Monday, August 28, 2023

Review - "Revisiting The Battle of Red Fork: A Two-Part Review and Analysis of the History and Controversy of the First Civil War Battle Fought in Indian Territory in What is Now Oklahoma" by Dale Chlouber

[Revisiting The Battle of Red Fork: A Two-Part Review and Analysis of the History and Controversy of the First Civil War Battle Fought in Indian Territory in What is Now Oklahoma by Dale Chlouber (New Forums Press, 2023). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendix section. Pages:vi,164. ISBN:978-1-58107-378-2. $26.95]

In a rare diplomatic victory over its Union foe, the Confederate government in 1861 successfully negotiated alliance treaties with the major tribal nations residing within Indian Territory. However, even after principal chief John Ross finally succumbed to the pressure and aligned the powerful Cherokee with Richmond, there were many among the Creeks and other groups who believed their best interests still lay in honoring the old agreements with the U.S. government. Numbering in the thousands, they rallied around the highly respected Muscogee Creek former chief Opothleyahola. On the other side, the now Confederate Indians and their new Texas and Arkansas allies were determined to deny the possibility of armed opposition blossoming under their noses. That rising threat of open warfare caused Opothleyahola and his followers to flee north, a winter trek that some have called the "Trail of Blood on Ice." Pursuit led to a running series of engagements, the most significant of which were the "battles" of Round Mountain (November 19, 1861), Chusto Talasah (December 9), and Chustenahlah (December 26). The last was a rout of Opothleyahola's remaining warriors, but the harried Indian loyalists ultimately reached asylum in Kansas. There they huddled in refugee camps under less than ideal conditions, their sufferings endured amid the hope and promise of eventual return to their former homes under the protection of U.S. forces.

Perhaps the most notable historiographical controversy of the entire campaign revolves around the disputed location of the Battle of Round Mountain (less commonly known as the Battle of Red Fork or Round Mountains). Strong oral history and local tradition built up around the Twin Mounds site west of Yale, Oklahoma, but the controversy really started with the public dissemination of the findings of avocational historian John Melton and the 1949 Chronicles of Oklahoma article authored by professional historian Angie Debo. Their arguments in support of the Twin Mounds site convinced many, and the issue seemed resolved. However, Debo's scholarship was soon challenged by Chronicles of Oklahoma editor Muriel Wright, who initially seemed satisfied by Debo's analysis before rejecting it wholesale in favor of promoting a location (or locations) near the confluence of the Cimarron and Arkansas Rivers, the so-called "Keystone Site" or sites. That was followed by decades of back and forth arguments and competing claims among historians, interested individuals, historical societies, and local communities. The conflict, which frequently reached unseemly depths, resulted in competing monuments and enduring questions. This contentious and nearly three quarters of a century-long debate is the subject of Dale Chlouber's Revisiting The Battle of Red Fork: A Two-Part Review and Analysis of the History and Controversy of the First Civil War Battle Fought in Indian Territory in What is Now Oklahoma.

Chlouber's book is divided into two parts of roughly equal length: (1) "Background on the Controversy of the Battle of Red Fork" and (2) "Revisiting the Battle of Red Fork." "Background" re-explores the source of the controversy in depth, one of its most useful reference features being its creation of an extensive and well-documented timeline of events spanning 1949-1996. After professional historians lost interest in the debate, sometimes due to the career problems involved with it, amateurs stepped forward, and Chlouber also critiques the merits of the battle location advanced by Robert DeMoss (called, appropriately enough, the "DeMoss Site"). In strong fashion, the author explains why he is unconvinced by DeMoss's arguments and unsupported conspiracy charges, finding instead that the best features of DeMoss's analysis not only do not reject the Twin Mounds/Yale site but buttress it.

In point by point fashion, the "Revisiting" section reevaluates the merits of the best sets of evidence put forth by proponents of both main locations: the collective Keystone area site(s) and the Twin Mounds/Yale site. Chlouber judiciously weighs the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of evidence, and persuasively concludes that the preponderance of best sources (including maps, participant accounts written closest to the time of actual events, and oral history) strongly supports the Twin Mounds/Yale location over any other suggested site. In determining this, Chlouber is not a lone wolf. By his estimation, knowledgeable persons today support the Twin Mounds/Yale site with near unanimity.

In text and photos (including the results of his own amateur relic hunting), Chlouber also advances the notion that available artifact discoveries tend to support Twin Mounds as being the true battle site. What's really needed, as Chlouber admits, is a more systematic survey of the location candidates using the most current technology and professional practices of battlefield archaeology. Douglas Scott and others have used such tools to great effect on other Civil War battlegrounds. Chlouber reminds us, however, that man-made Keystone Lake has placed some potential survey sites underwater.

In terms of suggestions for improvement, typos were pretty heavy, especially in the first section. Inclusion of an updated, article-length narrative summary of the battle itself would have helped many readers more fully comprehend the events themselves along with their historiographical dimensions. The volume seems to assume that most, if not all, prospective readers possess at least a rudimentary prior understanding of the battle, but the topic along with its sources and critical geography will undoubtedly be alien to a number of interested readers (as they mostly were to this one!). Additionally, key sources excerpted in the main text are limited enough in number to be fully reproduced in the appendix section. For a future edition, the book's overall organizational structure might also be gainfully reconsidered. There is some needless repetition between sections, and, at least from this reader's perspective, there's a great deal of information presented in the second part of the book that provides useful context for sounder comprehension of key matters explored in the first. In some ways, I wish I had read the second part first. Those concerns might have been resolved through employment of a more integrative approach.

In highlighting the negative consequences of institutionalized personal animosity, incomplete and selective research, misuse of sources and context, flawed assumptions, and community rivalry, Chlouber's Round Mountain examination draws sober lessons from the controversy that can be more broadly applied to the practice of history. In what seems appropriate, the author broadly faults Wright's leadership of the publication arm of the state historical society, The Chronicles of Oklahoma, as doing a disservice to history. By "neutralizing and subduing critiques," (pg. 71) Wright's editorship promoted deeply flawed history and engendered a fear of reprisal (i.e. through refusal to publish other professional articles in The Chronicles) that suppressed healthy scholarly dissent.

Out of an abundance of caution, one might still deem the matter of the Round Mountain battle location to be lacking an unassailable resolution. Nevertheless, this volume thoroughly and effectively compiles and analyzes the available evidence in ways that significantly reinforce those assessments favoring the Twin Mounds site. In doing so, author Dale Chlouber strongly rebuffs the claims of those who still argue that good evidence, or not enough of it, in support of one site over the others does not exist. Revisiting the Battle of Red Fork is a very useful tool for guiding readers through a long, complicated, and lesson-filled historiographical dispute.

1 comment:

  1. It looks interesting; However I don't think that I will agree with his findings. The Book review seems to have made a mistake with the following quote: "Strong oral history and local tradition built up around the Twin Mounds site west of Yale," Actually the strong oral history and local tradition is a better description of the Keystone site. So much so this must have been a mistake by the reviewer. It has been a long time since I was involved with this, but still have all the information on file. It will make an interesting read.


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