By A. D. HEFLEY
Flanking the Jefferson Highway to the left going north on the outskirts of McAlester is one of Oklahoma's interesting landmarks, the old Choctaw courthouse of Tobucksy County (Choctaw Nation). It is an unpretentious, frame building, with a stone chimney and a porch and lean to, like modest dwelling houses in the Indian Territory before statehood. Erected over fifty years ago, it furnished the setting for many an interesting trial. The laws of the Choctaw Nation were in force in those days, the whipping post and the firing squad meting out grim justice to offenders.
This historic building when threatened by decay a few years ago was taken over by the Ohoyohoma Club, an organization in McAlester, composed of women of Choctaw descent. Since then, the building has been kept in excellent repair as the headquarters of the club. Regular meetings' are held here by members, and annual reunions for others among the Choctaws, usually in the late summer or early fall. Sometimes a brush arbor is used for these reunions, during which programs are given and early days lived over again in the reminiscences of old-timers.
The date of the building of the Tobucksy County courthouse, according to W. E. Hailey, was 1876. It was erected by Mr. Hailey's father, the late Dr. D. M. Hailey, an intermarried citizen of the Choctaw Nation and pioneer physician of McAlester. The courthouse was modeled after Doctor Hailey's home which stood about 150 feet away. According to Mrs. Otis Sherrill, of Indianola, Oklahoma, he had purchased his home from Frank Allbright, in 1871.
Among those who presided in this courthouse as county judge of old Tobucksy County, nearly fifty years ago, was Judge J. P. Conners, of Canadian, Oklahoma. Judge Conners was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1857, and came to the Indian Territory in 1881, settling at McAlester. His first position in this country was with the Teoc Lumber Company, as paymaster and shipping clerk at Number 7 Switch, twenty-five miles east of McAlester, near the present town of Krebs. Soon afterwards, he became a
citizen of the Choctaw Nation through his marriage to Miss Fanny Anderson, a daughter of a prominent Choctaw family. Mrs. Conners died in 1893, and in 1896, he married Mrs. Aran Cook, of another prominent Choctaw family. Three sons and three daughters, all of whom are living in Oklahoma, were born to this union.
Although Judge Conners was not a Choctaw by blood, as an intermarried citizen held in high esteem by his neighbors and associates, he was elected judge of Tobucksy County and was reelected for a number of terms, during the late 'eighties and early 'nineties. From that time, he took a prominent part in the affairs of the Choctaw Nation until the passing of that government just before Oklahoma became a state. After identifying himself with the Choctaws, he had learned to speak their language fluently. Besides serving as judge of Tobucksy County, he also served as county clerk and has in his possession records of the early court trials and other Indian affairs of that time. For four years, Judge Conners was revenue collector in the first district of the Choctaw Nation. These revenues came from lumber, timber, merchandise and other commodities of those days, the duties of collector being very exacting and dangerous. When commenting upon these experiences, the Judge has said, "I have always prided myself on my good standing with the Indians. They are a great race and I love them for the sterling qualities I know to be inherent in them. As proof of this good standing I was elected judge of the Choctaw courts, one time, over a full-blood candidate."
Among the many men who have played a prominent part in the development of Oklahoma, there are few still living who did more in making its history, founding its institutions, drawing up its laws and guiding its destinies than has Judge Conners. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, he was elected first president of the State Board of Agriculture and served with distinction in that capacity until 1911. Under his supervision and administration the state agricultural schools were located, one of which, the Conners' School of Agriculture, at Warner, was named for him. Other agricultural schools founded under his direction are the Murray School, at Tishomingo, and the Cameron School, at Lawton.
The First State Legislature placed the duties of secretary of prison control on the president of the Board of Agriculture, and in this connection, Judge Conners served with the Governor,
Charles N. Haskell, and the Attorney General, Charles West. Serving on a committee with Senator W. N. Redwine, of McAlester, he succeeded in locating the State penitentiary at McAlester. In order to secure the prison, the city of McAlester donated 100 acres of land on which the institution was built. After negotiating with Green McCurtain, Principal Chief of the Choctaw Nation, the Judge secured 1400 acres more land for the prison at the nominal sum of $10 per acre.
When his term of office expired in 1911, Judge Conners retired to his farm about one mile southeast of Canadian, which has been his home for thirty-four years. He has always manifested a deep interest in the State institutions of which he was one of the principal founders and has given freely of both time and money in furthering their growth and welfare. When Governor Murray went into office three years ago, the Judge was made an honorary colonel of the Governor's staff.
