Peter Conser: Tragedy and Triumph—a Tale of the Indian Territories
In the years following the terrible “Trail of Tears”, and before Oklahoma gained statehood, the Indian Territories remained wild and rugged. In southeastern Oklahoma, in what was once the Choctaw Nation, there lived a man who would come to define what it meant to be victorious over an unforgiving frontier.
Early Life of Young Peter Conser
It was in 1852 that Peter Coinson was born into an unhappy, mournful life.
Eagletown was still a relatively young town, but the place had all the promise of a big city. Peter’s father, a Swiss immigrant from the Canton of Bern, named T.X. Coinson, was drawn to the growing town like a moth to flame. After marrying a full blood Choctaw woman, it didn’t take long for T.X. to establish a trading business in the area.
It can be speculated that T.X. Coinson arrived in Eagletown during the "Golden Years" of Choctaw expansion. This period followed the end of the Indian relocations in Indian Territory. During this time, Choctaw Indians worked diligently to reestablish their social, economic, and political institutions, and were highly successful until the American Civil War interrupted this.
As was typical during those years, and especially after the Civil War, white businessmen would marry Indian women in order to obtain full citizenships rights within the tribe. This was important in the Indian Territory because only Indians were legally allowed to own land and operate a business. In many situations, these businessmen became highly successful while operating in Indian Territory. In other situations, the businessman simply ended up losing every penny they owned. It can only be speculated whether Peter's father left due to prosperity or due to famine; but nonetheless, he left when Peter was still a small boy.
Adeline, Peter’s mother, was left holding the ashes of a failed marriage. While she did her best to raise young Peter, it was still near impossible for a single mother to survive in those days. In 1857, when young Peter was just five years old, his mother remarried. Peter’s stepfather was ill disposed towards him, and seemed to go out of the way to badger the boy. Unfortunately, his mother died of smallpox shortly after remarrying which left Peter vulnerable to his stepfather.
It didn’t take long for his stepfather to send young Peter Conser on his way. He soon found a home with a man named Ainetubby, but that was short lived as well. He worked for his room and board until Ainetubby passed away a year after, and young Peter once again had to find a new home. He soon found it at the Gilbert Perry home. Unfortunately, not much is known of his life during this time, but it can be assumed that whatever happened didn’t fully prepare him from the events that were soon to come.
Through the Civil War
When the American Civil War broke out in 1860, the fate of Indian Territory was still in doubt. Each individual Indian nation had to decide whether to side with the pro-slavery south or the slave free north. The Choctaws, in general, were more favorable to the southern cause.
In the early months of 1862, the Choctaws joined with the Confederate force. In retaliation, Union forces began to invade the Choctaw nation. Many of those who were not involved in the fighting fled south to the Red River for protection.
After several days of hard travel, Peter stopped for the night at the plantation of Robert M. Jones. Robert was a wealthy and generous Choctaw, and offered Peter a place to stay. Tired, cold, and hungry Peter gratefully accepted.
Though Peter was only ten years old when he arrived at the plantation, he quickly dedicated himself to helping Robert run the farm. Over the next few years, Peter would pick up skills that he would use throughout his life. It was also during this time that Peter shed the remains of his old life. Vowing to create a better life for himself, he changed his name from Peter Coinson to Peter Conser.
The Road to Prosperity
Once the American Civil War was over, Peter returned to the Hodges area that he had known as a child. With a small amount of seed corn and knowledge gained from his time on the plantation, Conser reestablished himself on an abandoned farm. It was during this time that Conser married his first wife, Amy Bacon, a Choctaw, and the couple had one child. After arriving in the Hodges area, Conser once again dedicated himself to hard work, and his efforts paid off. A combination of good farmland and careful planning helped him overcome his impoverished youth.
Conser’s newfound prosperity brought social recognition. In 1877, when he was only 25 years old, Conser aligned himself politically with the very prominent McCurtain brothers. That same year, he was appointed deputy sheriff of Sugarloaf County in the Choctaw nation.
