Immediately following the disastrous fire of February 23, 1899, which destroyed nearly all of the business section of Muskogee, the citizens made an earnest appeal to the Secretary of the Interior to appoint a townsite commission to survey and plat the town lots and fix the appraised value thereof, as provided by the Curtis Act of the previous year.
Prior to this date a prosperous town of 4,000 inhabitants, with well-built homes and substantial brick store buildings, had been built up, with no one having a valid title to the lot upon which he had made improvements. The fee simple title was still vested in the Indian tribe and the occupant had acquired only a possessory right to it from some Indian who had formerly occupied it. Homes were sold and exchanged by bills of sale, instead of deeds, that document conveying title to the improvement, but only a preference right of possession to the lot. The newcomer who had been accustomed to warranty deeds and abstracts of title, was naturally inclined to view such titles with suspicion, but the pioneers who had built their homes and store buildings, had faith in the Government and believed that, in some way or other, it would eventually provide some modus operandi by which they could secure title to the lots which they occupied.
The town-site law provided that for each town a commission might be appointed, consisting of three members, one to be appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, one member by the chief of the nation and one by the town. For Muskogee, the Secretary of the Interior appointed Dwight W. Tuttle, of Connecticut, as chairman and disbursing agent; the town appointed John Adams, who served as clerk; Chief Pleasant Porter declined to make any appointment and the Secretary of the Interior named Benjamin Marshall as the third member.
Mr. Tuttle was a typical Yankee, unfamiliar with the manners and customs of the Wild West, but he entered upon his task with a zeal characteristic of the Connecticut Yankee; Mr. Adams was an old resident of Muskogee, and Mr. Marshall, a Creek, still resides in Muskogee:
The commission was empowered to have the town surveyed into lots and blocks and to appraise each lot at its fair cash value. Any person having possession of a lot upon which there were permanent improvements, had the right to secure a deed to it, signed by the Secretary of the Interior and the chief of the Creek Nation, upon paying to the tribe one-half of the appraised value of the lot. The appraisements were not excessive, ranging usually from $20 to $100 per lot. Immediately there began a boom in building. Many substantial residences and store buildings were erected, but many of the outlying lots were soon . dotted with shacks, from 6 to 10 feet square, built in order to give public notice of claim of ownership and to take advantage of the one-half payment clause.
The law permitted each person to claim but one vacant lot at the appraised value, but certain persons who foresaw a city of rapid growth, listed many lots in the names of their friends, mostly non-residents, in order to secure deeds to them by paying the low appraisement. This scheme resulted in protracted litigation and much annoyance to people who wanted to build homes.
Attorneys W. L. Sturdevant of St. Louis and M. L. Mott were appointed by the Government to institute suits for canceling such deeds. Several hundred suits were brought, locally known as “Mott suits,” which beclouded the title to hundreds of lots for twelve or more years, but were finally compromised and settled by the payment of an agreed amount in excess of the appraised price of the lots. It was an unfortunate affair for Muskogee, inasmuch as the cry “Beware of the Mott suits” caused prospective investors to be suspicious of town lot titles and delayed the building of many houses.
In the Cherokee Nation the town site work was somewhat simplified by reason of the fact that the Cherokee Council had provided for the incorporation of towns and the sale of lots to citizens.
Fort Gibson was the first incorporated town in Indian Territory.
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.