The names of other Choctaw officers connected with the history of old Tobucksy County courthouse, up to 1907, are included in the following lists.
County judge: George W. Choate, Edmond Krebs, Albert Carney, a Mr. Holson, William B. Pitchlynn, G. M. Bond, Aaron Apalah, and Solomon Mackay. Judge Conners and G. M. Bond were the only white men elected to this position. One of the duties of the county judge was to approve permits to non-citizens to remain in the Choctaw Nation. A white farmer was required to pay $5.00 a year, a laborer $2.50, a blacksmith $5, and a lawyer $10.
County clerk: William H. Stevens, J. P. Conners, E. Rex Cheadle, John O. Toole, Henry Ansley, A. W. McClure, Will T. Walker, David Mackay. W. H. Stevens and Judge Conners were the only white men serving in this capacity.
Sheriff: Sampson Cole, Colbert Moore, Joe Nail, William Johnston, George Pounds and Solomon Mackay. Of these only George Pounds was a white man. During Sampson Cole's term as sheriff, Bible Wade was tried for attempt to rape and given thirty-nine lashes on the bare back at the whipping post.
At the time of the erection of Tobucksy County courthouse, George W. Choate was county judge and Rufus Folsom was district judge. The Folsom family produced many leaders in the history of the Choctaws.
Solomon Mackay was the last judge of the county. Previous to this he had served as sheriff for eight years and was U. S. deputy marshal for some time. Judge Mackay's first commission was written out on the typewriter and signed by Green McCurtain, Principal Chief of the Choctaw Nation, with Pres Lester, present state senator from Pittsburg County, signing as private secretary to the chief.
The Tobucksy County ticket of the Tushkahoma Party among the Choctaws, in 1904, was as follows: Principal Chief, Green McCurtain; District Judge, N. J. Folsom; District Attorney, W. H. Harrison; District Chief, Adam Joe; Senator, George Choate; Representative, L, H. Perkins; County Judge, S. H. Mackay; Sheriff, Joe Anderson; Ranger, Gilbert Arpelar.
Among the well known attorneys who practiced law in Tobucksy County court were Campbell LeFlore and James H. Standley. Both were of Choctaw descent and had served as officers in the Confederate service. LeFlore lived in, Fort Smith, Arkansas, and had large property holdings there. His large hotel was host to many prominent men in early days. LeFlore and Standley were licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court, but the practice in the Tobucksy County courthouse constitutes the legal reputation for which they are now remembered.
Gilbert Dukes, another Choctaw attorney who practiced in this court, looked more like an Englishman than an Indian, according to descriptions by some who knew him. He was over six feet tall and weighed more than 250 pounds. It has been said of him that, given a full-blood Indian jury, he would convince them beyond a doubt that no white man ever told the truth.
Alex Durant, a cripple, was a lawyer of rare ability, who exercised great influence among his people, the Choctaws. Besides doing a large practice in the Indian and U. S. courts, he compiled the Choctaw laws into one volume in 1894. This was known as the "Durant Code."
Dave Roebuck, tall, straight and fine looking, was a lawyer whose grace and manners before the tribal bar will always be noted in Choctaw history. Roebuck practiced in all courts of the Choctaw Nation and had many cases in the U. S. court at McAlester. He was a law partner of Jake Hodges, noted criminal lawyer of Paris, Texas. Mr. Roebuck was killed in a railroad accident while in the prime of life.
Simon Lewis, after returning from the Confederate army at the close of the Civil War, compiled a census of the Choctaw people. He was recognized as an authority on Choctaw citizenship and worked with the Dawes Commission in making the roll of the Choctaw Nation, before statehood. Captain Archibald McKennon, member of the Dawes Commission, marveled at his knowledge in this work.
Joe Gardner probably had more cases in the Tobucksy County court than any other lawyer who practiced there. He had no education except what he learned in his practice in this court, but he was a man of keen intellect and natural ability. Henry Ansley taught him how to sign his name. He also prepared his briefs for him.
Alinton Telle, of the firm of Telle and Pate of Atoka, was a full-blood Choctaw, a graduate of Albany Law School, Albany, New York. Tslle held many positions of trust in his nation, among which was that of national secretary for a number of years. George Pate was an intermarried citizen. He was a highly nervous man but a hard worker. It has been said that many times he worked all night on a case before entering court. His adversaries always found him ready with a retort in the trial of any case.