“Tell all the people that Alex Posey is out here and about to be drowned and to come out and bring about three or four hundred feet of rope.”
“The past is a foreign country,” said the British novelist L.P. Hartley. “They do things differently there.” It’s the country where you can take a passenger train from Muskogee to Eufaula, which is what Alexander Posey, the famous Creek poet, political humorist, and newspaper man, is doing on the morning of May 27, 1908. He is accompanied by Robert Howe, a representative for the Galbreath Oil Company of Tulsa. They are going to finalize some business involving drilling on Posey’s land outside Eufaula. Posey is, at this time, editor of the Eufaula Indian Journal.
The train slowed to a stop as it approached a river crossing just a few miles from Eufaula. The river was known to Posey and the Creeks as the Oktahutchee, to Howe and the whites as the North Canadian. It was in flood and had washed out the tracks. Posey knew and loved the Oktahutchee. He lived near it. He’d grown up near it, had swum it, canoed it, fished it, and written poems to it.
Tho’ I sing my song in a minor key,
Broad lands and fair attest the good I do;
Tho’ I carry no white sails to the sea,
Towns nestle in the vales I wander thro’;
And quails are whistling in the waving grain,
And herds are scattered o’er the verdant plain.
—from “Song of the Oktahutchee” by Alexander Posey
It was about eight o’ clock in the morning. The flooding river, backed up by the railroad’s berm, had found a weak spot where it had washed out the roadbed. This caused the track to sag, and the water was flowing both over and under it. The breach was relatively narrow, so the thick, brown water was forced through at high velocity.
A small settlement named Cathay had formed near the river crossing. Although Cathay was known at the time, its tenure on the earth was so brief it never seems to have caught the the attention of cartographers. That morning, residents of Cathay and stranded travelers gathered along the river in loose knots to watch the flood and see what might happen next.
Two local residents, Joel Scott and Tom Brannon, were standing nearby as Posey and Howe considered their options. Posey offered to hire Scott and Brannon to row them across, if they could get a boat. While Scott and Brannon went to fetch a boat, Posey walked over to a nearby farmhouse to have breakfast. Howe had already eaten, so he kept a watch for their boatmen’s return. They returned in about three hours with what Howe later described to the Muskogee Times-Democrat as “a very neat little skiff about 16 feet long.”
As Posey and Howe watched Scott and Brannon pull the boat downstream toward them, Howe suggested to Posey that they let some other stranded men go first. “They said they were good swimmers and good boatmen,” he explained.
Posey wasn’t deterred. “No, Bob, it’s safe enough.” He had rowed down this river many times before. “Let’s you and I go on…for if we wait it will be night before we get to Eufaula. If we go now we can attend to all of our business by evening” Posey stepped into the boat, made his way to the bow and, turning to face the back, sat on the seat. He was wearing a tailored gray suit, with a black vest and tie. In his tie he wore a horseshoe stickpin of emeralds and pearls, and on his head, no doubt, a stylish fedora. He smiled back at Howe. “Are you going?” he asked. The swift river tugged impatiently at the bow.
In the turbulent years before Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory were unified into the newly minted state of Oklahoma, there was a push among the Five Civilized Tribes for separate statehoods. Tribal delegates convened in the summer and fall of 1905 in Muskogee, where they hammered out a constitution for the proposed state, to be named Sequoyah. The constitution they created for the proposed State of Sequoyah was signed by Chairman Chief Pleasant Porter and Secretary Alexander Posey , in McAlester on October 14, 1905. Although their bid for a separate statehood failed, their proposed constitution greatly influenced the constitution of Oklahoma.
Posey, educated at Bacone College, had risen to prominence in the territories, and beyond, as the editor of the Eufaula Indian Journal.
During his tenure there, he’d become famous for the Fus Fixico letters, presented by Posey (with a broad wink to readers) in the form of letters to the editor. The “letters” were supposedly written by a Fus Fixico, in the form of a conversation between Fixico and several other fictional Indian characters. The humorous dialogues—Posey’s own barbed satires of territorial politics—became popular reading in the territories and beyond. Periodicals as distant as the London Times asked to print them. Will Rogers would become prolific as a newspaper columnist, but Posey was first.
Posey and Howe, and their oarsmen, Scott and Brannon, pushed off. They started off paddling diagonally upstream, away from the breach. Once they reached the main channel, the oarsmen began to struggle against the current. Scott lost his paddle. Brannon began frenziedly rowing in a hopeless eff ort to regain control. In his panic, he too dropped his paddle into the river.
The boat immediately got sidewise and began accelerating into the main current. They would have been swept into the breach in the tracks if they hadn’t first collided with the railroad right-of-way fence. When the boat smashed into the fence, all four men leaped out and over the fence. The boat broke up and sank within seconds. The men found themselves bobbing in shoulder-deep water, floating rapidly downstream.
