Fort Reno History

Early History of Fort Reno

Fort Reno began as a military camp in 1874 in the Indian Wars Era. It was established at the insistence of Agent John Miles at the Darlington Indian Agency, to pacify and protect the Cheyennes and Arapahos there. Troops from the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers) were dispatched from Fort Sill, but because of other Indian unrest, were detained at the nearby Wichita Agency at present day Anadarko. The military “Camp Near the Cheyenne Agency” for Darlington was then set up for nineteen months by soldiers from the 5th Infantry and 6th Cavalry from Forts Dodge and Leavenworth under Lt. Col. Thomas Neil.

In 1875, the commanding officer was authorized to select a site, on the other (south) side of the North Canadian River, and build corrals and a wagon yard, dig wells, and set up a sawmill for the military post. According to the “Post Returns” (monthly reports) the permanent location was named “Fort Reno” in February 1876 by General Phil Sheridan, in honor of his dear friend Major General Jesse L. Reno, a Virginian, who was killed in the Civil War in 1863 at the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland.

The cavalry and infantry stationed at Fort Reno played an important role in the transition of the area from Indian Territory status to Oklahoma statehood in 1907. United States Cavalry units, including the Buffalo Soldiers (Black soldiers of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry), and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian Scouts, along with the U.S. Marshal Service, maintained the peace on the central plains until the turn of the century.

The Cavalry and Cheyenne Police later operated the “beef issue” which entailed issuing the Tribes live Longhorn cattle to chase and shoot like buffalo. The Longhorns had been herded up the Chisholm Trail, a part of the also famous 1867 Texas or Abilene Trail, which divided south of the South Canadian River, a leg (or variant) of the trail going northwest to the Fort Sill – Arkansas City wagon road, then through Fort Reno lands. The famous trail continued north of Fort Reno where the issue pens were located, then across the North Canadian River and through the Darlington Indian Agency, on northward over Concho Hill/Caddo Springs (present day Cheyenne-Arapaho headquarters), and north to join up with the main trail at the Cimarron River (called the Red Fork of the Arkansas) and the Red Fork Ranch supply and remount station (present town of Dover).

Fort Reno troops were prominent in the “Indian Wars” era of the 1870s, as related below in the historical “Cheyenne and Arapaho ………” section.

The Fort Reno troops helped locate and made several evictions of the “Boomers” from the Unassigned Lands of Indian Territory for ten years, prior to the opening for settlement by the 1889 land run. Fort Reno soldiers also assisted with the land runs of 1892 and 1894. In 1892, some Fort Reno troopers were dispatched to the Choctaw capitol of Tuskahoma to help quell a political dispute among the “Five Civilized Tribes”. In 1898, Fort Reno troops distinguished themselves in the Spanish-American War in Cuba. In 1900, Fort Reno troops were sent to Henryetta where they helped quell the “Creek Rebellion” by capturing Crazy Snake and 67 of his followers. In 1906, as a result of the Brownsville, Texas incident, wherein Black troopers from Fort Brown allegedly had a nighttime shootout with civilians, an entire battalion of the Black 25th Infantry was sent to Fort Reno and discharged.

Darlington Agency

President Grant’s Peace Policy marked a profound change in Indian-white relations after the Battle of the Washita in 1868. Brinton Darlington, a Quaker through his membership in the Society of Friends, was appointed agent of the Upper Arkansas Agency. Darlington arrived at Camp Supply on July 6, 1869 and began looking for an appropriate location to establish the agency complex. Brinton Darlington’s strong convictions in the scriptures of his faith caused him to adhere to the principles of the Peace Policy. He refused to accept a military escort into the interior of Indian Territory.

Through negotiations with the military and the Cheyennes, it was agreed that the new agency would be located on the north side of the North Canadian River. In May 1870, the agency was located within the newly established Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation created through Executive Order by President Grant. The agency was located near an adequate timber and spring water supply across the river, north and to the east of present day Fort Reno.

Work at the agency was challenging for Darlington as he was responsible for issuing the Treaty guaranteed annuities of goods and regular food rations. Many of the Indian camps preferred living near the buffalo range near the western border of present day Oklahoma. Thus, the number of Cheyennes and Arapahos living near the agency was small during the Darlington’s three years as Agent.

The ultimate goal of the Peace Policy was to educate and Christianize the Indians, and to get them to farm and raise cattle. The school established for the children at the Cheyenne-Arapaho agency by Brinton Darlington was part of the United States Indian policy. Many Cheyenne and Arapaho children in the 1870’s began formal education at the agency.

