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Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma: Stories from the WPA Narratives

Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma: Stories from the WPA Narratives

by Terri M. Baker

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They came in land runs and on the Trail of Tears, sometimes with families, sometimes alone. But the women who first came to Oklahoma all had trials to face—and stories to tell.

In this stirring collection, the women who settled what would become Oklahoma tell their own stories in their own words. From thousands of interviews conducted by the Work


They came in land runs and on the Trail of Tears, sometimes with families, sometimes alone. But the women who first came to Oklahoma all had trials to face—and stories to tell.

In this stirring collection, the women who settled what would become Oklahoma tell their own stories in their own words. From thousands of interviews conducted by the Work Projects Administration in 1936–37 and preserved in the Indian Pioneer Papers of Oklahoma, editors Terri M. Baker and Connie Oliver Henshaw have selected the words of women from a wide range of socioeconomic groups, ethnic backgrounds, and geographical locations to relate the pioneer experience as it was really lived.

Elegantly written, skillfully edited, Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma reflects the everyday will and courage to survive of Oklahoma’s founding mothers. It conveys the violence of a frontier culture set in a landscape of stark beauty where death was always just a heartbeat away. A vital part of the state centennial, theirs is the story of real Oklahoma, writ large—and in a distinctly female hand.

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Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma

Stories from the WPA Narratives

By Terri M. Baker, Connie Oliver Henshaw


Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8999-4


Coming to Indian Territory and Early Oklahoma

Indian Removal forced the southeastern tribes of the United States to journey to Oklahoma. To cross the Mississippi from the Southeast people boarded steamboats, and, after the crossing, some traveled waterways to landings in Indian Territory. Many others walked, following military roads cut through the dense woods and mountains of eastern Oklahoma.

Indian Territory trails established over hundreds of years by American Indians evolved into cattle trails, roads, railroads, and eventually modern highways. State Highway 81 follows the original Chisholm Trail over which Texas cattle were herded north to Kansas. The early Osage Trace (later the Texas Road) running north and south is now four-lane U.S. Route 69. Along this highway run the tracks of the first railroad in Oklahoma, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas line, known as the Katy. The Katy tracks entered Oklahoma in 1870 from Kansas and crossed the Red River into Texas in 1872. In 1871 the Frisco line initiated the east-west rails in the state. This opening of Oklahoma to rail travel was a part of the post–Civil War agreements imposed on the Five Tribes for their participation in the Civil War.

Railroads changed the economy, sped up communication with the outside world, and attracted and then supported a large non-Indian workforce. Businesses associated with railroads, such as lumbering, mining, and construction—as well as the land openings that began in 1889—also attracted significant numbers of non-Indians. Mixed in with these drifting populations were cowboys and tenant farmers, as well as outlaws, gamblers, and prostitutes. And this mixed population added to the lawlessness of the area. The railroads spurred on the cattle industry because most of the cattle drives ended at railheads where the cattle could be sold and organized for shipment out of the territory, leaving the drovers free to celebrate in the saloons amid the rowdier elements of the railroad towns. The cattle industry grew rapidly, and the novelty of trains invited people to gather in the towns to watch them roll in.

Lena's story exemplifies this pattern of changing transportation and its effects. Lena, a Choctaw, and her "white Indian" husband produced one son. Lena's son married the daughter of a man who wandered into Indian Territory and followed the gambling trail in the northeastern part of the territory with his Cherokee wife after the Civil War. The gambler, his Cherokee wife, and their children traveled the Texas Road south, where they became tenant farmers on the ranch owned by Lena and her husband. There the gambler–tenant farmer's daughter met and married Lena's son near Caddo, a town along the old Texas Road and the site of a railhead along the Katy. Such was the diversity of the experiences of travel to and within Indian Territory and early Oklahoma that people entered the area from all points of the compass in all manner of transport following all sorts of routes.

