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The First Settlers Under Cavanal: A Story of Poteau

Eric Standridge is a historian and author that focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau, Oklahoma.

A view of modern-day Poteau Valley from Cavanal Hill

A view of modern-day Poteau Valley from Cavanal Hill

The First White Settlers Arrive

Nearly a decade after the final shot was fired during the Civil War, westward expansion was in full gallop. Many people fled from homes that had been ravaged by the war and headed toward the untamed wilds in search of a new start. Many of these early settlers passed through Fort Smith and on into Indigenous territory.

Just before this influx of new settlers, the area around modern-day Poteau was a hunter-trapper's paradise. There was plenty of wild game, including black bears, panthers, and timber wolves, and along the Poteau River, there were raccoons and other small, fur-bearing animals. Fur buyers out of Ft. Smith would travel to the camps set up at the base of Cavanal Mountain and purchase fur from the trappers. After the Civil War, this began to change as more settlers arrived.

While most of the early settlers were hard-working, law-abiding citizens, infamous groups such as the Belle Starr gang and outlaws such as Frank and Jesse James still roamed the countryside. The land was still wild and rugged, but for many, this was the perfect place to begin a new life.

The first pioneers in LeFlore county included gamblers, whiskey peddlers, speculators, and vagabond squatters on Indigenous land. Along with this group, other more law-abiding citizens came to settle the country. These early settlers found a hard life waiting for them. The mountainous region where Poteau now stands was covered with dense forests and tall sage grass. Hunting was bountiful, but newcomers quickly had to learn how to deal with the coyotes and cougars that roamed the mountains.

Before the White settlers arrived, the Choctaw had already established a small community in the area. While many Choctaw already lived in the area around modern-day Poteau, White migration into the area did not occur until 1875. Bill Allen and his family were the first to arrive. They bought large tracts of land from the Choctaw and immediately began developing.

In 1874, the Wilson family loaded their possessions in a covered wagon and moved from Indiana to Tamaha in the Indigenous territory. They arrived after spending many weeks traveling over shoddy roads and immediately began constructing a rudimentary shelter and planting crops to sustain them. After a year of trying to survive, the hardships became too much. They had lived in the Indigenous territory for a little less than a year, and after the fall harvest, they had to give up and return to Indiana.

Sam Yost was nine years old when James Wilson brought him to the area. After the Wilsons left, Yost moved to the base of Sugar Loaf Mountain and lived with a full-blood Choctaw family by the name of Seerat. Seerat owned a large farm and ranch, and needing help, took Sammy on and brought him up as his own. While Yost never lived in Poteau Switch, he was one of the first White men to settle in the area.

William "Buck" M. Davis

William "Buck" M. Davis

Buck and Hester Davis, Poteau's First Influential White Family

In 1881, Buck and Hester Davis were the third White family to arrive in the area. They settled on the hill immediately west of Tarby Lake, presently named Poteau City Lake, near where the St. Louis and San Francisco and Kansas City Southern tracks cross. Prior to the St. Louis and San Francisco water pump being installed, the lake was much larger than it appears today. Drought—combined with the constant pumping out of the water for the railroads—caused the water levels in the lake to drop. Subsequent development further drained the water and back-filled the old lake bed until it appeared as it does today.

When Buck Davis moved his family from Sugar Loaf Creek to the future Poteau area, he moved with horses and wagons. In addition to his immediate family, several of his relatives also followed him to the area. Among those relatives were Davis's younger sister and husband, Ophelia Davis and John Calloway Monroe Maxey, and Hester's sister and husband, Dezina Noe and Robert Wilson Turman.

Travel to the Town Creek area was rough for the Davis family. Before modern water control was established, the Poteau River was wildly unpredictable. By the time they arrived at the river, the waters were up and the river churned violently. Knowing that it was unsafe to cross, they dumped their belongings on the bank and waited for the water to go down. When the water finally went down, they carefully crossed the river at what was then called Anderson Ford. Anderson Ford was most likely directly east of the end of modern-day Roanoke Avenue, just before the river curve.

Once they arrived at Tarby Lake, the Davis family set about building a one-room peeled log house. Within this 10 by 20-foot log house, there were three beds and a fireplace to keep the family warm. Shortly after the log home was built, they built a log smokehouse in back.

Throughout the first years of Poteau’s history, Buck Davis would be instrumental in the development of the future town. After settling in, Buck Davis began taking his skiff-boat across the river, just below where the Slough runs into the river. He would then use this boat to carry people across the river and swim their horses to the opposite side. As this crossing became more popular, Davis decided to build a ferryboat. He cut pine logs and hewed the gunwales by himself. He then went up to Pace's Saw Mill, which was located above the McKenna Fruit Farm on Cavanal Mountain, to get lumber for the floor of the boat.

The sturdy ferry could easily accommodate a team and wagon with enough room left over to walk around freely. Ramps were installed at either end to allow for easy loading and unloading. Four-foot-high banisters ran along the length of the sides to ensure safety and to keep the horses in place. Once the ferry was running, Davis would typically charge fifty cents to ferry people across the river. During the times that the river was up, he would raise his price. The old ferry was most likely located where the current Old State Highway 112 Bridge crosses the Poteau River.

