indian Territory.
Paranoid at the best of times, the U.S. War Department became alarmed when part of the Fox and Sauk tribes tried to resettle lands (in Illinois) that had been previously ceded to the U.S. government. The skirmish between the government and the disgruntled Indians became known as Black Hawk War, after the Fox and Saux warrior who vigorously opposed relocation. An interesting footnote to this unknown battle is that the future president, Abraham Lincoln served as Captain of the Illinois Troops during the war [see end of blog for the newspaper story.]
The War Department then birthed the strategy of a western barrier to keep all Indian tribes at bay, once they had all been removed to their new homelands. Political support for this strategy came from the House Committee on Military Affairs. The house committee on military affairs, after reviewing the “exposed condition of our inland frontier” in a report March 3, 1836, declared:
“The savage tribes which border upon our settlements, from the Canada line to Louisiana, are more dangerous to the lives and property of our citizens than the whole civilized world. . . . The late sufferings from the Black Hawk war in the north, and the more recent barbarities of the Florida Indians in the south admonish us of the necessity of furnishing more effectual protection to our inland borders. . . .
The policy of the government, to remove the Indians from the interior of the States beyond our western boundary, renders a regular system of defence still more necessary.”
– as discussed in the May 1942 issue of the Kansas Historical Quarterlies. Link to website article given at the end of blog.
The Army Corps of Engineers and their chief, Charles Gratiot, were tasked with the building of the defensive cordon. Included was the great military road that ran from the Jefferson Barracks (Saint Louis) to Little Rock and further on to the Washington settlement on the Red River. A side branch of the military road turned west to Fort Smith/Fort Coffee, and then south to Fort Towson.
The proposed cordon at its northern terminus began at Fort Snelling (A) (now present-day Minneapolis) on the banks of the Mississippi. It was situated on former Sioux lands, ceded to the U.S. at Prairie du Chien on July 15, 1830.
The next defensive spot southward was Fort Calhoun (C) on the banks of the Missouri river (now present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa.) Lands to the west of the fort were claimed by the Otoe and Omaha tribes.
Southward, at the confluence of the Little Platte River and the Missouri River, was the legendary Fort Leavenworth (E), near present-day Leavenworth, Kansas. Built in 1827, the fort played a vital role in protecting the new trade routes to Santa Fe, New Mexico (aka the Santa Fe Trail). The barracks were large enough to hold four companies of soldiers. Directly east of Fort Leavenworth was Jefferson Barracks Military Post, near St. Louis, which took a 17-day march to reach. The post served as the early defensive hub for the U.S. Army after the Louisiana Purchase.
The cordon next went overland through the territory of the Seneca/Shawnee Indians (Kansas), heading directly south to Fort Coffee (H), and then on the Fort Towson military post (K). A march from Jefferson Barracks directly to Fort Coffee was estimated to take 24 days (15 miles a day over the 350 miles distance).
Fort Towson soldiers had a 9-day march to Fort Coffee (only 120 miles but over the rugged Kiamichi Mountains). They had a 15-day march down to Fort Jesup near the old town of Nachitoches (220 miles). To return all the way back to the Jefferson Barracks post, it was an imposing 33-day march (470 miles) through rural Missouri.
Smaller groups could secure passage on the river boats navigating the Mississippi back-and-forth between New Orleans and Jefferson Barracks (St. Louis). Steam powered boats could travel at an impressive rate of 5 miles per hour. The Red River also carried some steamboats, which frequently carried Choctaw plantation owner Robert M. Jones on visits to his business partners in New Orleans.
Military roads continued south to the precursor of Shreveport, Louisiana on the banks of the Red River, known as Coates Bluff (L) .
The last military fort in the cordon was the historic Fort Jesup (M) built in 1822, located 22 miles west of Natchitoches, Louisiana, at the edge of the “Neutral Strip” that lay alongside the Sabine River. The fort defended against Mexican incursion rather than Indian incursion. This southernmost U.S. border with Mexico had been established as a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Soldiers serving at Fort Towson and Fort Gibson often came from Fort Jesup. Fort Jesup was a coveted assignment and many of the officers elected to bring their wives on assignment to the fort. The nearby town grew to be a thriving and delightful place for amusing the army wives.
Great caravans of emigrants and traders marched over the old highways from Natchitoches and Alexandria to Texas. By 1830 the English speaking colonists had begun to wield a strong influence in the government of the Texas province. Nacogdoches (then part of the country of Mexico) became headquarters for political adventurers, many of whom were men of strong personal character and splendid ability; others were adventurers at all titles ready to embark in any enterprise.
The soldiers of Fort Jesup saw thousands of settlers move into the province of Texas and then watched Texas become independent of Mexican authority. In 1845, half of the U.S. Army traveled through the Fort Jesup area en route to war with Mexico. Taylor’s army participated in the Mexican War of 1846, gaining popularity for Taylor that would propel his political career and presidency.
Fort Jesup remained an important military post for nearly 25 years. However, after the United States won the Mexican War and Texas became a state in 1845, Fort Jesup was rendered unnecessary and officially evacuated in January 1846.
And just in case you don’t recall, the last year of operation for Fort Towson was 1854.
The following article appeared in The National Tribune (Washington, District of Columbia) on Dec 14, 1899, as part of a large front-page story called “Everyday Life of Abraham Lincoln,” written by Francis F. Browne.
***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
Map illustrating the plan of the defences of the Western & North-Western Frontier, as proposed by Charles Gratiot in his report of Oct. 31, 1837 to the U.S. War Department. The actual map was published with the report from the Secretary of War … in Relation to the Protection of the Western Frontier … January 3, 1838. Senate Document 65, p. 2, Serial 314.
Kansas Historical Quarterly, “The Fort Leavenworth-Fort Gibson Military Road,” by Louise Barry, May 1942.
Missouri Civil War Museum, Historic Jefferson Barracks.
The historic town of Fort Towson, Oklahoma.
Facebook page for the Fort Towson Historic Site (military post).
Louisiana State Parks, restored barracks and kitchen at Fort Jesup.
Find-A-Grave memorial for Charles Chouteau Gratiot (1786 – 1855).
Portrait of Charles Gratiot from archive.org.