The interviews document that women traveled to get to Indian Territory and also traveled a good deal inside the general area, for the most part with men but sometimes alone or with their children, to find relatives or to get supplies. They frequently met with harsh conditions. Journeys of several weeks were sometimes required, and often travelers were beset by thunderstorms, floods, and high winds. Voyagers crossed rushing rivers, were endangered by stampedes, and camped in pouring rain. Of course, food was often scarce and emerged as a central theme on these excursions—travelers encountered wild game on the way; carried provisions such as poultry and flour; found native fruits ripe along the trails and hauled their cooking equipment along.

In the interviews the women did not speak of courage, apparently considering what we might label remarkable bravery to be simply the norm for getting around on the frontier.

Anglo from Texas, b. 1867

The rhythmic pounding of horses feet and the swishing of knee-high sage grass against the wagon were hardly audible above the bawling and bellowing of a herd of frightened, frenzied cattle which were surrounding and following the little caravan headed west through the old Wagoner Pasture of Oklahoma.

I sat in the wagon holding the reins, and beside me, pressed close to my side, was my little son, two years old. I was afraid we could be crushed and stomped by a wild stampede of cattle. Any way one looked there was a vast expanse of grass, miles and miles of it, melting away into the horizon, and there were herds of cattle as far as the eye could see.

Presently my husband wound his way among the cattle and rode up to the side of the wagon. He assured me that there was no danger from the cattle, and that no harm would befall me and I felt less fearful.

In the wagon were our household goods, behind came our cattle and horses which comprised all our worldly possessions.

We were headed for the plains of Texas, but we never reached them. This was in 1891, and we came west after a short stay in the eastern part of Oklahoma. Formerly we had lived in Dallas County, Texas. (31:159–60)

Anglo from Tennessee, b. none given

I arrived [in Muskogee, Indian Territory] on the evening of September 8, 1892. When the train pulled into the station, I noticed that the platform was swarming with people and I wondered what the attraction was. Later, I found out that the folks just went down to see the train come in. The one reporter from the one newspaper in town was there to take note of who stopped over or passed through. The next morning I looked out and the streets were perfect rivers, a terrible rain-storm having occurred in the night.

* * *

United States Court had been established in Muskogee not long before [1892] and the town was full of ambitious young lawyers and other young men who had been attracted to the new country. Among them was Mr. Clifford L. J[—] whom I afterward married; Mr. Wayman Crow Jackson; and Mr. N. A. Gibson, whom I had known in Tennessee. In fact I was, perhaps, in a way responsible for Mr. Gibson's coming to the Territory. He came to see us in our home in Brownsville, Tennessee, and said he would like to make a change and I suggested that he go to the Indian Territory. I gave him letters of introduction to Mr. C. L. J[—] and Mr. W. C. Jackson and he came west. On being pleased with the outlook for a young lawyer, he decided to locate in Muskogee. In the following April, he returned to Memphis and married his sweetheart, Miss Florence Davidson, and they immediately came to Muskogee. Mr. Gibson is now one of the most prominent attorneys in Oklahoma, located in Tulsa. (31:14, 16)

Anglo, b. none given

When we lived there at Bower, we were on the road from Eufaula to McAlester; one branch of the road also went east toward Quinton, Enterprise and Fort Smith. In those days there were no bridges in the Territory; you crossed the creeks and rivers at a ford or on a ferry. The Canadian River got up fast in those days. I remember once when we went to Eufaula that the river was low enough to ford, then, before we came back it was so high that we couldn't cross on a ferry. There was a ferry where the North and South Canadian Rivers ran together; it was called Brassfield's Ferry. There were other ferries at places all over the Indian Territory where traffic was thick enough to make them necessary and where the water was too deep to be forded easily.

In 1905 we moved to Newberg, close to where Atwood is now; the Missouri Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad was just coming through there. We lived in that community until after statehood. (89:30–31)

Anglo from Tennessee, b. 1-8-1870

My parents were married in England at a young age. Soon after this they sailed to America and settled in 1867 in Tennessee, where I was born January 18, 1870. When I was small, they moved to Texas where my father died.