While this ferry helped spur the growth of the area, it also cost Davis the life of his son. While Buck Davis was constructing the ferry in 1884, he sent his son, Garret Wilson Davis, up to Cavanal Mountain to get lumber. Garret was about halfway down the mountain when the wagon, stacked full with lumber, turned over and killed him. Garret was only 19 years old.

The remaining children of Buck and Hester attended school in an old log house with dirt floors. The school was primitive by most standards, but it sufficed. Jim Evans taught at the schoolhouse and charged the students one dollar a month to attend. While this fee paid for his salary and other teaching supplies, it did not leave enough left over for furniture. The children had to use the windowsills for seats.

After Buck Davis arrived in Poteau, other families slowly began trickling in. Even though the Choctaw originally owned the land, they didn’t mind this new migration of White settlers. In fact, they used this to their advantage. Indians received royalties from income generated by these settlers. Most of these royalties were generated from mining and lumber.

Harper's Plantation

Harper's Plantation

Benjamin H. Harper, Poteau's Cotton King

Benjamin Harper was among those few pioneers who also decided to make the area his home. Despite his meager education, he would grow to become one of Poteau’s most influential citizens.

Harper was only 16 when he was thrust out into the world to fend for himself. When he was a young boy, his father died in the Civil War. Six months after his 16th birthday, his mother died, and young Harper had to decide what to do with his life.

For the next two years, Harper began his adult life earning pennies a day by working on a farm. In 1875, he decided to go into business for himself. Newly married, the small family bought a farm near Hackett City, where they spent the next few years making improvements on the property. By 1882, the industrious family had accumulated enough money to buy a large tract of land southeast of the old town of Poteau.

After purchasing this land, Harper built a large, two-story house near the foot of Cavanal Mountain. His early successes in the agriculture industry vaulted him into a whirlwind of activity. During the next few years, he continued to purchase land near Poteau. He owned a 12-acre fruit farm, several cattle farms, and a large ranch where he raised horses. In addition to his agricultural successes, he was made several profitable banking investments. He promoted the first cotton gin in the area, helped establish the first planing mill in Poteau, and owned a large sawmill that supplied much of early Poteau’s lumber.

Logging just south of Poteau

Logging just south of Poteau

Millard “Bud” House and the Loggers

Another early settler in Poteau Switch was Millard “Bud” House. He came to Poteau Switch with his parents in 1885. In the late 1870s, they made the trip into Indigenous territory from Arkansas by ox team and wagon. From that time until 1885, it is unknown where they lived, however, it is possible that they settled somewhere around Kully Chaha.

After arriving at Poteau Switch, they leased a small tract of land from a full-blood Choctaw by the name of Isreal Huentobie. There was a double log house on the tract of land, and 15 acres were ready for cultivation. Millard’s father worked as a logger, while the rest of the family cultivated the land. They raised corn on all the land except for a small garden patch, which was reserved for family use. It took a great deal of corn for the three yoke of oxen used in logging, and corn had to be bought when the corn they had raised had been used up. They paid between 50 cents and one dollar per bushel for the corn they bought.

Millard's father was an experienced timberman. His father and J. W. Cooper took a job of cutting logs and rafting them to a mill at Fort Smith. Mr. House did this for seven years. The logs were mostly cut on Sugar Creek and were mainly walnut, cedar, and cherry, although some oak logs were cut as well. These logs were hauled to the Arkansas River at the nearest point where they were arranged on 75 to 100-foot rafts and floated to Fort Smith. Cooper and House kept 24 men for their logging operations.

At one time, the river got very high, and the rafts had to be watched very closely, as they could be stolen. A large rowboat was used to follow and guide the rafts. Another time, the river got so high that great loss and damage was caused to the surrounding country, and many heads of livestock were drowned. In following the log rafts, the carcasses of many hogs, cattle, and other stock could be seen floating in the water or lodged in trees. The house family lost some cattle and hogs in the flood. The Indigenous community in the area had so many wild hogs in the river bottom that no estimate could be made of the hogs that they lost.

Later, Millard’s father was involved in the Oklahoma land run when the Strip opened in 1893. He did not stake a claim and returned to Poteau. Shortly after he returned to Poteau, he gathered his family and moved to Cleveland, Oklahoma.

Train car parked near where Tate's general store was

Train car parked near where Tate's general store was

Bud Tate, the Father of Poteau

Another enterprising man saw great potential in the undeveloped area. In 1885, Bud Tate moved to Poteau. He built his home on what became the St. Louis and San Francisco right-of-way, south of where present-day College Avenue and Broadway Streets cross. Tate lived in the back of this house, while the front served as the first general merchandise store in the area.

Along with the ferry that Buck Davis built a few years earlier, Tate’s store would serve as a major boon to the early development of Poteau. Residents no longer had to travel several miles to purchase much-needed supplies. This convenience helped draw even more people to the Poteau area.

Despite the popularity of Tate’s store, it wouldn’t remain there for long. The following year, he was forced to move to a new location. The St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad company had bought the land in order to run a new railroad, and Tate’s house/store was located where the tracks needed to be laid.

Bud Tate wasn’t deterred; the store was too valuable to the community. John Dennis and his son, Jim, built another store for Tate 600 feet south of its former location on what would later become part of the courthouse lawn.

Sources

  • The Birth of Poteau
  • Oklahoma Historical Society
  • Pioneer Papers
  • Oklahoma Today
  • A Place called Poteau

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.