Excerpted from The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America’s Weirdest State by Russel Cobb by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2020 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Many towns in the old Creek Nation derive not from white settlers but from ancient tribal towns in the Southeast. Tulsa is one of those towns,
even though the birth year on the city’s seal is listed as 1898. Tulsa’s deeper origins, however, had nothing to do with oil and everything to do with a frontier zone of Indigenous, European, and African cultures. Tulsa’s origins as a Mvskoke town in the Southeast are usually glossed over in one Oklahoma history lesson or a few pages of prologue. Recent work
by historians and activists demonstrates, however, just how vital this early history is to how Tulsans became who we are.
In recent years, J. D. Colbert has been trying to awaken Tulsa to this deeper history. Colbert is a Muscogee (Creek) Native American who spent
a career in banking before turning over his time to rediscovering the Creek roots of his hometown. He is struck by how little Tulsans know of the land they occupy. When I met him, Colbert told me that Tulsa’s history began before the white man ever set foot in the Americas. I had to admit I was skeptical. Nothing in the history I learned in school predated 1898. I sought out Angie Debo’s long-out-of-print Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital. What I read in it contradicted everything I had learned in school about the Magic City, everything inscribed on plaques and on the walls of museums. The first written chronicle of Tulsa dates back to 1540, when one of Hernando de Soto’s men sat down to document its importance in the Creek Confederation. De Soto’s chronicle turned the traditional name Tvlahasse (or Tullahassee) into Tallise, which Debo posits as a Spanish transliteration of the Creek shortened form, Tallasi. In any case, Tulsa’s original name derived from the Creek words etvlwv (town) and ahassee (something old). This means that in 1540, Creeks already considered Tulsa an “old town.” De Soto wrote that “Tallise was large and was located near a deep river.
On the other side of the river were other towns and many fields of maize. On both sides, it was a land very well supplied with maize in abundance.”
Creek towns in the ancestral homelands of the southeast were built uniformly, with individual houses built of sticks and clay, each with its own garden plot where the principal crops were corn, squash, beans, and tobacco (a form of farming similar to what was found in Mesoamerica in the milpa). The town would have had a main square for stick ball games, stomp dancing, and a roundhouse (chokofa) for town council meetings. Tallasi was a large town that may have held “imperial sway,” in Debo’s words. Like its modern equivalent in Oklahoma, the town’s inhabitants dispersed from the main center to form smaller towns with names derived from a landscape feature or event connected to their founding. Tulsa, for example, has Sand Springs as a western neighbor and Broken Arrow to the east, monikers that testify to the naming patterns Creeks developed in the Southeast. Creeks had “mother towns” from which smaller towns formed. Rivalries and animosities existed as well, most principally between Upper and Lower Creek towns. Upper Creeks were known for their resistance to European culture, while Lower Creeks were ruled by intermarried Creek and European leaders who hybridized traditional Muscogee customs with Scottish, French, and Spanish ways. Another important division was between “white” and “red” towns, which had nothing to do with race but with their orientation toward peace or war (white towns were peaceful, red towns warlike).
At some point, a daughter city to Tallasi formed in Alabama, Locvpokv. Locvpokv (also spelled Loachapoka) was an Upper Creek town that resisted white settler encroachment. The town grew rapidly, but it was situated at the northernmost boundary of the Creek Confederacy and was raided by white settlers in the Cumberland Valley after U.S. independence. The Tallasi-Locvpokv alliance was intended to form the bedrock of Creek resettlement in the Tulsa area, but the two towns, although sharing a common identity, did not always get along. Although they were mother-daughter towns, one was red and one was white, reflecting two different orientations toward conflict. This distinction further divided Creeks during the Red Stick War of 1813–14, when some sided with Andrew Jackson, and some sided with Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who fought to create a separate Native American nation under British protection. Creeks fought and negotiated with France, Spain, and the United States. They fought each other. They fought their neighbors, the Cherokees. Then, as white plantation society secured a hegemony in the U.S. South, Upper and Lower Creeks fought back. After two wars with the United States, the Creek Confederation finally relented to removal.
