A Visit to Fort Sill Oklahoma / A Frontier Army Post

Fort Sill Oklahoma is one of the country’s oldest military bases and is also a popular attraction for tourists traveling through southern Oklahoma. Before we give some information to help with your visit there we wanted to highlight some of Fort Sill’s  fascinating and long history.

henry flipper west point graduate

Henry O. Flipper, a former slave and West Point graduate

Fort Sill’s Colorful Past

Fort Sill Oklahoma is one of the most unique army installations in the United States. One very significant historical fact about  Ft. Sill is that it was the first posting of a 2nd Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper who was the first former slave to graduate from West Point. Flipper was assigned to the Buffalo Soldiers in 1877 while they were stationed in Oklahoma. Flipper served the U.S. Army from 1877 to 1882 and also was a civil engineer.

Another fact is that Fort Sill military base is the only fort still in operation today that was built during the southern plains Indian Wars. Fort Sill history therefore is quite extensive and interesting since it’s existence spans the old west frontier days to the present.

The fort was established at the direction of General Philip Sheridan in January of 1869. Sheridan was leading a campaign against the Comanches, southern Cheyennes, Kiowas and in some instances Apaches who were targeting white settlers in the area of western Oklahoma and Texas. The fort was established only one year after the Washita River Battle where George Armstrong Custer had destroyed the village of Black Kettle, killing he and his wife in the process.

general philip sheridan in the west

Harper's cover featuring General Philip Sheridan

Comanche Resistance

The Comanche unrest was going on for quite a long time. It was a significant part of the plains wars and had been going on as far back as to the early settlement days of Texas in the 1830’s and 1840’s and actually prior to that involving the Spaniards and Mexicans.

Like every other Indian conflict, the cause was the rapid western advancement of white settlements. Army forts as a rule were established along the western line of settlement and history of army action during this time was usually along that line.

In the case of Fort Sill, it was built within Indian Territory. This was the area of Oklahoma where reservations were established. The army’s goal was to resettle the Native Americans within the reservations and away from white settlers. Because of Fort Sill’s location it was very active during the latter part of the 1800’s.

The army outpost was first named Camp Witchita and later took the name of Sheridan’s West Point friend Brigadier General Joshua W. Sill.

comanche leader quanah parker

Comanche leader Quanah Parker

The Decisive Red River War

Fort Sill found itself in the spotlight during the 1874 Red River War. A Comanche named Quanah Parker was one of the most successful of the warrior leaders.  Parker was actually a half breed Comanche who was the son of a female white captive (Cynthia Ann Parker)  taken during a raid in central Texas in 1836. Most of her family was killed during the raid.

Just prior to the Red River War Quanah Parker was leading a war party for a second assault at Adobe Walls located in the Texas Panhandle. The raid wasn’t successful mostly because buffalo hunters were present with their very long range Sharps Bison Rifles.

The story in this instance is that Quanah Parker had his horse shot out from under him at an amazing range of 500 yards. This was enough for the warriors to call off the attack. This attack on Adobe Walls caused the government to reverse their prior peace initiatives and essentially ignited the Red River War.

sharps rifle buffalo gun

A Sharps Rifle like this allowed buffalo hunters to kill hundreds of the bison per day

It should be noted that by the winter of 1873-1874 the Plains Indians were in a lot of trouble. They were having a difficult time even surviving. The reduction of the buffalo herds with the help of the Sharps buffalo rifle decreased the size of the herds to unbelievably low numbers. At the same time the buffalo hunters were decimating the herd and white settlement to the west continued. The Indians were really between a rock and a hard place and total capitulation was just a matter of time.

