By PAUL NESBITT
In that most excellent paper, "The B. I. T." by J. F. Holden in the March number of the Chronicles, reference is made to that foremost citizen of his time, Col. J. J. McAlester, and the discovery of coal in what is known as the McAlester District. In the latter days of his life, when, by the mutation of time, his efforts and activities had been molded into monuments to which he pointed with modest pride, he related to me the story of his adventure into Indian Territory, and how he came to open the mines which have contributed so much to the development of that section.
As a news and story writer, I was sure that the story would be greatly appreciated by the reading public of that vicinity, for that public had grown and developed subsequent to the pioneer days of which Colonel McAlester told me. For certain reasons the story told me by him was never published, and for more than twenty years it has reposed in my files along with other valued copy of historical value which some day I may be able to offer to the editors of the Chronicles.
Only those who lived before the Civil War along the border of Indian Territory, know how limited were opportunities offered to boys and girls growing up into manhood and womanhood. We do know, however, that what was lacked in educational and social advantages was more than made up in development of character and sterling qualities which produced such men as Col. J. J. McAlester.
He was reared in a rural community in Arkansas. The war between the States came on while he was yet a youth, barely old enough and big enough to "pack a musket," yet, early in that struggle he gave himself to the Confederacy and served until the end of the struggle. He was with McCullough at the battle of Pea Ridge, and was one of the escort who bore the dead body of that commander from the battlefield to its final resting place at Fort Smith.
Like the other soldiers of the Lost Cause, the youthful McAlester returned home to a land possessed and controlled by those who had been his enemies. There were no oppor-
tunities but those of meekly tilling such soil as Federal officers were willing for them to have, and eating in silence such bread as could be obtained.
Having been denied an education, McAlester decided to make such amends as he could and attended school. While pursuing his studies he lived with a man by the name of Weldon who had been a member of an engineering corps which surveyed the Choctaw Nation in the Indian Territory. No one could be associated with J. J. McAlester and not become his intimate. It was his nature, and training too, for those whose surroundings are "The simple annals of the poor," form intimate relationships with those of their kind.
While in the Indian Country, Weldon had seen the coal outcrops in what is now known as the McAlester field; also, he had seen the analysis of the coal which proved its high quality. Weldon was unable to take advantage of his knowledge acquired in the Indian country, but with accuracy and great care he drew a map of the locality where the outcrops occurred, explained them to the youthful friend, and urged him to secure possession of the area described as soon as possible.
"School didn't interest me much after that," Colonel McAlester told me. A young man who had led a regiment to battle, who had been rewarded for bravery, was not likely to rest long from activities—especially when he carried in his pocketbook a map of coal fields in an undeveloped country. Soon he secured a job with a freighting outfit, and helped to take a saw mill from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Fort Sill in what is now Oklahoma.
When we stop to consider the difficulties of such a transportation job, we may better understand some of the difficulties encountered. The motive power was ox teams—and there was not a bridge between the two forts. I traveled over much of that section between Fort Smith and Fort Sill in company with Colonel McAlester, and frequently he pointed out places where the wagons had "bogged" down under the heavy loads, and it became necessary to hitch eight and even ten teams to a wagon and "snake" it out. After nearly fifty years, when the country was settled, highways and bridges everywhere, changing the aspect of the landscape, he could still point out the particular places where incidents of interest had happened.
Later he worked for a firm of Indian traders—Harlan &
Rooks, who established posts at Tupelo and Stonewall. Colonel McAlester cleared off the trees and brush for the post building at Stonewall; and I wonder how many citizens of that thriving little town know that it was he who did the first work in establishment of that place—away back in 1867 or '68, I am not positive.
Ever in mind the map in his pocket and the coal outcrops, young McAlester obtained a position with Reynolds & Hannaford, another firm of post traders, and prevailed on them to establish a store a short distance from the coal outcrops which he had located by aid of his map. With an ox team he hauled lumber from the Poteau mills for the store at Bucklucksy—which was afterwards known as McAlester—then North McAlester. He had brought along with the lumber, some goods for the store. The first day, after reaching Bucklucksy, he sold $19 worth of merchandise—while the lumber for the store was still lying on the ground where it was unloaded. That was in the year 1869. For another year or so he worked for this firm, and then bought Reynolds out, the firm going under the name of McAlester & Hannaford.
It has been said that Colonel McAlester discovered coal when digging a well on a homestead near the present site of North McAlester. This is an error. The coal cropped out in the bank of a creek, or wash, I am not certain which, east of where the trading post was established—nearly half a mile. As has been related by Mr. Holden in the March Chronicles, the M. K. & T. railway had been extended to Parsons, Kansas. Congress had offered a right-of-way across the Territory to the railroad which could first avail itself of the grant. The M. K. & T. was undecided which way to proceed from Parsons. It was during this period of hesitation that Colonel McAlester drove a wagon out from the Bucklucksy trading post to where the coal cropped out in the creek bank; with hard work and great care he dug out and selected a wagon load—and started north to Parsons, Kansas.
In these days we lounge in an easy-riding car which glides over paved highways up from McAlester to the Canadian river which is crossed on a steel bridge; over the North Canadian just above Eufaula and several other streams to Muskogee; across the Arkansas over another fine bridge and then the Verdigres and on to Wagoner; and stream after stream up to
the Neosho and in to Parsons—an easy day's drive. But try to envision the country between McAlester and Parsons as it was when Colonel McAlester started out with that load of coal—to advertise his wares in hopes that a railroad could be induced to accept the Government's offer of a right-of-way through Indian Territory.
