Rivers and streams proved to be barriers for travel as settlers moved into Northeastern Oklahoma. Even when they were low and crossing was possible, travelers found quicksand in muddy waters could prove to be dangerous. But for some pioneers, rivers were necessary assets. Early traders paid close attention to rivers when locating their trading posts. For example, in 1796 when Jean Chouteau traveled for more than two days down the Grand River in a dugout canoe, he eventually chose present day Salina as the location for his trading post. Chouteau was looking for a site beside a shallow rocky bottom in the river that wagons could cross when the river was low.
By 1820, before large numbers of pioneers settled in the region, travel was increasing on the Texas Road. Moses Austin and his son Steven had negotiated with the Mexican government to obtain a substantial amount of land in Texas and pioneers from the northeast, eager to take advantage, followed the Osage Trace, an Indian hunting trail, but crossed rivers and streams at their own peril. As the trace became more well-traveled, it evolved into a road that saw thousands of wagons. But, in those early years, and before access to ferries was available, if major rivers were in their path, most pioneers attempted to make journey’s in mid- summer or in the fall to avoid high water.
The first ferry of record in the region was established in 1840 by Thomas Carey. It was located at the west end of present- day Northwest 63rd street in Grove, now Carey Bay, and was created as the result of traffic from northwest Arkansas. The ferry crossed the Grand River to a trading post called “Tightwad,” near Echo Bay. If the river was low, travelers could by-pass the ferry and cross through the water. Carey’s Ferry was utilized until replaced by a bridge in 1905. Another ferry opened in the region when the Military Road was extended from Baxter Springs to Fort Gibson in 1843, service was initiated to cross the Neosho River five miles south of Miami.
Most ferries consisted of logs with planks and guard rails for safety. Those used for large streams were attached to a cable reaching across the river with a windlass to pull them back and forth. On smaller streams with less current, rafts were propelled by pike poles. Fees ranged from five cents for individuals to twenty-five cents for horses. The ferry owner charged considerably more for oxen, as much as two dollars, because they were so stubborn to load and unload. It was not unusual to accept produce or vegetables for the price of admission, since “the coin of the realm” was scarce for some customers. On occasion, when they were on the other side of the river or stream, it could be difficult to get the ferry owners attention. In at least one instance, that situation ended tragically. During the summer of 1899, famous law man Heck Bruner, a U.S. deputy marshal and Vinita resident, repeatedly tried to attract the attention of the ferry owner on the other side of the swollen Grand River north of Spavinaw so he could get his horse across. Finally, angry and impatient, he stripped down to his underwear, attempted to swim across the river and drowned.
Fording the river was the ideal solution for travelers, it was free but potentially dangerous. Even if the water was low the current could be treacherous. As noted earlier, fur trader Jean Chouteau sought a site for his trading post that could be accessed by crossing the river without the expense or inconvenience involved with a ferry. Prominent fords were often named for the individual who owned the land where a road crossed the river. Many were owned by prominent Cherokee citizens, and often the ferry operator was an influential member of the Nation. That is reflected by the names of well-known crossings, Gilstrap’s and Adair’s on the Grand River, Boudinet’s and Vann’s on the Illinois and Bushyhead’s and Sullivan’s on the Verdigris, just to mention a few. Of course, there were numerous unnamed crossings on the Texas and Military Roads since they trans versed the region.
In an effort to both regulate ferries for the safety of travelers and citizens, as well as obtaining a revenue source, tribal governments passed laws regarding ferries. In 1849 the Cherokee government approved a law setting an annual tax of twenty -five dollars for ferries on the Arkansas, Grand and Canadian Rivers and five dollars on the Illinois and Verdigris. It also stated that ferry landings must be located at least one- half mile apart. In a nod towards consumer protection, the act also stipulated that licensed ferries must transport customers promptly during reasonable hours, excluding Sunday.
Ferries and fords continued to be somewhat utilized even after the advent of the automobile. Early models were designed to accommodate shallow fords as well as muddy roads. But progress would not be denied. Competition arising for more modern automobiles ultimately dictated their demise.
Note: Pathfinders, 19th Century Pioneers of Cherokee Territory 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.