Darlington spent close to three years as the Agent for the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. He died on May 1, 1872 and the reports of his funeral indicate that large numbers of Cheyennes and Arapahos openly mourned as they passed his open coffin while paying their last respects. During the funeral a Cheyenne Chief spoke about the loss of this great man to the assembled group. The agent seceding Brinton Darlington was John D. Miles who had served as the agent for the Kickapoos.


General Phil Sheridan and Scout Ben Clark

In July 1885, General Sheridan (called Little Phil) crossed the Cimarron River in Indian Territory en route to the Cheyenne Agency. President Cleveland had ordered reinforcements to Fort Reno along with Generals Sheridan and Miles to meet with Agent Dyer and the Cheyenne leader Stone Calf. General Sheridan concluded that Agent Dyer was not aggressive enough in his efforts to disarm, dismount and put Indians onto farms near Darlington.

General Sheridan recommended to President Cleveland that all leases be terminated in Indian Territory and that unauthorized persons be removed from Indian land and that the military personnel replace the civilians at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency. Sheridan spent time at Fort Reno during the early years, and a log cabin structure known as ‘Sheridan’s Headquarters’ or Billet is now located on the Canadian County Historical Museum grounds in El Reno.

General Sheridan organized a Turkey Hunt that five Generals attended, led by his favorite scout, Ben Clark, longtime resident of Fort Reno, also buried in the Post Cemetery.

To many Indian War historians, cavalry scout Ben Clark is the most notable burial in the post cemetery. Clark (1842-1914) traveled or was dispatched to lead groups throughout the Great Plains to several forts. In the Civil War he was with the 6th Kansas Cavalry. In 1868, he was assigned to Lt. Col. George Custer’s 7th Cavalry at Camp Supply (Fort Supply in present NW Oklahoma) as Chief of Scouts, and led the 7th Cavalry south to the Washita River where they attacked the winter camp of Cheyenne “Peace Chief” Black Kettle in the controversial “Battle of the Washita” on November 27. Clark was said to have defied Custer twice — complaining that troops and Osage scouts were shooting at women and children; and advocated an exit plan when the campaign was threatened by warriors from other camps.

Clark came to Fort Reno from Fort Supply in January of 1878 as “Post Interpreter”, to the Cheyennes, at $100 a month. He had married into the Cheyenne tribe. He, his third wife Moka (Mo-kaaay) and five of their eleven children are in the post cemetery.

In 1888, Clark welcomed and hosted famous New York artist Frederic Remington who produced several drawings and paintings inspired by his three months at Fort Reno. Clark was also called “Chief of Scouts” and led officers and other dignitaries on hunting trips. The Clark family lived in a log house, then moved into the remodeled one-room 1878 school/chapel (Bldg.10, to be restored). In 1908, Clark was placed in temporary charge of the post during the transition from a garrisoned fort to a Quartermaster Remount Station. Clark wrote over 400 pages of “Ethnography and Philology of the Cheyenne”, mostly dictionary, which is at the Autry National Center museum in Los Angeles, CA.

Cheyenne & Arapaho, the Indian Scouts, and the Indian Wars

Fort Reno was initially established to quell the unrest among the Indians in the region during 1874. Thirty-two Cheyenne and Arapaho men and one woman were arrested for their alleged role in the 1874 uprisings and were taken as prisoners to Fort Marion, Florida. Several years later, some of the former prisoners returned to the area and served as Indian Scouts at Fort Reno as well as Camp Supply (later Fort Supply) to the northwest.

The Battle of Sand Hill in April of 1875, two miles north of the Fort, was the only military battle near the Fort. Near the Cheyenne village, the soldiers and a blacksmith were attempting to shackle prisoner Black Horse. He was being chided by the Cheyenne women, so he kicked loose from his captors and broke and ran toward the village. The soldiers gave chase, then shot and killed him, but some of their bullets went through the lodges (teepees). The wary Cheyennes, believing they were under attack, raced to nearby sandy hills and dug up their cached weapons and occupied rifle pits they had excavated. The soldiers responded in force. A pitched battle ensued, including a repulsed cavalry charge, and the fort’s Gatling Gun was brought into the battle. The Cheyennes escaped at dark. Before it ended, one enlisted man (Clark Young, a Buffalo Soldier), one civilian, and one Indian scout died as result of Sand Hill and are buried in the historic cemetery located 3/4 mile west of the Fort Reno Visitor Center. Nineteen soldiers were wounded, six Cheyenne warriors, and one woman were killed.

