Discovery of a Lost Fort

When Bert Moore settled his farm near the west bank of the Arkansas River, not far south of the Kansas line, in 1893, he knew nothing about the lost French Fort of Ferdinandina.  Historians knew little more about the trading post that flourished on the Arkansas River sometime between 1720 and 1750 and then mysteriously vanished without a trace.  Were it not for the preservation of early maps printed in England and Scotland, the French post might never have been known to exist, and its relics, which had decayed in the earth's surface for almost two hundred years would have puzzled historians who chanced upon them. But the ancient maps showed that Ferdinandina existed somewhere on the Arkansas River and was important enough to have been placed on those obsure trade routes.

The settlement of the Cherokee Outlet allowed Moore to make his discovery of an ancient Wichita Indian village at the mouth of Deer Creek, about five miles northeast of Newkirk, in Kay County. When Indian artifacts led to the French ones, historians began to take notice.  Finally in the SUmmer of 1926, Joeseph B. Thoburn, of the Oklahoma Historical Society, began excavating and proved beyond a doubt that the long lost site of Ferdinandina had at last been found. His digging yielded more than five thousand fragments of iron, brass, copper, lead, flint, stone, bone, glass and potshards. Among the relicswere pieces of flint-locks, axes, knives, scissors, copper bells, locks, glass beads, bridle bits, pottery and tomahawks.  Many French designs were dated before 1637 while others came into use about 1720.

Ancient chronicles tell that, as early as 1719, French explorer Claude- Charles Dutisne visited a Wichita village along the Arkansas River, perhaps the same village as the one discovered on Deer Creek.  On September 27, Dustisne planted his French flag, claiming hte land for his king.  Many French traders penetrated into norhteastern Oklahoma in the 1740's, and about the time that Colonel Diego Ortiz Parilla (or Parrillo) led his Spanish army of five hundred against the Taovaya (Wichita) Indian fortress, which was flying a French flag, on Red River, it was reported that the French had established five trading posts between that Red River fortification and Santa Fe.  None of these ruins have been found, but the discovery of their relics might well bring them to light.

It was some of these French traders who built Ferdinandina on the Arkansas River, ferrying their goods up the river in canoes and flat-bottomed boats, docking their vessels at the mouth of Deer Creek.  Through excavation it has been shown that Oklahoma's earliest white settlement consisted of a large round stockade of upright logs firmly planted in an earthen embankment 250 feet in diameter. A deep moat encircled the palisade on the outside, a customary protection for the day.  Inside a blockhouse served as a bation, or gun-tower, in which a musket-armed sentinel could keep a close vigil on the outside, where hundreds of ndians were usually camped.  Digging also revealed the sited of log cabins occupied by traders and a garrison of soldiers, as well as a blacksmith shop and related buildings.

Just how ling Ferdinandina flourished on the Arkansas River no one is sure.  It may have been destroyed by warring Osage Indians. It took an observant settler to rediscover it more than 150 years later, just as other ancient forts may yet be found.

(from Oklahoma Treasures and Treasure Tales - by Steve Wilson)[1]

Troubles began to mount for the French-Taovayan Alliance during the 1750s. As has been previously noted, the Osages hated the Taovayans and attacked them at every opportunity despite the fact that both the Caddoan Alliance and the Osage-Apache alliance traded with the French. After seeing the little gold mine the French had found in trade with the Indians of the Red River Valley, the Spanish wanted the French out and wanted to monopolize this trade for themselves. However the trade treaties between the Taovayan tribes, Wichita, Caddo and Tawconi, and between the Comanches and the French excluded Spain from getting a foothold in the Valley.[2]

The Spanish did sign a treaty for trade with the Apache of the Plains tribes, but such trade did not become fruitful for Spain. The reason for this was that almost constantly the Wichita and Comanche warriors were raiding Apache villages taking captives to work in the Taovayan city states or to be sold as slaves. The three largest and most extensive of the Taovayan city-states were Fernandina in northeastern Oklahoma near the present city of Newkirk and the twin cities of San Bernardo and San Teodoro, near the present location of the small town of Ryan and not far from Waurika.[2]

