Modern Muskogee

From 1872 to 1898 Muskogee had grown to be a thriving town of 3,500 inhabitants, with substantial homes, good store buildings and other public improvements, yet no person had title to the lot which he occupied and had improved. Such documents as warranty deeds and abstracts of title were unknown throughout the Indian Territory. The title to all of the real estate was vested in the Indian Tribes, each Indian having, by common consent, taken possession of a certain tract of land which he called his own, although he had no vested title nor deed of conveyance.

When a white man who was not a citizen of the tribe wanted to build a home or erect a business house, he simply rented or bought the right of possession to a lot from the Indian who was in possession of it. If a white man desired to sell or trade his home or store building, he could not execute a deed to his lot, but could only execute a bill of sale for his improvements, which carried with it the right to occupy the lot upon which the improvements were located.

Visitors and prospectors from the states, accustomed to warranty deeds and abstracts of title, were puzzled at this condition of affairs and were naturally slow to invest their money, either in’ buildings or lots. Old timers, however, who had invested their fortunes here, seemed to have implicit confidence in the Government and the tribe, hoping that at some time, in some manner, they would be able to secure complete title to the lots which they had improved and their confidence was not misplaced.

Condition Without Parallel

Prior to 1898 the condition of the white inhabitants of Indian Territory had no parallel anywhere in the history of the United States. Scores of villages of from one hundred to one thousand inhabitants, and thirty or more substantial towns having a population of from one thousand to thirty-five hundred, had grown up, having comfortable homes and spacious business houses, yet having no municipal governments, no public schools, no authority to raise funds by taxation, no real estate titles; yet all were fondly hoping that Congress would sooner or later furnish relief from their precarious condition.

The creation of the Dawes Commission by the Act of March 3, 1893, marked the beginning of congressional action looking toward the breaking up of tribal titles and conditions. This act provided for the appointment of three commissioners whose duties were to try to persuade the Five Civilized Tribes to agree to the extinguishment of their tribal titles to lands, either by selling the same to the United States or by allotment or division of their lands to the members of the tribes in severalty. By the Act of March 2, 1895, the commission was increased in number to five members. As stated elsewhere this commission did not meet with much success for several years, for the reason that the Indian tribes were emphatically opposed to abandoning their tribal titles, customs and mode of living. They were apparently willing to permit the white man to remain here, to rent their lands and carry on mercantile business, so long as he paid a reasonable occupation tax to the tribe, but they protested against any interference with their tribal institutions or conditions.

Act of June 10, 1896

On June 10, 1896, Congress passed an act enlarging the duties of the Dawes Commission by providing that it should proceed to hear and determine the applications of all persons who might apply for citizenship in any of the Five Tribes, and to make a complete roll of all persons who were entitled to tribal rights. This was the first step taken toward the curtailment of the authority of the tribal councils, for prior to the passage of this act, the tribal councils had, exclusive jurisdiction in the matter of determining who should be enrolled as members of their respective tribes.

This Act of Congress gave the commission a somewhat better standing with the Indians, for it convinced them that the commission would now do something besides “negotiating” with them.

Again, the Act of Congress of June 7, 1897, after making an appropriation for salaries and expenses of the Dawes Commission, provided that on and after January 1, 1898, the United States courts in Indian Territory should have original and exclusive jurisdiction and authority to try and determine all civil cases in law and equity thereafter instituted, and all criminal cases for the punishment of any offense committed after January 1, 1898, by any person in the Territory, and that this act should apply to all persons’ in the Territory, irrespective of race.
This act further provided that the laws thereafter enacted by the tribal legislatures should not take effect until approved by the President of the United States.

Prior to 1898 each tribal council or Legislature was unrestricted in its legislation and its courts had exclusive jurisdiction in causes of action arising between its own citizens. Thus, little by little, the Indian officials saw their tribal sovereignty disappearing, but they persistently refused to enter into any agreement with the Dawes Commission, concerning the disposition or division of their lands. They repeatedly reminded the commission that their old treaties provided that these lands should be theirs “as long as grass grows and water runs,” and that they should possess and enjoy it, unhampered by the white race.

By this time the leading members of Congress decided that the time had arrived when more drastic ‘action on their part was necessary and on June 28, 1898, the Curtis bill, which, perhaps, was the most far-reaching in its effects, of any act of Congress applying to Indian Territory, became a law.

The Curtis Act

This act gave the Dawes Commission and the Federal Courts jurisdiction in determining the status and rights of a large class of men who had settled upon lands, claiming to be Indian citizens, but whose tribal rights had been denied by the Indian authorities.

