Haskell County, Oklahoma History
Submitted by Linda Craig
Located in southeastern Oklahoma, Haskell County, created at 1907 statehood, encompasses 625.27 square miles of land and water area. The county name honors Charles N. Haskell, Oklahoma's first governor and a member of the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. Haskell County's 1907 population stood at 16,865, and in that year Stigler defeated Keota and Whitefield in a competition for the county seat. At the beginning of the twenty-first century six incorporated towns existed in the county: Stigler, Tamaha, Whitefield, Kinta, Keota, and McCurtain.
The county landscape varies, with the elevation ranging from five hundred to fifteen hundred feet above sea level. The Sans Bois Mountains lie in the county's southern portion, and two lakes, Lake Eufaula (from the west) and the Robert S. Kerr Reservoir (from the east), protrude into the county in the north. The South Canadian River forms the northern border with McIntosh and Muskogee counties before draining into the Arkansas River at the Robert S. Kerr Reservoir, which serves as the northeastern border with Sequoyah County. Pittsburg, Latimer, and Le Flore counties surround southern Haskell County, where Sans Bois Creek is the other major drainage from west to east. The Robert S. Kerr Reservoir, of which the Kerr Reservoir is a part, has benefitted the county, especially the town of Keota, making it a shipping point and attracting industry. In the first half of the twentieth century timber and coal were important economic resources.
The presence of Caddoan-speaking Mound Builders (around A.D. 850 to 1450) in the area of the two rivers has been documented by archaeological evidence. The Wichita, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Quapaw, and Osage hunted in this area of eastern Oklahoma prior to European contact. Many explorers traversed northern Haskell County as they followed the Arkansas or main (South) Canadian rivers, including Jean Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe, Pierre and Paul Mallet, Lt. James Wilkinson, Maj. Stephen Long, and Jacob Fowler. Although present Haskell County lies south of the Three Forks area, the vibrant fur trade of the early nineteenth century enticed French, Spanish, and American Indians to the area. In 1831 the Choctaw began arriving to the newly created Choctaw Nation, which included present Haskell County. Many came by steamboat and landed at Tamaha. In 1849 Capt. Randolph B. Marcy mapped out the California Road, which ran through the present county. Cooper Creek on the California Road later served as a stage stop.
The area also witnessed action during the Civil War. The Choctaw sided with the Confederacy, and Camp Pike, near present Whitefield, served as a Confederate base. At different times as many as two thousand men camped at this location, named for Albert Pike, prior to expeditions against Federal troops. After the Battle of Honey Springs in July, a skirmish occurred on August 28, 1863, at Camp Pike as Confederate Brig. Gen. W. L. Cabell's rear guard engaged Col. W. F. Cloud's troops after the Southern soldiers had already begun their march east. Another engagement took place two days later near Sans Bois Creek between the same troops and another occurred the next day in present Le Flore County as the Confederates moved toward the Poteau River. In June 1864 Col. Stand Watie and his Confederate forces captured the steamboat J. R. Williams and its load of Federal supplies near Tamaha at Pleasant Bluff on the Arkansas River. The next morning Col. John Ritchie's men, who were stationed at the mouth of the Illinois River, engaged Watie's men as they tried to plunder the boat. The soldiers were on opposite sides of the river, which was rising, and they fought to a standoff. The advance of Union troops from Ft. Smith, Arkansas, caused Watie to burn the J. R. Williams and much of its cargo. During this episode a number of Watie's men skirmished with Federal forces at Ironbridge, a community on Sans Bois Creek, where the U.S. government had built an iron bridge to facilitate a mail route along the California Road. The bridge was destroyed during the Civil War, and the proposed mail route was never completely operational.
Haskell County was part of the Choctaw Nation's Sans Bois County. As Oklahoma statehood approached and the Choctaw government dealt with allotment, losing the rights to its Segregated Coal Lands and ultimately its right to self-government, Greenwood McCurtain held the office of principal chief. McCurtain, the last of three brothers to hold this illustrious position, lived and made his headquarters at Sans Bois in southern Haskell County. His house there is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as is the Sans Bois home of his brother, Edmund McCurtain (principal chief from 1884 to 1886).
