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Stories of Old-Time Oklahoma
By David Bary
University of Oklamoha PressCopyright © 2013 David Dary
All rights reserved.
The Cross Timbers
THE FIRST OUTSIDER TO BRING Oklahoma's Cross Timbers to the world's attention was Washington Irving, the prominent nineteenth-century American writer best known for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." He made a tour through what is now Oklahoma in 1832. The full story of Irving's visit is told elsewhere between these two covers, but he found much of the Cross Timbers impassible. These upland forests have an abundance of post oaks, blackjacks, hickories, and elms plus a heavy undergrowth of grape vines and greenbriers. The Cross Timbers stretch from southeastern Kansas south across Oklahoma and deep into North Texas.
Washington Irving wrote that Indians on hunting expeditions west of the Cross Timbers frequently started fires that burned east, penetrating the forests and "sweeping in light transient flames along the dry grass, scorching and calcining the lower twigs and branches of the trees and leaving them black and hard." Irving added that he would "not easily forget the mortal toil and vexations of the flesh and spirits that we underwent occasionally, in our wanderings through the Cross Timber. It was like struggling through forests of cast iron."
Two years later, in the summer of 1834, Col. Henry Dodge traveled with his dragoons through the Cross Timbers in what is now southern Oklahoma. Dodge described them as a great thicket "composed of nettles and briars so thickly matted together as almost to forbid passage." Josiah Gregg, a Santa Fe trader who traveled through the area several times during the early 1840s, described the Cross Timbers as the "fringe" of the great prairies. "Most of the timber appears to be kept small by the continued inroads of the 'burning prairies'; for, being killed almost annually, it is constantly replaced by scions of undergrowth; so that it becomes more and more dense every reproduction."
Randolph B. Marcy, a career army officer, led an expedition in 1852 to search for the source of the Red River. He observed that "the Cross Timbers appear to have been designed as a natural barrier between civilized man and the savage, as upon the east side there are numerous springs, abundance of timber, exuberant vegetation, and an interspersion of glades and small prairies." In contrast, Marcy described the region west of the Cross Timbers as "barren and desolate wastes" with few streams and little woodland along water courses. Marcy's 1853 report to the Thirty-second Congress established the Cross Timbers in the public mind as a demarcating line between the civilized East and the frontier West. In fact, the expression "beyond the Cross Timbers" came to signify the West and its challenges and opportunities in the minds of many Americans. By 1835, one government map published in Washington, D.C., labeled the Cross Timbers as the "western boundary of habitable land."
Before the arrival of the white man, scientists believe, the Cross Timbers covered more than 30,000 square miles. The size began to shrink after Indian Territory was opened to settlement in 1889 and settlers began clearing trees on many level areas of the Cross Timbers to plant crops or provide grazing for their livestock. This continued well into the twentieth century.
Today the size of the Cross Timbers is considerably smaller than in the early nineteenth century. Some scientists believe that only about five hundred square miles of ancient Cross Timbers still survive in the rugged uplands of eastern Oklahoma. Growing in the soil under the trees is a wealth of plant species, some rare and native to Oklahoma. Natural conditions seem to have preserved the surviving Cross Timbers. The trees are not ideal for lumber production. Then too, these short, stout oaks grow on steep terrain and poor soil not suitable for agriculture.
In one area of northeastern Oklahoma near Sand Springs, the ancient trees are protected. At the Keystone Ancient Forest Preserve, scientists found a red cedar more than five hundred years old growing on a sandstone bluff. Not far away was another ancient post oak more than four hundred years old and standing only twenty feet tall. The Cross Timbers region in Oklahoma is one of the least disturbed forest areas left in the eastern half of the United States.
Eastern interest in the Cross Timbers gradually faded after the run of 1889, and the area itself gradually shrank as settlers cleared land to grow crops. That decline went generally unnoticed. Even today, although people notice their subtle beauty, the remaining Cross Timbers receive little attention from the public and are rarely associated with Oklahoma's colorful history. Even the fact that the Cross Timbers constitute the largest single type of ecosystem in Oklahoma is generally forgotten. Animals and plants depend on the system, which in turn depends on them.
The Cross Timbers are a big part of Oklahoma's cultural heritage. More than a century ago they provided wood for the Indians and pioneers, a home for wildlife that kept the human population fed and clothed, and hiding places—not only for wildlife but also for Anglo-Americans trying to avoid hostile Indians and Indians wanting to ambush their enemies. The surviving Cross Timbers provide oxygen and protect the soil from erosion and continue to be important to the state's ecology. But they must not be forgotten as a living monument to the history of Oklahoma, a treasure that should be preserved.CHAPTER 2
Some Wild Creatures
WILD BUFFALO, GRAY AND RED wolves, black bears, pumas, and pronghorns once freely roamed what is now Oklahoma. Most of the wild species are gone. Zoos, wildlife refuges, and a few private citizens, however, preserve living examples of some of these magnificent animals.