It provided that when the roll of Indian citizenship of any tribe should be completed and its land surveyed, the Dawes Commission should proceed to allot its lands among its citizens, giving to each, as far as possible, his fair and equal share.

It provided that any town having a population of two hundred or more might incorporate as provided by the statutes of Arkansas and proceed to form a municipal government.
It provided for a town site commission for each incorporated town, with power to survey and plat town sites, and to decide how much the claimant of any lot should pay to the tribe in order to perfect his title.

That the secretary of the interior should have the right to locate an Indian inspector in the Indian Territory to perform any duties required of him. This inspector, in the person of Hon. J. George Wright, arrived in Muskogee about August 20, 1898, and was practically the governor of the Territory for several years afterward.

It provided that the United States would no longer pay tribal money over to the tribal officials for disbursement, but that such payments would thereafter be made by the secretary of the interior or his agents directly to the individual members of the tribe.

The Curtis bill also included and approved the agreement, which the Dawes Commission had finally persuaded the Choctaws and Chickasaws to enter into, providing for the individual allotment of their lands.

Although the agreement between the Dawes Commission and the Creek Nation, providing for the allotment of Creek lands and the winding up of all the tribal affairs of the Creeks, was not approved until March 1, 1901, and the Cherokee agreement, July 1, 1902, yet the passage of-the Curtis act was a signal for everybody to get busy.

The Dawes Commission brought several hundred men to Muskogee, who were employed as surveyors, land appraisers, field agents, stenographers and clerks. The annual salaries and expenses of the commission were gradually increased from forty thousand to about four hundred thousand dollars.

Owing to the illness, due to advanced age, of United States Senator Dawes, who had been designated as chairman of the commission, he was unable to give the work much personal attention, and Hon. Tams Bixby was appointed acting chairman, and the influence of his indefatigable energy was soon manifested throughout all branches of the commission’s work. Some idea of the magnitude of the task of the Dawes Commission may be gained by noting that it included the equitable division of 29,523,966 acres of land of almost every imaginable kind and quality, among 101,505 legal claimants. In addition to examining and passing upon the legal status of the 101,505 Indian citizens, who were found to be legally entitled to share in the tribal lands and funds, the commission was compelled to investigate and decide upon the claims of thousands of other applicants who were rejected. Carloads of ignorant, shiftless people were shipped into the territory from the southern states, by designing schemers, in the reckless endeavor to get them enrolled as possessing a greater or less degree of, Indian blood, and their claims had to be investigated and decided by the commission. In short, the task of the commission was no less than that of settling up more than one hundred thousand individual estates.

Separate Agencies Abolished

When the Government abolished the separate agencies, which for many years had been maintained for each tribe, and established in their stead the Union Agency for all the Five Tribes, with headquarters at Muskogee, the office of Indian, agent became one of great magnitude and responsibility, and brought to Muskogee two hundred or more additional stenographers and clerks, many of whom were women.

The work of the Indian agent, in a large measure supplemented that of the Dawes Commission. He had charge of the business of regulating the trade and intercourse between the whites and Indians.

He collected the royalties on oil, coal and asphalt, which were due the various tribes.
He collected the payments due the tribes on the sale of town lots throughout the territory.
It became his duty to place each allottee in possession of the land assigned to him by the commission, and to remove there from all squatters or other adverse claimants.

Under the direction of the United States Indian inspector, it occasionally became his duty to remove certain white men, who had become obnoxious or objectionable to the Indians, from the boundaries of Indian Territory.

He had to report upon the advisability of removing the restrictions of certain Indians so that they might handle and dispose of their land as they saw fit.

Upon the Indian agent was also devolved the task of opening public roads on the section lines throughout the Territory.

He was required to collect the tribal tax on cattle belonging to non-citizens and also the tribal tax imposed on non-citizen merchants, lawyers, physicians and others engaged in business throughout the Territory.

He was also the disbursing agent for the Five Tribes, having to make occasional distributions of money to the individual Indians, which payments usually amounted to several million dollars annually.

The arrival of these numerous Federal employees, together with the frequent visits of hundreds of Indians, attorneys and. witnesses on Indian business, aided very materially in causing Muskogee to change very quickly from the character of a quiet, frontier village to that of a thriving, modern city.

Source: Benedict, John D. Muskogee and northeastern Oklahoma, including the counties of Muskogee, McIntosh, Wagoner, Cherokee, Sequoyah, Adair, Delaware, Mayes, Rogers, Washington, Nowata, Craig, and Ottawa. 3 v. illus., ports., facsims. 28 cm. Chicago, S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1922.

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