Northeast Oklahoma and Grand Lake are both well known as being “the best kept secret this side of heaven” for retirees. Living expenses are reasonable, access to activities uncomplicated and perhaps first and foremost, except on weekends, the tranquility is unbelievable. There isn’t a better place to “kickback,” live and relax. But whereas life is pretty simple today, the history of the region is almost unbelievable, filled with unique individuals, and events that would rival any film producer’s imagination.
First, unlike what is usually regarded as the “wild west,” in its formative years of settlement, the region didn’t have any Indians. Anthropologists identified various Indian tribes who had been there earlier, but by the 17th century, they were long gone. In modern history it was first inhabited, then settled by French traders. In 1796 Frenchman Jean Chouteau established a trading post along the Grand River at Salina, but after searching for Indian villages with hunters to acquire furs, found none. Discouraged but undaunted, Chouteau convinced two tribes of Osage living north of present day Nevada in Vernon County, Missouri, to move south and provide him with native hunters. A second Indian tribe, the Western Cherokee, wouldn’t arrive until 1828 as a result of a treaty agreement with the United States. In the meantime, another Frenchman, Joe Bogy, established a trading post in 1807, further south at Three Forks, the confluence of the Verdigris and Grand with the Arkansas River.
Clashes between the Osage and a few tribes scattered along the river in Arkansas, resulted in the government essentially moving troops stationed at Fort Smith to create Fort Gibson on the Three Forks in 1824. From then until the Civil War began, the region, now the Cherokee Nation, was settled and developed with a government, schools and a system of law enforcement. But the war, fought almost exclusively in Northeastern Oklahoma and Arkansas, devastated the country-side and a post-war treaty penalizing the Cherokee government for aligning with the South, essentially destroyed it’s influence in Northeastern Oklahoma. Soon the region truly became “the wild west.”
As white settlers began moving in, many of them veterans of the recent war and very familiar with firearms, violence between factions and individuals increased. White settlers could not be controlled by Indian law and, unless apprehended by federal marshals stationed at Van Buren in Arkansas, could not be brought to justice. After the federal court was moved to Fort Smith, in July of 1875 Judge Isaac Parker arrived. He caught the attention of criminals and law-abiding citizens alike when, after a few months of trials, he presided over the hanging of six felons on the same day in September and five more the following April. By his retirement in 1895, there would be a total of 76.
But by no means did Parker completely stem the crime wave in the region. During November of 1892, passers-by on the road between Vinita and Claremore were startled to come upon 19 year old Bob Rogers sitting on the chest of recently deceased Jess Elliot, wearing Elliot’s hat and going through his pockets. Elliot, a Vinita lawyer and Rogers had been arguing in a Claremore bar. However, Parker didn’t get to pass judgement on Rogers, a posse killed him two years later. And, shortly after Parker’s retirement, in October of 1895, U.S. Marshal Ed Reed engaged in a gun fight at Wagoner with the Crittendon brothers, Dick and Zeke, killing them both. Adding a twist of irony that would intrigue any Hollywood producer, Marshal Reed was the son of the notorious Belle Starr. Unfortunately, he would be killed in Claremore the next year, gunned down by a shot gun blast in the back.
Some had a lasting and memorable epitaph. Asked if he had any final words before his hanging, Cherokee Bill replied, “I didn’t come here to make a speech, I came here to die.” What’s more “Hollywood” than that? There are also stories of justice gone wrong. Thirty one year old Ned Christie was accused of killing Deputy Marshal Dan Maples in 1887, Christie denied the charges and, for nearly five years the crafty woodsman alluded marshals throughout present day Adair County. Finally, he was killed by a posse of 25 who possessed a cannon borrowed from Fort Scott. Ironically, Christie was vindicated in 1918 by an ex-slave who saw another man kill Maples.
Western movies are famous for scenes when cowboys come to town, and that relates to a Saturday night report of Fairland in the 1880s. Laborers who worked hard all week, laid their chores aside, and aided with the adult beverage of their choice, frequently celebrated by riding their horses up and down the board sidewalks. This activity, as well as fights and an occasional pistol whipping, often resulted in an overpacked jail. Reportedly just 16x12 feet, it also required dogs in the surrounding fenced yard to prevent escape. Sunday morning found the miscreants facing the judge or being patched up by doctors. Quiet, peaceful, tranquil? It is now, but Northeastern Oklahoma has an exciting past, It’s made for Hollywood.
Note: 1806: Exploration and Settlement of the Cherokee Nation is available on Amazon.com and BARNESANDNOBLE.com.
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.