Early-twentieth-century coal mining brought jobs and railroads to southern Haskell County. The San Bois Coal Company built more than four hundred company houses in McCurtain and Chant (two towns that eventually merged into one) for their miners. In 1912 a large, underground explosion rocked the Number Two mine at McCurtain, killing seventy-three miners and sending the San Bois Company into bankruptcy. Smaller mining operations occurred at Kanima, Sans Bois, and Stigler. In 1901 the Fort Smith and Western Railway built to McCurtain/Chant, from east to west, and then in 1902 finished the rail line through the rest of the county, with Kinta and later Lequire taking advantage of their locations adjacent to the tracks. In 1904 in northern Haskell County the Midland Valley Railroad Company built a line from southeast to northwest, running through Cartersville, Keota, Ironbridge, and Stigler. The mine disaster and the decline of the coal industry in the 1920s led to a significant reduction of underground mining in Haskell County. By the mid- to late-twentieth century strip mining was the area's dominant method of coal extraction, much of it done by the Lone Star Steel Company. Between 1950 and 1981 Haskell County accounted for 20 percent of Oklahoma's total coal production.
Agriculture, mainly cotton followed by corn and oats, drove the early-twentieth-century economy. The devaluation of cotton and the onset of the Great Depression ultimately led to diversification, making ranching the emphasis. At one point in 1934 over 85 percent of Haskell County's population received federal help through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The county population also dropped from 19,397 in 1920 to 16,216 in 1930. Although in 1940 the population climbed to 17,324, World War II and a rural-to-urban exodus led to a slow decline the next twenty years, with a county census low of 9,121 in 1960. In 1964 livestock accounted for 70 percent of the county's agricultural income. Toward the end of the twentieth century natural gas, oil, coal, and recreation dollars (generated by Lake Eufaula and the Kerr Reservoir) also contributed to the county's economy.
In the early 1940s, as much of Oklahoma benefitted from flood control measures such as the Grand River Dam, Haskell County residents suffered three large floods. Many residents bitterly blamed the Grand River Dam Authority for these disasters, as no devastating floods had occurred in the area since 1888. The county later benefitted from the Eufaula Dam (1964), which created tourism, and the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System and Robert S. Kerr Reservoir (1970), which created shipping and tourism. The population also slowly increased after these projects, registering 9,578 in 1970 and 11,010 in 1980.
In addition to the McCurtain brothers, Belle Starr, a well-known, late-nineteenth-century figure, resided across the river from present Haskell County and was a frequent visitor to Whitefield and other nearby locations. She and her various husbands and outlaw cohorts plagued eastern Oklahoma with several crime sprees. In 1889 an unknown adversary murdered Starr in Haskell County west of Whitefield. Bill Mauldin immortalized Rayson J. Billey, a native of Keota, as Willie in Mauldin's Willie and Joe Cartoons and the book Up Front. As a sergeant in the Forty-fifth Infantry Division during World War II, Billey, a Choctaw, received a number of medals, including the Purple Heart. An important political figure in the area, William G. Stigler, son of Stigler founder Joseph Stigler, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1944 to 1952. Theodore M. Risenhoover, a 1952 Stigler High School graduate, held a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1974 to 1978.
State highways form the main arteries of transportation. State Highway 9 runs east-west in northern Haskell County, connecting Whitefield, Stigler, and Keota. State Highway 31 traverses the southern portion, uniting Kinta, Lequire, and McCurtain. North-south State Highways 71, 2, 86, and 26 run parallel and connect Highways 9 and 31, starting west to east respectively. State Highway 2 begins off of Highway 31 at Haskell County's west border and meanders south into Latimer County.
