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Stories of Old Oklahoma: Frontier Life in Poteau Switch Part II
White Man's View of Native Americans after arriving in Poteau
During the late 1800's, Indian Territory began to see a huge influx of white settlers. Following the arrival of the railroad, transportation routes were opened up that brought in even more people. Many Native American's opposed this as they saw it as the U.S. Government trying to take control of their lands. Others welcomed it, as it brought in more revenue and, as those few believed, more opportunity for the tribes.
Initially, many white immigrants married into a tribe so that they could obtain land, or "leased" land from the Native Americans. After the railroad, more began to settle along the right-of-ways that were approved by congress, as was the case with Budd Conn.
I came to Indian Territory, in 1888 and settled at Poteau.
Jack Wisenant, my uncle, and his family came with us. We traveled in covered wagons, drove about twenty head of cattle and ten or twelve head of horses. We farmed at poteau for two years before moving to McCurtain.
Our first house in Indian Territory was a two-roomed log house with puncheon floors and a board roof.
There were many Choctaw Indians at Poteau, but they were very peaceable. They had no trouble with the white people but a little trouble among themselves. The white people knew little of what was going on among the Indians because they told a white man nothing, unless he was a very close friend.
The Indians had very few ponies. What they did have were small. They had what they called a "kak". This was a home-made saddle made of rough hides. These saddles were rough and caused sores on the ponies backs. Sometimes they used hides or blankets in place of a saddle. Some Indians rode bareback. Lost horses and mules were brought to Indian Territory by white men.
The Choctaw Indians had small patches in cultivation. These were called Tom Fuller patches. They also made what they called Tom Fuller bread; this was made from ground meal and baked on hot rocks. They ground their corn into meal with a mortar and pestle. I can't tell exactly how this was made.
Their weapons were bow and arrow and tomahawks. The bows were made of Bois-d'arc, cedar and oak. The arrowheads were made of flint rock.
They made their dishes of clay, by molding the clay in the shape of a bowl and then baking this in the sun until thoroughly dry, then dropping in cold water. They sometimes painted these bright colors by rubbing different colored flowers on them while they were still wet.
The Indians used hides for mattings or rugs. They also made mattings by taking strips of white oak bark and weaving it the desired size.
There was plenty of game in Indian Territory when I came, such as prairie chickens, fish, turkey, deer, squirrels, rabbits, wild hogs (what we called "razor-back" hogs). There were a few wild cows. No buffalo, they were all back in western Oklahoma and across Red River in Texas. Plenty of fur bearing animals, such as coons, opossums, gray fox, beavers, skunks, martins and minks. Also lots of "varmints", such as wolves, panthers, and bob-cats. Once in a great while we heard of a brown bear. They were very scarce.
Most of the cattle were bought around Poteau, Oklahoma. We would start with the cattle in the spring and graze them through the Territory. By the time we got to market with them they were fat. This usually took about three months.
Most of the time, the common white man and Native American got along. It was becoming more socially acceptable for the two to mingle, and relations were good in the Choctaw Nation. Still, old stories of "savage people" remained. This is one of those stories where a young ten year olds imagination and memory got the best of him. This is the story as related by Beaden Eslick in 1877:
I do not know if these Indians were Choctaws or not but they were met in the Choctaw Nation. We saw a long string of Indians coming up the road toward us. They were riding bareback, about thirty of them, and they did not ride as we did, that is, two or more abreast but were riding single file. We were really afraid but we just kept driving on as we were in plain sight and it would not have helped us to stop. When they got even with us they just barely pulled out of the wagon road and went around us without speaking or acting as if they had seen us. There wasn't a woman in the bunch, just men. They had nothing on but breech clouts. Their faces had red spots on the cheeks and their long hair hung down in plaits. I did not find out where they were going but I was glad that they were not interested in us as each one carried a big bow and arrow.
Native American Life
In many ways, the lives of the Choctaws and those of the white man were very similar. By the mid to late 1800's, the Choctaw way of life was almost indistinguishable from the early white settlers in Indian Territory, as these recollections from Jim McCurley show. He was born in 1862 near Poteau, Oklahoma.
I lived in a wigwam when I was a small boy. My father built a log house, and we moved into it. This was about 1874. I used to wear long shirts without trousers, and it was about 1875 that I wore my first pants. They were made of seamless sacks, and had a stripe down the legs of them, I sure was proud of them too.
I have ridden bare-back without a bridle on my pony along with the Indian boys, and my girl, now my wife. She is a fullblood Choctaw, and could ride a pony as good or better than I. My wife and I grew up together. I was twenty years old when I was married.
I cannot read or write but I speak the English and Choctaw language, and I have interpreted the Indian Language for preachers, who came to our settlement to preach. I was deputy sheriff for the Indians, under Judge Holsom, full-blood Choctaw Indian. When an Indian was sentenced to death they would get his coffin and sit him on it and shoot him. It fell my lot one time to shoot an Indian, that was about 1885, who had been sentenced to death. I refused to kill him as I had been raised with him and it would have been as if I was shooting my own brother. The high sheriff had to shoot him.
I have painted my face, and played ball with the Indians. We would use a stick about three feet long; on one end it was round, large as a saucer with buckskin laced backwards and forwards across it. If you hit the top of the pole it would count one point. The squaws would serve coffee or water to us.