William Bradford (1771–1826)
William Bradford was a major in the U.S. Army, a veteran of the War of 1812, an explorer, a Kentucky legislator, and one of the first brigadier generals in the Arkansas militia. He was the builder and the first commander of Camp Smith, later named Fort Smith, located at Belle Point at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers located in present-day Sebastian County. The old fort’s foundation can be visited today and is a part of the Fort Smith National Historic Site.
Not much is known about Bradford’s early life. He was born in Virginia in 1771 and later moved to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where he held many county offices, including deputy sheriff. He was commissioned a captain of the county militia in 1799 and later served as a representative to the Kentucky legislature in 1801, 1803, 1810, and 1811. He became a captain in the Seventeenth U.S. Infantry on March 12, 1812, and later served under General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. He was wounded in the thigh at the battle of Fort Meigs, Ohio. The pain from his injury plagued him for the rest of his life. After the war, he was appointed a major in the Twenty-first Infantry and served with distinction.
In the fall of 1817, the army reacted to the continuing hostility between the Cherokee and Osage tribes by sending Major Stephen H. Long, a topographical engineer, to find a location for a new fort to be built near the treaty boundary line separating the two Indian nations in what would become the Arkansas Territory. Long selected the site for the fort at Belle Point. The fort would serve three purposes: maintain the peace between the Indian tribes, keep white settlers off of Indian land, and prevent the Indians from raiding white settlements.
Bradford was ordered by General Thomas Smith in St. Louis, Missouri, to lead Company A of the army’s crack Rifle Regiment to establish a military post at Belle Point. Bradford’s orders were to “ascend the Arkansas river to the point where the Osage boundary line strikes that river…with the advice of Major Long select the best site to be found upon it…and therein erect as expeditiously as circumstances will permit a Stockade.” Bradford was also ordered by Smith to keep the peace between the Cherokee and the Osage tribes. This was a huge undertaking, as the fort would be situated in unfriendly territory.
On Christmas Day in 1817, Bradford and the sixty-four men in his command arrived at Belle Point by keelboat and set about their task of building the new fort. The fort was constructed as a typical frontier fort, 132 feet square. Enclosed within the ten-foot palisade were twenty-two buildings used as quarters for the men and officers, offices, shops, a hospital, a post sutler, and storage. Two block houses were built on opposite corners of the square, and a flag pole was located in the middle of the parade ground
As the hard work of erecting the fort progressed, rations were scarce, and sickness wracked the command. When the fort was completed, the men planted gardens and began to raise crops and livestock. The health situation among Bradford’s men improved dramatically. Some of the soldiers’ wives even joined them at the fort, working as laundresses and drawing supplies from the post commissary.
During his over five-year tenure as the fort’s commander, Bradford faced the constant threat of war from and between his Indian neighbors. He spent a lot of time in their villages, listening, advising, and sometimes even warning them not to fight. The Osage and Cherokee vendetta continued to brew until a threat emerged of full-scale war between the two tribes and their allies. Bradford, in response, told the chiefs of both tribes that if they spilled one drop of white-man’s blood, he would exterminate both tribes and would inform Washington DC that there was not a single Cherokee or Osage left alive west of the Mississippi River. His ruse worked.
When Bradford was relieved of his command by Colonel Matthew Arbuckle on February 26, 1822, Arbuckle had nothing but praise for Bradford and his efforts over the previous four years. In his report to the secretary of war in Washington DC, Arbuckle wrote: “I have found Ft. Smith to be nearly completed and in a good state for defense. There is a large quantity of improved land, under good fence. Other useful labor done at the Post, together with the good appearance of the Command, affords satisfactory evidence that there had not been a want of skill or industry on the part of Major Bradford. At the end of his tour of duty at the fort not one of his men had been killed by an Indian, and as far as been recorded not one of his men had so much as fired a shot at an Indian.”
In 1823, Bradford was appointed as brigadier general of the Arkansas Militia by President James Monroe. The brigade consisted of eight regiments. He carried the title proudly until the day he died. Upon his retirement from the army in 1824, Bradford received a pension of $15 a month from the U.S. government. He moved to Fort Towson, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), and served as the post sutler to the Seventh Infantry regiment. He died there of yellow fever on October 20, 1826. Bradford’s body was returned to Fort Smith, where he was buried in the Fort Smith National Cemetery. He lies today within 300 yards of the foundations of the first Fort Smith, which he and his men had built.
In the November 14, 1826, edition of the Arkansas Gazette, the editor wrote of Bradford’s passing: “Few men have been more actively or more usefully employed during their lives, and few have died more universally regretted by a large circle of acquaintances, than Gen. Bradford.”
For additional information:
“Died.” Arkansas Gazette, November 14, 1826, p. 3.
Bearss, Edwin C., and Arrell M. Gibson. Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas. 2nd ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
Bradford, William. Pension Files. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC.
Fleck-O’Keefe, Marilynn Ann. Fort Towson, Indian Territory: A Link to the West. Wolfe City, TX: Henington Publishing Co. for Lakeside Publications, 1997.
Foreman, Carolyn Thomas. “William Bradford.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 13 (Winter 1954): 341–351.
Hicks, Edwin P. The Fort Smith Story, 1817–1896. Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National Park and Monument Association, n.d.
Rothert, Otto Arthur. A History of Muhlenberg County (Kentucky). Louisville: J. P. Morton & Co., 1913.
Steven L. Warren
Overland Park, Kansas
Last Updated: 08/07/2020