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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 16, No. 2
June, 1938
THE SAGA OF SKULLYVILLE1

By
W. B. Morrison

Page 234

Hidden away in the lofty fastnesses of the Rockies and Sierras may yet be found the remains of mining towns once the scene of feverish life and activity, but today the picture of decay and death. It was not unusual for these places to bear names suggestive of the hopes and dreams of their founders—Silver City, Gold Center or Eldorado. Yet in spite of the ambitious names most of them have perished from the earth like the fabled "touch of Midas," leaving little but the name to be remembered.

The reader may ask what this introduction has to do with Skullyville in the old Choctaw Nation. Well, "iskuli" was a Choctaw word that might be translated "money," and therefore Skullyville was "Moneytown," a name just as suggestive as Gold Center or Eldorado. But the traveler who drives out of Spiro today and views the few houses and the deserted cemetery where this early Indian town stood, sees very little suggestive of money.

The founding of Skullyville dates back to the year 1832 when the removal of the Choctaws to their new home was in full progress. By orders of Major F. W. Armstrong, who became the first Choctaw agent in the West, an Agency building was erected about fifteen miles west of Fort Smith and a few miles from a suitable landing on the Arkansas River. The situation was healthful, the land being gravelly and easily drained, while a group of never failing springs furnished an abundance of excellent water. These springs still survive the cutting of surrounding trees and the general cultivation of adjoining land, and until a very recent date the water was bottled and sold in Spiro and Fort Smith.

The first agency building, around which the town of Skullyville later grew, was very substantially constructed. It consisted



Page 235

of three hewn log rooms, with foundation of solid stone, about four feet high. The hewn logs were all at least one foot in diameter, and it is said, were cut out by whipsaws in the Cavanal mountains, fifteen miles away. The floors and doors were of puncheon style, the nails all handmade, and the roof covered with red cedar shingles, hand rived. These shingles were not replaced until sixty years later, when the building was remodeled by T. D. Ainsworth, whose widow still lives there. Thus it is seen that the Agency building, around which grew up the town of Skullyville, must be one of the oldest structures now standing in Oklahoma. For many years it was the center of Government activities in this section. Here for several years lived the Agent, Major F. W. Armstrong, and here he died. Here the annuity payments were made to the Choctaws who settled in the Arkansas country, and because they received their money at this place they called it "Iskuliville" or "Moneytown."

In 1834 at Swallow Rock, a few miles up the Arkansas from the Skullyville landing, and only five miles from the Agency, Fort Coffee was built, named after Andrew Jackson's trusted friend, General John Coffee. It was beautifully located, with a wide view of the Arkansas both up and down the river. It is said that the chief purpose in erecting a military establishment at this particular place was to try to break up the whiskey traffic on the river, which traffic was becoming quite a problem after the Indian removals.

The fort was maintained, however, for only four years, when the garrison was removed, and a short time later the buildings were turned over to the Methodist Church for a boys' school—Fort Coffee Academy—which was operated until the Civil War. Some time during the War, the buildings were destroyed by fire.

Very shortly after the Indians arrived on the Arkansas in 1832, Skullyville began to be a place of great activity and importance. Many of the wealthier Choctaws, chiefly part-bloods, made their homes in or near the town, farming the adjoining lands with their slaves and pasturing their cattle on the well-watered prairies. Some of the better known families, whose descendants are still to

Page 236

be found in the region, were the McLeans, Folsoms, Wards, McCurtains, and others. A number of licensed traders established stores at Skullyville, and the town became the center of a brisk trade, not only for the Choctaws but for other Indians to the north and west. The traders brought in extensive and well selected stocks from the eastern markets, and sold them not only for gold paid out at annuity times, but they also took in trade the furs, baskets, beaded moccasins, and even the horses, mules, cattle and hogs of their customers.

