Early History of Carter County Oklahoma

Only scattered tribes of plains Indians roamed the country now known as Southern Oklahoma before 1820 when a treaty was entered into between the Choctaw tribe and the federal government. The government ceded to the Indians a tract of country west of the Mississippi. In 1830 the famous treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek conveyed the land in fee simple to the Choctaw nations, one of the Five Civilized Tribes.

The Choctaws had lived in the South, Georgia and Alabama and surrounding areas as far west as the Mississippi River, but they never had crossed over the river. They began their march to their new home in 1832 and the “Trail of Tears” as it was called lasted for many years.

Privation, disease, heartbreak, and disappointment were the rule as the primitive peoples wended their way across the wilderness. Some came across in wagons, others were transported by steamboat up the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers and landed at Fort Coffey near Sculleyville which served for a period as the national capital.

Unmarked graves studded the route from the original homeland to the new region as the Indians fell victim to the elements and adversity. The survivors continued to struggle along in their attempt to comply with the government movement order.

Small groups of the Chickasaw band of the Choctaw Nation had come to Indian Territory before 1830 but most arrived between 1836 and 1840.

To understand the evolution of the land from the Indians to the white men it is necessary, at least in passing, to understand the thinking of the Indians.

Under their system, the land belonged to the tribe and it was not a part of Indian philosophy of life that any man should lay measure upon the earth and claim any part of it for his own to the exclusion of others. Also, the Indian conception of ownership excluded lands. This was especially true of the Five Civilized Tribes who referred to land, when they referred to it at all, as “ancestral lands” which had supported their ancestors as well as themselves, and which they believed had been placed in their control and right of occupancy to provide for their children and all coming generations.

Some considered the origin of man was from the earth itself, and as a religious conviction they thought the land could neither be bought nor sold.

But they were willing to grant right of way and to permit almost anyone to use the land,

In 1837 the Chickasaws had signed the treaty of Doaksville with the Choctaws whereby the Chickasaws, for $530,000 purchased the right of forming a district in the Choctaw country to be called the Chickasaw District of the Choctaw Nation. Some 13 years later the district was divided into four counties, Cotton, Caddo, Perry, and Wichita. This arrangement existed until the Chickasaws in 1855 felt their rights of self-government were not being sufficiently respected and signed a new alliance with the Choctaws which established the Chickasaw Nation in place of the old Chickasaw District.

At the capital, Tishomingo, the leaders drew up new laws and fashioned a government not too dissimilar from the federal system. Four new counties were established in the Chickasaw Nation, Panola, Tishomingo, Pontotoc, and Pickens.

It was in the latter county that Ardmore was destined to rise from the grasslands. Pickens County remained in existence until 1907 when, with the statehood, the county system of the Indian Territory was revised and Ardmore became the Carter County seat.

Before the Civil War, there were few white men in the Chickasaw Nation, with the few there coming in from Texas. These white men were absorbed as laborers or farm helpers. The very size of the land area prohibited the Chickasaws from taking over all of it and before long the number of white men began to grow. The region also was soon discovered as a haven for the “nightriders” and others who had run afoul of the law or sought to lose their identity.

As time passed the nation was torn and pressed by ever-increasing encroachment by the whites. Laws were enacted at Tishomingo to deal with the problems but their enforcement was foredoomed by lack of understanding and deliberate flouting of the rules by the whites.

Mrs. Maude Hicks of Ardmore
Mrs Maude Hicks who came to Ardmore in 1902 at the ago of 20 donned an old-fashioned bonnet similar to one she wore as a girl when she attended the party. The picture was taken in Whittington Park.

As a result of activities within the nation during the Civil War, the United States found an excuse to nullify the treaties of 1828 and 1837 in which the Choctaws and Chickasaws had been assured the land as “long as grass grows and the rivers run.”

The white men wanted this land and the white men were going to have the land. The Indians were in line for a series of moves which eventually would make it possible for the white men to rule the land which once had been the community property of the Choctaws and Chickasaws.

The business of raising cattle was becoming gigantic in the Texas country to the south and the lucrative means of turning beef into spendable dollars was spreading into the nation. Texas cattle were being driven up the trails to the Kansas shipping points and it is easy to visualize the Texans taking more than passing note of the lush grasslands which the Indians controlled.

The Indian leaders were not altogether ignorant of the situation or the intentions of the cattlemen and would not readily submit to having them take over the land. However, a permit system for the ranchmen was instituted and satisfied both the citizens and non-citizens—for a period at least.

The early permit rules provided that the non-citizens could live in and pasture their cattle in the nation by paying an annual fee of 25 cents. This tax was increased to $1 a year, and by 1876 was up to $5 annually. In addition, a tax of 25 cents per head of cattle also was levied.

In some respects, this system worked against the Indians as it actually made their land more attractive to outsiders and served to draw in the white men in droves. Texas ranchers, especially, took advantage of the situation as it offered them an opportunity to push across the Red River into the prized land they so long had viewed from the other side of the stream. Many of these white men ultimately married Chickasaw women and, by that act, became intermarried citizens of the nation and acquired equal claim to the common range. This wiped out the permit and tax barrier for them, and a claim to a tract of land depended upon occupancy and improvements made upon it.

Cotton When It Meant Money In Carter
Cotton When It Meant Money In Carter

This system, coupled with the previous land policies, made it practically impossible to designate correct boundaries. In fact, at this point, such boundaries were not wanted, on paper at least.

