Wild Times in Indian Territory: Panthers, Bears, and Wolves

“The only thing this country is good for is red ants, coyotes, and cattle men,” a saying attributed to the Comanche Chief Quanah Parker.

Backcountry Memories:

Martha Wing Hammel was born in 1879 in a “community near the Verdigris River, east of the little town of Watova. Her early recollections of family life deep in the river bottom woodlands are still clear to her.

The family home was a large log house, as were many of the Indian homes at that time. Their way of life was much like that of their other pioneer settlers. Her parents were industrious and hardworking and provided sufficiently for the family.

Their log home was of simple furnishings. She remembers that her mother done most of the cooking at the big fireplace, and sometimes prepared food over a fire built outside. Double deck beds built into the walls were for the children. She recalls the many times visitors came, and they would then get to sleep on pallets on the floor, letting the guests have their beds high up on the wall. The long rough oak table and split log benches completed most of the home furniture.

Her father died when she was yet a young girl, but she remembers hearing him tell of seeing buffalo on the prairies, in his early days. She herself recalls the time when great flocks of prairie chicken, ducks, and geese were common sights. Deer were plentiful in the river bottoms. Wolves could be seen frequently and now and then a panther was spotted. Where many wooded creeks now run, she remembers when all the area was just one big prairie, unfenced.” –Interview with Marth Wing Hammel, 1968

The Naming of Panther Spring:

“This country at that time was well supplied with buffalo and wild turkey. In 1872 a troop of cavalry soldiers were out rounding up some Indians. This was in dry hot weather and as they rode up a spring they were thirsty so they rushed down to the spring just in time to see two large panthers run out. The soldiers found out that the spring did not have a name, so the commanding officer suggested they name the spring Panther Spring, so it has carried that name ever since. This spring is located on the south side of Wichita Mountains and at the head of Deep Red Creek.“ –Interview with Mr. L. H. Colyer, Frederick, Oklahoma

Mama had the Last Word

“Down the Caney Creek, which empties into the Illinois River, some miles south of the confluence of the Barren Fork with the Illinois, there is some rugged country. Among the bluffs and dense growth of trees and underbrush, years ago, several panthers had their lairs. Going out one day in quest of a deer or turkey, John Stephens, a young man of the Caney Creek locality, reached the near vicinity of one of the most rugged spots along the creek, when he saw sunning themselves on a large flat stone several young panthers.

Stephens immediately fired upon the small panthers. One of them was wounded to some extent and all began “crying,” and to the great surprise of Stephens, the mother panther arrived almost instantly. Without the least hesitancy this big panther rushed upon Stephens and began clawing.

Trying to defend himself, Stephens, not having had time in which to reload his muzzle loading rifle, struck at the enraged animal with his gun, missed and the stock was broken from the barrel as a result of the butt of the gun striking the ground.

Clawing and snarling, the panther soon had Stephens’ clothing torn into bits; whereupon he sought safety in flight and ran as he had never had occasion to do previously. The panther then ran back to the youngsters and hurried them into a place of safety.

Another time, while hunting wild horses down in the hills nearly opposite the confluence of Dry Creek with the Illinois River, some years after the close of the Civil War, Henderson Stephens and a companion found a large heap of grass and leaves. They investigated, and found part of the carcass of a deer. After eating a portion of the deer, the panther hid the remainder and went on its way.

Early day Tahlequah and Park Hill people heard the screams of panthers.” –Interview with Elizabeth Ross

Cowpuncher Tall Tales:

“They told me down in Texas there was some kind of wolf; they said he was black. He had one white hind foot and one white forward foot; they called him White Socks.

He said that thing killed a lot of stock in the run of a year. Cow men offered a big reward for it. He said as far as he knew, they never did catch it.

Shorty said he was out in the sage brush one day and ran on to him, jumped him. He was going to rope him. And he said he was riding as good a horse as he thought there ever was out in the sagebrush, and he wasn’t afraid to run him either. And he said that doggone animal outrun him so bad that he wasn’t even in the race. Just look back at him.” –Interview with Frank Tyner, 1968, Craig County, Oklahoma

Strip Poker:

“Well, I’ll tell you. You know, there used to be a lot of wild animals in that country. Cause you know what the jaguar is? Used to be jaguar in this country, along with panthers.

Well, had a rat terrier down in the timber. That panther got after her. She was a little old feisty rat terrier. You know that rat terrier kept that panther off of her. Every time that panther would stop to spring on her, she walked, see. She wouldn’t give the panther a chance to run and make a jump. Panther had to stop and set. And every time it would, that durn rat terrier would run and grab that panther by the tail, bite it. Kept that up till she got to the house.