A number of Haskell County locations are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including Kinta High School, Scott Store in Kinta, Haskell County Courthouse, Stigler School Gymnasium-Auditorium, and the Tamaha Jail and Ferry Landing
Cities and Township History
HASKELL (formerly Sawokla)
Haskell is nineteen miles northwest of Muskogee in Haskell County on U.S. Highway 64. French explorer Jean Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe visited the Three Forks area in the early eighteenth century. His journal states that the coat of arms of the king of France were displayed on December 29, 1719, at a large Caddoan village. The site is believed to be near Haskell. The town's namesake, Charles N. Haskell, was the first governor of Oklahoma and promoter of the Haskell Townsite Company. In 1904 Pres. Theodore Roosevelt established Haskell's first post office with the appointment of Nat Lambertson as postmaster. One and one-half miles southwest of Haskell was Sawokla, one of the Hitchiti towns of the Muscogee Creek Nation. "Sawokla" means "gathering place," and the site was an important adjunct community to Haskell. Sawokla had a post office, established in 1902, as well as a store and a cotton gin. The latter two businesses were relocated to Haskell a short time after the completion of the Midland Valley Railroad. Sawokla was also the hometown of Samuel Checote, who later became principal chief of the Creek Nation. Haskell's original eighty-acre tract had been purchased from Amos Rolland, Creek tribal member. Haskell's first store, S. Beshara and Brothers, was established in a tent by two Syrians. Other early business establishments included C. E. Henson's general store, Nat Lambertson's hardware and general store, and A. J. Englert's mill and elevator. In 1904 the Haskell National Bank was organized; it was followed in 1905 by the First National Bank, the International Bank, and the Arkansas Valley Bank. The 1907 population consisted of 720 residents. Although the town's first church service was held in 1905, the Robertson Memorial Presbyterian Church was built in 1908 and named for the Robertsons, an important missionary family in Indian Territory. Robertson descendants, including Oklahoma's first woman U.S. Representative, Alice M. Robertson, continued to live in the area. Rev. A. Grant Evans, president of Henry Kendall College in Muskogee, presided at the dedication, and the church building was still utilized at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Arrival of the railroad shortly after the turn of the twentieth century stimulated early agricultural activities by providing local farmers a means to ship grain, hay, corn, melons, and cotton to northern and eastern markets. However, the discovery of gas and oil in 1910 sparked a major growth period. By 1920 the population had risen to 2,196, and Haskell boasted paved streets, concrete sidewalks, electric lights, natural gas lines, and water works. Like other small towns along the Highway 64 corridor, a loss of revenue for local businesses occurred in 1969 when the Tulsa-Muskogee Turnpike bypassed Haskell. Weekly newspapers included the Haskell Journal (1904-1910) and the Haskell News (1909-present). During the boom period of 1904 to 1909 a well-known U.S. deputy marshal of Indian Territory, James Franklin "Uncle Bud" Ledbetter, provided law enforcement in Haskell as chief of police. Census data for Haskell showed a population of 1,682 in 1930, 1,572 in 1940, and 2,143 in 1990.
KEOTA is located in northeastern Haskell County on State Highway 9, two miles east of its junction with State Highway 26, Keota is thirty-eight miles west of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and twenty miles south-southwest of Sallisaw. In 1904 the town was founded in the waning days of the Choctaw Nation by the Midland Valley Railroad's land company, and the Post Office Department established a post office there in 1905. Keota's name is something of a mystery. Some believe it is a Choctaw word meaning "fire gone out." Many locals insist it comes from the combination of the words "Keese," from Jim Keese, the rancher who owned the land where the townsite was located, and "Otter," for Otter Creek, a lazy tributary to Sans Bois Creek that winds its way through town. Whatever the meaning of the name Keota, its story was similar to most of the towns in Haskell County that flourished until the onset of the Great Depression. In 1911 the town supported a bank, three grocers, two hardware stores, a hotel, three general stores, a drugstore, and a lumberyard. Neither of its two newspapers, the Keota Review and the Keota Record, were long-lived. Keota's role of supporting the local cotton growers and shipping the products of their labor to market crashed just like the stock market. The 1920 population stood at 494, dropping to 470 in 1930. The 1940 the population climbed to 619, reaching a high of 685 by 1970. Transportation has once again been Keota's salvation, but instead of the railroad, Keota at the turn of the twenty-first century is the home to the "Port of Keota," a stop on the busy McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. Perhaps because of the port, or because of the community's location on the banks of Kerr Lake, light industry was beginning to be drawn to the town at the end of the twentieth century.