The most dramatic single event of the early fort was the heroic attempted escape to freedom by nearly 300 Northern Cheyennes in 1878. After the Custer Massacre in Montana in 1876, 937 Cheyennes had been rounded up and forcibly removed to the Darlington Agency by Lt. Henry Lawton, seventeen troopers, scout Ben Clark, and twenty civilians. A group of those Cheyennes, led by Dull Knife, Little Wolf, and Wild Hog, fled for their northern home in September 1878. They were pursued by Fort Reno 4th Cavalry and encountered on September 13th, near “Turkey Springs” or “Red Hills” (near present-day Freedom, OK). The resulting battle took several lives, including Pvt. Struad, Pvt. Modinger, Cpl. Lynch, and Arapaho Scout “Chalk”, who are all buried at the Post Cemetery. A blacksmith named Burton was also killed.

The Cheyennes continued their flight, punctuated by further skirmishes and many depredations through western Kansas and Nebraska, until their capture. The last and northernmost battle involving Fort Reno troopers occurred September 27th, 1878, at Punished Woman’s Fork (creek) in west-central Kansas. The cavalry averted an ambush, but commander Lt. Col. Lewis was mortally wounded, and was seceded by Capt. Mauck. The troops continued pursuit into Nebraska, but returned to Fort Reno in October, as the 5th Cavalry from northern forts took up the chase.

In October, the Cheyennes were confined at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, but escaped the following January, and were either killed or recaptured.

Two excellent books on this are “In Dull Knife’s Wake” by Maddux & Maddux; and “Perilous Pursuit” by Stan Hoig, available at the Fort Reno Visitor Center. Also, this escape incident was basis for the book and movie “Cheyenne Autumn”, filmed in 1964 in Monument Valley Utah, the extreme opposite of the landscape and climate at Fort Reno.

The Indian Scouts at Fort Reno in the 1880’s were a regiment of Cheyenne and Arapahos who enlisted for three to six months at a time. The Indian Scouts accompanied the Fort Reno Cavalry units and made sure the Indian camps were located on the reservation. The Cheyenne and Arapaho men who served as Indian Scouts camped at Fort Reno with their families. This was an economic venture since they were paid a base fee and additional amounts if they used their own horses. Their families were able to obtain food supplies at the Fort’s Commissary.

The Indian Scouts spent their free time at their camp and produced works of art in ledger books. The art is one dimensional with a great amount of detail spent on the horse, man’s clothing, and enemy. Several Indian Scout books collected by Commanding Officers at Fort Reno are now in museums or part of private collections across the country.

Buffalo Soldiers

In 1866, Congress approved legislation creating all-Black Regiments of the Army, however, with white officers. The two Cavalry units were the 9th and 10th and the two infantry units were the 24th and 25th. The 10th Cavalry in the west earned the name “Buffalo Soldiers” from Native Americans, as a term of respect, describing not only their tenacity, but their hair, said to resemble the color and texture of the hair between the horns of the buffalo. Eventually all of the Black regiments were called Buffalo Soldiers.

The 9th and 10th Cavalry were stationed at Fort Reno beginning in 1874 through the 1880’s. The Infantry units were present by the early 1900’s, then transferred to New Mexico and Arizona Territories.

The Buffalo Soldiers have the reputation for effective and consistent fighting against the lawless whites, Mexicans and Indians. The Ninth and Tenth United States Cavalry were designated as the black regiments. Companies from both units passed through Fort Reno. The Fort Reno Post Cemetery is the resting place for one soldier of the 10th Cavalry soldier, six soldiers of the 9th Cavalry and seven “Walk-A-Heaps” from the 25th Infantry. Along with the white troops stationed at Fort Reno, the Buffalo Soldiers played an important role in several ejections of David Payne’s Boomers from Indian Territory and preventing cattle drovers, outlaws, and “Sooners” from entering the territory prior to the land rush, as shown in historic photographs.

Cavalry & Infantry

The success of the military camp at this location in 1874 led to the establishment of a 9,493 acre permanent military reservation. Fort Reno as a military post was home base for Cavalry and Infantry units of the United States Army from 1875 to 1907. The Territorial status and diversified peoples and factions in the surrounding lands created a bustling community at Fort Reno made up of enlisted men, officers, and civilians.

The soldiers at Fort Reno were often dispatched into the Unassigned Lands where Oklahoma City is now located to remove David Payne and the Boomers from their settlements. Fort Reno soldiers also helped to keep order along the 89th Meridian, a marker of which is located in El Reno at the Canadian County Historical Museum, prior to the land run of April 22, 1889.

Land Runs
The first land run in Oklahoma opened the Unassigned Lands for settlement. The Fort Reno soldiers who previously had extracted David Payne and the Boomers, were assigned to keep order along the outer boundaries prior to the appropriate signal of cannons and carbines on Saturday, April 22, 1889. The greater Oklahoma City metropolitan area – Guthrie from the north to Norman from the South to Shawnee from the east and El Reno from the west, were all established following the land run of 1889.

The second Land Run involving Fort Reno soldiers was the opening of part of the Cheyenne & Arapaho reservation on April 19, 1892. Prior to the land run, each member of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribe received an individual allotment of land, mainly along the rivers and streams. The lands considered excess were opened for settlement.