After losing around one-quarter of the population along the Trail of Tears, Tallasi-Locvpokv was reborn on a gentle bluff on the east side of the Arkansas River underneath a post oak tree in 1836. The ashes from a ceremonial fire, carried all the way from the ancestral home, were kindled under the Council Oak tree. The name was difficult to pronounce for the white Indian agents, railroad builders, and outlaws who started filtering into the place, so it eventually became known as Tulsey Town, and then, finally, Tulsa.
Casting a shadow over the Council Oak tree, which still stands just south of downtown, is “the new roundhouse,” as Colbert calls the University Club Tower. This new roundhouse is a Tulsa icon. For Colbert, the new roundhouse is a metaphor for Tulsa’s Creek heritage in that it is hidden in plain sight.
The “official” date of the founding of Tulsa in 1898 also obscures the tragedy the town faced during the Civil War. When the war began, Confederates made promises to honor treaties broken by the Union. Southerners pointed to the cultural similarities between themselves and the Five Tribes, including slavery, overlooking key differences between plantation slavery and the practices of the Five Tribes. The Confederates said they would mend relations and keep promises that Washington had broken. As a result, many leaders from the Five Tribes sided with the Confederacy. Creek chief Opothleyahola urged his tribe to remain neutral, but backed into a corner, he remained loyal to the Union. For those Creeks with ties to the Old South, however, the Confederates’ promises led them to commit to the lost cause. Creek Confederates, supported by Texas cavalry, attacked the Loyalists. Opothleyahola led civilians, traditionalists from various tribes, and some escaped slaves out of Tulsa and into battle with rebels north and west of the city. I was shocked to learn that at least one, if not two, Civil War battles took place in modern-day Tulsa County. Why was this never mentioned? Perhaps because the result of the conflict within the Creek Nation led to a humanitarian disaster known as the Trail of Blood on Ice. Tulsans do not like stories that contradict our image of a magic city blessed by God.
Opothleyahola led thousands of Creeks from Tulsa to Fort Row in Kansas, where they had been promised shelter, protection, and rations by Abraham Lincoln. The Union did almost nothing to support these Loyal Creeks, and they attacked repeatedly during their exodus to Kansas. Once they finally made it to Kansas, the fort was completely unprepared for the refugees. Thousands died from frostbite and starvation (including Opothleyahola), having staked their lives on the promises of the United States. Some residents of Tallasi-Locvpokv survived, including Tuckabache, who returned to his land just south and east of downtown Tulsa after the war. The U.S. Civil War led to absolute destruction of the traditional town, which had been rebuilt from the model in Alabama. It was rebuilt, and Lower Creeks, led by Josiah Perryman, established a post office and trading outpost.
Then came the Dawes Commission, which aimed to assimilate Indians by teaching them English and instilling capitalist virtues. All members of the Five Tribes would receive an individual allotment of 160 acres of land in Indian Territory. The Five Tribes are often lumped together as a group of nations sharing a common history of displacement from the Deep South, journeying together along the Trail of Tears and settling in Oklahoma. Creeks, especially Upper Creeks, stood out among the other tribes as the least willing to go along with Washington’s ideas for the future of Indian Territory. Even among the Creeks themselves, there were intense disagreements about slavery, Christianity, and removal. While other tribes reluctantly agreed to give up the communal nature of land ownership after the Civil War, many Creeks, under the leadership of Chitto Harjo (or Crazy Snake), refused. The Snake faction, as it was known, resisted the forced marriage until the bitter end.
Harjo had never been fond of the assimilationists. He saw the work of the Dawes Commission as a prelude to the devastation of the Creek Nation. Land ownership was anathema to traditionalist Creeks like Crazy Snake. After years of making concessions to the railroads and white settlers, Harjo had had enough. He fought off the assimilationists in a series of skirmishes around Okmulgee. As allotment proceeded and Oklahoma neared statehood, Harjo and his allies refused to back down. They were handed checks and titles for land. The checks were never cashed. Politicians in Washington simply could not understand.
