Happy Birthday, Dear Tulsa
January 18 is Tulsa’s official birthday. Take a moment and read the story behind how the wild little cow town in the Creek Nation legally became a city 119 years ago today.
The following excerpt is from 4th & Boston: Heart of the Magic Empire:
Despite the protests of the Five Nations, Congress established the first federal district court inside Indian Territory in 1889. The court, seated in Muskogee, gave Tulsa’s non-Creek citizens their first access to legal protections. In 1895, this same court determined that non-tribal members operating within the legal prescriptions of tribal law were due the same protections and rights as tribal members. This highly controversial decision opened the path for non-tribal members to own land and for townsites to incorporate.(1)
With this news, Tulsa’s white citizens could finally receive titles for the land they had been developing for as many as thirteen years. However, they needed to carefully consider how a townsite petition could be aided or impeded by the prominent Creek citizens(2) upon whom they depended.(3) A dozen of the most heavily invested whites, J.M. Hall and most likely Dr. Sam Kennedy among them, conducted a series of secret meetings to determine the best course of action.
In the run-up to one such clandestine meeting, a gossip overheard Hall giving the Indian Agent from Muskogee assurances that his group was capable of arranging capital for everyone who wanted to purchase their land within the townsite. Soon after, Hall left town in the company of Tulsa’s federal district commissioner, Elijah G. Tollett, Jr., for a Democratic rally in St. Louis. In their absence, a rumor spread that Hall and Tollett were conspiring with the Creeks to acquire the entire townsite for themselves with the intention of fleecing everyone else. Upon their return, Hall and Tollett were drawn into a hastily called town meeting in which an angry mob headed by a well-imbibed chairman accused them of the alleged conspiracy. Judge Tollett, thoroughly incensed, threatened to fight whomever had started the rumor. One man struck another, someone turned out the lights, and guns throughout the room were drawn and cocked. After a moment of nervous contemplation, there was a mad rush for the door, which caused the only injuries of the night. Thus ended Tulsa’s first attempt at incorporation.(4)
The embarrassment and community strife that resulted from what Hall called the “mass meeting,” as well as legal challenges from the Creeks, pushed the question of incorporation to the back burner—but only temporarily.
During the next three years, Congress and the Dawes Commission made a series of brazenly aggressive moves against tribal sovereignty. Agents conducted a detailed land survey and a census in preparation for the beginning of allotments. Legislators from the Five Nations tried numerous legal maneuvers and political initiatives to preserve any vestige of self-government while small pockets of insurrection arose across the Territory. Regardless of the rights of the individual or promises of the past, the will of the majority of the United States demanded that Indian cultures assimilate. The wheels of government were in motion, and the die was cast. This time there would be no reprieve and no compromise.
In June of 1897, the governing authority of federal courts was extended into Indian Territory, and by October, Tulsa’s incorporation seemed a near certainty.(5) The following January, anticipation ran high as a provisional committee lead by J.M. Hall and including Dr. Sam Kennedy as well as Prior Price, Tate Brady, Reverend George W. Mowbray, L.M. Poe, R.E. Lynch, E.E. Calkins, and J.D. Seaman traveled to the federal court in Muskogee to formally present Tulsa’s Articles of Incorporation. Satisfied their petition met the legal requirements, Judge William R. Springer granted Tulsa its official Charter of Incorporation. January 18, 1898, became the city’s birthday.
Tulsa’s civic leaders celebrated incorporation with more vigor than they would celebrate statehood not quite ten years later. With incorporation, Tulsans suddenly had the ability to establish a legal government, empower courts, write laws, elect officials, and levy the taxes needed to fund improvements. Most importantly, perhaps, was the ability to establish and fund badly needed services like public education and police and fire services.
As Tulsa’s leaders were reveling in their newfound freedoms, the sun was setting on the autonomy of their Creek neighbors. Five months after Tulsa became a city, Congress passed the sweeping Curtis Act of 1898, which abolished tribal courts, subjected all persons in Indian Territory to federal law, and revoked the treaties that exempted the Five Nations from the Dawes Act.
Within the Curtis Act, Congress also provided guidelines for assigning tribal land that had been leased as townsites. Following the requisite surveys, plats, and appraisals, the act gave settlers the option to purchase whatever townsite parcels they were occupying for as little as half the appraised value. Unclaimed lots would be sold at auction.
Although land sale proceeds would go to the Creek nation, the process was fraught with graft.(6) Previously unoccupied lots were suddenly “occupied” by hastily constructed shacks listed under names that materialized as quickly as the shacks, enabling them to be bought for much less than they would have sold for at auction. In the end, the total price for Tulsa’s unoccupied lots came to a mere $659 (7)—a value of less than $20,000 today.
While appraisals for Tulsa’s unoccupied lots were low, the sudden and dramatic changes that came with incorporation increased the value of developed land just as suddenly and dramatically. Many of Tulsa’s earliest citizens realized that real estate was a lucrative investment. Perhaps the grandest prizes for hungry speculators were the two city blocks prominently located at the top of the hill at 4th & Boston.
(1) Angie Debo, Tulsa: from Creek Town to Oil Capital (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943), 78.
(2) Maintaining a good relationship with the Perryman family would have presumably been their chief concern.
(3) J.M. Hall, The Beginning of Tulsa (Tulsa, c. 1933), 42.
(4) Hall, 42-43.
(5) Indian Republican (Tulsa), October 1, 1897.
(6) “Grafting,” the name given to the exploitation of the allotment system, was prevalent, fraught with loopholes that made it technically legal in most cases, and extensively practiced by whites, freed slaves, and Indians alike. In the same manner that modern Americans seek every legal advantage in the tax code or other government programs, Tulsans of that era competed with one another to take full advantage of the system given them.
(7) Charles Robert Goins and Danney Goble, Historical Atlas of Oklahoma. 4th ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.), 143.