Tulsa history, told by trees
Creek Nation Council Oak Park
A people without the knowledge of their past, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.
In October 1832, while traveling across the western American prairies, Washington Irving and a team of U.S. Rangers arrived at what would become Riverside Drive in Tulsa. They were scouting for President Andrew Jackson’s plan to forcibly move indigenous peoples of the southeast to Indian Territory. Irving’s party set up camp near what’s now the River Spirit Casino.
Some of the men embarked on a honey quest. They soon discovered a honeycomb nestled in an oak tree. Irving described the honey hunters “stumbling along over twisted roots and fallen trees, with their eyes turned up to the sky. In this way they traced the honey-laden bends to their hive, in the hollow of trunk of a blasted oak.”
The honeymongers attempted to chop the tree down. “The jarring blows of the ax seemed to have no effect in alarming or agitating this most industrious community,” Irving wrote. “[The bees] continued to ply at their usual occupations, some arriving full freighted into port, others sallying forth on new expeditions, like so many enchantments in a money-making metropolis, little suspicious of impending bankruptcy and downfall.”
The tree eventually fell, “busting open from end to end, and displaying all the hoarded treasure of the commonwealth.” (Seventy-
five years later, another commonwealth treasure would be discovered 20 miles south of Irving’s band of honey barons.)
“It is difficult to describe the bewilderment and confusion of the bees of the bankrupt hive who had been absent at the time of the catastrophe, and who arrived, from time to time, with full cargoes from abroad,” Irving wrote of the ransacked bee-tree in 1832. “At first they wheeled about the air, in the place where the fallen tree had once reared its head, astonished at finding all a vacuum. At length, as if comprehending their disaster, they settled down, in clusters, on a dry branch of a neighboring tree, from whence they seemed to contemplate the prostrate ruin, and to buss forth doleful lamentations over the downfall of their republic. Now we abandoned the place, leaving much honey in the hollow of the tree.”
After a violent resistance, Muscogee (Creek) Chief Achee Yahola guided hundreds of families into the wilderness in compliance with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. They walked. From Alabama to Oklahoma, they walked. It was a very cruel distance.
Native Americans of the southeast traditionally marked trails by bending trees crooked. Only young limbs have this flexibility—rather than snap like bone, the greenish saplings will bend, adjust, and adapt to the weight. Bend a young tree over itself and the limb will grow in this unnatural adjustment. Leaves a signal.
A trail, marked.
By 1836, most who had followed Yahola were either dead or found themselves under the boughs of an enormous oak east of the Arkansas River, six miles north of where Irving had camped years before. Chief Yahola tended a Lochapoka ceremonial fire upon their long-carried coals.
“It was a strange beginning for a modern city—the flickering fire, the silent valley, the dark intent faces and the wild cadences of the ritual,” Angie Debo wrote in “Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Town.” Debo estimates 565 Lochapocka residents arrived in Tulsa in 1836. Today, the Creek Council Oak tree still stands, fenced and gated against a slab of generic condos at 17th Street and Cheyenne Avenue next to a modest sculpture commemorating Yahola’s ceremonial fire.
By the time Tulsa was located by rail in 1882, almost all of the “immigrant Indians” had died or settled farther south and east, in Broken Arrow.
Nina Lane Dunn reproduced J.M. Hall’s account of 1880s Tulsa in her family’s history book, “Tulsa’s Magic Roots,” printed in 1979. Hall reportedly encountered “nothing but rough, rolling prairie lands” and “groves of oak, blackjack and other trees; the Arkansas river outlined with trees and underbrush; a few Creek Indians and an abundance of wild animal roaming the wooded areas.”
Tulsa’s first white family took up residence between Archer Street and Elwood Avenue, beneath a blackjack, a.k.a. post oak, a.k.a. Quercus marilandica. They thrive where other oaks don’t: in the poor, thin, dry soils across Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska.
You can tell a blackjack by the fissures in its bark, and how its leaves are glossy green on one side, pubescent underneath, and flare from a tapered base into a long three-lobed bell shape. Its wood is very dense, which makes for very hot flames. Traditional Oklahoma barbecue requires blackjack smoke wood.
Also in “Tulsa’s Magic Roots,” a primitive sketch of Tulsa and the author’s ledger, by number:
1. Elm Tree Tent where first baby was born in Tulsa.
2. Noah Partridge, a Creek Indian, who was living with his family in a log house. Only family living here when town was located.
3. Frisco Railroad grade stakes...
The remainder marks the locations of white settlers’ tents and Main Street. The elm tree tent referenced first, where the inaugural white baby was probably born in Tulsa, stood approximately where the Center of the Universe stands now, just north of the tracks, near Boston Avenue.
From Dunn’s version of Tulsa’s last couple decades of the 19th century, this place was inhabited primarily by drunks, thieves, and Presbyterians: “Cowboys with guns, and ruffians of the neighborhood were always present in the gathering of every church. Gatherings which were held generally under shading trees or on store porches, with gambling dens nearby.” In 1887, at a particularly rowdy Christmas eve party, drunk cowboys chucked whiskey bottles at the church Christmas tree, “breaking many presents.” The pastor of the church quit not long after.
In 1928, Tulsa’s First Presbyterian Church hosted a general assembly. As a memento for the occasion, Hall and his committee carved gavels from historically significant wood. The gavel woods were sourced from Tulsa’s first store, an old mission school, and the Creek Council Oak tree.
Between 1870 and 1889, 15–20 people were executed under Creek law at the so-called “hanging tree.” A lugubrious lower limb of the burr oak was 12 feet from the ground—an ideal height for public executions. Three cattle rustlers were hanged there simultaneously, according to local historian Terri French. “In the 1920s, as the land was being developed, workers digging for sewer lines unearthed many human remains at the base of the hanging tree,” French wrote in “Tulsa’s Haunted Memories.”
In 1989, the land around the tree almost became a criminal justice center, but Tulsans successfully protested the location out of fear the historic tree would be removed.
The hanging tree still stands at 3 N. Lawton Ave., between the northwest bend of the IDL and the BOK Center, behind a barbed wire fence that guards Linde Oktoberfest’s bleachers and festival equipment. Now a dozen feet up the trunk is a stub, scarred—some phantom limb. Scientists speculate the 200-year-old oak’s uncommon size and longevity was made possible by an underground spring. Today its trunk is six feet in diameter.
It has been said that humans are the livestock of trees. Trees feed us and supply our air, knowing that we’ll all die eventually and feed them.
The Muscogee (Creek) Council Oak Festival will take place Sat., Oct. 20, 2018, at 2pm, at Council Oak Park, 1750 S. Cheyenne Ave., in Tulsa. A public ceremony will commemorate the arrival of the Locv Pokv to Indian Territory with speeches, historical readings, a proclamation from Mayor Bynum, and a rekindling of the ceremonial fire. Following the ceremony, the Tulsa Creek Indian Community, 8611 S. Union Ave., will host art vendors, traditional stickball, exhibition stomp dance, and other activities. All events are free and open to the public.