ROSE, OK — Preservation efforts are underway on the grounds of the Saline Courthouse, one of the nine courthouses built by the Cherokee Nation in the 1880’s and the only one standing today. The renovation project will cost $212,000.00 and is expected to be completed around March 12. The springhouse is located on the 14-acre property. The Cherokee Nation held a ground breaking ceremony on Thursday, September 18 to celebrate the beginning of construction.
“This site is a symbol of our past,” said Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. “The Saline Courthouse is reminiscent of the grandeur and sophistication of a government that we chose and designed prior to Oklahoma statehood.”
The Saline District Courthouse was one of nine courthouses built by the Cherokee Nation in the 1880’s and is the only one standing today. The historic establishment came into existence after the forced removal of the Cherokees in the “Trail of Tears” but ceased to serve judicial purposes after the Curtis Act of 1898 abolished the tribal court system.
Joe Grayson, Jr., Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation is pleased that renovation efforts are underway and appreciates the historical significance of the project on a personal level.
“This is the last remaining courthouse of our old Cherokee Nation judicial system and the first park in the tribe’s National Park system,” said Grayson. “My great-grandfather was the last court clerk at the Saline Courthouse. He closed the doors on the courthouse before statehood.”
“The Saline Courthouse is listed on the National Trust of Historic Places and has been on the 14 Most Endangered list for Preservation Oklahoma,” said Lisa Melchior, Saline Preservation Association President. “The courthouse and springhouse are important to the history of the Cherokee Nation and we are pleased to take part in this project.”
The restoration project will include six phases, beginning with the preservation of the springhouse located on the property grounds. The site will eventually include a nature trail, outside classrooms and a memorial trail that will be comprised of native plants and historical information pertinent to the site.
“The Saline Courthouse has been a sacred place to the Cherokee Nation for over 100 years, longer than Oklahoma has been a state,” said Herb Fritz of Fritz-Baily Architects. “Our goal is to leave no indication that renovation has ever taken place at this site. Upon completion the springhouse will be restored to its original state.”
The Cherokee Nation looks to the day that the doors of the courthouse will be re-opened and renovation of the property is completed.
“It would be meaningful if the Saline Preservation Association would allow Joe Grayson Jr., the honor of opening the doors on the courthouse once again,” said Chief Smith. “I hope he is allowed to insert the key and re-open the door of a legacy that was closed to his ancestors many years ago.”
How to get there…
The Saline Courthouse is located approximately 8 miles east of Locust Grove on Hwy. 33/Scenic 412, to the Mayes/Delaware County line, County Rd. 449. Go south approximately 1 mile. The courthouse is on the east side of the road. When taking the Cherokee Turnpike East, exit at the Rose/Leach exit and turn left.
And now for a little background history…
In the early 1800’s the duty of a district court was to hear criminal cases not involving the death penalty, and also civil matters involving less than $100. The current courthouse in Saline today was built in 1884, however, it was no the first Saline Courthouse. In fact, there were three total. The first courthouse in the Saline district was built in 1939 and served until the American Civil War, when it was replaced by a second courthouse and served until the mid 1880’s. Both of these buildings were located on sites other than where the current building stands.
To accommodate judicial reforms within the Cherokee Nation in 1876, larger judicial buildings were needed, therefore, a third, and final, courthouse was built in the Saline District in 1884. Records indicate the construction was completed in 3 months time. Immediately upon construction completion, the courthouse began trying its first cases. The new building became the center of public activity. Crowds flocked to the courthouse to be jurors, witnesses or just onlookers. This created a demand for amenities on the property and community members began to bring their goods to sell to the public outside the courthouse. The court quickly became the largest producer of income in the Saline District. Other activities included burials at the TeeHee Cemetery located on the property.
Over the years the courthouse was in business, there were numerous fights and gun battles on the property, the most famous of which is called the Saline Courthouse Massacre. On September 20, 1987, the owner of the general store on the property, Thomas Baggett, had closed up his shop early for the evening. Shortly thereafter, he was called to his window by newly elected Sheriff Dave Ridge pleading Baggett to open his shop so Ridge could get supplies for his wife. Baggett refused and a heated discussion between the two ensued. As they were talking back and forth, a shot rang out and a bullet took the life of Baggett. Ridge tried to get into the store to help, but it was locked. Since he couldn’t gain entry into the shop, he headed for home. On his way home, Ridge ran into two men on the trail, one of which was Sampson Rogers. According to witness reports, Rogers questioned Ridge about his involvement in the shooting to Baggett and Ridge accused Rogers of doing the actual shooting, claiming he saw Rogers pull the trigger. Rogers flew into a rage and struck Ridge on the head with a blunt object. Ridge died shortly after being struck. Upon hearing of the killings in Saline, outgoing Sheriff Jesse Sunday, who was 10 miles away guarding some prisoners, rushed back to the scene of the crimes to determine what happened. He deputized Cooie Bolin along the way and the two men decided to go to Jim Teehee’s home, which was located very near the crime scenes, to see if anyone there had seen or heard the murders. Sunday and Bolin encountered two men on the porch at the property, one of whom was Martin Rowe. Sunday questioned Rowe about the murders and Rowe replied that he had no knowledge of them. Sunday and Bolin left in different directions as they had separated on approach to surprise any occupants. Deputy Bolin stated he heard Rowe call out to Sheriff Sunday claiming he had something to tell him. As Sunday untied his horse, a shot rang out and Sunday was hit. Rowe and his friend ran from the scene and Bolin tried to find help for the wounded sheriff, but he died the next day.
Officers tried to pursue Rowe and he was captured and tried, but eventually escaped and fled to Texas. There are some disputes about the accuracy of the events in this story, and also whether or not it deserves to be called a massacre. The truth of the matter is that Baggett, Ridge and Sunday, all good men, lost their lives that day at the Saline Courthouse property.
In 1898, all district courthouses were shut down when the Curtis Act was passed by the United States. The act forced the Cherokees to dismantle their court systems and government, and the district courthouses fell to ruin and were eventually auctioned off to the highest Cherokee bidders in 1902 by the National Council. The purchaser of the Saline Courthouse enlarged the building, doubling its size and added a porch. The building changed hands many times throughout the years and in 1970, the property was purchased by the State of Oklahoma Industrial and Park Department. In 1976, the Saline Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the late 1980’s, it was re-acquired by the Cherokee Nation.
For more information about this local historical landmark, visit the Saline Preservation Association’s website at www.salinecourthouse.org where you will find information concerning the association, it’s membership, courthouse history, calendar of events, a photo gallery, master plan for the new renovation, and an oral history of those who have personal memories of the Saline Courthouse.
Another rendition of the Saline Courthouse Massacre, written by Omer L. Morgan for the Chronicles of Oklahoma, published by the Oklahoma Historical Society, can be found at http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/contents/v033toc.html.