As a result of the Adobe Walls affair, General Sheridan sent five army columns to the Texas Panhandle. A Red River battle was imminent. Three of the five columns sent were under the command of Colonel Ranald MacKenzie who would go down in history as being one of the most effective army Indian fighters in the southern plains. At one time MacKenzie was commander of Fort Concho in present day San Angelo Texas.

general nelson miles during civil war

Nelson Appleton Miles photo taken during the Civil War

Another column in this expedition was commanded by Colonel Nelson Miles who also went on to be a key figure in the surrender of Geronimo during the Apache Warin what is now southern Arizona. There were more than twenty battle encounters during the campaign with the army being highly aggressive. The cavalry wanted to engage the Indians as many times as it took to win. It was purely an offensive operation and Fort Sill troops took a major part in this campaign.

The campaign was effective against the Indians. The main reason was that the Indians were in no position to engage in a full scale battle. Their supplies were very low or non-existent. They were tired of the running and in most cases fled rather than fought when chased by the cavalry. It was obvious that Sheridan’s troops were better armed than the enemy. Sheridan’s full scale assault plan was probably his best option. It was believed that he too recognized that the Comanches and Cheyennes didn’t have the resources to fight effectively and his massive show of force would conclude things relatively quickly.

The links below are to additional articles from our Trips Into History and Western Trips sites that you may enjoy…

The Buffalo Soldiers of West Texas

The Comanche Indians

A Visit to Fort Reno Oklahoma

Two excellent books on the subject of Fort Sill and it’s long history include Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill by author Wilbur Sturtevant Nye. Also, Lawton-Fort Sill: A Pictorial History by David Stevens.

old fort sill buildings

Old Fort Sill Infantry barracks

Today’s Fort Sill Oklahoma

Today, Fort Sill army base is an active military installation where the field artillery is joined by the air defense artillery and electronic warfare branches to create the Fires Center of Excellence. The Fort Sill Fires Center of Excellence trains, develops and educated soldiers and leaders.

Fort Sill is a 21st century modern base which has evolved considerably since General Philip Sheridan first chose this location for his base of operations during the southern plains Red River War.

The Fort Sill National Historic Landmark Museum, opened in 1935, is a real glimpse into past army history. It also presents a lot of information about Fort Sill field artillery history. The museum serves both the general public and the military with all aspects of Fort Sill’s historic past. The museum is a depository of artifacts, photographs and documents pertaining to Fort Sill’s colorful past. The museum collection and it’s exhibits are large.

geronimo grave site

Geronimo's grave site at Fort Sill Oklahoma

Admission is free and open to the public. Forty-six of the original Fort Sill structures are still in use and in excellent condition. Fort Sill is located in southwest Oklahoma in Comanche county and next to the city of Lawton. It is about 90 miles southwest of Oklahoma City and about 60 miles north of Witchita Falls Texas just west of Interstate-44.

Before you go it’s important to know that Fort Sill is a closed’ post. In order to gain access you must show a valid photo Identification Card (ID). If you are driving into Fort Sill you must show proof of your current driver’s license, state vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. You must register your vehicle on post as soon as possible after you sign in. The registration form is provided to you at the Welcome Center during processing.

Fort Sill can be a fun and educational addition to your trip planner. The exhibits are very interesting and there’s plenty to explore both inside the museum and outside as well.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)

Belle Starr


belle starr

Belle Starr with pistol in 1880's

Carthage Missouri was a violent place during the American Civil War. Carthage is a locale today where interested people and history buffs can learn about Belle Starr, “The Bandit Queen“, her family and the circumstances of how a young lady from an upstanding and influential family could turn into one of the most notorious females of the frontier west. The Carthage Civil War Museum located at 205 South Grant Street offers a lot of history as to just how violent the Civil War was not only in that town but pretty much all over Missouri. Also, make a note to visit the Powers Museum at 1617 Oak Street in Carthage. The Powers Museum presents rotating exhibits on local and Missouri history..   You can even see a wax figure of Belle Starr on her horse at the Historical Wax West Museum in Colorado Springs Colorado.

