A Christmas gift to readers, excerpts from 'Into Oblivion' by Marilyn A. Hudson (Whorl Books, 2015).
Fort Gibson, Indian Territory
One of the longest and most intriguing tales of the Sooner state involves a woman who masqueraded as a man. Various versions have been shared but all have the same basic tale with no explanations as to the source of the many intriguing details and motivations provided. It is in many ways one of the most firmly entrenched legends of the American frontier in Oklahoma. Her name was Vivia Thomas and she was buried on 7 January 1870 in the Fort Gibson Military Cemetery in what was then Indian Territory (Plot OC 0 2120). For decades, stories of a slim weeping figure at her grave have been reported and her tale has taken on the cautionary veneer of the cost and regret of personal vengeance.
Fort Gibson in what was Indian Territory was established in 1824. In 1868 one of the first national cemeteries was organized nearby. The fort operated for only about 60 years but in that time it saw a tremendous amount of history.
With some minor variations, creative additions and rearrangement of events, the following is the accepted tale of Vivia Thomas.
"One of the most interesting stories associated with Fort Gibson National Cemetery is the tale of Vivia Thomas. Legend has it this high-spirited daughter of a wealthy Boston family met and fell in love with a handsome young lieutenant at a ball following the Civil War.
After several months of courtship, they announced their engagement, but shortly before the wedding he left, leaving only a note that he desired to go West in search of adventure. Broken-hearted and bitter over the abandonment, Thomas went in search of her lover. After learning that he was stationed at Fort Gibson, she set off on a journey of revenge. She cut her hair, dressed in men’s clothing and joined the Army. The disguise worked, as the former fiancé did not recognize her.
One night as he was returning from a visit with his Native American girlfriend, she ambushed and killed him. Despite an intense investigation, the murder went undiscovered. However, Thomas grew remorseful and began to visit his grave late at night. Eventually she contracted pneumonia from the continued exposure to the cold and collapsed near his grave, dying a few days later. Rather than condemning her actions, her army colleagues were so impressed with her courage in coming alone to the frontier and carrying out a successful disguise that they awarded her a place of honor for burial in the officer’s circle." (http://www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/ftgibson.asp)
Some authors have called the whole story “far-fetched” and many dismiss the tale of a woman dressing as a man as mere fiction. There is historic precedent and these could have been the stories that gave the young woman the idea to travel west as a man, first for safety and then later for other reasons. In the American Revolution, Mexican and Civil Wars women fought sometimes in disguise. Deborah Samson Gannett enlisted using her dead brother’s name and even pulled a musket ball from her own thigh to maintain her disguise. In 1782, she enlisted under the name of her deceased brother, Robert Shurtleff Samson. Margaret Corbin helped defend Fort Washington, New York. Elizabeth C. Newcume in the Mexican War dressed as a man and joined at Fort Leavenworth in eastern Kansas. In 1847 she fought Native Americans in the area of Dodge City, Kansas. Sometimes they died as well such as Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who enlisted as Private Lyons Wakeman. She died during the war in New Orleans at the Marine General Hospital. At the time of her death, her true gender was not known. In fact, her headstone reads Lyons Wakeman. Sarah Seelye who would become the only female member of the GAR. So women disguising themselves as men and serving in the military was not a new or “far-fetched” idea at all. So even in the gender restrictive Victorian era it was not unknown. It probably says more about the biases and prejudices of the males who label it as such than about the idea itself.
Strangely, the final resting place of the mysterious Vivia is also home to many notables. Medal of Honor Recipients such as Private First Class John N. Reese Jr., (World War II), U.S. Army, Company B, 148th Infantry, 37th Infantry Division. Paco Railroad Station, Manila, Philippine Islands, Feb. 9, 1945 (Section 2, Grave 1259-E); First Lieutenant Jack C. Montgomery, (World War II), U.S. Army, 45th Division. Padiglione, Italy, Feb. 22, 1944 (Section 20, Grave 963); Talahina Diana Rogers - Cherokee wife of General Sam Houston - Section OC, Grave 2467 and others.