Remount Station
A 21st Century person might ask, “Why were horses and mules used in 20th Century Wars?” Please read on. In 1908, Fort Reno became one of three Army Quartermaster Remount Stations for the military, a role which it served through 1948. Specialized horse breeding and training of pack mules became the central focus of activity at Fort Reno. The horses and mules were transported by rail from Fort Reno and shipped to other parts of the world during World War I and World War II. The military also made some horses available to the local farmers for breeding purposes. Social activities at Fort Reno included polo matches, horse races, horse shows and auctions, and local community activities at the Officers’ Club, polo grounds, and racetrack, which no longer exist.

Fort Reno’s purpose as a remount station was to raise horses and mules for all branches of the military. Reports indicate that Fort Reno was the regional headquarters, having approximately 14,000 horses and mules at various times throughout the Remount Station years. The principal Remount units were the 252nd and the 253rd Quartermaster Remount Squadrons, plus a unit of “Fort Reno Remount Cowboys”, real cowboys, who broke and trained the horses and mules.

The Fort Reno Remount Troops often accompanied the pack mules and horses to other parts of the world. The horses and mules were shipped to the South Pacific, Italy, Greece, China, Burma and India for use, primarily in mountainous areas, by the Allied forces. These animals were a very important element of our nation’s war effort, used for crucial supply lines and transportation, in terrain where, as one Veteran said, “There wasn’t a square foot of level ground!”

Shortly after World War II, in 1948, the United States Army’s Quartermaster Remount Depot at Fort Reno was decommissioned, although animals were shipped out of Fort Reno until 1952. The Fort has since been the site of the 6,740 acre U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grazinglands Research Laboratory, which hosts the Visitors Center Museum, operated by the non-profit Historic Fort Reno, Inc.

German Prisoners of War and U.S. Army Guards
During World War II, 94-acres of an eastern portion of the Fort Reno lands served as an internment work-camp for German and Italian Prisoners of War. Mostly from General Rommel’s Afrikakorp, captured in North Africa, over 1,300 German and a few Italians were brought to Fort Reno by rail. While imprisoned here, the German and Italian POWs were hired as laborers for local farmers and in 1944, they built the Post Chapel located to the north of the Parade Grounds.

The west side of the historic military cemetery is where seventy German and Italian Prisoners of War are interred. Most of these men died at other POW camps in Oklahoma and Texas. Only one Fort Reno German POW died while imprisoned at the Fort Reno internment camp.

There are 62 German and 8 Italian Prisoners of War interred at the POW Cemetery added to the west end of the Post Cemetery. A number of Germans and Italians have made special trips to view the resting place of their relatives or friends. Every November, for the German-American Heritage Memorial Day “Volkstrauertag”, a wreath laying ceremony in remembrance of those prisoners buried at the Fort Reno cemetery.

The most famous German buried at the Fort Reno POW Cemetery is Johannes Kunze of the Tonkawa Camp. He was beaten to death by fellow POWs who accused him of being a traitor. Those charged with his murder were sent to stand trial at Camp Gruber, found to be guilty, and taken toFort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they were executed by hanging, and buried. The death of Johannes Kunze is the subject of a novel by Vince Greene, titled “Extreme Justice”.

Prison Camp guards were the U.S. Army’s 435th Military Police Escort Guard Company.

An excellent book on this subject is “Behind Barbed Wire: WWII POW Camps in Oklahoma” by New Plains Review, University of Central Oklahoma, with 99 illustrations and photos, and stories from several POW camps.

Fort Reno Facts

  • Famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart flew her autogiro (forerunner of the helicopter) at the Fort Reno airstrip in 1931.
  • Will Rogers visited the Fort frequently to watch polo matches and horse races.
  • Black Jack, the spirited riderless ceremonial horse used in the funeral processions of Presidents Hoover, Kennedy, and Johnson, and General MacArthur.  Black Jack was raised and trained at Fort Reno before being sent to Fort Myer, VA, joining the caisson unit, assisting in burying more than 1,000 Koren and Vietnam soldiers killed in combat.
  • Famous artist Frederic Remington spent three months at Fort Reno in 1888, producing many of his drawings of Cavalry, Buffalo Soldiers, Cheyennes & Arapahos, and Scouts.
  • 1997 the auctioning of scrap metal raised funds to establish the Fort Reno Visitor Center Museum, that has provided historic interpretation of the site to over 100,000 visitors from June 1997 through the present.
  • You may support the mission and vision of Historic Fort Reno through membership in Historic Fort Reno , Inc., a 501(c)(3), dedicated to preservation, restoration, and continuing education by learning from history.