Located in southwestern Haskell County at the intersection of State Highways 2 and 31, Kinta is forty miles east of McAlester and fifty-six miles south of Muskogee. In 1901 Kinta, whose name in Choctaw means "beaver," was named for nearby Beaver Creek by its founder George W. Scott. The enterprising son-in-law of Greenwood McCurtain, the last principal chief of the Choctaw Nation prior to statehood, Scott moved his mercantile business from Sans Bois town, the seat of the Choctaw national government of the time, to the present site of Kinta to take advantage of its location on the Fort Smith and Western Railroad, which had bypassed San Bois. Scott wasted no time getting his town on the map. By 1902 he had established a post office and a year later built the town's first permanent structure to house his store. That building, bearing the name "Scott" and the date, "1903," still stands in Kinta and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In the early years of the twentieth century Kinta averaged around four hundred residents. Early, short-lived newspapers that reported to the town were the Kinta Enterprise and the Kinta Journal. In 1911 Kinta supported a bank, a drugstore, three grocers, a blacksmith, a hotel, a cotton gin, a telephone exchange, a lumberyard, and a general store. In 1920 the population stood at 393 residents, declining to 259 in 1930. This town, like others in the area, managed to survive as long as they had a railroad. In the late 1930s when the railroad could no longer profit from the declining coal and timber operations in the area, it disappeared, and Kinta almost followed. The 1940 population was 221. In 1960 the population stood at 233, rebounding to 303 by 1980. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Kinta Public School System, the schools serving southwestern Haskell County, was the town's major source of employment. National Register of Historic Places properties include the Scott Store, the Kinta High School, and the Cotton Storage House. Northeast of town, the Edmund McCurtain House and the Green McCurtain House are also listed. In 2000 the U.S. Census reported a population of 243
Located in the southeastern quadrant of Haskell County at the intersection of State Highways 26 and 31, McCurtain is fifty-seven miles east of McAlester and twenty-eight miles south-southwest of Sallisaw. In 1889 European miners and a few enterprising American entrepreneurs, who were drawn to the newly opened coal deposits in southern Haskell County, established the town in the Choctaw Nation. Originally called Panther, in 1902 the name was changed to McCurtain, honoring Greenwood McCurtain, the last principal chief of the Choctaw. McCurtain grew from a tent city to a town of brick and mortar. Very close to McCurtain and intertwined in its history existed another mining community, Chant. In 1901 the two towns thrived as the Fort Smith and Western Railroad built to McCurtain, connecting it with Ft. Smith, Arkansas. In 1902 the railroad continued building westward, reaching the South (main) Canadian River. The San Bois Coal Company built four hundred company houses, and McCurtain, as well as Chant, saw the addition of banks, stores, schools, newspapers, and even a bottling company. By 1907 statehood the combined population of the communities stood at 1,760, although in 1908 business directories suggested a combined population of 3,800, which would have been the largest to be seen in Haskell County. Newspapers that have served the two communities included the Haskell County Chant News, the Hustler, McCurtain American, McCurtain Leader, and San Bois News. The towns and all of their successes, however, could not withstand the events of March 20, 1912, when a terrific underground explosion in Mine Number Two took the lives of seventy-three miners and sent the San Bois Coal Company into bankruptcy. With mining all but played out, the town's combined population dropped to 1,341 in 1920. The communities officially consolidated in 1922, but the Chant post office had closed in 1910. In 1940 the population rested at 870, declining to 528 by 1960. By 2000 the last of the mines had all closed, and the town's population had dwindled to 466. The only reminder McCurtain had to show of its once prosperous past was a memorial standing silently at the site of old Mine Number Two and seventy-three graves in the nearby Miners Cemetery.
The Haskell County seat, located in the county's northwestern quadrant at the intersection of State Highways 9 and 82, Stigler is forty-nine miles west of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and fifty miles southeast of Muskogee. Founded in 1889 by Joseph S. Stigler, a former U.S. deputy marshal who had ridden for infamous "Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker, Stigler, originally called Newman, existed as a dusty little cow town in Indian Territory. Stigler named the settlement Newman in honor of his friend, a Doctor Newman, whom Stigler had persuaded to move to the village, hoping that medical services would attract settlers. In 1893 the Post Office Department, in an effort to avoid confusion with Norman, Oklahoma Territory, changed the name to Stigler, as Stigler served as the postmaster. Stigler remained the same cow town until 1904 when the Midland Valley Railroad Company added the community to its stable of railroad towns. The coming of the railroad to Stigler boosted its economy. The new railroad depot attracted cotton gins, grist mills, banks, newspapers, more doctors, and, of course, lawyers. By 1905 the town had grown sufficiently enough to allow it to apply to the U.S. District Court in Poteau for incorporation, which was granted in April 1905. At 1907 statehood, Stigler won a competition with neighboring towns to become the county seat of Haskell County. In 1910 the population stood at 1,583, rising to 1,797 in 1920. Its economy was based on agriculture augmented by the outgrowth business that was attracted by the county seat of government. Stigler maintained its status quo until the Great Depression and World War II; afterward, the growing of cotton and corn could no longer sustain the economy. In the years that followed World War II the federal government, through its various programs, helped the area's farmers evolve into ranchers, thus saving agriculture and its economic benefits from total extinction. Stigler had a host of newspapers that served the community, beginning with the Stigler Beacon, soon followed by the State Sentinel, and others have included the Haskell County Leader, Haskell County News, Haskell County Tribune, Country Star, and Stigler News Sentinel. By 1950 the population had grown to 2,125, expanding to 2,630 in 1980. The 2000 census tallied 2,731, but the town no longer depended upon agriculture and county government as its sole source of economic support. The building of Lakes Eufaula and Kerr, to its immediate west and east respectively, introduced tourism to the region, and light manufacturing has been actively recruited by Stigler officials. The son of the founder, William Grady Stigler (born in Newman and buried in Stigler), served Oklahoma's Second District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1944 to 1952. The Haskell County Courthouse (NR 84003061), the Stigler School Gymnasium-Auditorium, and the nearby Mule Creek Archaeological Site have been placed in the National Register of Historic Places. At the turn of the twenty-first century Stigler had a home rule charter form of government.
