What Lies Beneath

The Saga of the Indian Agency Cemetery, Henry Post Army Airfield, Fort Sill, Oklahoma

In the fall of 1867, the winds on the south central Kansas plains greeted the representatives of the United States Government as they gathered with over 5,000 Indians from various tribes. Within a few days an extraordinary agreement, the Medicine Lodge Treaty, was signed by both parties which effectively provided a sanctuary or reservation for these tribes in exchange for a pledge of peaceful co-existence with the ever advancing tide of settlers from the East.[1] The consideration for this agreement was the loss of a vast territory that had been the homeland for these indigenous peoples for many years.

On January 8, 1869, a stake was driven in the ground to mark the site of a new outpost on the western frontier then known as Indian Territory. By this act, Major General Phillip Sheridan had established what was to become Fort Sill.

One of the obligations forged in the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty negotiations was to provide for a number of Indian Agencies to be the liaison between the tribes and the Government. Thus, the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Agency was established within eyesight of the new Fort Sill.

The Medicine Lodge Treaty required the Government to provide for physicians, teachers, carpenters, millers, engineers, farmers, and blacksmiths. The Agency’s variety of trades and professions were to become an agency village and the development of a crude infrastructure. In time there came the need for a cemetery as a part of that infrastructure.

Indian Agents brought Christianity to the reservation and there began to be Indian burials in the Christian tradition. An effort to establish a Methodist Mission in the Fort Sill area began as early as 1881.[2] In 1905, the Dutch Reformed Comanche Mission was built nearby. The Methodist Mission burned and did not continue beyond 1905.[3]

On a grassy knoll midway between the original boundary of Fort Sill Military Reservation and on land that had been reserved for the Agency operations, a cemetery was established. If burial records ever existed, those of the earliest burials have been lost to time.[4] The earliest known and documented burials there occurred from about 1895 forward.

In 1898, a ravaging small-pox epidemic swept westward engulfing Indians and whites alike. The epidemic reached its peak in 1901.[5] The cemetery became the final resting place for many of the Comanche Indian victims of this epidemic. For a short while the Dutch Reformed Comanche Mission assumed some limited responsibility for the cemetery and the cemetery took on the moniker of Comanche Mission Cemetery. Today it is known as the Indian Agency Cemetery.

Simultaneous with the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Comanche Mission, the Army officials at Fort Sill began an effort to extend their reservation boundaries well beyond the original rectangular boundary of three miles by six miles.[6] This extension would include the cemetery site. The interest of the Dutch Reformed Comanche Mission waned, in part in response to the expansion of the military reservation. Additionally, the Army had placed a moratorium on further burials in the on-Post cemeteries and the Comanche Mission Cemetery as well.[7]

In 1915, with the advent of aviation in military operations, Fort Sill absorbed what had been a part of the Agency Reserve. Executive Order # 685 of President Theodore Roosevelt formally transferred this land, including this cemetery, from the Department of the Interior to the Department of the Army on August 29, 1907. This was the beginnings of what would become Henry Post Army Airfield.

Well before 1917, the cemetery had fallen into disuse and was overgrown with weeds and grass. When the Mission’s Reverend Richard H. Harper was asked to identify the graves he encountered much difficulty because of the cemetery's neglect and he was able to identify only 64 graves.[8] Doubtless there were stone markers in this cemetery as is aptly demonstrated by a walk through other area Indian cemeteries. What became of those stone grave markers remains a mystery. Some of the graves may have had wooden markers that had deteriorated such that identification was made difficult. Accounts of common prairie fires which may have burned these makeshift wooden markers are likely to have contributed to this difficulty. In addition, the large number of unmarked graves may have the result of the influence of the early Indian Agents who were Quakers. It is well known that the Quakers have had an aversion to marking the graves at all or, if marked, the markings would be without elaboration and tending toward simplicity.

Just after Reverend Harper’s efforts, the Army Engineers removed what remained of the upright markers. They placed ground level concrete slabs over the graves inscribing the names the missionary had provided to them. As they cleared the ground for the purpose of putting down the concrete slabs, they were able to locate an additional 42 graves that Reverend Harper had not been able to find. Six of those additional graves were identified with names and the remainder was unknown.