Because the sweep of the Red River Valley left a wide gap in the Crosstimbers, San Teodoro and San Bernardo were almost as much Comanche city-states as they were Wichita and Caddo. This was not true in the case of Fernandina, as only a few trails through the Crosstimbers could be utilized by the Comanche to visit the northernmost of the giant Taovayan city-states. The Osages probably realized this in the late 1740s, but took their time to build up their forces and their firepower to a point where they might be assured of victory. Thus in 1757, a force of almost 4,000 warriors from the Osage-Apache Alliance descended upon Fernandina, sacked it, looted it and burned the French stockade there to the ground, sending French, Wichitas, Caddoes and Tawconies fleeing to San Bernardo and San Teodoro.[2]

In 1758, a large Comanche-Wichita war party attacked the Apache mission of San Saba, looting and burning the mission and the Spanish trading post there and taking all young women, children and able bodied Apaches not killed as slaves. The Spanish living at San Saba were able to save themselves in the attack by forting up behind the stone walls of the Presidio of San Luis de las Amarillas. News of the attack so incensed the Royal Spanish Governor in New Madrid that he ordered Diego Ortiz Parilla, military commander of San Luis de Bejar (now San Antonio, Tex.) to attack and destroy the twin city-states. Though generally ignored by most state historians, the event might be called one of the major battles fought in the Red River Valley and marked the high point of the history of the Taovayan-French Alliance.[2]

Fortunately, a full report of the battle still exists in the form of the report forwarded to New Madrid by Diego Ortiz Parilla following the battle. Commander Parilla marched out of San Luis de Bejar in early September of 1759 at the head of a force of 300 men, including 100 Spanish Cavalrymen and 200 foot soldiers. Adding to the fire power of Parilla's force were two cannons with cannoneers, six wagon loads of powder and ammunition for cannons and small arms and a full supply train.[2]

In mid-October 1759, Cdr. Parilla and his force approached the twin Taovayan city-states and began preparations for an attack upon them. According to Parilla, each of the "cities" was surrounded by a moat, filled with water crossable only at one point by an ankle-deep ford. The two fords were well protected by breastworks, rendering them almost impossible to attack. Each village was centered with a well constructed fortress of palisade logs, over which fluttered the French tricolor and a red and white banner Parilla took to be the Taovayan flag. Adjacent to and surrounding the fort were clusters of the grass houses of the Taovayans side-by-side with the animal skin tipis of the Comanches. Each of the cities also had, inside the moat, several gardens containing corn, beans, pumpkins and melons, along with numerous wells, making a siege also an impossibility. After studying the situation, Parilla decided to station his two cannons on a hill about one fourth mile from the San Teodoro southern moat, and using them to demoralize the enemy, to launch a simple frontal attack northward at the village.[2]

As Commander Parilla began to set up forces for his attack, he noticed small bands of Indians crossing the ford and coming out of the village. But, as these small bands of Indians rode off in different directions after crossing the ford, Parilla and his subcommanders assumed them to be hunting or foraging parties. Parilla, after deploying his forces, ordered his cannoneers to open fire on the Indian village. But most of the cannon shots fell into the open area between the moat and the outermost clusters of dwellings and gardens. One lob did land in a garden, bursting several melons. The Indians within the compound, seeing how ineffective the cannon fire was, began to jeer and utter catcalls or to dance and wave their arms at the Spanish soldiery. Disgusted, Parilla ordered the cannons to cease fire, after only 11 rounds had been discharged from each of the big guns. He then ordered his infantry to move forward.[2]