All of which makes the question of who she was in more mysterious. The only apparent documentation found is her name in her tombstone and post records. She is listed in the Post Cemetery Records for Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, showing a death on January 7, 1870 (“Burial Registers for Military Posts, Camps, and Stations, 1768-1921” ; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M2014, 1 roll); Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92; National Archives, Washington, D.C.) No other identifying or biographical information is indicated in the record.
If there was no stone in the cemetery most would have disregarded the story long ago as mere myth and an example of the tall tale told to entertain on long, cold winter nights. In a cemetery with some 2,000 graves of ‘unknowns’ there are stories still waiting to be told and so she is not alone as to scarcity of information. No doubt some of those unnamed graves would be significant to local, military or national history of only known. So that leaves her place of burial, within the so-called ‘circle of honor’ graves, to offer clues to the truth of the basic story.
In recent years there has been a suggestion by some genealogical researchers that the grave refers to a grandchild of the Fort Superintendent, William Thomas who had married the daughter of Dr. John Westerfield (who is also buried at the cemetery). Some claim this tombstone for “Vivia Thomas” in the honor circle is for an infant of Westerfield’s daughter Jennie. No documentary evidence is presented to substantiate this claim. However, and there are internal inconsistencies in accepting this theory.
The story of Vivia has been repeated in a dozen or more books and magazine articles. The original story is filled with rich detail and motivational explanations that give it a first person texture. All together the story seems to be based on some set of established facts.
Some of the most telling facts are found in the prosaic military records themselves. From its earliest years the military has operated on the swift and unending flow of paperwork. Reports about reports are regularly reported and in most cases this wealth of records has been preserved. Some gaps do exist but just examining a couple of documents sheds some significant light on the story of Vivia Thomas. It also suggests the burial was not that of an infant child.
Item# 1 – Vivia Thomas’ name in all records stands alone accompanied only by the date of her death or burial. Yet, on those same record pages will be notations “infant child of”, “Mexican soldier”, “wife and child of”, “unknown” and similar labels. On the line where her name is listed it is starkly brief. Her name, the date, and burial record number.
Item#2 – Vivia is listed amid a sequence of deaths #2117 “Unknown”; #2118 “Alice Rockwell”; “2119 “Vivia Thomas”; “2120 David McWilliams” Sept 12, 1869. Only Thomas and McWilliam’s have a date associated with their entries.
Item# 3 – According to most versions of the legend, Vivia shot the man who had jilted her “just weeks” before her death. Some specifically name December but with the lack of much documentary information that may be simply a writer’s imagination at work. According to several military documents, of internments at the Fort in 1868-1870, there was only one death prior to Vivia’s. That was the death of Daniel McWilliams on 12 September 1869.
Item # 5 - According to the work by George Alexander Otis A Report of Surgical Cases Treated in the Army of the United States (1871), McWilliams was identified as a patient who was thought to have been shot by a “drunken Cherokee without apparent provocation” on the evening of 11 Sept. 1869. His wound was described as a “perforating gunshot wound of the thorax.” He was shot with a Navy Revolver. He was immediately sent to the fort’s hospital nearby and treated by Assistant Surgeon Alfred Delany but died a day later and is buried in plot 4 0 2120 at the Fort. All of which meshes with the legend’s basic components.
Item # 6 – Vivia was buried in the Circle of Honor at Fort Gibson and it is generally understood this was a place where special individuals were buried. These were people notable for service, historic significance and similar achievements.
Item # 7 – Were Vivia the daughter of the superintendent William Thomas and wife Jennie Westerfield Thomas, it would be expected that the standard system of labeling and identifying persons would have been employed. The father of Jennie Westerfield, Dr. John Westerfield, is buried in 1872 at the same cemetery with a clear notation, “father-in-law of superintendent”.
A DNA test might eventually prove a link to the Westerfield-Thomas line but, for now, the preponderance of evidence suggests that this was an adult woman.
The story also underscores the reality of how history can “fall between the cracks” intentionally as people try to hide their own identities for a fresh start, to escape legal problems, or hide from those they do not wish to find them. Add to this the occasional less than stellar ethics of a community, a police force, or newspapers and the truth can sometimes fall into a bottomless pit that makes uncovering the truth next to impossible.