Skullyville became the capital of one of the three districts into which the Choctaw Nation was divided, this being named after Mushulatubbe, the last powerful full-blood chief of the group to which Pushmataha belonged. He was a very able Indian, handsome in personal appearance, and a facile orator. He became the first district chief, and lived at or near Skullyville until his death in 1838, when an epidemic of smallpox carried off not only the chief but nearly five hundred other residents of the community. He lies in an unmarked grave probably in the Skullyville cemetery, to which we shall refer later. The artist, Catlin, painted a sketch of Mushulatubbe when he visited Skullyville in 1834. This old chieftain was a reactionary and was bitterly opposed to Christianity as well as to the progressive activities of the part-bloods.

Skullyville had many experiences in its early days, some of them as tragic as the small-pox epidemic referred to above. There was the great flood on the Arkansas in 1833 at a time when several thousand emigrant Choctaws were still camped about the Agency. This was followed by an outbreak of cholera, which carried off several hundred victims. Then, in 1835 the beloved Agent and founder of the town, Major Armstrong, died. He was succeeded by a brother, William Armstrong, who soon became equally popular among the Indians. It is interesting to remember that General Frank C. Armstrong, a son of F. W. Armstrong, and a member of the Dawes' Commission, was born at Skullyville shortly after the founding of the Agency.

In 1838 came the Chickasaw removal, most of these Indians being brought by boat to the Fort Coffee landing, and thence

Page 237

through Skullyville on the way to their new homes farther, west. A few years later came the turbulent remnants of the Seminoles after their desperate war in Florida.

Before 1850 most of the turmoil of the earlier days was over, permitting the full development of the prosperity of the town suggested above. In the middle forties New Hope Seminary, a school for girls, was opened just a mile east of the town. It was a companion school to Fort Coffee Academy, previously mentioned. Both of these schools were operated under the auspices of the Methodist church, and brought large numbers of young people from all over the Choctaw Nation to Skullyville. This is particularly true of New Hope Seminary, which, save for the period of the Civil War, operated with success until destroyed by fire in 1896. The first Superintendent of New Hope after the Civil War was Rev. J. Y. Bryce, whose son, of the same name, was also a minister of the Methodist church and in recent years Secretary of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Other later heads of the school include the venerable Rev. J. J. Methvin, a well-known authority on Oklahoma history, and Thomas D. Ainsworth, whose widow is one of the last few residents of old Skullyville.

Just a little southwest of Skullyville is Charby Prairie, one of great Choctaw ball grounds. George Catlin tells of attending a great game here in 1834 when some three thousand Indians were present. The games were generally played between districts, and there was much rivalry, many people, especially the women, betting everything they had on the outcome of the game. The players, said Catlin, were naked except for the breech-clout, with a sort of tail or appendage of horsehair as a decoration. The game lasted from nine o'clock in the morning until almost night, the winning party being the first to secure one hundred goals. It was a scene of wild confusion with many a bloody shin and broken nose. Indian ball was not a lady's game.

Not only was Skullyville an educational and social center for that portion of the Choctaw Nation, but it was also the political center. Gradually there developed jealousy between the people of the Arkansas country and those of the Red River section. When

Page 238

the national capital was moved to Doaksville in 1850, it caused such dissatisfaction in the northern section of the nation that for several years a separation was threatened. This culminated in the adoption of what was known as the Skullyville Constitution by a convention held at that town in 1857. The intent of this constitution was to unify the Nation under one governor or chief. Under the Skullyville Constitution, Tandy C. Walker, a part-blood Choctaw, became the first chief, though his jurisdiction was not recognized throughout the Nation.

From this time until long after the Civil War, Tandy Walker was recognized as one of the leading citizens of Skullyville. When the Agency was abandoned, he took it over as a residence and a governor's mansion. When the famous Butterfield-Overland Mail route was established in 1858 between St. Louis and San Francisco, one of the stations was at Skullyville, and Tandy Walker had charge of it. With the advent of the War, being an ardent Secessionist, he aided Agent Douglas H. Cooper to organize the First Choctaw-Chickasaw regiment for the Confederate service. Later, when Cooper was promoted to be a brigadier general, Walker became a colonel and served throughout the war with some distinction. At its close he returned to Skullyville and to the old Agency, where he lived until his death in 1877.

