Poteau's Origins: The First White Settlers
The Early Years
Nearly a decade after the final shot was fired during the Civil War, westward expansion was in full gallop. Many people fled from homes that had been ravaged by the American Civil War and headed west towards the untamed wilds in search for a new start. Many of these early settlers passed through Fort Smith and on into the Indian Territory.
Just before this influx of new settlers, the area around modern day Poteau was a hunter and trapper's paradise. There was plenty of wild game, such as black bear, panther, timber wolves, and along the Poteau River, there were raccoon and other small fur bearing animals.
While most of the early settlers were hard working, law-abiding citizens, infamous groups such as the Belle Starr gang, the Cole-Younger Gang, and outlaws such as Frank and Jesse James still roamed the countryside.
The first pioneers in LeFlore county included gamblers, whiskey peddlers, speculators, and vagabond squatters on Indian land. Along with this group, other more law-abiding citizens came to settle the country. These early settlers found a hard life waiting for them. The mountainous region where Poteau now stands was covered with dense forests and tall sage grass. Hunting was bountiful, but newcomers quickly had to learn how to deal with the coyotes and cougars that ranged throughout the mountains.
While many Choctaw Indians already lived in the area around modern-day Poteau, white migration into the area did not occur until 1875. Bill Allen and his family were the first to arrive. They bought large tracts of land from the Choctaw and immediately began making improvements.
James Wilson and his family also settled in the Poteau area but they only stayed for a year. In 1874, they loaded their possessions in a covered wagon and moved from Indiana to Tamaha in the Indian Territory. They arrived after spending many weeks traveling over shoddy roads and immediately began constructing a rudimentary shelter and planting crops to sustain them. After a year of trying to barely survive, the hardships became too much. They had lived in the Indian Territory for a little less than a year, and, after the fall harvest, they had to give up and return to Indiana.
Sam Yost was nine years old when James Wilson brought him to Indian Territory. After the Wilson's left, Yost moved to the base of Sugar Loaf Mountain and lived with a full-blood Choctaw family by the name of Seerat. Seerat owned a large farm and ranch, and needing help, took Sammy on and brought him up as his own. While Yost never lived in Poteau Switch, he was one of the first white men to permanently settle in the area.
The Davis Family
In 1881, Buck and Hester Davis were the third white family to arrive in the area. They settled on the hill immediately west of Tarby Lake, presently named Poteau City Lake, near where the St. Louis and San Francisco and Kansas City Southern tracks cross.
When Buck Davis moved his family from Sugar Loaf Creek to the future Poteau area, he moved with horses and wagons. Besides bringing his immediate family, several of his relatives also followed him to the area. Among those relatives were Davis's younger sister and husband, Ophelia Davis and John Calloway Monroe Maxey, as well as Hester's sister and husband, Dezina Noe and Robert Wilson Turman.
Travel to the Town Creek area was rough for the Davis family. Before modern water control was established, the Poteau River was wildly unpredictable. By the time they arrived at the river, the waters were up and the river churned violently. Knowing that it was unsafe to cross, they dumped their belongings on the bank and waited for the water to go down. When the water finally went down, they carefully crossed the river at what was then called Anderson Ford. Anderson Ford was most likely directly east of the end of modern day Roanoke Avenue, just before the river curve.
Once they arrived at Tarby Lake, the Davis family set about building a one-room peeled log house. Within this ten by twenty foot log house, there were three beds and a fireplace to keep the family warm. Shortly after the log home was built, they built a log smoke house in back.
Throughout the first years of Poteau’s history, Buck Davis would be instrumental in the development of the future town.
The closest town during this time was Kulley Chaha, located almost five ½ miles northeast of present day Poteau. The few families that lived in the area had to travel to Kully Chaha for supplies. Travel was rough, and the men traveling on horseback had to ford the Poteau River to get to the town.
After settling in, Buck Davis began taking his skiff-boat across the river, just below where the Slough runs into the river. He would then use this boat to carry people across the river, and swim their horses to the opposite side. As this crossing became more popular, Davis decided to build a ferryboat. He cut pine logs and hewed the gunwales by himself. He then he went up to Pace's Saw Mill, which was located above the McKenna Fruit Farm on Cavanal Mountain, to get lumber for the floor of the boat.
The sturdy ferry could easily accommodate a team and wagon, with enough room left over to walk around freely. Ramps were installed at either end to allow for easy loading and unloading. Four-foot high banisters ran along the length of the sides to ensure safety and to keep the horses in place. Once the ferry was running, Davis would typically charge fifty cents to ferry people across the river. During the times that the river was up, he would raise his price. The old ferry is most likely located where the current Old State Highway 112 Bridge crosses the Poteau River.
While this ferry helped spur the growth of the area, it also cost Davis the life of his son. While Buck Davis was constructing the ferry in 1884, he sent his son, Garret Wilson Davis, up to Cavanal Mountain to get lumber. Garret was about half way down the mountain when the wagon, stacked full with lumber, turned over and killed him. Garret was only nineteen years old.