On the eve of statehood in 1906, Chitto Harjo strode to the front of the Seaman Building in downtown Tulsa with an interpreter. Harjo made his most dramatic stand. In the company of U.S. senators and Oklahoma oil men crowded inside a meeting hall, Crazy Snake reminded everyone that the United States was still bound by a treaty. “As long as the sun shone and the sky is up yonder these agreements shall be kept,” he said. “This was the first agreement that we had with the white man. He said as long
as the sun rises it shall last; as long as the waters run it shall last; as long as the grass grows it shall last.”
Resistance to the dispossession of Creek lands was widespread after statehood as well. Even the New York Times weighed in on the issue. In 1909 the Times wrote dismissively of Harjo and his “murderous band . . . of half-breeds and lawless Negroes.” Harjo managed to elude arrest to the end, fighting off federal agents and white settlers until his death in 1915. Debo wrote that his rebellion “was the last flare of the Indian spirit in the white man’s town of Tulsa.”
Debo, usually an astute observer of the subtle ways that Native culture thrives despite the odds, may have written the Creeks out of modern Tulsa prematurely. For the descendants of the Creeks who lost their lands in the early twentieth century, Native culture continued to echo through the town. According to Rob Trepp (a Muscogee descendant of the Perryman family), Creeks still held ceremonies near the Council Oak tree for many years, determined to keep Tulsa’s roots alive. Sounds of Creek stomp dances and stickball games attracted hordes of white curiosity seekers well into statehood until finally the Creeks moved the stomp dance to a hidden location near their traditional capitol in Okmulgee. In recent years, Creeks have started coming back to Council Oak Park to stage stickball games and feasts. Trepp, until his death in late 2018, led tours of Creek sites around town. When we met at his forebears’ ranch in Jenks in 2016, he was confident that a renaissance of Native culture would accompany Tulsa’s rebirth in the twenty-first century. I hope his optimism bears out, but the continued silence of Tulsa’s establishment about its Creek past does not give me hope. The case of Tuckabache is instructive in this regard.
Tuckabache, who had accompanied Opothleyahola during removal and the Trail of Blood on Ice, was allotted 160 prime acres just south of present-day downtown. He had mostly gone along with the dissolution of tribal government, granting an easement to a railroad through his land. Tuckabache lived in a cabin around the intersection of Hazel and Cincinnati, an area now graced by million-dollar homes (and one block away from my childhood home). Whites moved in, buying up his surplus land around his homestead in the early years of the twentieth century. He watched his way of life disappear and came to resent the railroad, calling the granting of the easement the biggest error of his life. In 1910, well into his nineties, he dictated a will leaving the land to his grandchildren. He died three days later. Oklahoma newspapers reported in his obituary that efforts were being made to break the will and open the land to developers. Tuckabache died, one Tulsa paper said, “hating the white man.”
Tuckabache’s granddaughter, Jennie Hickory, was forced to sign over her land with an X; she was given $1,000 for the title. The land was sold a few years later for $52,400. Tuckabache’s descendants realized that they had been swindled and sued to regain their family’s land. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma in 1919. While the lower courts had failed to properly consider the best interests of the minors,the highest court in Oklahoma confirmed the sale of the property. A cloud remained in the title, however, that plagues real estate deals down to the present day. By the late 1910s, the oil boom was in full swing, and reopening the question of land ownership would be a Pandora’s box.
Creeks had a few allies among white lawyers and activists, but the national and local press described dispossession of Native lands as inevitable. “Like the death of Geronimo,” a State News wire service reported, “the demise of Tuckabache was the passing of one of the famous Indian characters of the Southwest.” Even Chief Pleasant Porter, who had tried to mitigate the white takeover of the Creek Nation, concluded in 1907 that “the destiny of the Creeks is their absorption with the white race as citizens of the United States.” The Creek Nation was on “the road to disappearance,” as the title of another Debo book had it.