Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

For the Defense of the Western Border: Arkansas Volunteers on the Indian Frontier, 1846-1847

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

For the Defense of the Western Border: Arkansas Volunteers on the Indian Frontier, 1846-1847

Article excerpt

WITH THE OUTBREAK OF THE MEXICAN WAR in May 1846, soldiers of the Sixth Infantry and First Dragoons stationed at the frontier posts of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, prepared to depart for Mexico. Their deployment would leave a reduced garrison in a troubled region of the frontier. To replace these men, five companies of volunteers from the state of Arkansas were called to service in the U.S. Army. Known as the Battalion of Arkansas Volunteers, they occupied Fort Smith and Fort Gibson, as well as Fort Wayne in the Indian Territory, for nine and a half months during 1846 and 1847.

By reinforcing these frontier garrisons, the Battalion of Arkansas Volunteers rendered valuable service to the U.S. in a time of national crisis. Political violence in the Cherokee Nation had prompted the U.S. government to patrol the region with increased forces. With the majority of the Sixth Infantry and First Dragoons en route to Mexico, the volunteers were essential to maintaining a strong federal presence along the Arkansas border and preventing further violence among the Cherokees. The volunteers rounded up deserters, criminals, and murderers for prosecution by local authorities or military courts and helped prevent theft of livestock and property from local inhabitants. Their story is worth telling not only for the duty they did well but for the light it sheds on the experience of the volunteer soldier of this era. Though they never faced combat, the volunteers experienced many of the same hardships and privations as their brethren in Mexico. Disease plagued troops, and unfamiliarity with army regulations caused continual conflict between volunteer and regular army commanders.

The presence of the U.S. military had grown steadily on the southwestern frontier as the tide of immigrants pushing westward into Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana swelled during the decades before the Mexican War. In the 1820s and 1830s, the U.S. government established forts in the Indian Territory to allow the military to protect American citizens, as well as the eastern Indians being removed to the territory, from hostile tribes already occupying the region. The establishment of Fort Gibson and Fort Wayne in the Cherokee Nation allowed the army to enforce peace between indigenous Osages and the Cherokees being settled there and protect travel routes in what is now eastern Oklahoma. In the 1840s, the army continued to perform these roles, but also became involved in calming troubles between the major political factions of the Cherokee Nation.

In the autumn of 1845, conflict between the three primary Cherokee factions turned violent. The dominant party, made up of recently arrived Cherokees led by Chief John Ross, formed a "Light Horse" police force that terrorized opponents in the minority Old Settler and Treaty parties of the Cherokee Nation. These minority parties, which had been in the territory long before Ross's eastern contingent arrived, inevitably retaliated. The conflict between the three parties resulted in the murders of thirty-four people between November 1845 and November 1846 and destroyed much personal property belonging to both Cherokee and Arkansas residents along the border.1 Victims of Ross's police fled their homes and took shelter in Fort Wayne, an abandoned army post located just inside the Cherokee Nation four miles southwest of Maysville, a small settlement in Benton County, Arkansas. The displaced and often starving refugees stole livestock and supplies from Arkansans living along the border, and several murders occurred near Maysville. The violence and incursions by Cherokee refugees fueled rumors that an Indian invasion of Arkansas was imminent. In a state of excitement Benton County citizens called out their militia and requested that the government place additional troops in the area.2

The commander of the Second Military Department at Fort Smith, Gen. Mathew Arbuckle, promptly ordered elements of the First Dragoons from Fort Gibson to occupy strategic positions along the Arkansas border. …

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