There was not a bridge on any stream or river on the whole route. Who in these days would have the courage to start out across a wilderness of rolling prairies and big rivers—with an ox team and a load of coal. It might take two weeks—it might take a month to make that one-way trip, for no one knew the state of the rivers. If the waters were down, passage could be made without great difficulty—although only experienced teamsters could effect a crossing over the Canadians and Arkansas when the waters were low.
Colonel McAlester got his load of coal to Parsons—and presented it to the railroad officials there. They in turn sent it by train to Sedalia where it was pronounced the best steam coal west of Pennsylvania. I do not pretend to say that the load of coal was the determinating factor in deciding the M. K. & T. officials to project their road southward. Colonel McAlester thought it did have something to do with that decision, but it is at least more than circumstantial that the line was built directly to the Bucklucksy store.
The M. K. & T. railway reached Bucklucksy in 1872, and the name was changed by the railway official to McAlester. Colonel McAlester had secured the mining rights to coal under the provisions of the Choctaw constitution and laws, which, as he related to me, consisted in driving a stake in the ground at a central point of the supposed coal area, and all deposits within the circle of a certain radius—I am unable to state dimensions—became the property of the one driving the stake.
As soon as the railroad was completed to McAlester, a mine was opened and operations begun. The first mine was operated in the vicinity of Krebs and the coal hauled in wagons to the railroad point. No sooner were operations begun than contests were instituted on the part of the Choctaw government and attempts made to prevent further development. Knowing that the railway officials were contemplating construction of a switch from the main line to the mine the Choctaw council determined to protest and prevent the work.
The council had not met, however, and in the meantime ties and rails were rushed from all points on the line so as to get the work done before action could be taken. The railroad was victor.
This further angered Choctaw officials. Although Colonel McAlester's title to both coal and royalties had been tested in the Choctaw courts and in the Federal courts where his claims had been sustained, this did not prevent Chief Cole from taking the matter into his own hands for drastic action. He ordered the Choctaw Light Horse, an organization much like the Texas Rangers, to arrest Colonel McAlester and three other men, a white man by the name of Reams, and two Indians, Tandy Walker and Pusley.
Suddenly, one morning, the Light Horse surrounded McAlester's store and placed him under arrest. Reams was at the store and was arrested at the same time. Pusley was near by, and so rapidly did the Light Horse work, he was unable to make his escape. The Colonel was able to send word to Walker, and he alone of the four escaped arrest.
The captain of the horse told Colonel McAlester that they were to be shot; then, Choctaw fashion, he left his prisoners on their own recognizance, while he and his force sought Tandy Walker. "He told us to stick around while he went after Walker," Colonel McAlester told me, "but we didn't wait for the Light Horse to return." I wasn't ready to be shot. We went out through the brush to the hill north of town and stayed there till night. When it was safe for him to come to us, Dr. Haily brought us a roll of money and some guns and ammunition, and that night we walked north on the railroad till we came to the first section house.
"We waked up the section boss and I said to him, 'We want a hand car and two of the best men you've got; and don't ask any questions so you won't know anything.' It stumped the boss and he hesitated, but we let him understand that we meant business, so he rousted out two big Irishmen who were stout as a team of mules. They got out the handcar and we piled on, and all of us began to pump. I reckon we were too anxious, for we went so fast the car jumped the track and spilled us on the right-of-way. Lucky for us no one was hurt, so we put the car back on the
track and pumped it up the road. By midnight we were in Eufaula—in the Creek Nation—and out of jurisdiction of the Choctaws.
"I stayed in Eufaula making plans to combat Governor Cole. As I was the largest owner of coal rights, it was me he was after. Pusley and Walker got together secretly and finally raised a band of fifty men. Then they went in a body to Governor Cole and laid the law down to him. At the same time I sent some of my friends to Cole, and they were men who didn't propose to stand for any foolishness. They told him if a hair of my head was harmed they would hang his hide on the fence, and he believed them, for they were mostly former Quantrill men and were well enough known in the Indian Territory to have a reputation for doing what they said they would do.
"After that things began to settle down, so I went down to Atoka and called on Governor Cole. I pulled the papers out of my pocket and showed him that I had a right to the lands occupied by me and my partners; that the right had been given me by the Government agent and sanctioned by his own Choctaw government.
"He claimed he never knew about this and if he had known he would not have moved against me. I never had any trouble with Cole after that. I proposed to divide the coal royalty with the Choctaw Nation and this settled the question until the Dawes Commission came down here and made a lot of trouble.
"Chief Williams told me that Governor Cole cleared off a place at the mouth of Brushy creek near Adamson. After it was cleared the Governor said we would be shot there the next day, but if the coons came out on the cleared place and played that night it would be a bad sign; if they didn't he would surely have us shot in the morning."
Colonel McAlester stopped in his story and laughed.
"Williams told me afterwards that the coons came out that night and wallowed all over the clearing."
This was his story of the opening of the coal fields in the
McAlester district as he told it to me. Of the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railway of which Mr. Holden has given such a splendid account, Colonel McAlester said:
"When the Choctaw railroad went through here I wanted it to come to my town. The promoters however, wanted me to give them ten thousand dollars and all interests in the townsite. This, I refused to do, and they dropped a mile south and started a town of their own which they called "South McAlester." I told them they had no title and could not get title to that land, and so it proved. It was another case of two fools or sets of fools coming together. It cost me more than ten thousand dollars to get a hold in South McAlester; and when the cases sent through the courts they learned that their titles were not good. I bought up the judgments and in that way became a large property holder in their townsite."