The Story of Oklahoma by W. David Baird & Danney Goble
University of Oklahoma Press, 1994
I’ve spent the past week reading this book about the history of our state. I admit to skipping and skimming a few parts, but overall it’s well-written, interesting, easy to read, and contains a wealth of references. It is much more than a “history” book and contains personal stories of many early Oklahomans. It has answered several questions I had about early politics and made some events much clearer for me. I especially like the feature “See History for Yourself” with its travel suggestions and ideas.
Several passages in the book directly relate to our area, especially those in Chapter 11 which discuss the impact of the railroad. “Nothing contributed so much to the general economic revival of our state after the Civil Was as did the railroad. Transportation before and immediately after the war had been limited to horse-drawn wagons and coaches and stern-wheeler steamboats. The Reconstruction treaties of 1866, however, gave railroads the right to lay tracks across Indian Territory.” The MK & T did just that between 1870 and 1872 when they laid tracks from Muskogee to McAlester to Caddo to Durant and on to the Red River, crossing at Colbert’s Ferry.
The authors talk about the impact of the railroad on the tribes. Certainly it improved the distribution of grain and beef to “the states”. This led to greater production and many farmers chose to move even closer to the railroad. “The railroads also made possible the development of a commercial lumber industry. Operators situated steam-powered sawmills along the MK & T tracks at Stringtown and Atoka in Atoka County and processed Oklahoma’s virgin forest into railroad ties, telegraph poles, bridge and mining timber, and lumber for other construction.”
The railroad also brought trouble to the area. The Indian population of approximately 50,000 soon found themselves outnumbered by the “aliens” streaming into the area. These were “primarily tenant farmers, coal miners, railroad workers, cowboys, and merchants, only a few of whom were in the territory legally”. By 1900 the alien population had “increased 125 times: whites numbered 109,400 and there were 18,600 blacks”.
There was an absence of local law and order in the territory. No one seemed to be responsible for general lawlessness or organized crime. The Indians tried to take care of their own tribes. The federal government largely ignored the problems of the aliens. White outlaw bands, former slaves, and desperados “considered the territory a good hideout and a fertile field for robbery.”
“The coming of the railroad only made matters worse. With the construction crews came prostitutes, whiskey sellers, gamblers, thieves, and other hoodlums. The camps out of which they worked were called ‘Hells on Wheels’ and in them street shootings were routine. The permanent towns they left in their wake, such as Caddo and Wagoner, were only slightly less rowdy.” (Why is it we get mentioned in the history books for stuff like this, but not for all the good things that happened here? Just wondering out loud.)
In 1871 the federal government finally stepped in at the request of tribal leaders and gave jurisdiction over the Indian Territory to the Western District of Arkansas, at Fort Smith. “The court was never really effective until 1875 when Isaac C. Parker of Missouri was appointed to the bench. Parker made a difference. In twenty-one years he tried nearly 9,000 cases, and most of them involved prisoners arrested in Indian Territory.” Parker was known as the “hanging judge”. He sentenced at least 160 prisoners to hang. His corps of U.S. marshals “worked for fees only, which they lost if their prisoner died on the way to court.” Parker, however, also caused more trouble within the tribes. He “showed little respect for the Indian judicial system or for Indians themselves.”
“The railroad was the engine of ‘progress’, bringing some benefits but far greater liabilities to the citizens of the Five Nations. In the end they lost not only their sovereignty as independent peoples, but their land as well.”
The “see history” section for this chapter suggests visiting the Blue County Courthouse in Caddo, but of course it no longer exists. It also suggests visiting the Boggy Depot Cemetery in Atoka County.
I hope you’ll look for this book at your local library or college. I think you’ll enjoy it!