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The Birth of Poteau: A Brief History of the Early days of Poteau, Oklahoma in LeFlore County

Updated on July 3, 2012

Since the dawn of history, the area now known as LeFlore County has been a thriving hub of activity. Great civilizations throughout history have come to recognize the overwhelming beauty and abundant resources of the land.

Nearly 60 million years ago, the area now known as LeFlore County would have been considered waterfront property. In prehistoric times, a vast inland sea divided North America. Known as the Western Interior Seaway, this vast stretch of water was 2,500 feet deep, 600 miles wide and over 2,000 miles long. At times, high points such as Cavanal Hill would have been tiny islands that peeked out from below the sea.

Many of the fossils found in this area are unique. Examples of soft-bodied animals, such as the Conostichus, a prehistoric sea anemone, have been found in the Ouachita Mountains and are completely exclusive to the area.

One of the earliest documented civilizations that were known to have existed in modern LeFlore County was that of the Caddo Indian. Fully known as the Caddoan Mississippian Culture, this civilization thrived in the area of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas between 200 B.C. until the early 1600's. During this time, many Europeans had begun to explore deeper into the continent, where they made contact with the Caddo Indian.

Cavanal Hill as illustrated by Thomas Nuttall in the early 1800s: Cavanal Hill, located just outside of Poteau, is known as the "worlds highest hill".  It is one foot short of being classified as a mountain.
Cavanal Hill as illustrated by Thomas Nuttall in the early 1800s: Cavanal Hill, located just outside of Poteau, is known as the "worlds highest hill". It is one foot short of being classified as a mountain.

In the early 1600's, a smallpox epidemic broke out that decimated the population. Measles, influenza, and malaria also devastated the Caddo. They had no immunity to these Eurasian diseases. Despite this, the Caddo continued to push forward. In 1835, as white settlers continued to migrate west, the Caddo were coerced to sign a treaty ceding all Caddo land to the United States.

Caddo people endured a long journey from their ancient homelands to Caddo County, Oklahoma, where they now have their seat of government, five miles east of the town of Binger. Early in 2006, the official roll of the federally recognized Caddo Nation of Oklahoma listed 4,774 members, all lineal descendants of the ancient Caddo Nation.

The European explorations into what is now the central U.S. brought many trappers and traders into the area. In the 1700’s, when LeFlore County was under the domain of the French, many of the landmarks throughout the area were named.

By the late 1800’s, especially after the Civil War, white migration into what would become LeFlore County reached full gallop. This began with the Choctaw resettlement in the 1830’s, when they were given land in Eastern Oklahoma in “perpetuity”. Towns began to spring up almost overnight, especially around the Choctaw Agencies and schools.

Poteau can trace its origins back to 1875, when the first white families began to settle in the area. Over time, the small settlement of Poteau Switch grew into a thriving city.

Situated on the edge of the Ouachita Mountains, Poteau is now one of the most vibrant towns in eastern Oklahoma. Nestled in the Poteau River Valley, the town is surrounded by beautiful scenery, stunning landscapes, and serene waterfalls. In a nod towards its energetic roots, the town is once more growing at a tremendous pace. With a population hovering around 8,500, Poteau is ranked fifth in the Greater Fort Smith Area.

The earliest known photograph of old Poteau Switch
The earliest known photograph of old Poteau Switch
Shriners Day Parade, 1916, Downtown Poteau on Dewey Avenue
Shriners Day Parade, 1916, Downtown Poteau on Dewey Avenue
Poteau during the 1960s
Poteau during the 1960s

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