Frontier Life in Old Poteau Switch, Oklahoma

Updated on December 18, 2017
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I am a freelance writer with an interest in history. My main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

The Early Days of Poteau

From the formation of the Indian Territory until Statehood, eastern Oklahoma was outlaw territory. Following the Civil War, many stories of outlaws, robberies, and other acts of violence were reported throughout the area. Much of this was contained by the Lighthorsemen, but these Native American law officers didn't have authority over acts committed by U.S. Citizens. A few U.S. Marshals patrolled the Indian Territory, but many times, these marshals were just as bad as the outlaws.

After the land openings in western Oklahoma and the arrival of the railroad in the east, many inspired businessmen began "purchasing" land from the Choctaw. In some cases, especially with the railroad, they simply pushed Congress to take away the land from the Choctaw to give to these new investors. Poteau Switch was formed this way. When the Frisco railroad came through, the railroad purchased a 300-foot right-of-way along the edges of the railroad to house a depot and several businesses.

By 1901, the town of Poteau Switch was thriving. This article, believed to have been written by P.C. Bolger, does a good job of capturing a glimpse of how Poteau was during the early days:

Situated at the base of Kavanaugh [mountain], and overlooking SugarLoaf mountain and the Rich Mountain range, Poteau is romantically situated. Built upon a broad plateau between these mountains, the natural scenery is beautiful. Poteau River winds its way along the fertile valley, and two trunk lines of railroad intersect each other inside the corporate limits. The 'Frisco was first built, and in 1897 the Pittsburg & Gulf Railway was completed from Kansas City to Port Arthur, Texas. From that date the straggling little village took on a new growth, and many nice residences and substantial store buildings have been erected. Perhaps no town in Indian Territory smacked more strongly of the "wild and woolly western days" than Poteau, that lay adjacent to the mountain fastnesses of Arkansas and the Territory line, where "moonshining" was considered a virtue and to "get the drop" on a man was considered evidence of valor. In the early days of Poteau it was almost impossible to use a lamp after nightfall, as not only desperate white men but also Indians in drunken frenzy would ride up and down the streets shooting out lights and riding into stores on horseback and plugging pictures and bric-a-brac on the walls with their revolvers. Such was the condition of affairs for a year or more after the 'Frisco road entered the town.

By some of the early residents, the writer was informed that panthers, bears and wolves made frequent descent from their mountain lair and carried off calves, pigs and chickens until attempts at stock-raising were well nigh given up. Melvin M. Flener, the veteran hotel proprietor, killed a large black wolf with a stick of stove wood in his front Yard, and many a wildcat and deer were killed by him inside the limits of what is now the present corporation.

The section house was the first structure built and Melvin M. Flener became its proprietor. [This was located on Fleener Street (notice how the name was later misspelled when the streets were named)] He fed the section men and everybody else who came this way that wanted a meal. Bud Tate built a little grocery store [located near College, in the middle of what would become Broadway], and a short time afterward W. A. Welch opened a dry-goods store [located on the corner of the courthouse lawn, next to Broadway and Fleener]. He later took into partnership Tom Forbes [later owner of the Forbes Hotel]. Charles Wilburn built a hotel where the Lawson House now stands, and Dr. John Cooper, now of Howe, located here [this is where the Poteau Police Department now stands].

Curtis Wilburn was the first child born in Poteau. He was a quarter blood Choctaw. The first death and interment was that of Will Kinkade, a Choctaw. The first church services were held in the old school-house in the cemetery, and Miss Nettie McElhanan taught the first school. Melvin M. Flener built the second hotel in the town, and this was a noted place [same location as above]. Flener was a noted hunter, and his tables were always loaded with game of various kinds. Traveling men came from every direction to sup on venison and bear steaks, and in the olden time wild turkey was always on the regular bill of fare. This hotel was large and roomy and the old-time dances were held in the dining-room. Marion M. Bride and John Dennis, still residents of Poteau, were the popular musicians, and Flener always acted as floor manager. Whenever a mountaineer would get too gay: there was no expostulation, but Flener would quietly walk around, knock the fellow down and drag him outside where he could get fresh air!

Tom Forbes was the first postmaster, and the first newspaper was the Poteau Times, edited by a man named Parker, who sold it to Welch & Granby. The Poteau News, now in its fourth year, is ably edited by its owner and manager, R. S. Bridgeman.

