The military is notorious for rumors and gossip whether it involves the deployment of a whole regiment, individuals or some historical incident. A few become legends. One that continues to surface involves a lone tombstone labeled ‘
“Vivia Thomas January 7, 1870,” located within the circle of graves around the flagstaff near the entrance to the Fort Gibson National Cemetery. Called the Circle of Honor, it is there that soldiers are buried that, in some way, especially distinguish themselves. The cemetery was established in 1869 on the Fort Gibson reservation. In 1891 the site was expanded and currently encompasses 48 acres that include 17,000 interments.
Life in a frontier garrison was much different than usually portrayed in Hollywood films. Movie moguls would have us believe the clean shaven, well uniformed soldiers and their officers were continually engaged in action packed activities, that key decisions for survival were constantly being made. In fact, day to day life on the frontier at locations like Fort Gibson would, at best be described as incredibly boring for weeks on end. The result was often some tales were just credible enough to acquire a life, to become legends.
This one begins in Boston just after the Civil War. Vivia Thomas, a young socialite met and became engaged to a handsome Union Army lieutenant. Wedding plans were well under way when, for reasons never fully explained, the lieutenant broke the engagement and left town. He left a hastily written note explaining he was not ready for marriage and he had arranged to travel west with his unit. At first Vivia was embarrassed and heartbroken, but as weeks passed, she became furious about the shameful situation and, as her anger increased, schemed for revenge.
All that was known about the lieutenant was that he “went west,” but after some investigation he was located at Fort Gibson. Several weeks passed and during that time Vivia, her hair now cut short and dressed in men’s clothing, traveled west. Within a month a young man sunburned and dressed in western garb appeared at Fort Gibson seeking to enlist in the army, was accepted and provided a name long forgotten. The lieutenant was not aware of her existence. The new recruit was assigned to another company, the fort and its buildings covered considerable ground and there were hundreds of soldiers stationed there, so she was able to remain anonymous.
Arriving at the fort several months earlier, the lieutenant had met an Indian girl living near the fort and fell in love. Vivia, became aware of their relationship, when she was able to leave her duties, began following the couple. According to one version, she became so enraged she attempted to stab him. The lieutenant, still unaware of her identity, returned to the fort and, possibly because he did not want others to be aware of his feelings for the Indian maiden, did not mention the incident so there was no investigation.
But Vivia’s hatred had no bounds. She continued to trail the lieutenant as he met with his lover and, one night after following for a short distance, returned to the fort for her rifle. Hidden along the path, as he approached on his way back to the fort, she stood, took aim, shot and killed him. Hurriedly, she returned to her quarters at the fort undiscovered.
The following morning the lieutenant was discovered missing and shortly after, his lifeless body was discovered on the path near the fort. The mysterious murder of the young officer was thoroughly investigated, rumors were followed and clues analyzed. His superiors concluded that the killing must have been by either someone jealous of his relationship with the Indian maiden or by a renegade warrior. No one suspected the young soldier recruit.
The legend continues following the lieutenant’s burial at a graveyard near the fort. In the beginning Vivia was pleased that she had finally gotten revenge. But soon she developed remorsefulness and sadness even confessing her crime to the Fort Gibson chaplin. She would go to the lieutenant’s grave nearly every night for weeks, throw herself upon it and pray for forgiveness for what she had done. On the morning of January7, 1870 she was found, lying over his grave frozen to death. When her body was taken to the doctor’s quarters, he was utterly astonished to discover that Private Thomas was a woman.
Soon after, the chaplain came forward, disclosing the story Vivia had related to him a few days before her death. As the information leaked out, most of the men in the garrison were stunned, her death and the circumstances touched the hearts of everyone including the fort’s commander to such an extent that he ordered that her remains should be buried in the Circle of Honor. Since then, it is said that infrequently, an apparition of a “delicate” soldier can be seen, kneeling near the grave and weeping softly.
Legends are usually defined as popular myths, not verifiable, or just a story from the past. That also may be true about Vivia Thomas, but then there’s that tombstone.
Note: Several books regarding the history of Northeastern Oklahoma published by the author are available on Amazon.com and BARNES AND NOBLE.com.
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.