Saturday, January 30, 2010

How Do We Preserve Oklahoma's Forgotten History?

I grew up in tiny Clarita - a hamlet of a hundred farms and ranches in what was previously Indian Territory.   After World War II, my war veteran dad purchased a big acreage of largely trees and streams from a man who had bought the land from Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians.  Slowly, my father cleared plots of the land and made them suitable for planting cattle feed such as alfalfa.  He and my mother raised their two children and made their living on this land, and it's still in my family today.

There is history on that land.  The border of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations runs right through it.  As a kid I picked up numerous arrowheads and artifacts just lying on the ground, usually near a stream.  It was kind of interesting at the time, but arrowheads were common in the area and I had no sense of the importance of my finds.

On our land a mile from our house, up on a hill among the trees sat a tiny, very old log cabin.   Who lived there, and when?  My parents were preoccupied with other things, such as paying bills and raising children, and had no interest.  Kids have attention spans of gnats, and absolutely no curiosity about history, so my brother and I took little note of the old cabin.  No one else knew about it.   During our Thanksgiving dinner this year, the subject of the old cabin came up, and we decided to pay it a visit.  It's funny how much more important history becomes to adults, after it's too late....Anyway, a bunch of us drove as close as we could to the still-heavily-wooded hill, but my brother, sister-in-law and I were the only ones willing to hike up there and take a look among the trees.  We found the cabin, now a heap of extremely aged, thin and fragile logs and boards.  It had fallen down long ago.  A beast of some sort, probably a fox, had dug a nice hole underneath the heap.  We walked around, all three of us lost in our thoughts.  We wished we had asked some questions back when there may have been someone who could have answered them.  Who built this cabin?  No doubt a Choctaw, but who was he?  Did he raise a family here?  Why did he leave - did he lose his life here?  Are there graves here, long lost?

Further west on my family's land sat a hill (which we thought was a mountain) that we all called Horse Thief Mountain.  Probably the most important aspect of Horse Thief Mountain was its makeup of fossils and petrified strange things.  I picked up bucketfuls of these as a kid, but again, didn't appreciate the astounding importance of these things.  What I did appreciate was the very thing that gave Horse Thief Mountain its name - the dead horse thief at the top of the hill...... 

According to my grandparents, great-uncles and various people around town, our little area of the world was a bit rough and tumble in the late 1800's and the turn of the twentieth century.  The white settlers were moving in and buying up the Choctaws' land allotments, living among the Indians.  There was no local law in this part of Indian Territory,with the Federal Marshalls being preoccupied with the bigger problems in the Territory, which were numerous. Indians and settlers took matters into their own hands, often resulting in horrendous bloodshed and dubious justice. 

As the old folks in Clarita told the story, sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century a man was caught stealing horses from one of the settlers.  A group of local men, lacking any other option, convicted the hapless thief on the spot (which happened to be at the foot of what we would later know as Horse Thief Mountain) and someone produced a rope.  An big Bois d'Arc tree served as the gallows, and the deed was quickly done.  The dead thief was dragged by horse to the top of the hill and buried by the men who had killed him.

Many years later I would stare into the eerie sunken grave as my dad told me the story.   There was no marker, just a sunken hole at the top of the hill, among the fossils.  I went back there at least once a year during my childhood, usually on horseback, sometimes hiking.  It was peaceful and scary at the same time - I stood on the hill looking west at miles and miles of unexplored forest and was keenly aware of the isolation and beauty of this place. 

After I was grown and gone, my father sold a large piece of his property that included Horse Thief Mountain.  Someone had discovered the fossils and now there is earth-moving equipment and people with rock hammers systematically dismantling the hill.  It has been renamed Black Cat Mountain by the history-ignorant rock hounds.  Since I'm not fond of trespassing, I have not returned to the horse thief's grave.  I fear it may be long gone - lost forever to earth movers and rock hounds.

So, how do we preserve Oklahoma's forgotten history, particularly the history of Indian Territory?  The history that was passed from generation to generation is being lost every day....Can we do something to stop the bleeding before it's too late?

I love comments - please let us know what you think....


  1. Thanks for sharing the memory and some of our state's history.

    I wonder if anyone has information about the ranchers (named Dibble) after whom Dibble Oklahoma was named? Bob Dibble

  2. I'll bet someone has that information, Bob. Ferreting it out before it's too late is the hard part.
    Thanks for your comment! I'll watch for Dibble information and let you know if I run across anything.
    Debbie - alltrailsleadhome.