Historian and Oklahoma City civic leader Joseph Bradfield Thoburn was born in Bellaire, Ohio, on August 8, 1866, to Thomas C. and Mary Eleanor Crozier Thoburn. He moved with his parents to Marion County, Kansas, in 1871. Educated in the Kansas public schools, he graduated from Kansas Agricultural College, Manhattan, in 1893. A year later he married Caroline Conwell, who had been a teacher in a Choctaw academy in Indian Territory. The Thoburns moved to Oklahoma City in 1899. Their union produced two daughters, Mary Eleanor, and Jeanne.
A printer and journalist by training, Thoburn was active for many years in developing and promoting the commercial and educational environment of Oklahoma City. In 1902 he was elected secretary of the Oklahoma City Commercial Club and played an active role in the organization of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. He worked closely with Anton Classen and other Methodist and civic leaders in establishing Epworth University, now Oklahoma City University. Thoburn's interest in promoting water conservation and land reclamation led to his appointment as secretary of the Oklahoma Territorial Board of Agriculture in 1903, a position he held for two years.
Joseph Thoburn was elected to the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) Board of Directors in 1903, which, as Muriel Wright once said, "opened the gate for his life work." In 1908 he published The History of Oklahoma, the first Oklahoma history textbook adopted by the state. From 1913 to 1917, while in the University of Oklahoma history department, he conducted the first scientific excavations into Oklahoma's prehistory, including the cave-dweller culture of northeastern Oklahoma, the basketmaker culture of northwestern Oklahoma, and the mound-builder culture in Delaware, LeFlore, and Kay counties. He then joined the OHS staff in 1917, serving until his retirement in 1931.
Thoburn wrote or edited eight books and more than thirty-six articles, many of which appeared in popular magazines and reached a large audience eager to learn about their young state. He helped found and later edited The Chronicles of Oklahoma. Above all, he was a promoter, selling Oklahoma history to the greatest possible number of people. Joseph Thoburn died March 2, 1941.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 3 March 1941. Elmer L. Fraker, "With Thoburn at Honey Creek," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 34 (Spring 1956). Muriel Wright, "Pioneer Historian and Archaeologist of the State of Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 24 (Winter 1946-47).
Bob L. Blackburn
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