As with everything he did, he tackled that position with great fearlessness and integrity. It didn’t take long before be distinguished himself as a respected leader among the Choctaw Indian. In 1881, under Chief Jack McCurtain, Peter Conser was appointed as a captain of the Choctaw Lighthorseman in Moshulatubbee district.
Life as a Choctaw Lighthorseman and the Birth of a Town
In the days before statehood, each separate tribe was in charge of policing the tribe’s territories. The few American forts in the area didn’t have the capacity to police the entire Indian Territory, nor were they allowed to by federal law. The forts were established to protect the white man from the Indian, rather than enforcing the Indian laws. The only resource the white man were the few marshals headquartered in Fort Smith, and they did little to curb the stem of violence in the Indian Territory. The real control lied with the Lighthorsemen.
The Lighthorsemen were the mounted police of the Five Civilized Tribes. In the 1820’s, the Lighthorse had absolute control over law enforcement in Indian Territory. By the time that Conser was appointed, their power had significantly declined. In the 1870’s, the Lighthorse had been stripped of their judicial power. Rather than retaining absolute control over Indian Territory, they became more of a peacekeeping force.
Still, this did not negate Conser’s duties. He was responsible for not only preserving order and discipline among his men, but also had to ensure that they were always ready for any situation that may arise.
While serving as captain in the Choctaw Lighthorse occupied the majority of his days, Conser continued working on his farm with the same devotion of his early days. Still, while he may have thought that the turbulent days of his youth was over, life had other plans for him. When Conser’s first wife Amy died, he married Martha Jane Smith. This marriage was to bring Conser closer to the next stage in his life. Over the next few years, they had eight children together, four boys and four girls. In addition to everything else he had going on in his life, Conser also served as first a representative and then a senator in the Choctaw Council.
As his influence grew, so did his need for more land and a bigger home. Eventually, this need could no longer be ignored. The need for stabling space for the Lighthorse mounts and more space for his large family led Conser to build a new home near Heavener.
Peter constructed a two-story home with eight rooms. It was in this house that his last child, a boy, died in childbirth with his mother. The two were buried together in 1894, soon after completion of the house. It was also on this land that the small town of Conser was born.
In addition to the small farm that Conser ran, he also expanded his business dealings by opening a general store, gristmill, sawmill and a blacksmith shop. Understanding the need for a proper education, which Conser himself never received, he also built a small schoolhouse – the first in the area – for his children to attend.
Within the general store, the U.S. government had authorized a small post office. Conser’s wife, Martha, had been appointed postmistress of the Conser post office. She retained that office until her death in 1894.
Peter Conser was 42 when Martha died. Not long after her death, Conser married Mary Ann Holson, who was later named postmistress. She held this position until the general store and post office were destroyed in the 1920’s.
The remainder of Peter Conser’s life was uneventful. Peter died in 1934. He will always be remembered as a stern but fair lawman, loving father, generous neighbor and a courageous individual.
Visiting The Peter Conser house
The two-story 19th century home that Peter Conser lived in for the last half of his life still stands as it once did. It has been restored and furnished with items reflective of the family’s wealth and position.
The home remained in the Conser family until 1967. That year, Ms. Lewis Barnes, a granddaughter of Peter Conser, and her husband donated the house to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Now the home is a unique museum offers a glimpse back into time, back into the life of a man who started life as an orphan but through determination and perseverance had grown to be one of the greatest men in the Choctaw Nation.
The museum is one of the most unique and informative in the area. The restoration has been magnificently done, and the guide has a way of bringing the past to life. There is a story that he tells about upstairs guest bedroom. Peter Conser would occasionally use this room as a prison. The room locks from the outside, in order to keep his family safe from the criminals that would occasionally be held in the room. One can almost imagine the guard standing right outside the room, leaning against the upstairs banister, shotgun propped up beside him, just waiting for the opportunity to use it.
The Peter Conser Home is now closed. After the Oklahoma State Parks closed it, it reverted back to the Conser Family. Work is being done to reopen the home once again for public viewing.
Visitors may still see the home but are asked not to go beyond the "no trespassing" signs located in the drive.
© 2010 Eric Standridge