The Arkansas River had always been an enigma to early explorers and trappers who hoped it would be a waterway to the west but they found that beyond the Three Forks, its junction with the Verdigris and Grand Rivers, it often proved to be particularly fickle. The Arkansas originates in Colorado near Leadville and might have been an excellent passage but portions are either too shallow, narrow or simply unpredictable for travel. Interestingly, Mother Nature gave notice that there were problems further upstream by placing a natural barrier, a waterfall, a few miles below the confluence of the three rivers. In his report Lieutenant James Wilkinson, a member of the 1806 Zebulon Pike expedition, tasked with exploring the river through Oklahoma and Arkansas, refers to encountering a seven foot waterfall near The Three Forks. Subsequent reports mentioned lower heights indicating that, sometime after that the obstruction eroded. In his report of July 13, 1819 acclaimed naturalist Thomas Nuttall described the falls as lower but still a barrier that required portage, and even in 1824 when troops were traveling upstream from Fort Smith to construct Fort Gibson, mention was made of portage around the falls. When Walter Webber arrived in present day Muskogee County in 1828, built a trading post, initiated a salt works and provided a portage service across the river, apparently there were still vestiges of the falls, at least enough for his settlement to become known as Webbers Falls.
Walter Webber was no stranger to the west. Born in the Cherokee Nation in1780, he was among the first to migrate west of the Mississippi River, spent several years there and later moved with other Western Cherokee further south along the Arkansas River. Webber obviously had prospered. During his travels, Nuttall visited him in the spring of 1819 and described his home in a later narrative of his journey writing, “He lives in ease and affluence, possessing a decently furnished and well provided house, several Negro slaves, and a large, well cleared, and fenced farm.” Webber also was known to be active in conflicts with the Osage. In 1816, after numerous depredations by the Osage against Cherokees, the War Chief marshaled warriors from several tribes and attacked Chief Clermont’s village, Webber was among them. Later, in 1821 Webber killed a Frenchman, Joseph Revior an associate of Auguste Chouteau, in part because he was living with an Osage woman.
Although he died in 1834 just six years after it was founded, the town that bears his name continued to make its mark in history. In 1837 “Rich Joe” Vann moved to Webbers Falls from Georgia and developed a plantation nearby. Vann who owned several businesses, numerous steamboats and over 200 slaves, built a lavish home, a replica of his plantation home in Georgia. Shortly after, his father developed a similar plantation nearby. But soon there was trouble. During November of 1842 the little community was overwhelmed by a slave revolt led mostly by the Vann’s slaves. About 35 revolted, locked their masters up, raided a store for weapons and food and escaped on horseback. Headed southwest, their goal was to cross the Red River into Texas and escape to Mexico. When the escape was discovered about 40 Cherokee gave chase and after reaching a valley beyond the Canadian River, the slaves and posse engaged in a fierce gun battle. Returning to Webbers Falls for reinforcements and now led by John Drew, the posse re-engaged the slaves a few miles north of the Red River. Starving, outnumbered and low on ammunition, the slaves were soon captured and returned to Webbers Falls. Ultimately, five were convicted of murder and hung while the remainder was disciplined by their owners.
Following the advent of the Civil War and perhaps because of its location, Webbers Falls became important militarily and, following the war, as a refuge. Stand Watie established his Confederate headquarters there in 1863 as a counter to the recapture of Fort Gibson by Union forces. Later that same year Union troops attacked the town in an attempt to capture Watie but failed and in retaliation, burned the town. The next year, a few miles downstream from Webbers Falls Watie successfully attacked the Union steamboat J. R. Williams in what became known as Oklahoma’s only naval battle. Watie’s troops captured badly needed supplies, 150 barrels of flour, 16,000 pounds of bacon, 400 Sharps rifles and 200 pistols. After the war the town also gained prominence when most of the Confederate leadership settled there, prior to relocating elsewhere in the Nation.
Since its inception in 1828, the town’s location on the river has proven to be both a curse and a blessing. Several epic floods, the most recent in 2019, have inundated it. In 1911, Webber’s Falls burned down again and citizens rebuilt it, this time with bricks. In 1972, the community became part of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System that created the Kerr Reservoir. That has proven to be an asset for recreational purposes. For over 190 years, initiated as a trading post, the town has survived fires, floods, war and even a revolt, Walter Webber would be pleased with its resilience.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.