I came with my mother to the Indian Territory in 1888 when I was eighteen years old. We came by wagon and team; this was in the days of riding skirts and side-saddles. I had a pony all of my own and this I rode most of the way from Texas. We crossed Red River near Gainesville on an old ferry boat known as Bounds ferry. After much persuasion my pony and I, with the wagon, went aboard the old ferry boat. The boat got stuck on the sand long before it banked and I rode my pony off into the river and came on out, then as we journeyed along in the Territory, which was almost a no-man's-land, I got the thrill of my life in this way. There was only one road and of course, we were traveling over it.

Drinking water was very scarce and as we were traveling along badly in need of water, I spied a spring some ways off the road and taking a jug from the wagon, I rode up to the spring, intending to return at once with water for the rest of the family, as they were driving on. I reached the spring and a man and woman were there. I got to talking to them and stayed longer than I intended and when I rode back to the road, I saw the wagon had gotten out of sight. I started pursuit and had gone only a short ways when all at once I came face to face with two Indians, the first I had ever seen. Well, I couldn't go back so I began lashing my pony with my riding quirt and I guess I would have run down those Indians had they not cleared the road. Anyway, after some two miles of hard racing, I caught up with the wagon and thereafter I kept in close contact with it as we traveled on. We were seven weeks on the road and finally stopped and settled at Chink, some few miles from where Ardmore now is. (89:34–36)

Anglo from Texas, b. 1-9-1877

You had as much land as you could fence around and care for up here. No one seemed to know who really owned it. There was no one to pay taxes to. The United States claimed it twice and Texas claimed it twice while my people occupied the land. We were two miles from Red River near the place where Boggy Creek runs into the Red River.

Years went by and the family was really a large clan with some of them living in Texas and some up here, and one was for all and all for one with whatever was needed. Mother and Father were married and I was born and other children were born. I was never very strong and the doctors thought that if I were brought farther north and allowed a wilder, freer life I possibly would get stronger. We made many trips back and forth always either in a covered wagon or on horseback. We encountered high waters and other dangers often.

I remember once we had to wait on the banks of Red River several days before we could cross as the water was so high we could not even be ferried across. There were quite a few people gathered on the banks of the river waiting. When it had run down enough to deem crossing safe, people began to drive their teams on the ferry boat and unhitch them from the wagons. All the people on the boat stood up and by the time we were in midstream, it was clearly noticeable that the boat was overloaded and was slowly sinking. You know, animals are very quick to sense danger and the horses became very restless. Father took all the harness off his horses leaving them free. He knew his horses were good swimmers and believed they would save themselves if they were free to do so. Grandmother was with us. Father came and stood near me and said to me, "Now if I get ready to jump, you cling to my coat and never turn loose for anything." Grandmother could swim too so we hoped to stand free. Not a person was making a sound except a few who had dropped to their knees and were praying. Some way we got across but the water in the boat was up to my waist when the boat touched the other bank. (89:61–63)

* * *

There was no place to go but Mother was always very strict about having us rest on Sunday. One Thursday Father came in to Mother and said, "The millet and oats are ready to cut and I simply must go to Chillicothe before I start cutting them. One day to go, one day to stay, and one day to come home will throw it on Sunday, but I simply must go." The team was gotten ready—we never started off for a trip without sheets and bows on the wagon and Father said that Sister and I could go with him. We trotted over and got there all right that night. We stayed in the wagon yard and as we were getting ready for bed, Father called to us, "Girls, you must arise early in the morning and get through your shopping for there is lightning in the southwest and you never know what the river will do when it rains—we must get started back."

The next morning it was raining but not hard. We got our errands done speedily and started for home, but when we got to the river, she was bank full. One of our uncles lived on the south bank of Red River. We turned and went to his house. We left home on the last day of May. This was now the first day of June. Every day we went to try and cross, but it was the fifteenth of June before we ever got home.