The American buffalo or bison (Bison bison) was made the official animal of Oklahoma by a resolution in the state senate in 1972. Long before the first Europeans arrived, thousands upon thousands of buffalo roamed what is now Oklahoma.
The buffalo is the largest mammal native to the state. A full-grown bull might stand five or six feet tall at the shoulder or high part of the hump and weigh from 1,900 to 2,500 pounds. Some old-timers on the southern plains claimed to have seen bulls weighing 3,000 pounds.
The buffalo provided Indians with the essentials for life. Large groups of Indians on foot would surround or circle as many buffalo as they needed and then kill the animals with lances and bows and arrows. After the Spanish brought horses into North America and Indians acquired them, a few Indian hunters on horseback could kill what buffalo they needed for food. The buffalo, however, provided more than meat for the Indians.
Buffalo robes provided Indians warmth in winter. The hides scraped clean of hair provided material for garments and ropes. From sinew Indians made bowstrings and twine, and the animal provided tallow and grease. Buffalo bones were used as implements and weapons, and glue was produced from the animal's hoofs. Buffalo chips provided fuel for fires and were sometimes stacked like stones for markers.
Historical evidence suggests that Indians killed only as many buffalo as they needed until the arrival of white traders, with whom Indians began trading buffalo robes for goods. During one year in the 1860s, a Kansas trader obtained 23,600 robes from the Comanches and 3,500 robes from Apaches and Cheyennes in Indian Territory. The Osage and Kaw Indians traded 4,000 robes. The best robes were taken from buffalo killed in late fall and during the winter when the animal's hair was longest.
Following the Civil War, Texas cattlemen drove their herds of longhorns north to the Kansas cattle towns. George W. Saunders recalled that in 1870, "the plains were literally covered" with buffalo. Some of Saunders's cowboys raced toward a herd and tried in vain to kill some buffalo with their pistols. Another Texas cattleman, B. A. Barroum, recalled that as his herd of longhorns traveled midway between the Red Fork and the Salt Fork rivers in 1874, his cowboys had to stop their cattle until a very large herd of buffalo passed.
Killing buffalo for their robes changed in the early 1870s when the world's supply of cattle hides dwindled. Tanners looked for new sources and in 1872 found that buffalo hide could be used to make a strong leather. It was then that the white man's slaughter of the buffalo began in earnest on the southern plains. Although hunters were told not to hunt buffalo in Indian Territory, most ignored the warning and hunted them in what is now the Oklahoma Panhandle and the western half of the state. Neal Evans, a trader at Fort Sill, obtained hides from Indians and shipped about 10,000 a year to eastern tanneries. Many thousands of buffalo were slaughtered in what is now Oklahoma, but exactly how many were killed is not known.
By 1877, nearly all but a handful of wild buffalo on the southern plains had been slaughtered for their hides. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, wild buffalo were only a memory. By then a small group of men in the East had begun trying to save the animal from extinction by organizing the American Bison Society in 1905. One society member, William T. Hornaday of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., offered to donate a few buffalo if the federal government would establish a refuge in what is now southwestern Oklahoma. Congress agreed and established the National Wichita Forest Reserve—now the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge—north of Lawton. Just before Oklahoma officially became a state, fifteen buffalo were shipped by train to the preserve and turned loose.
Whites and Indians alike hailed the return of buffalo to Oklahoma. Several hundred wild buffalo roam the refuge today, and motorists can see them close up as they drive through the open range. Hundreds of live wild buffalo may also been seen on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska and on the farms and ranches of many private citizens who also are saving the buffalo for fun and profit.
Just before the state's centennial, the Spirit of the Buffalo project started by the Nature Conservancy introduced large fiberglass buffalo decorated by Oklahoma artists. These buffalo can be seen at different locations in the Oklahoma City metro area.
GRAY AND RED WOLVES
Gray wolves (Canis lupus) once roamed the forests and plains of Oklahoma. They formed packs of six to ten animals made up of one or more families. Wolves mate for life and have litters of five to seven pups. Extremely social animals, wolves have a highly organized dominance hierarchy. They kill large and small game for food. While they often hunt buffalo, pronghorn, and deer, they also eat fruits and berries.
Like gray wolves, red wolves (Canis rufus) also once roamed the timberlands and plains. They are carnivores, generally hunt at night, and are good swimmers. Unlike the gray wolf, the red wolf has small litters, usually four pups. One of the earliest recorded sightings of wolves in the state occurred when Jean- Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe and his party were traveling through what is now Muskogee County near the modern town of Haskell. The year was 1718, and de la Harpe wrote, "One buffalo herd was followed by a pack of wolves as large as those in France."
