Soldier and Bridge Builder: Matthew Arbuckle (1778-1851)

Were Oklahoma to erect its own Mount Rushmore for American soldiers who amidst great peril sought not only the welfare of their fellow citizens, but that of the benighted Natives with whom they so often matched arms, this good, perhaps even quietly great man would take his place on it alongside Ethan Allan Hitchcock, Nathaniel Pryor, Sam Houston, A. P. Choteau, and a select company of others.


Son of a decorated Revolutionary War veteran, little is known of Arbuckle’s early years, his marriage in his mid-20s to Mary Trolinger, or whether he had children. His military career, though, was well chronicled. The Virginia native rose to high command in the desperate American fight against resurgent imperial power Britain in the War of 1812. By the time he served Andrew Jackson in the famous 1815 Battle of New Orleans, he held the second highest rank, Lieutenant Colonel, in the Seventh U.S. Infantry.


Continuing his military career, Arbuckle distinguished himself by leading a successful expedition against Indians in southern Georgia during the first of the miserable Seminole Wars. His career in present Oklahoma stretched across decades and rendered him, though ostensibly a military commander, one of the great peacemakers of the state’s history, and one of the central, if now anonymous, architects of that history.

General and Peacemaker


Arbuckle took command of the Seventh Infantry Regiment in 1820. The next year he reinforced Fort Smith on the Arkansas Territory frontier astride the Arkansas River. In 1824, with blood spillings large and small plaguing present eastern Oklahoma, he rode further west and established Fort Gibson, then Fort Towson.


Historian Stan Hoig’s portrait of early Fort Gibson well illustrates Arbuckle’s servant leadership qualities. He prevented the volatile frontier from exploding into much worse violence than it did, while ramrodding the construction of roads and buildings. He also facilitated a safe environment where disparate peoples could meet and learn how to interact peaceably with one another, and showed that a peaceable way was often not only possible, but preferable.


Rather than rising as a stern and foreboding presence of lethal American military might, under Arbuckle’s guidance the fort grew into a social and commercial center of the developing Three Forks region. Natives, whites, and African Americans alike who might attack or fight for their lives with one another out in the woods and prairies, instead socialized together, traded, bet, attended church, and even raced horses with one another at and around Fort Gibson.


Arbuckle conducted patient, circumspect, mostly unsung, and nearly all forgotten work amongst a dizzying cavalcade of Indigenous tribes, many of whom posed grimmer threats to one another than did white Americans and Europeans. They shared a common danger of tribal extinction and scarcity of resources. Arbuckle worked as counselor, arbiter, peacemaker, and sometimes judge in an often perilous frontier setting among Delawares, Pawnees, Tawakonis, Shawnees, Wichitas, Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Kiowas, Comanches, and the fierce Osages that at one time or another fought nearly all the others. That did not count his work between the tribes and the burgeoning white and black populations of present Oklahoma, including the stalwart white Christian missionaries who braved this violent outland.


Pioneer Treaty Maker


Along with future “Father of Texas” Houston, Indian Territory pioneer Pryor, and Paul Liguest (son of frontier trading titan Pierre Chouteau and scion of the family dynasty), Arbuckle—by now a brigadier general—chaired a pivotal 1831 conclave between the Osages and assorted other Indian Territory tribes. The two-week parley rendered historic agreements between the tribes, especially the Osages and Cherokees who had been spilling one another’s blood for a half-century.


Arbuckle spearheaded another epic gathering four years later that accomplished the first treaty between the U.S. Government and the Southern Plains Indians. He and fellow commissioner Montfort Stokes (former U.S. Senator and North Carolina Governor) sent dragoons commanded by Major Richard Mason to choose a meeting location in the “buffalo country” of the Plains tribes. Arbuckle ordered Mason:


“(W)ithin a few days after you have established your encampment on the Little River, detach an officer and eight or ten men, with Mr. Chouteau to Coffee’s trading house, with the object of obtaining information of the different bands of Prairie Indians referred to, and of making the best arrangements possible to have them invited at an early period to attend the general meeting proposed.”


Arbuckle then ordered a wagon road blazed from his Fort Gibson post, over which he traveled to Camp Holmes. He addressed the thousands-strong assembly, advocating “peace between your nations and the United States.” The subsequent treaty represented the first accord ever signed between the U.S. Government and Plains Indian tribes, though the Kiowas departed before those proceedings.


For all Arbuckle’s experience, accomplishments, and diligence, U.S. military authorities, whether due to his advancing age or otherwise, deprived him of a couple of historic opportunities for high command in the face of armed conflict. First, they replaced him with Henry Leavenworth as regional commander and assigned that officer leadership of the historic 1834 Dodge-Leavenworth Expedition to treat with Southern Plains Natives in far southwest Indian Territory. Fifty-six years of age, Arbuckle returned to Virginia, thinking his days on the western frontier concluded. Within months, however, Leavenworth died on the expedition and the army called Arbuckle back to command at Fort Gibson.


Transferred from Fort Gibson to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1841, Arbuckle reached 68 years of age by the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846. His role in that conflict proved slight. In 1848, he resumed command of the Seventh Infantry at Fort Smith. Aiding and protecting westward travelers to the California Gold Rush that erupted in 1849, Arbuckle fell victim to one of the era’s frequent cholera outbreaks in 1851.


His soldiers founded Fort Arbuckle in his honor on Wild Horse Creek in present day Garvin County. This led to naming in his honor the nearby Arbuckle Mountains, familiar to modern travelers through southern Oklahoma on Interstate 35, which the carved-back outcroppings straddle. Despite his historical identity as an American soldier of exalted rank, long wielding power in a violent era and region, a closer look reveals Arbuckle as a unifier, bridge-builder, and peacemaker of the highest order. His name justly endures as well-deserved namesake of Oklahoma’s southern hills.


A marble monument at the site of old Fort Gibson bears Lord Byron’s words as lasting homage to the men of Arbuckle’s command and to him in particular:


There is given

Unto the things of earth which time hath bent,

A spirit's feeling, and where he hath leant

His hand, but broke his scythe, there is power

And magic in the ruined battlement,

For which the palace of the present hour

Must yield its pomp and wait till ages are its dower.

 

The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Ancient-Statehood

which can be purchased HERE.


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