There was a small band of Indians who had been down to Wichita Falls waiting to cross. They had no provisions with them so were nearly starved. The day we did cross it took the Indians and all the cowboys on horses all day trying to settle the sand so we could cross. There was a bunch of people waiting to cross. When we got home after fifteen days, Mother had eaten everything like sugar, coffee, etc., up and was out of coal oil. She had taken lard and made a grease lamp in case any of them got sick in the night. She and the rest of the family did not get up until day light and went to bed at dark. (89:61–63, 72–73)

Anglo from Tennessee, b. 1890

It was the prettiest sight I ever saw. All that tall grass waving and the trees and flowers. We were thrilled ecstatic. We had to camp out one night, then we children got scared. We just expected the Indians to come and scalp us any minute. We could hear the owls hooting and the frogs hollering, but after a while when nothing had happened, we got over our fright and sat around the fire and roasted peanuts until late bedtime. We were too excited to think of going to sleep for a long time. But in the day time we had the most fun riding in the log wagon drawn by oxen. I cannot recall the name of the other family. (89:98)

Anglo from Texas, b. 1881

There were twelve children in my father's family of whom I was the oldest. Grandfather Jenkins, my mother's father made his home with us and sometimes members of my mother's family stayed with us, so there was a goodly family of us all indeed. All during my early childhood there was always talk of going to Greer County for free land for a homestead. Our home was sold in McLennan County [Texas] and we started. Father would come to some ranch man who wanted land cared for or a lot of work done; we would rent for a year or more and stay but always our yearning hearts wanted a lot of land and a home of our own.

In the early '90's Father came to Greer County but found so much confusion about titles that he decided to wait until he would know whether Texas or the Federal Government owned Greer County.

We stayed in Jack County several years and we never seemed to have enough water for the family or the stock. When the case was settled in 1896, Father came up to Greer County to buy a claim or to file on land. When he left the last words my mother said were, "Be sure and get a place with a lot of good water." Father could find no place in Greer County with good water as most places there had no water at all. He started home by way of Indian Territory but in and around Duncan he found plenty of good water and land to rent. It was a wooded country and Father thought that Mother would like that so he rented it and came on home to gather the crop and sell out all the things that he could and move to the Indian Territory.

We were a little leary [sic] of the Indians but Father rented from a white man and he told us he did not think there were many Indians that far south which proved to be true. I think it was December of the year for I remember the year was nearly gone when we got started. We had two covered wagons but not much household goods—mostly bedding and clothing in these wagons. We drove horses. We had a coop full of chickens tied on to one side of a wagon and an old white cow on a lead rope behind one wagon. We have everything to camp with, a skillet, a bucket to make coffee in and a Dutch oven to bake bread. We had one tent that was put up every night and all who could not sleep under the tent slept in the wagon.

We were about a week making the trip. (89:110–12)

Anglo from Texas, b. 1872

Now in 1899 our family and four other families started from Archer County, Texas, in five covered wagons with a hundred and fifty head of cattle and some horses. When we got to Archer City there were fifty more covered wagons on their way to Oklahoma Territory. I remember one night we got all of the cattle bedded down and we ourselves went to bed. We woke up early next morning and every one of the cattle were gone. My husband went back four or five miles hunting for them. Finding no trace of them, he came back and went down the road that we were to go on and found them down the road about two miles and they had all bedded down again.


Excerpted from Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma by Terri M. Baker, Connie Oliver Henshaw. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Terri M. Baker, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is Professor of English at Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where she focuses on American Indian literature.

Connie Oliver Henshaw, who researches women of the nineteenth century, is an Instructor in the Department of Languages and Literature in the College of Liberal Arts at Northeastern State University.

M. Susan Savage, currently Oklahoma Secretary of State, is the first woman to have served as Tulsa Mayor.

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