Of equal prominence with Walker in the annals of Skullyville was the McCurtain family. Cornelius McCurtain, a Scotch-Choctaw, came to the vicinity of the old town with the migration from Mississippi, and from the very first became a leading citizen, taking part in all of the political and other activities of his people. He has the credit of being a leader in the movement for free schools among the Choctaws. In 1849 he became District Chief, the highest office within the gift of the people of the district. But the sons of Cornelius McCurtain played an even greater part in Choctaw affairs, and after the War almost completely dominated the politics of the Nation until it ceased to exist. Three of these sons, Jackson, Edmund, and Green, became Principal Chiefs of the entire Choctaw Nation. It was Jackson who during his term of office removed the capital from Chahta Tamaha to its original and

Page 239

final site at Tuskahoma, and built the handsome Council House which still stands as a monument to his memory. He also secured the right of way for the Frisco railroad through the Choctaw territory.

Perhaps the most notable of them all was Green McCurtain, the youngest son of Cornelius to attain prominence. From the time of his first entry into politics as the sheriff of Skullyville county in 1872 until his death in 1910, Green McCurtain was always reckoned among the leaders of his people, holding almost every high office within the gift of the Nation. He was the outstanding leader of the Choctaws during the trying times of the Dawes Commission settlement and the close of the tribal period, and was the last elective chief of the tribe under the old regime.

One of the stark tragedies of Old Skullyville involves its two most prominent families, the Walkers and McCurtains. As previously stated Colonel Walker lived in the old Agency building, which he had converted into a dwelling. His second wife was a Miss Krebbs, who was connected by marriage with the McCurtains. With him also lived his son, Henderson, and a daughter, children by his first wife. For some reason, in the period following the War, the Walker and McCurtain families were not on very friendly terms. Conditions were not improved when young Robert McCurtain began to pay court to Tandy Walker's daughter, and he was soon forbidden to come to the Walker home. However, one day in August, 1874, Robert McCurtain rode up to the gate and dismounted. Before he could enter the house Henderson Walker came out on the gallery with a gun, and ordered young McCurtain to retreat. When the order was ignored, Walker fired, the shot taking effect in McCurtain's body. The latter was able to mount his horse, but when he had reached a point about a hundred feet south of the present school building in Old Spiro, he fell from his horse and died. Henderson Walker immediately went "on the scout" and was gone for two years, his father, Colonel Walker, meanwhile moving to Tamaha. But eventually Henderson returned, to be met within a short time by Robert's brothers, Jackson and Green McCurtain, who evened the blood feud by shooting him to death.

Page 240

The old cemetery of Skullyville has all the interest usually attached to these ancient places. Untold hundreds if not thousands of people lie here in unmarked graves, while the engraved stones date back into the eighteen thirties. It is a peaceful spot; from one point in it the Arkansas River can be seen, while numerous trees cast their shade over the last resting place of the dead. Two chiefs of the Choctaw Nation, Colonel Tandy Walker and Edmund McCurtain, rest here. Perhaps the most elaborate monument in the cemetery marks the grave of Edmund McCurtain. Among other sentiments in the long epitaph inscribed on the stone are these: "He was kind and generous as the brave only be. When the years have come and gone and the Choctaws be few, this stone shall mark the place of one of the purest, bravest and most patriotic sons of that nation."

The decline of Skullyville was rapid after the Civil War. One by one stores and residences were burned or otherwise destroyed never to be rebuilt. As usual with the old towns, the railroads passed it by, and Spiro a mile to the west, came to be the place of importance. Today, in addition to the Agency building, perhaps a half dozen others still stand within the bounds of Skullyville. The descendants of its first families are scattered far and wide. But as one who lived there years ago well said: "Let Old Skullyville be remembered long as the principal town of the Choctaw Nation before the coming of the railroads, for here were some of the flower of the tribe; a set of people who always stood for honesty, education and the general welfare, whose men were always noted for their hospitality and generosity, the women for their charity and purity of character."

Most of the site of Skullyville was underlaid with sand and gravel. During the past few years untold tons of the very dirt upon which those early people trod have been scattered over the roads from the Winding Stair to the Arkansas border—a fitting reminder of the way in which the original settlers scattered their own culture and refinement throughout their tribe and section.2



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