A similar report was made in 1765 when French soldier Jean Baptiste Brevel passed through the Wichita Mountains heading for Santa Fe. He reported that gray wolves frequently followed herds of buffalo and elk. Most authorities believe that gray wolves still existed in Oklahoma as late as 1900, and full-blooded red wolves lived in the area until about 1950. Officially, both gray and red wolves are considered extinct in Oklahoma although there have been unconfirmed reports of grays seen in southwestern and northwestern Oklahoma including the Panhandle. Similar unconfirmed reports of red wolves have occurred in southeastern, south-central, and southwestern Oklahoma.
Black bears (Ursus americanus) were once plentiful in what is now Oklahoma, especially in the Cross Timbers of eastern and central Oklahoma. When Washington Irving toured Indian Territory in the 1830s, his party saw black bears at least five times. Josiah Gregg later reported observing them in the Cross Timbers where they lived chiefly on acorns and other fruits. Black bears were also common in the Wichita Mountains, and the skins of a female black bear and her cub killed there around 1900 are housed in the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian. Both animals were killed in the Wichita Mountains.
Early accounts of black bears in Oklahoma are plentiful, but their number declined rapidly as the animals were killed by hunters. One report suggests the last four black bears in the Wichita Mountains were killed in 1934, but in 2007 there were confirmed sightings of black bears in eastern Oklahoma. In 2009 Oklahoma permitted the hunting of no more than twenty black bears by hunters using bows and arrows or muzzleloaders. Some authorities believe the animals have migrated from the Ouachita and Ozark National Forest in Arkansas into the woodlands of eastern Oklahoma and even north into southwestern Missouri. They also are believed to exist in small numbers in southwestern and northwestern Oklahoma, and also toward the western end of the Panhandle near Black Mesa.
Pumas (Puma concolor), also called mountain lions and cougars, once were numerous in Oklahoma. One early account by explorer and scientist Lt. J. W. Albert in 1845 relates how his party flushed a puma from a deep ravine near the Canadian River about twenty to thirty miles from Antelope Buttes, now called Antelope Hills in modern Roger Mills County. In 1851, S. W. Woodhouse, a naturalist with the Sitgreaves expedition, sighted a puma near a swamp in Indian Territory. About a year later Capt. Randolph B. Marcy's party killed a puma measuring eight and one-half feet in length near the mouth of a branch of Cache Creek in modern Cotton County, and around 1900 another mountain lion was killed in the Wichita Mountains. Since then reports of cougar sightings have declined.
Mountain lions are usually solitary. The female can have three cubs per litter, and the young stay with their mother for nearly two years. They prefer living in woodlands, forests, mountains, and especially in high inaccessible areas. They are known for a "scream" call and mostly roam at night.
For years rumors have persisted that the Oklahoma state fish and game people released mountain lions into the state to keep the deer population down. There is no truth to these rumors that appear to have been concocted by deer hunters who liked to tell tall tales around their campfires.
Some authorities believe a few mountain lions wander into the Oklahoma Panhandle from New Mexico and into eastern Oklahoma from Arkansas following major waterways or traveling through thinly populated areas while others are probably native to Oklahoma. During the last half of the twentieth century, mountain lions were reported in rural areas of the eastern, southwestern, and western portions of the state as well as in the western part of the Panhandle.
Confirmed reports of mountain lions in Oklahoma have been documented in recent years. Remains of a dead mountain lion were found on a ranch in Dewey County, and another was struck and killed by a motorist near Purcell just off I-35. In 2004, a train struck and killed a mountain lion in north-central Oklahoma about forty miles south of Arkansas City, Kansas. The 114-pound animal was wearing a radio collar attached by wildlife scientists from South Dakota State University. The mountain lion was last tracked by its collar in the Black Hills of Wyoming hundreds of miles from Oklahoma. At the start of 2010, Ryan Ritter, an Atoka businessman, photographed a mountain lion on a trail camera crossing his property in southeastern Atoka County.
Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) were numerous throughout most of modern Oklahoma before settlement. They existed everywhere but in the cypress-oak floodplains, the oak-hickory-pine Ouachita Highlands, and the oak-hickory Ozark Plateau. Seemingly preferring the open grasslands that provided excellent grazing, pronghorns were once almost as numerous as buffalo, some authorities believe. The animals can reportedly sprint up to seventy miles per hour and maintain speeds of up to forty miles per hour. Early explorers made note of this speed; Col. Randolph Marcy saw them in the Wichita Mountains in 1852 and observed that several greyhounds with his party could not catch the pronghorns.
Excerpted from Stories of Old-Time Oklahoma by David Bary. Copyright © 2013 David Dary. Excerpted by permission of University of Oklamoha Press.
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