In his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurence Gonzales identifies the characteristics of disaster survivors. Among other traits, survivors quickly accept the reality of what has happened to them. This acceptance enables them to keep their head, assess the situation accurately, and take the decisive actions necessary to increase their chances of survival. Howe possessed these traits. Today, we have his perspective on what happened because he lived to tell the tale. When the powerful current threw Posey and Howe together, Posey instinctively reached out and took hold of Howe’s hand.
“No, Alex!” Howe yelled, “We must not take hold of each other!” Howe pushed away from him, into the main current. As they separated, Howe continued over his shoulder, “Get on top, Alex! Swim, Alex! Get out in the middle!” He couldn’t tell if Posey heard him.
Scott was already in the main current being pulled to the breach. He was facing downstream, his feet down, struggling to get his footing. When he got to the place where the tracks sank under the water, he was dragged under. He got tangled in the dangling tracks and debris, went under, and drowned.
Howe began to swim, getting his body up onto the surface enough that, when he shot through the breach, he was propelled over the sagging track.
He’d swum another fifty yards downstream when he spotted, off to his right, Scott’s body floating on its back. “I saw that he was dead, as his mouth was open and the water was streaming into it,” he would later report. “Then it was I deeply realized that there was not much chance for me to get out. I realized that it was only a matter of time until I would drown, as I was exhausted from coming through this raging current, but at the same time I kept swimming.”
Howe turned toward the bank and within three feet he found the bottom. As he struggled to stand and wade, Scott’s body floated past him. When Howe looked around to see what had become of Posey, he thought he saw him sitting on the track. He waded through the water, angling toward the bank and as much upstream toward the track as his diminished strength would allow. After about twenty yards, he saw Brannon shoot through the breach in the same way that he had. He watched Brannon find the bottom and wade to the bank, where he collapsed, exhausted but alive.
“I got on the railroad completely broken down both physically and nervously,” Howe remembered, “and started up the road north to where I thought Alex was sitting. When I looked up I saw that he was standing out in the current about thirty feet from the track to the northwest and about twenty feet from where this terrible current went over and under the railroad, holding to a little sprout not larger than the handle of an umbrella, with three small prongs to it.”
* * *
Why do trees along the river
Lean so far out o’er the tide?
Very wise men tell me why, but
I am never satisfied;
And so I keep my fancy still,
That trees lean out to save
The drowning from the clutches of
The cold, remorseless wave.
Several dozen onlookers had gathered on the banks. Howe circulated frantically among them, pleading for someone to run to Eufaula, about three miles away. “Tell all the people that Alex Posey is out here and about to be drowned and to come out and bring about three or four hundred feet of rope,” he pleaded. But those he asked refused. Howe then resolved to run to Eufaula himself and bring back help. Before he left, he called out to Posey and asked him if he could hold on. Posey looked back over his shoulder and smiled at Howe. “Yes,” Posey assured him.
Rushing toward town, Howe encountered some men who had a boat, which they quickly fetched and brought to the bank. Still, they needed rope. Two bystanders agreed to go to Eufaula for it.
Before the two men returned, about thirty minutes later, a train arrived with a forty-man work crew onboard to see what could be done to repair the track. When the engineer saw Posey out in the water hanging on, he uncoupled the engine and rushed it back to Eufaula for rope. After another twenty minutes, the train returned with about 400 feet of rope. Posey had by then been holding on to the twig for nearly two hours.
They tied the boat upstream and fed it down along the rope, with a Mr. Coppick onboard, but they ended about five feet short of Posey. Coppick tossed him a line. Posey caught it. For a moment he held the rope in his left hand and the twig in his right. Then, he let go of the twig. When he did, the swift current threw him out in the stream directly behind the boat about four feet, but he still stood on his feet. He attempted to pull himself into the boat, but as he made the pull his feet flew out from under him and left him dragging behind the boat.
“I can’t pull myself into the boat!” Posey yelled up at Coppick, arching his head back to keep the river water out of his mouth, “Pull me in!” When Coppick began pulling, Posey’s hands began to slip along the rope.
“He then turned his head and looked toward the bank where we were standing,” Howe later reported, “and turning and looking back down the stream towards this awful current that was going over and under the railroad track, he opened his hands and passed out of sight…”
Howe’s summary: “This is the true story of the awful death of the greatest Creek Indian of this country, the most polished newspaper man in the State, and a writer of prose and poetry whose equal in his line we have never known.”
As many as a hundred people had watched Posey drown.
* * *
Posey’s remains weren’t found until July 20—nearly two months later—after the fl ood had receded. His body was discovered by Jud Newton, who’d been out squirrel hunting. Posey’s widow, Minnie, buried him in Green Hill Cemetery in Muskogee.
The place where he drowned is itself gone now, too. The small, lush river towns in that foreign country of the past, where they do things differently, are drowned. The farms there, with their pastures and herds and bottomland fields, are drowned. The farmhouses down along the river, where you can walk up unannounced and expect to get breakfast—all drowned.
The song of the Oktahutchee itself has been drowned out, under the enormous, implacable, irresistible weight of Oklahoma’s “Gentle Giant,” Lake Eufaula.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 6. March 15, 2013.