Located in the northwest corner of the Cherokee Nation, the founding of Bartlesville and its development has been somewhat confusing. The city is located in Washington County, recognized in 1890 under certain laws of Arkansas, but admitted to statehood in 1907. Then there is the issue of the name Bartlesville apparently honoring Jacob Bartels, although Bartels founded Dewey, not Bartlesville. And finally, there’s the phenomenal growth of the city itself from hamlet to the twelfth largest city in Oklahoma, a city that could easily be dubbed the Oil Capital of oil rich Oklahoma.
In 1883, ten years before Washington County was admitted to what would become Oklahoma Territory, 41 year old Joe Bartels moved from Kansas and opened a trading post and post office on the north side of the Caney River in what is now east Bartlesville. Settlers moved to the region slowly compared to the rest of the Cherokee Nation, in fact very few Cherokee families arrived until after the Civil War. But the Reconstruction Treaty forced on the tribe in 1866 allowed Delaware tribesmen to move from Kansas into the area, so the population grew and Jacob Bartels’ general store was an important asset to the region. Several years later, William Johnston and George Keeler opened a similar store on the south side of the Caney River, competition of sorts for Bartels. It escalated during October, 1894 when Dr. Thomas A. Stewart was named postmaster. Washington County was now part of Oklahoma Territory and followed federal guidelines. Federal postmasters were frequently chosen politically and Stewart was a political appointee. Shortly after, exercising his authority, Stewart moved the post office to a location on the south side of the Caney River near the Johnston-Keeler store. A federal law also had been passed in 1890 permitting communities with a population of 200 or more to incorporate. While the settlement around Bartels’ store only numbered 100, the settlement around Johnston and Keeler’s had grown to slightly over 200. A petition was filed and Articles of Incorporation for the town naming it ‘Bartlesville’ were received January 15, 1897. Bartels’ reaction was not recorded. Shortly after the town’s approval, postmaster Stewart was chosen mayor. Again, Bartels reaction was not recorded. But, through politicking of his own, the following August, Bartels regained the position of postmaster and moved the post office back to his store. However, two years later the Postmaster General intervened in the “tug of war” and the post office was returned to the south side of the river. Defeated but undeterred, Bartels moved his two story store and grist mill on greased poles three miles north of its present location, the process took 143 days. In 1899 he founded Dewey, Oklahoma, naming it to honor Spanish-American War hero Admiral George Dewey.
While the tug of war over the location of Bartlesville was occurring there was a growing interest in the natural resource that appeared in and around the town…oil. Oil was a growing national commodity, in demand from several sources. Kerosene was used in lamps and manufactured from oil. The growing machine age demanded lubricants and oil by-products were even being used in some medicines. The market encouraged several investors, including William Johnston, co-owner of the store, to invest in the first well in town, the Nellie Johnston #1, named after his daughter. After the well was drilled, it was activated April 15, 1897, and a gush of oil was created although it was not capped properly and regularly seeped into the Caney River. That following winter, teenagers, including namesake Nellie Johnston, were skating on the river. Cold, they built a fire to keep warm. The flames ignited the leaking oil and it followed the flow to the rig, burning it down. Of course the rig was rebuilt and Bartlesville became a forest of oil rigs setting the stage for an incredible growth in population.
But the industry could also be dangerous. In order to activate most rigs, nitroglycerine was used. “Shooters” would lower four to six quarts of the volatile substance into a well and ignite it. Nitroglycerine is a highly sensitive ingredient used in the manufacture of dynamite and gunpowder and could easily detonate while being transported, and it did. Accidents were commonplace and explosions devastating. In one instance, two men became victims while transporting the liquid. All that the local undertaker recovered of their remains from a great hole in the ground were two scalps and about 40 pounds of flesh. Local communities soon banned the transporting of nitroglycerine through their town and wells sprung up in the surrounding countryside instead.
Today, Bartlesville is known worldwide and notable as the original home of Phillips Oil Company. Its founder, Frank Phillips, as well as other luminaries such as J. Paul Getty started their fortunes there. Jacob Bartels? Well, he moved everything three miles north except his name.
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.