In many ways Belle Starr was a product of the American Civil War. Amazingly, her story is about a young woman, who after being born and raised in a prosperous and influential family, turned into probably the most infamous female outlaw of the latter 1800’s. A young lady who received a private school education and learned to play the piano quite well would spend her later days in the company of murderers, horse thieves and cattle rustlers. How and why this all came about is an interesting story.

The Civil War in Missouri was extremely violent. Missouri had a mixture of both Union and Confederate supporters and partisan violence was widespread. This was the time of Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of pro Southern guerrilla fighters who killed many and destroyed more than one town. William Quantrill‘s raiding and pillaging became so bad and so bloody that the Confederacy publicly disavowed the group. Quantrill of course continued on until finally he was killed by Union troops. It was in this atmosphere that Belle Starr, real name Myra Maebelle Shirley, came of age.

battle of carthage photo

Image of Battle of Carthage Missouri, 1861

The Shirley family originally came to Missouri from Virginia. The family like many in Missouri were southern sympathizers. In fact, the very young Myra Maebelle was suspected as being a Confederate spy/messenger. She was smart enough not to be caught carrying messages so there were never any charges. Most Belle Starr historians point to the time when Starr’s younger brother Bud was killed in the war, as a Confederate,  as the time of her transition. The story is that Belle and her father went to retrieve the body and an enraged Belle grabbed her brothers gun and tried to shoot the Union soldiers present. Fortunately, the gun caps had been removed and nothing occurred however it was an omen of things to come.

The Shirley family decided to resettle in Texas and did so just to the east of Dallas. Belle’s father set up a farm and cattle operation. His farm was also well known as a safe haven for southern sympathizers. It was while living with her family in Texas that a second, even larger transitional event, occurred. The excellent book, High Spirited Women of the West, by author Anne Seagraves, gives a good description of what transpired. It seems that the Shirley farm was visited by none other than Cole Younger and his gang. During the visit, both Belle and Younger became close and, to the chagrin of her father, Belle rode off with Younger. Never again would Belle’s life be the same.

fort smith arkansas

Gallows at Fort Smith Arkansas

Eventually, Belle Starr would have a daughter by Younger who later ended up in the Minnesota penitentiary as a result of the botched Northfield Minnesota bank robbery attempt with his friend Jesse James. The relationship was over but there would be several times after his release from prison that Younger would pay a visit to Belle.

As a side note, Belle Starr was not the only female to enter a life of crime because of infatuation, love or whatever it may have been. You may be interested in reading another short article we’ve published about Pearl Hart, the female outlaw stagecoach robber.

Our article about Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok is also a very interesting story.

The person we know as Belle Starr would marry several times in her life. Throughout, she kept the surname of Starr even though she married several times and had even more affairs. Unfortunately, the spouses she chose wouldn’t be all that different than the likes of Cole Younger. All of their job descriptions could be summed up as stagecoach robbing, horse stealing, bank robbery, cattle rustling, gun play and general theft. These were the people Belle would chose to surround herself with and sometimes marry. The former private school student and piano player would go ahead and buy pearl handled revolvers.

Belle would go on to have another child, a son. Due to Belle Starr’s hectic life, unfortunately, or possibly fortunately for the children, there would be several times that the children would be taken care of by their loving grandparents, the Shirleys down in Texas.

judge issac parker

"The Hanging Judge", Issac Parker

There was one period that Belle Starr and her current husband Sam Starr were arrested for horse stealing. This was 1883 and both were tried by Judge Issac Parker, the “Hanging Judge” at Fort Smith Arkansas. Both were convicted and given nine month sentences which were fairly light in relation to the crime and the judge who tried the case. Belle was released early and Sam served his full sentence. When Sam was released, he returned to their ranch at Younger’s Bend. Youngers Bend of course was named as such by Belle who still felt close to Cole Younger. The couple stayed out of trouble for a while but the lure of horse theft lured them back into the world of crime.