Out from the fort came a lone rider, mounted upon a magnificent horse and dressed entirely in white, whom Parilla assumed to be the leader of the Taovayan forces. As the Spanish infantrymen moved into range of the Indian rifles, a line of Taovayans suddenly burst from a breastworks just out of rifle range, raced to the edge of the moat, knelt and fired taking a heavy toll among the advancing Spaniards. After firing, this group of Taovayans raced back to the breastworks to pick up loaded rifles, passing still a second line of Indians racing the moat edge to fire at the oncoming Spanish. Fearing that his infantry line was about to break, Commander Parilla committed his 100 cavalry men to the battle to help shore up the faltering infantrymen. It was then that Parilla discovered he had made still another error in judgment, by thinking that the small bands of Indians observed leaving the city had been hunting parties. They had apparently met at some pre-arranged point outside the view of the Spaniards, formed into strike forces and now attacked the flanks of Parilla's small army.[2]

Caught in a withering crossfire, Parilla's army was rapidly being cut to pieces, while the "white rider" wheeled his horse and chanted war orders to his Taovayan warriors. Many of the Spanish soldiers, both infantry and cavalry, began trying to surrender and begged for mercy, but the Indian attack continued without quarter. Suddenly the Spanish broke and what had been a battle line turned into sheer panic as Parilla's army, still being chopped to pieces from behind, fled pell mell southward. Parilla was forced to abandon his cannons, his ammunition and most of his supply train and retreat as rapidly as possible to the south after his fleeing forces.[2]

Several weeks later, it was a bedraggled group that staggered back into San Luis de Bejar. Of Parilla's 300 man force, less than one third made it back to San Luis de Bejar, and many of these had festering and inflamed wounds that would eventually lead to their death. By early 1760, only about 60 veterans of the march to San Teodoro" were still alive to tell of the horrors of the battle with the Taovayans. Of course, the English colonists on the Eastern Seaboard of North America, even if they had heard of the battle of San Teodoro and San Bernardo, paid little attention to the event. They were involved in a war of their own, which in your history books is recorded as the French & Indian War and which the French called the Seven Year War.[2]

Parilla's defeat was also an exercise in futility in still another way. Four years later, at the end of the Seven Years (or French & Indian) War in 1763, the Spanish king demanded reparations from the French crown for aid given to France during that war. So, as payment to Spain for help in the war, France ceded all of its claims in Louisiana Territory to Spain as part of the Treaty of 1863. France got its claims to Louisiana Territory back from Spain in 1800 through the Treaty of San Ildefonso, only to sell it to the United States in 1803.[2]

(from Bishinik January 1981)

Demythologizing History: The Case of Ferdinandina

In May or June of 1926 Joeseph B. Thoburn of the Oklahoma Historical Society learned of a map with "Fernandina" printed int he general region of the Deer Creek Archaeological site east of Newkirk, Oklahoma.  Examination of the map revealed that it had been published in London, England, in the 1860s by "Lloyds," presumably the famous insurance company.  Impressed by the age of the map and its publication in Europe, Thoburn decided that the Fernandina of the 1860s and the Deer Creek site of the 1750's were one and the same.[3]

Thereafter Dr. Thoburn and other historians made extragant claims for Fernandina.  Some asserted that it was the first white settlement in Oklahoma known to early cartographers in England and Scotland.  Others claimed it was a French fort where Frenchmen lived and traded with the Wichitas.  Dr. Thoburn himself concluded that "Fernandina" was named after King Ferdinand VI of SPain, who reigned between 1746 to 1759, and that the proper spelling for the French fort should be "Ferdinandina". (He never explained why the French would name a post after a SPanish King.) For two generations Oklahoma historians and geographers accepted these interpretations uncritically and incorporated them into their texts and atlases.  Not until the late 1970's did anyone bother to examine the documents that presumably confirmed the existance of "ferdinandina." Then ethnohistorian Mildred Mott Wedel learned tha t the actual map Thoburn used no longer existed, only a picture of a part of it.  Using that small clue, she was able to determine that the original map was in fact a copy of "Lloyd's Topographical Railway Map of North America, or the United States Continent," which was published in 1868 by J. T. Lloyd of New York and London.  Dr. Wedel established that "Ferdinandina" does appear on this map as a site in northern Indian Territory, although not the exact location of the Deer Creek village.[3]

