Muskogee History and Genealogy
Building Muskogee's Future in 1890
Muskogee started laying the foundation for the future in 1890 in many ways. In that day, it was a typical Western American town. Wooden buildings with non-descript fronts lined Muskogee's dirt streets. Certain events in 1890, however, demonstrated the residents' desire for an improved Muskogee. Their efforts resulted in the town's incorporation eight years later.
Muskogee was celebrating the first year's publication of a permanent newspaper. Several presses issued newspapers over the previous fifteen years without putting down permanent roots in town. Months earlier, the Muskogee Phoenix finished its first year of publishing that would continue well beyond a century of service to the community. The Phoenix served throughout as the public voice in calls for civic reform.
For example, a man erected a fence in the middle of a street with the intent of building a home on the site. The newspaper reported the ensuing uproar that led to blockage of the house's construction. Public sentiment saw the need for clear rights-of-ways for public traffic. Until this date, construction of buildings followed few conventions for location. Hereafter, a sense of civic need grew stronger among the residents because of the house episode.
Another illustration of civic concern arose from the voiced complaints of neighbors over the removal of animal carcasses. Earlier, no one saw the threat to the public if an animal was left where it fell. In 1890, however, concern resulted in a call for steps to be taken to prevent the practice.
Publicly available water was another issue that marked 1890. There was a concern regarding water usage. It arose from a sense of community. Residents were beginning to understand that a fire in one structure threatened the other structures around it. Within the decade, Muskogee would suffer a terrible loss from fire that almost destroyed the town.
Fires were well known in Indian Territory. In 1890, however, residents formed a hose and ladder company to serve the fire-fighting needs of the community. A trial with a water hose and horse-pulled pumper demonstrated that water could be sprayed to a height of fifty feet, if needed. However, there were no five-story buildings in town yet. This forward-looking thinking has always marked Muskogee's future development.
Communities also need recreational space. Wagon and buggy traffic prevents streets from being used for general recreational purposes. Yet, streets were Muskogee's only public area in 1890 until the Phoenix editor called for the establishment of a park. Within weeks, Will Robison on the east side of town donated Muskogee's first park.
According to the newspaper editor, there were only three streets with names in 1890 when the call went out to name the rest. The editor named Main Street, Okmulgee Street and Cherokee Street. An insurance map listed two other short streets in the downtown district. Agency Street was two blocks long. Lake Street was only about three blocks long.
Residential areas outside of the downtown area are unrecorded. With a population of 1200, there were more streets. These were exactly the streets needing names according to the editor.
Muskogee's incorporation eight years later was the product of years of effort. Parks, a fire department and street names were just a few of the steps needed on the way to improving Muskogee. 1890 certainly marked the turning point when these efforts began to build the foundation for Muskogee's future.
Labels: Agency Street, Cherokee Street, Lake Street, Main Street, Okmulgee Street, Will Robison
Betty Robertson's Life in Slavery
Former slaves recalled Webbers Falls events better than any other Muskogee County location. Ethel Garrison interviewed a former slave named Betty Robertson when Robertson was 93 years old. Betty's account of the Rich Joe Vann farm sheds interesting light on life before and after the Civil War. Here are some of the details from Betty's recollections.
Betty said, "I was born close to Webbers Falls, in the Canadian District of the Cherokee Nation, in the same year that my pappy was blowed up and killed in the big boat accident that killed my old Master." The boat was the "Lucy Walker" that Rich Joe Vann was racing on the Ohio River on its second voyage. The boiler on the steamboat over heated and exploded October 25, 1844. Betty was born that year.
Shortly before the Civil War, Betty worked in the plantation's big house. "Some of the Master's family was always going down to the river and back, and every time they come in I have to fix something to eat. Old Mistress had a good cookin' stove." This surely was a cast iron stove that controlled the heat better. Most Cherokees cooked in open fireplaces, she reported.