Ed. McKinney [Properly spelled McKenna] built the first stone block in the city, on the east side of the 'Frisco track [1899]. This is a splendid two-story building, with the large store rooms on the first floor. There are other good buildings and several fine residences in this picturesque little city, and two large coal mines in close proximity, with a railroad tapping each one. There are over three hundred men employed in these mines, most of whom reside in Poteau. The city was incorporated in 1898, J. H. Witte, the coal "magnate", being honored with the first mayoralty. United States commissioners' court was moved here from Cameron in the summer of 1900. Six church societies flourish in Poteau, and seven secret societies hold weekly and monthly meetings. A reign of peace and good will was long ago inaugurated, and the moon shiners and all round bad men live only in story.

Old Town Poteau Switch; businesses along Broadway in the late 1800's.
Old Town Poteau Switch; businesses along Broadway in the late 1800's.

Oklahoma/Arkansas Borders and the Indian Territory

James Robert Barnes:

The old Iron posts on the Arkansas and Indian line were put into place to settle an argument over how far east the Indian Territory land went.

West of Old Hartford was a grocery store (Grog store). This Store was about two or eight miles from Old Hartford. The Arkansas, and I. T. Line ran about 20 feet on the west side of the building.

An old man owned it, named George Fostar. One night in 1861, a bunch of Choctaws from Indian Territory, came over to this grocery store and got drunk and got to fighting. One Indian, whose name was Pack Sweeney cut another Indian's throat and killed him. (His name was Cumby). The bunch, after the throat cutting, left to go back to the Indian Territory. They left the dead Cumby with his jugular vein out, on the front porch of the Grocery store. I saw him the next morning when I went down there. The Indian Territory law could not bother Sweeney because he killed this other Indian in Arkansas and now in the Indian Territory after the killing.
So the Arkansas officers just waited till Sweeney came back into Arkansas. Not long after the killing, Sweeney came across the line into Arkansas and they got him.

They brought him past our house, when they got him. They were taking him to Greenwood, as this was the county seat. There they sentenced him to the penitentiary. He was turned loose later to join the Rebel Army.

The border between Arkansas and Oklahoma has changed many times over the years. In 1819, Arkansas Territory included all of Arkansas and a large part of Oklahoma. The only section that was left out was the panhandle. In 1824, the Indian Territory was created, consisting of much of Oklahoma. The border back then was around 40 miles west of where it is today. Many towns that were formed before and during the Choctaw Removals would have been located in Arkansas. This was a topic of hot debate and at many times caused minor skirmishes to occur. In 1828, the border was redrawn, which shifted the border further to the east. Finally, a "permanent" border was settled on in 1836. This border was finally marked with a series of iron posts.

To the east of those posts was part of the United States. The land to the west, known as Indian Territory, was composed of several sovereign Native American nations. Those nations had their own laws and law enforcement organizations. During those days, Whiskey or any other form of alcohol was not allowed in the Indian Territory. To obtain whiskey, people had to travel to Arkansas or another bordering state to get it. Many towns, such as Hackett City and Jenson, sprang up to take advantage of this trade. Because they were formed to play host to the whiskey trade, these towns were typically very wild, as in the story recalled by James above.

Deputy Marshals Plant Whiskey

This was from a story written in 1894 [author unknown]:

Three United States deputy marshals. They, in order to make business for themselves, had been "planting" whiskey in the wagons of settlers coming into the Territory and then arresting them and, of course, confiscating all the whiskey.

One day they saw a man coming in with two covered wagons; he was driving the front wagon and his daughter the rear wagon. These deputies slipped up and planted some bottles of whiskey in the rear wagon. They then rode up to the front wagon, stopped the man and told him that they were United States officers and would have to search his wagons for whiskey. "Well", says the man, "I don't use the stuff and don't have any about me or the wagons". They told him they would have to search the wagons. The man got down out of his wagon and with his rifle, too. He then told the three Deputy Marshals again that they didn't need to look, he didn't have any whiskey and that they had better not find any.

They searched the first wagon and found nothing there, then went to the rear wagon and, of course, pulled out the bottles.

The man then opened fire on them, killing all three of them.

This happened south of Ft. Smith, near Poteau. Bill Fentress, an officer at Fort Smith, went out and saw the men, before they were removed from the place where they had been killed.

The settler was given a life-term in a Federal prison, but these murders helped to clean up the deputies and find a more honorable bunch of men.

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