Located in northeastern Haskell County on the banks of the Arkansas River/Kerr Lake, just north of County Road E1120, Tamaha, formerly in the Choctaw Nation, is thirteen miles north-northeast of Stigler and six miles south of Vian. Tamaha, which in Choctaw translates to "town," is perhaps the most historic settlement in Haskell County. Prior to 1884, when Tamaha became a postal designation, the settlement was known as Pleasant Bluff, the name of a nearby creek. Tamaha has been associated with the river and riverboats since the Choctaw began landing there in the early 1830s. The Union steamer J. R. Williams, the most notable riverboat to land at Tamaha, remains in the area. During the Civil War the J. R. Williams had been detailed to carry supplies from Fort Smith to the Union garrison at Fort Gibson. On June 15, 1864, as the Williams slowed to negotiate the bend that passed Pleasant Bluff, Confederate forces under the command of Col. Stand Watie opened up with cannon and musket fire. The crippled Williams ran aground opposite the bluff and was captured. The boat's rusted skeleton still lies there at the beginning of the twenty-first century. After the Civil War Tamaha's landing attracted the usual businesses of the time, including a general store, blacksmith shop, and other service industries. It was not until near the turn of the twentieth century that Tamaha could boast of a bank, hotel, and its own newspaper. In 1900 the population stood at 237, rising to 501 in 1920. Its future, however, like many Oklahoma towns was doomed. This time it was not the Great Depression, but fire. In September 1930 fire swept through Tamaha (its second devastating fire since 1919) destroying virtually every business in town. The general store swore to rebuild, but no others. In 1912 riverboat traffic had ceased and ferry traffic offered little financial relief. For those reasons, in addition to the fire, many residents, though they remained in Oklahoma during the depression, moved to the nearby town of Stigler. In 1930 Tamaha's population fell to 202, reaching a U.S. Census low of 80 in 1960. At the turn of the twenty-first century Tamaha remained a vacation community on the banks of Kerr Lake, with a year-round population of less than two hundred. It continued to support a general store, but its post office had closed in 1954. The only link Tamaha had to its past was the Tamaha Jail and Ferry Landing, listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Located in the northwestern quadrant of Haskell County at the intersection of State Highways 2 and 9, Whitefield is fifty-five miles west of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and forty-six miles south of Muskogee. The town's existence can be traced to the Civil War, as in 1861 the Confederates established an encampment of approximately two thousand rebels at the present townsite. The camp, named Camp Pike in honor of Brig. Gen. Albert Pike, who was credited with persuading the Five Civilized Tribes to join the Confederacy, served as the Confederate force's base of operations for staging campaigns against Union occupiers in western Arkansas and north across the Canadian River in the Cherokee Nation's Arkansas River Valley. The post-Civil War era saw the establishment of a Choctaw trading post that served not only the Indians but permit-holding white farmers who worked the Choctaw lands, as well as the occasional outlaw, including Belle Starr. That trading post and the adjacent small community was known as Oklahoma, Indian Territory. The Post Office Department suggested a name change, stemming from the confusion with the Oklahoma Territory town known as Oklahoma Station. In 1888 the town residents voted to change the name to Whitefield, honoring a popular Methodist bishop named George Whitefield. Whitefield's role after its trading post days was one of supporting area cotton farmers. In 1911 the town had an approximate population 500 and boasted two grocers, two general stores, a cotton gin and mill, a drugstore, a doctor, and a blacksmith among its businesses. By 1918 the community had an estimated 300 inhabitants. Prosperity lasted until the Great Depression, during which Whitefield experienced a rapid decline in the need for services. In 1980 the first federal census for the town counted 240. In 1988 the town still had two grocery stores, a feed store, a café, service stations, a beauty shop, a barbershop, and other enterprises. The 1990 and 2000 censuses reported a population of 253 and 231, respectively. Whitefield served as a "bedroom" community for larger towns.
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