In June of 1866, the Indians had been forced into a treaty under which their Negro slaves became “freedmen.” The treaty also required the Chickasaws to confer full tribal citizenship on these freedmen and give each and each descendant thereof 40 acres of land. The Chickasaws did not have the right of individual ownership of land. The treaty demanded that if they failed to adopt the freedmen and give them the land, the United States government would take $300,000 which was admitted by the U.S. as being due the Chickasaws for their western lands which had been taken away, and use this money to remove the freedmen and set them up elsewhere.

US Marshals In 1916
US Marshals In 1916 — These men were among those who helped bring law and order to the region in the days of infancy. Left to right are Arthur Nisbit, Dick Hignight and Dow Brazel.

The Indians refused to accept the freedmen, and they were not removed by the federal government, which, incidentally, did not return the $300,000 either.

An impasse developed and existed until 1898 when the Indians flatly turned down the proposal. The Curtis Act in 1898 provided that all tribal lands should be allocated to members of the tribe individually. The Dawes Committee, operating under the Curtis Act, proposed to enroll all members of the tribe, including the freedmen. Douglas H. Johnson, governor of the Chickasaws, made an appeal and through his moving speeches and discussions was successful in gaining a separation of the rolls.

This legal tangle helps explain why the designation of land ownership was a nebulous and troublesome thing down through the years.

The tough, swaggering railroad gangs made their appearance in the territory in the mid-1880s and by 1887 the Santa Fe Railroad had built its line across the nation. This made a handy method for the influx of new settlers and towns which, without much foundation, began to spring up.

It was during this time also that the lusty living held sway and the lawless elements did little to foster goodwill or improve the communities. It was not unusual for several killings to take place in a short period. Whisky was doled out in large quantities and “shooting up the town” was a common sport.

Slowly but surely, the Indians were beginning to realize that they faced the prospect of being permanently deprived of their property. Lands in the western part of the nation were in the hands of white intruders. There was a white population of non-citizens of about 50,000. The Chickasaw population of some 4,000 could not hope to hold its own under such circumstances. It was in 1896 that the Indians appealed to the federal government for aid.

This resulted in the Dawes Committee coming in and compiling the tribal rolls and setting up the land surveys which were to establish ownership and open the gates for exploitation of the region on a large scale. The rolls listed 6,185 Indian, mixed blood, and white citizens and 5,670 Negro freedmen, records disclose. The Indians were given 320 acres each, and the freedmen, after all of the years, received 40 acres each. This process of cutting the earth into mythical plots designated by boundaries on a map was a time-consuming task and it wasn’t until 1906 that the city of Ardmore was laid out by the surveyors. With the coming of statehood in 1907, the governmental functions of the Chickasaw Nation ceased to exist.

John B Jones
John B Jones served for many years as deputy U. S. marshal under Ben Colbert before statehood.

The ranchers, as has been shown, were among the earliest known settlers in Carter County, and Adam Jimmey, who in 1841 lived about four miles south of what is Ardmore, was one of the first. It was from this pioneer that the area received the name “Adam Jimmey’s Prairie.”

As time went by, other ranch holdings developed, among them the A-Bar Ranch, McCoggin Ranch, J.S. Washington Ranch, and the Roff Ranch.

Sources show the first post office in the region, as far as can be determined, was the one at Healdton, which was established Feb. 26, 1883. Next to be set up was Dresden on the Washita River near what became Berwyn.

Because of the nature of the land and the intruders who came in—many of them under the cloud of lawlessness—the villages which formed remained small. None really developed into a town of any size through its original resources. Ardmore was the exception. Other villages grew slowly until the land rush was over, after which some actually lost residents.

J.W. Orme established Healdton in 1885, though mail had been delivered to the residence of a Mr. Mason earlier. Orme leased land from C.H. Heald and named the town in his honor. The settlement grew rapidly and a cotton gin and mill were established in a short time. Early settlements were made in the Washita Valley in the neighborhood of Berwyn. A ferry known as Henderson’s Ferry was established on the Washita River in 1870, a store was opened, and a village called Lou grew up. Later the name was changed to Dresden. When the railroad was built through the region in 1887, the station nearby was given the name of Berwyn. In 1941 the name again was changed, to Gene Autry to honor the film actor who acquired a ranch in the area.

In the northwest part of the county was located Elk, a village which grew up as ranching gave way to farming. After 1907, the name was changed to Pooleville in honor of E.R. Poole, a resident. Today, Pooleville is a ghost town.

Fifteen miles northwest of Ardmore, a settlement erupted and was called Newport. In the heart of a farming area, it served as an important spot in the county until industrialization took over.

Another of the pioneer communities was Hewitt in the western part of the county. By 1885 there was a school there and when the Ringling Railroad was built in the 1880s. Under the Curtis Act, the town was incorporated in 1898 and the town still caters to a trade territory.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, a portion of Pickens County was renamed Carter County in honor of Ben Carter, a prominent Indian of the Chickasaw Nation. Ardmore became the seat of the new county.

In 1913, oil on a paying basis was discovered in the western part of the county, and the valuation was raised 200 percent in less than 10 years. Within a few months after the production was reported, the entire physical, social, and industrial scene of the county had changed.

In Front of the General Store at Berwyn
In Front of the General Store at Berwyn


The history of Carter County : a pictorial history of Carter County, covering both the old and new, Fort Worth, Texas : University Supply and Equipment, 1957.

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