Some interesting facts about Belle Starr and her offspring. The only time she went to prison was for the 1883 horse theft conviction. her son Ed who had grown up being sent back and forth to live with Belle, relatives and family friends grew up to be a deputy marshal married to a Cherokee schoolteacher. In 1886 he was shot to death during a quarrel with a saloon keeper. Belle’s daughter, Pearl, had a daughter Flossie who she put up for adoption. She later turned to prostitution and ended up as a madame with a house she ran for twenty-three years. She was known as Pearl Starr.

Belle Starr herself was killed on February 3, 1889 at 41 years of age near Eufaula Oklahoma. The exact circumstances were never uncovered, in fact some even suspected her son Ed, however lawmen had a fairly good guess as to what happened. Pearl’s husband at the time, Jim July Starr, was convinced by Belle to turn himself in at Fort Smith for the charge against him of larceny. She convinced Starr that the charges were so weak that an acquittal was eminent. Belle Starr was to accompany him halfway to the Fort and Jim would continue on alone. As Belle turned around to head back to Youngers Bend, a neighbor heard a loud shot gun blast. Belle Starr was later found dead by a shotgun blast to her back. Whoever the murderer was then shot Belle twice more with her own pistol. While just about everyone suspected, Edgar Watson, a neighbor of Belle and the man who claimed he heard the blast. The relationship between Belle and Watson was never good and he was eventually tried but was acquitted. The question of who killed Belle Starr has never been conclusively answered.

cole younger

Cole Younger as a young man

Jim July Starr, who Belle had been escorting halfway to Fort Smith Arkansas in 1883, was himself killed in 1890 by a young deputy who the story says was convinced that Jim July had murdered Belle Starr and was avenging her death. Probably one of the strangest of all tales coming out of the Belle Starr story concerns the outlaw and ex-convict Cole Younger. Younger was released from his latest incarceration in 1901 and became, of all things, a tombstone salesman. He somehow received a full pardon at which time he put together the Cole Younger-Frank James Wild West Show. Frank James of course being the older brother of murdered Jesse James. Apparently the world wide success that Buffalo Bill Cody attained with his Wild West influenced people from all walks of life.

Belle Starr’s life story, as was the case with the James and Younger families just to name a few, was influenced more than anything by the Civil War and the violence, bloodshed and partisan animosity resulting from it. This animosity lasted for years. The crime sprees of the James, Youngers and Starrs lasted for years after the Civil War. Many people contend that these crime sprees were in fact a continuation of that war, just more on a personal level.

Pawnee Bill and His Wild West Show

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was the most acclaimed entertainment troupe in the latter 1800’s and at the turn of the century. Old West shows were quite in vogue in the last part of the 1800’s. No other show of it’s kind, and most likely no other show period, had the world acclaim that the Wild West had.

The Buffalo Bill show was in demand. When traveling throughout England and the Continent during the 1880’s and 90’s, the Wild West performed for heads of state, royalty and influential people of all callings. There was never another group of entertainers quite like Buffalo Bill Cody assembled. Some of these entertainers grew famous during their years with the Wild West, most notably Phoebe Ann Moses, the sharpshooter with the stage name Annie Oakley.

Pawnee Bill

gordon lillie and may manningA man named Gordon William Lillie, born in 1860, was also a Wild West showman. Lillie was known by the name “Pawnee Bill” and there were several reasons for this. In 1879, Gordon was working on the Pawnee Indian agency in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

The photo left is of Pawnee Bill and May Lillie

In 1883, he was given the opportunity to work with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show as the Pawnee interpreter. This work with the show would ultimately give him his nickname Pawnee Bill. The need for an interpreter accompanying the Wild West was real. As most people recall, the Wild West performers for the most part were the genuine articles. The Indians were genuine Native Americans, some not many years away from the warpath. Sitting Bull himself joined Cody’s Wild West for about four months. Nevertheless, Pawnee Bill’s association with William Cody would lead to opportunities in the future.

