Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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A relatively untapped resource of Oklahoma, salt held an early importance in the region that became the Sooner State. Geologists estimate that twenty trillion tons lie within the state's borders. A number of salt plains exist in western Oklahoma due to the varying depth of a layer of Permian-age rock salt. Alfalfa, Woods, Harper, Woodward, Blaine, Beckham, and Harmon counties all contain salt plains. The Great Salt Plains may be the most well known and is the only one without large salt springs. Eastern Oklahoma has numerous salt springs and wells that contributed to Oklahoma's early-day commercial manufacturing. Historically, the access to these salt deposits proved crucial to American Indian tribes, not only for curing and consumption, but as hunting grounds. The salt attracted large numbers of targeted prey, with the result that areas such as the Great Salt Plains became meeting grounds and battlegrounds for the indigenous tribes. When the Cherokee Nation came to own the Cherokee Outlet, the U.S. government declared that the saline areas were to remain open to other American Indian groups.

Oklahoma's first commercial salt manufacturing came about in Indian Territory in the Cherokee Nation. As early as 1815 Maj. William Lovely, Cherokee agent, licensed Bernard Mouille to produce salt on the Grand River. Shortly this enterprise became known as Campbell's Salt Works, managed by Campbell and partner David Earhart, who with employee (or partner) William Childers murdered Campbell in 1819. This ended the operation. In 1819 Mark and Richard Bean purchased the kettles from the Campbell site and initiated a salt works north of present Gore. In 1820 the brothers and Reuben Sanders acquired a permit to operate. Col. August P. Choteau owned a salt springs on the east bank of the Grand River, and he sold the property to Sam Houston in 1830. When Houston discovered that he could not own land in Indian Territory, the property transferred to John Rogers. He opened a salt works and named the area Grand Saline. Prior to 1826 John Lasater owned a salt works twelve miles from the Arkansas River on the banks of what he called the Illinois Bayou, and he sold the site in the late 1820s to Samuel Mackey. Mackey's Salt Works emerged as a productive business and a meeting place of local significance. By 1833 there were at least six salt works in the Cherokee Nation, including the salt springs owned by Sequoyah on Lee's Creek.

In 1843 the Cherokee Nation removed the operators from these salines, declaring these to be the property of the nation (excluding Sequoyah's). With this act the Cherokee Nation leased the works to operators such as Lewis Ross (John Ross's brother), Walter Webber, Alexander Wilson, and Joel Bryan. Many of the former owners asked federal and Cherokee officials for compensation, with varying results. John Drew, Joseph Coodey, David Vann, Samuel Mackey's sons J. and W. T. Mackey, and Leroy Markham also engaged in the salt business in this nation prior to the Civil War.

Outside Cherokee territory were other salt works. Mabbit's Salt Works served Pecan Point residents in the late 1810s. Prominent in the Choctaw nation were Giles Thompson Salt Works near Boggy Depot and the works run by Col. Israel Folsom. Robert Jones was also involved in the trade. In all of the nations of eastern Oklahoma there were salt springs, many existing as neighborhood property. Groups would go and spend a few days making a large supply of salt for their own needs. In the Creek Nation there existed a good salt spring north of Wetumka. Most of the salt works in the Five Civilized Tribes area depended on African American slave labor. Lewis Ross, David Vann, Giles Thompson, and other operators owned a large number of slaves.

The salt making process was fairly simple. Oftentimes, hollowed logs were used to pipe the saline water from the springs to rows of enormous kettles, where the water was boiled, leaving the salt. The finished product would be taken to a salt house. Here customers could come and purchase the salt, and it would be shoveled into wagon beds, bags, or barrels, to the consumer's preference. If the rivers were up, the product could be sent to New Orleans to sell. Salt garnered a large price in Indian Territory before and after the Civil War. During the war salt became scarce, and the price was exorbitant. Union and Confederate commanders confiscated the works to supply their troops. After the war many of the salt works resumed operation, including Marble Salt Works and Bryan's Salt Works, and new ones emerged. For example, William Penn Adair received a Cherokee license to work a saline spring. The arrival of the railroad in the 1870s provided access to cheaper supplies of salt and effectively ended production in Indian Territory.

In western Oklahoma many enterprising pioneers loaded wagons-full of salt from the Great Salt Plains and peddled it to fellow Oklahomans and even traded in Kansas. Jesse Chisholm produced salt in future Blaine County to trade with Plains Indians. Later, Jeff Saunders operated a salt works in that region, southeast of Southard, and the site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NR-83002074). After the turn of the twentieth century Blaine County salt plants emerged at Salton, later Ferguson. One of these was owned by the Morton Salt Company, and the other was erected around 1906 on Mount Henequenet, using solar evaporation. In southwest Oklahoma there were salt works on the Elm Fork, operated by Ben Kiser, and the North Fork of the Red River, operated by Jake White. Various other entrepreneurs have manufactured salt mainly in Beckham, Harmon, Woodward, and Woods counties. These included Clark and McBee (Salton, 1911), John Parsons (near Leafie, 1913), Flowers and Sons (southwest of Erick, 1938, expanded 1950), Wyatt Hendrick (southwest of Erick), and Ezra Blackmon (near Freedom, c. 1919, expanded 1935). Oklahoma Salt Industries, known as United Carbon (1934) and Oklahoma Carbon Industries, in Sayre, was sold to Fred Coogan and later became Tom-Feld Company in 1963. These plants faced stiff competition from the larger facilities in Kansas. In 1985 Cargill Industries purchased Blackmon's claims and installed a solar evaporation plant in Freedom.

In 1900 Oklahoma establishments produced 961 tons of salt at a value of $6,136, which dropped to a value of $910 in 1907. In 1936 the state produced 30,351 tons at a value of $78,912, and in 1943, the last year salt had its own category before joining the "other minerals," showed 7,716 tons at a value of $30,496.

Issues related to salt production involve the reinsertion of salt water into the ground after removal from oil reservoirs. This has been strictly regulated by the state. Another important industry is iodine, which is extracted from salt water, specifically sodium iodide, pumped from deep wells. Oklahoma is the only one of the fifty United States to produce iodine and joins Chile and Japan as the world's major iodine sources. In 2000 the Asahi Glass Company of Japan operated a plant in Woodward, Iochem, also of Japan, produced iodine in Vici, and North American Brine Resources had a plant in Woodward and a miniplant near Dover, which recovered iodine from oil-field brines collected from northwest Oklahoma oil and gas wells. Iodine is utilized in pharmaceuticals, disinfectants, cloud seeding, photography, and animal feed, among other products.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Grant Foreman, "Salt Works in Early Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 10 (December 1932). John W. Morris, ed., Drill Bits, Picks, and Shovels: A History of Mineral Resources in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1982). C. W. Shannon, Handbook on the Natural Resources of Oklahoma (Norman: Oklahoma Geological Society, 1916).

Larry O'Dell

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