The remaining children of Buck and Hester attended school in an old log house with dirt floors. The school was primitive by most standards, but it sufficed. Jim Evans taught at the schoolhouse, and charged the students one dollar a month to attend. While this fee paid for his salary and other teaching supplies, it did not leave enough left over for furniture. The children had to use the windowsills for seats.
After Buck Davis arrived in Poteau, other families slowly began trickling in. Even though the Choctaw originally owned the land, they didn’t mind this new migration of white settlers. In fact, they used this to their advantage. Indians received royalties from income generated by these settlers. Most of these royalties were generated from mining and lumber.
Benjamin Harper was among those few pioneers who also decided to make the area his home. Despite his meager education, he would grow to become one of Poteau’s most influential citizens.
Harper was only 16 when he was thrust out into the world to fend for himself. When he was a young boy, his father died in the Civil War. Six months after his sixteenth birthday, his mother died, and young Harper had to decide what to do with his life.
For the next two years, Harper began his adult life earning pennies a day by working on a farm. In 1875, he decided to go into business for himself. Newly married, the small family bought a farm near Hackett City, where they spent the next few years making improvements on the property. By 1882, the industrious family had accumulated enough money to buy a large tract of land southeast of the old town of Poteau.
After purchasing this land, Harper then built a large, two-story house near the foot of Cavanal Mountain. His early successes in the agriculture industry vaulted him into a whirlwind of activity. During the next few years, he continued to purchase land near Poteau. He owned a twelve-acre fruit farm, several cattle farms and a large ranch where he raised horses. Besides his agricultural successes, he was made several profitable banking investments. He promoted the first cotton gin in the area, helped establish the first planing mill in Poteau, and owned a large sawmill that supplied much of early Poteau’s lumber.
The House Family
Throughout the early 1880’s, Poteau remained a serene agricultural community. Farms dotted the countryside, intermixed with large strands of pine and hardwood forests. Developed roads were non-existent, and residents had to travel over an hour on horseback to reach the nearest general store. As more people trickled in, the population of the area grew significantly.
Another early settler in Poteau Switch was Millard “Bud” House. He came to Poteau Switch with his parents in 1885. In the late 1870’s, they made the trip into Indian Territory from Arkansas by ox team and wagon. From that time until 1885, it is unknown where they lived, however, it is possible that they settled somewhere around Kully Chaha.
After arriving at Poteau Switch, they leased a small tract of land from a full blood Choctaw Indian by the name of Isreal Huentobie. There was a double log house on the tract of land and fifteen acres were ready for cultivation. Millard’s father worked as a logger while the rest of the family cultivated the land. They raised corn on all the land except for a small garden patch, which was reserved for family use. It took a great deal of corn for the three yoke of oxen used in logging, and corn had to be bought when the corn they had raised had been used up. They paid from 50 cents to one dollar per bushel for the corn in which they bought.
Millard's father was an experienced timber man. His father and J. W. Cooper took a job of cutting logs and rafting them to a mill at Fort Smith. Mr. House did this for seven years. The logs were mostly cut on Sugar Creek and were mostly Walnut, Cedar, and Cherry, although some oak logs were cut. These logs were hauled to the Arkansas River at the nearest point where they were arranged on seventy-five to 100 foot rafts and floated to Fort Smith. Cooper and House kept twenty-four men for their logging operations.
At one time the river got very high and the rafts had to be watched very closely as they would be stolen. A large rowboat was used to follow and guide the rafts. Another time, the river got so high that the great loss and damage was caused to the surrounding country and many heads of livestock were drowned. In following the log rafts the carcasses of many hogs, cattle, and other stock could be seen floating in the water or lodged in tree. The house family lost some cattle and hogs in the flood. The Indians had so many wild hogs in the river bottom that no estimate could be made of the hogs that they lost.
Later, Millard’s father was involved in the Oklahoma Land run when the Strip opened in 1893. He did not stake a claim and returned to Poteau. Shortly after he returned to Poteau, he gathered his family and moved to Cleveland. Oklahoma.
Bud Tate: The First General Store in Poteau
Another enterprising man saw great potential in the undeveloped area. In 1885, Bud Tate moved to Poteau. He built his home on what became the St. Louis and San Francisco right-of-way, south of where present day College Avenue and Broadway Streets cross. Tate lived in the back of this house, while the front served as the first general merchandise store in the area.
Along with the ferry that Buck Davis built a few years earlier, Tate’s store would serve as a major boon to the early development of Poteau. Residents no longer had to travel several miles to purchase much needed supplies. This convenience helped draw even more people to the Poteau area.
Despite the popularity of Tate’s store, it wouldn’t remain there for long. The following year, he was forced to move to a new location. The St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad company had bought the land in order to run a new railroad, and Tate’s house and store was located where the tracks needed to be laid.
Bud Tate wasn’t deterred; the store was too valuable to the community. John Dennis, and his son, Jim, built another store for Tate six hundred feet south of its former location, on what would become part of the courthouse lawn.
Following Tate's arrival, the old town of Poteau Switch quickly became a budding town. With the Frisco and the KCS railroads, the town's importance grew beyond measure. These early pioneers helped form Poteau in to what it is today.
The information for this article comes from research done for the book, "The Birth of Poteau", which can be purchased on Amazon.