Pawnee Bill met May Manning, another western performer, who was known to many as the “Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” May Lillie“, her soon to be new name, was quite a skilled female sharpshooter. The couple (pictured above) were married in 1886 at May’s parents home in Philadelphia. Gordon Lillie’s wedding gift to his bride was a pony and a Marlin 22 target rifle.

After the marriage in 1886 they started their own western show called, “Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West“.  Unfortunately, the first year didn’t go too well financially and they then created a smaller show called “Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West Indian Museum and Encampment Show.” This new smaller operation fared much better and Lillie recruited Jose Barrera (pictured below), known to audiences as “Mexican Joe“. Barrera was only 15 years old when he joined Pawnee Bill. Even at that young age he was an expert equestrian and roper. He was called the greatest trick roper in the world. Mexican Joe along with other performers were also noted for their unique “Bailable a Caballo” in which both riders and horses danced in pairs to the music of a twelve piece band. During his lifetime, Mexican Joe toured throughout the United States and Europe. He performed with Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West and with the successful Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Show. Mexican Joe was a star in many old west shows.

mexican joeIn regards to the talented May Manning, she became very involved in Women’s Relief efforts, buffalo herd preservation as well as Indian culture. May also became involved in films starring in  “May Lillie, Queen of the Buffalo Ranch,” a film produced at the ranch. In 1936.

The image right is of Mexican Joe

In 2011, May Manning Lillie was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth Texas for her work during her Wild West Show career as well as her role in the preservation of the American bison. The Pawnee Bill Ranch was a refuge site for the buffalo.

The Wild West Shows

To give you a feel for Pawnee Bill’s show, the group included Mexican cowboys, Pawnee Indians, Japanese performers, and Arab jugglers. The show appeared to be part western show and part circus. Pawnee Bill featured boomerang throwers, Turkish musicians and freaks of all sort in his museum annex.

Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill Cody joined forces in 1908. This new show was called “The Two Bill’s Show“. Unfortunately, while traveling with their show in Denver Colorado, the Two Bill’s Show was foreclosed on and dissolved. “The Two Bills Show” didn’t enjoy the same fame as the Cody’s Wild West show. The photo below is of a cowboy around 1902.

Visit the Pawnee Bill Ranch Museum

1902 cowboyToday, you can still see an edition of Pawnee Bill’s show during the last three Saturdays of June. Tickets for these events can be bought at the Pawnee Bill Ranch Museum in Pawnee Oklahoma.

The ranch area containing the buildings is located on Blue Hawk Peak. The Ranch refers to it as “the hill” to differentiate it from the lower pavilion/picnic/arena area and the large pastures that comprise the bulk of the ranch.

These performances in Pawnee Oklahoma are not part of the Pawnee Bill shows that take place in Fort Worth Texas. The tickets for the Pawnee Oklahoma events cannot be purchased online, only at the Ranch Museum itself.

Visitors to the Pawnee Oklahoma ranch can now tour Pawnee Bill and his wife, May’s, 14 room mansion which is fully furnished with their original belongings. Today, Pawnee Bill Ranch consists of 500 of the original 2,000 acres. It also includes original outbuildings.

The ranch is now operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. The Pawnees Bill Ranch is open as a historic site dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of history as it relates to Pawnee Bill and May Manning Lillie. Many people who visit the Pawnee Bill Ranch combine it with a visit to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Both the ranch and the museum in Oklahoma City make good additions to your Oklahoma vacation planner. They fit in well for a low cast family trip.

The city of Pawnee Oklahoma is a very historic and an excellent place to visit when you’re in the area. Also a good place to add to your summer vacation road trip planner.

The splendor of the old west cowboys and Indians are still very much alive and well in Pawnee. The magnificent old buildings stand today as monuments of a time gone by. Pawnee is.located in the northern part of the state, about 50 miles northwest of Tulsa and about 75 miles northeast of Oklahoma City.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)