According to Betty, "I got all the clothes I need from old Mistress, and in winter I had high top shoes with brass caps on the toe. In the summer I wear them on Sunday, too." Another former slave recounted in a different interview that his master took shoes away from slaves in March of the year. The owner stored the shoes in a shed until the following fall. At that time, owners gave shoes back to the slaves after they had worked barefooted in the fields all summer long. Slaves universally wore hand-me-down clothing.
Betty gained her freedom after the Civil War ended. "One day young Master come to the cabins," Betty recalled, "and say we all free and can't stay there less'n we want to go on working for him just like we'd been, for our feed and clothes. Mammy got a wagon and we traveled around a few days and go to Fort Gibson. When we get to Fort Gibson they was a lot of negroes there, and they had a camp meeting and I was baptized. It was in the Grand River close to the ford, and winter time. Snow on the ground and the water was muddy and of pieces of ice. The place was all woods, and the Cherokees and the soldiers all come down to see the baptizing."
Betty mentioned that she had been wearing her high top shoes on Sundays during the summer. In all likelihood, Betty went to church for nearly fifteen years without being allowed to join. One of the privileges of emancipation was the freedom of being baptized.
The Union soldiers at Fort Gibson impressed Betty. She remembered them singing "Hang Jeff Davis to a Sour Apple Tree." Betty did not know who Jeff Davis was. Nor could she recall that "Hang Jeff Davis to a Sour Apple Tree" was only a verse in the song entitled "John Brown's Body." The song made such a strong impression on her, however, that Betty remembered the verse for over seventy years.
She also recalled the soldiers saying that Jeff Davis "used to be at Fort Gibson one time." That was true. Lt. Davis arrived in December 1833. He resigned his commission in March of 1835, in order to marry the daughter of a colonel. Soldiers stationed at Fort Gibson at the end of the war remembered Davis' service thirty years earlier as they talked among themselves and with the new freedmen.
There are more stories in Betty's recollections. They are part of one interview out of a hundred and thirty collected in "The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives." This book is available for checkout at the Muskogee Public Library.
Labels: Betty Robertson, Ethel Wolfe Garrison, Fort Gibson, Jefferson Davis, Slavery, Webbers Falls
Oklahoma Slave Narratives
Ethel Mae Wolfe Garrison was the daughter of Mitchell and Inez Wolfe. She was born in 1900 and lived to the age of 103 years. Born in the Manard Community, she lived quietly in the Muskogee and Cherokee Counties all of her life.
The Great Depression, however, forced many Americans into occupations or situations removed from their normal lives. Such was the case for Ethel's experiences.
During the mid-1930's, the Federal Writers' Project undertook the goal of recording the recollections of elderly Americans. Stories of peoples' lives from every station of life made it into over ten thousand sketches. These sketches were the first systematic recording of oral history.
Interviewing former slaves was only a part of a much larger project to demonstrate that Americans were a diverse people. In Oklahoma, the general stories make up the famed Indian-Pioneer Papers. These interviews preserved much of Oklahoma's early history.
The Oklahoma Historical Society filed the "slave narratives" separately from the Indian-Pioneer interviews. They remained filed with the papers of the Federal Writers' Project in Oklahoma City for administrative reasons. They first appeared in print only eleven years ago. Altogether, one hundred and thirty Oklahomans recounted their experiences as slaves for FWP "reporters," today called interviewers.
Ethel Garrison became one of these interviewers in 1937. She was the lone Native American out of the ten people assigned to conduct interviews of former slaves in Oklahoma. Her industriousness resulted in the preservation of thirty-two sketches, a fourth of the total recorded.
She traveled only a short distance for most of her interviews. Ethel conducted seventeen interviews in Muskogee. She found another ten of the former slaves in Fort Gibson. The remaining homes she visited were in Hulbert, Gibson Station and Colbert.
Project managers instructed its reporters to make repeated visits in order to build up a sense of trust. The fact that Ethel worked for the Federal Writers' Project told everyone that she was struggling financially like most everyone else. That status helped her bond with her subjects.
When she began making notes for the sketches, her bosses wanted her to get the story the way it was told. The stories were to be recorded as nearly as "word-for-word" as possible.