Details of what happened to this cemetery between 1917 and the early-1950s have not been found. The abandoned cemetery became all but forgotten. Certain Comanche elders held on to their memory of the cemetery during this intervening period.

In 1954, the Army Engineers covered the grave slabs with dirt, “since grave slabs were interfering with planes landing.”[9] Thus, the cemetery was in danger of being all but “lost” once again.

Local historians have long held an interest in the existence of the cemetery, but little was done to locate or preserve it. Sometime around 1982, the Fort Sill Museum’s Director/Curator, Mr. Towana Spivey, became concerned about military operations taking place on the cemetery. The Fort Sill Museum’s archives held what little documentation that existed about this cemetery. With his interest and these documents the cemetery was found once again.

The staff then removed the accumulated top-cover from some of the graves and prepared a rudimentary plat in 1984. This limited archaeological project established that there were 114 persons buried in 109 grave sites. There are accounts suggesting as many as 200 graves lay abandoned here.

From about 1982 forward, various efforts were made by Comanche elders to persuade military officials to restore and preserve the cemetery. Promises to these elders were made and broken.[10] The Army did nothing from that time forward except to provide for occasional mowing of the grass and the placement of a rather inconspicuous sign some distance from the cemetery. The Army unilaterally determined the cemetery had originally been a private cemetery, an adjunct of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church. Rebuffed by the Army officials, the interest by the Comanche elders waned and soon ended.

Visitors to the cemetery must have airfield personnel unlock a gate and escort them to and from the cemetery. Because of this severe restriction, visitation to the cemetery is almost non-existent. Inexplicably, the grave slabs are once again covered with soil and grass. In some instances this top-cover is as deep as ten inches. All that can be seen today is an open field with four metal posts driven into the ground marking the presumed boundaries.

In the winter of 2006, Wahnne Clark set out to arouse awareness of this abandoned and neglected cemetery. With the official backing of the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Intertribal Land Use Committee, he has worked tirelessly to explore the history of the cemetery and to provide leadership on the project. Persistent and methodical in his research, he has fought for cooperation from Fort Sill officials since that time. He has provided Fort Sill with a List of Ten items sought for in the restoration effort.

After the project was started, there was a short period of time it was thought there would be cooperation from some of the senior military officials, but that period was short-lived and soon the Army was not cooperating at all.  A variety of roadblocks, including some from the Comanche Nation’s on Tribal Preservation Officer, have prevented progress of any consequence for the restoration and preservation of the cemetery.

Recognition of this once forgotten burial ground has not yet come and for those who lie beneath the prairie grass on the Henry Post Army Air Field, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the legacy of this project will be the return of a full measure of dignity and respect. And so the quest continues.

                                                                                                                                     JANUARY 2013

END NOTES: 

[1] See Kappler, Indian Affairs, Laws and Treaties, pp. 982-984. Back to Reading

[2] See Hugh D. Corwin Papers, The Methodist Missionary [Rev. Harrison] Ashby (Civilian Pioneers of Fort Sill). Back to Reading

[3] See Arthur Lawrence Papers, The Methodist Work at Fort Sill. Back to Reading

[4] See Walter D. Silcott to John P. Blackmon dated August 19, 1907, “… some have been buried so long you can hardly tell how many …” See also Arthur R. Lawrence to Gillett Griswold dated November 6, 1955, “…[Rev. Harper places] the cemetery’s origin of 1895 ... but does not account for a burial place of others prior to this date.” Back to Reading

[5] See Jerry B. Jeter, Pioneer Preacher, Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 23 (Winter 1945-1946), pp. 358 – 365. Back to Reading

[6] See Outline Descriptions of the Posts and Stations in the Geographical Divisions and Departments, Unites States Government Printing Office, 1872, p. 193. Back to Reading

[7] See letter MG G.L. Leatt (partially illegible), Post Commander, Fort Sill to Chairman, Board of County Commissioners, Comanche County, Oklahoma, dated December 8, 1901. Back to Reading

[8] See Rev. Richard H. Harper’s December 15, 1917, list of names of deceased buried in the Indian Agency Cemetery. Back to Reading

[9] Morris Swett (Internal Memorandum, Fort Sill, Oklahoma) circa 1955. Back to Reading

[10] See chronological compilation of meeting minutes of Comanche Cemetery Association by Wahnne Clark. Back to Reading