Dr. Wedel conducted an extensive search of international archives to locate other maps or documents that might show "Fernandina." She found no reference to the name on any source from the 1740s and 1750s when Deer Creek was an active hunting and meat processing site.  Indeed, she discovered that "Fernandina" as a place-name was not used in manuscripts or printed sources until the 1850s, a fell century after the time when a fort of that name was supposed to have existed. She found three maps fromt eh 1850s that used the designation, but all three placed it differently.  One put "Fernandina" in Kansas near the Santa Fe Trail.[3]

Wedel concluded that "Fernandina" as a geographical place-name dated only from the 1850s. As such, it was never used during the 1740s to designate the Deer Creek site. Moreover, that location was not a French fort, and therefore not the first white settlement in Oklahoma.  Instead it was a hunting and meat-processing operation that supplied meat for French Louisiana. To use the term "Ferdinandina" to identify the Wichita village at Deer Creek is perpetuate a historical myth.[3]

So what was Deer Creek? The evidence suggests that it was a typical Wichita village and that it became the headquarters of thirty to forty Frenchmen who were there as professional hunters to supply Louisiana with meat.  The villagers worked for these men as hunters themselves and as meat processors, being paid in European merchandise.  Contrary to historical legend, there was no thriving commerce at Deer Creek in which the Wichita served as crafty brokers between teh coureurs de bois and the Plains tribes.  The evidence collected from the trash mounds may not be terribly romantic, but it is persuasive. Deer Creek was an early day stockyard and meat processing plant, where the Indians worked as laborers.[3]

(from The Story of Oklahoma by W. David Baird and Danney Goble)


A Kay County archaeological site lying on a terrace near the Arkansas River, the Deer Creek Site (34KA3) revealed an early- to mid-eighteenth-century Wichita village that interacted with French hunters and traders. A contemporaneous site, Bryson-Paddock, was located nearly two miles upstream on the Arkansas River. Joseph Thoburn of the University of Oklahoma's history department knew of the Deer Creek Site as early as 1914, and he conducted some excavation in 1917, although the scope of his work is unknown. In 1926 Ernest Marland funded an archaeological expedition to study the site, but the landowner would not allow excavation, and the work shifted to the Bryson location. In that same year Thoburn found an aged map that placed a "Fernandina" in the general vicinity of the site. Thoburn claimed that Fernandina was Deer Creek and stated that he believed it to have been the first "white" settlement in Oklahoma. The map had actually been published in the 1860s.[4]

Later scholars believe that the actual evidence, which came mostly from surface examinations, seemed to indicate that the site had been a Wichita village where French trappers and traders periodically were stationed to supply Louisiana with meat. The villagers probably hunted and processed the animals and traded the products for European merchandise. Archaeologists have not methodically excavated the Deer Creek Site, but there have been numerous examinations of the Bryson-Paddock Site. The number of scrapers found there reinforce the theory that the place was a large meat-processing center. These digs also found artifacts of French material culture, including fragments of muskets, both French and English made, and gun flints. The gun flints seemed to be native-produced but were not made from any local material. They had been either provided by the French, who had obtained them from another tribe, or acquired through direct trade with other American Indians.[4]

In 1981 ethnohistorian Mildred Mott Wedel published a report on the Deer Creek Site and asserted that the place-name Fernandina (or Ferdinandina) dated to the 1850s and had no connection with the eighteenth-century Wichita village that had been located nearby. She also claimed that Deer Creek had not been a French fort, but a Wichita settlement, possibly having a reinforced fortification to protect against the Osage from the east and various Plains Indian enemies from the west. Most historians suggest that by 1760 the Wichita had relocated to the Red River, the threat of attack by the Osage having been a major factor in their retreat from the Arkansas River region. In 1966 the Deer Creek Archaeological Site (NR 66000630) was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1979 the Bryson Archaeological Site (NR 79001997) was listed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the Deer Creek Site property, acquiring the land prior to its creation of the Kaw Reservoir, which began construction in 1966.[4]


© Lord Gazmuth 2012