Sweetie Ivery Wagoner of Muskogee was the youngest ex-slave Ethel interviewed. Sweetie was born the year the Civil War ended. This was the "year of freedom." Sweetie thought she was born that year or the year before. Her mother was not sure.
George Kye was the oldest interviewee Ethel visited. He was an adult when the conflict began between Northerners and the "Sesesh," as he called Southerners. His accounts of a slave's perspective are the strongest despite his claim of being a hundred and ten years old.
A decade ago, I talked with Ethel about interviewing her. I wanted to learn more about her experiences. I hoped she could recall something from that time. The first time I called, she was feeling ill.
Months later, I called once more. Again, I was unable to schedule a time for us to meet. However, she sent a copy of a transcript of an ex-slave's interview for me to pass on to the Three Rivers Museum. It is now a treasured artifact from the Federal Writers' Project effort.
If you would like to read all of the Oklahoma's ex-slave narratives, a published version is in the Muskogee Public Library under the title of "The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives." It is fascinating reading.
Labels: Ethel Wolfe Garrison, Federal Writers' Project, George Kye, Indian-Pioneer Papers, Slavery, Sweetie Ivery Wagoner
Jessie Duke Richardson, The Tulsa Years
Last week, the first episode told about Jessie Duke Richardson's arrival in Muskogee. Accounts of her teaching music and speech included her founding the Jessie Duke Richardson School of Fine Arts located just north of the old West High School.
During the summer of 1928, Jessie closed her school and headed to the east and west coasts. She spent part of her time coaching performers in Hollywood and on Long Island in New York.
The Great Depression, however, forced her to return to Muskogee when her coaching contracts dried up. Exactly when she returned is uncertain. She was, at least, back in town during 1932 according to a city directory.
She apparently returned with insufficient funds to reopen her School of Fine Arts. Yet, Jessie took a room at the Severs Hotel down town instead of renting a house as she did during the years prior to her stint in coaching.
In November, Jessie went to Oklahoma City to spend the holidays with Anna Lynn Cook, her former pupil. She returned to Oklahoma City to attend Anna Lynn's June wedding the next year.
During 1933, Jessie moved to South Twelfth Street. This address was still only a few blocks away from the students at West High. She lived in this home less than a year. Perhaps her financial circumstances improved. The next year she returned to the Severs Hotel. However, her savings must have remained slim.
Jessie moved to Tulsa about 1935. Her motivation is clear. Tulsa was a larger city. Despite the ravages of the depression, it contained more wealthy families than Muskogee. Jessie had always taught the students of wealthy. This move to Tulsa, however, led directly to Jessie's impoverishment and tragic death.
Olivell Graves recalled Jessie having suitors call on her while she lived in the Severs Hotel. Perhaps the initial meeting occurred there. Jessie married June 1, 1936 after close to two decades without a mate. Her second husband was none other than another former Muskogeean, James D. Simms.
Lawyer Simms is noteworthy for having built the Simms Apartments on 1220 W. Okmulgee. He built the three-story building after having won a court case. The building is still in use eighty years later.
Simms began his legal profession in association with the noted Grant Foreman. At the time of Jessie's death in 1939, he was representing parties involved in the famous Jackson Barnett case where millions of dollars were at stake.
Unfortunately, the marriage between the lawyer and the musician failed. After months of being alone without any support, Jessie filed for divorce on the last business day in July. The following week she went to church on Sunday and then committed suicide on Tuesday, August 8.
In a note to her husband, Jessie wailed. "Devotion, then desertion. What made you do it? How could you be so cruel? You, of all others! God forgive you. In despair, your devoted wife." Jessie's purse nearby contained only two one-dollar bills and some change.
Jessie lived in a luxurious apartment on the third floor of the Ambassador Hotel. Finding an unoccupied apartment on the sixth floor, she crossed to the windows. Opening one, she climbed out and fell. She was barely sixty years old.
Labels: Anna Lynn Cook, James D. Simms, Jessie Duke Richardson, Olivell Moore Graves, Severs Hotel, Simms Apartments
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