Well, I had an uncle same thing happened to him, except he’d take his clothes off. He’d take part of his clothes off. Thrown it back to the panther. Panther would tear it up, and he’d walk fast, you know. When the panther would get up, he’d slow down. Panther would have to get set to spring. He’d throw. Only thing he had on when he got in was a pair of shorts. – Interview with Tom Hawkins, 1968, Craig County, Oklahoma

Life in the Arbuckle Mountains: “My father was Jesse Nail. He belonged to Joel Nail of Nails Crossing on Blue River. He came from Mississippi with the Nails. My mother was Mary Ann Carter and belonged to Lizzie Carter. I do not know the date of birth of either of my parents.

Father farmed a ten acre patch after he was freed. There were six children in our family. I was born July 20, 1850, three miles east of Tishomingo, in Tishomingo County, Chickasaw Nation, in a lay hut, with a dirt floor and no windows.

The house had a cat chimney and the roof was covered with clapboards fastened down with weight poles and bois d’arc pins. We drank water out of a creek. We dug holes in the creek bed and sank barrels. These would fill with water and we used it.

[…]There were many panthers in those days, and we were more afraid of them than any animal. One night a panther came to our house, jumped up on the roof, and began tearing the boards off. Mother began to scream, and my uncle came from his home shooting as he came. This frightened the panther and he left there, but we were all frightened almost to death.

There were many bears in these Arbuckle Mountains, too. It was very hard to raise our Tom Fuller patches to maturity. Bears liked corn when it was young and tender. I have seen them many a time in corn fields, gathering corn for their cubs. They walked upright and carried the corn in their arms, just like a man. If they happened to drop an ear, they threw down the whole armful, and returned to the field for another load.

[…]My husband hauled rock from the Arbuckle Mountains to Wynnewood with an ox team for a week, and received three bushels of corn as payment. There were no roads at that time, and he dragged rocks out of a trail across the Arbuckle Mountains so we could go to Ardmore. This was known as the Kimball Trail and has since become Highway 77.

[…]My husband had the first saddle in this part or the Territory. He bought it at Fort Smith and it was of black leather with a large flat horn, as large as a saucer. People came for miles to look at that saddle.” –Interview with Amanda Nail Kimball, 1937, Davis, Oklahoma.

Tales from the Muskogee Creek:

"Black Wolf of the Currumpaw," oil on board, 1893. Philmont Museum.Of all the things that the Muskogee-Creek Indians feared was the wolf when it was plentiful in the early days. They were even scared to mention the word “wolf.” There were still some people who fear the wolf yet.

The fathers and mothers gave warnings to their little children not to speak bad or unkindly of the wolf. If any reference was to be made to the wolf, only the best words were to be used.

In the early days the wolf was called “este po-cha thak-ko,” meaning Great-Grandfather. Sometimes they were called the “ne-the fol-la,” meaning Night Wanderer, and to utter its name was most feared.

In one way it is said that the wolf was one of the best friends to have at night and then in another way, it was one of the worst enemy that a man could have. It is said that as certain as anyone joked about the wolf, they, in their uncanny way, knew about it. It has been traditionally true that a person joking, molesting, or harming a wolf has to meet up with them or some revenge at some time, sooner or later.

[Story] Lucy Harjo was a Creek woman who lived near Holdenville, Hughes County, Oklahoma, when that town was just coming into existence.

While there one time, it is said that Lucy Harjo cut up another woman very badly. This other Indian woman had been sitting in her buggy just outside of a saloon. It was not only the woman that was cut up, for the horse that was hitched to her buggy was also cut up.

After this act was committed, Lucy Harjo fled from the scene but not without pursuers. Somehow she evaded the pursuing U. S. Marshal and his followers and escaped to the hills where she sought to rest and obtain sleep for a short while. As she was laying there in the weeds, two forms walked up to her and she knew them to be wolves. One lay down at her head and the other at her feet. Just as a dog would do to a master.

Lucy Harjo awoke to the whining of the wolves, who seemed to be restless for they would run a short distance and return to her, all the time whining as if giving some sort of warning. Knowing nothing else to do she followed the wolves into the wildest thickets, and it was then that she realized that her pursuers had taken up her trail and were nearing her hiding place, and that was the reason why the wolves were so restless.

[Story] A young Indian youth, who was fond of hunting, shot a wolf one time and the parents feared for him and reproached him for his act, saying, “We have cautioned you against doing such a thing, but it has been done. But remember, you often go out alone at nights.” The youth answered back that he could take care of himself, in not too pleasant words.

Since the youth was quite a hunter, he had spotted a place where a number of wild turkeys roosted for the night and he decided to kill a turkey one night. It was late in the evening when he started out on his horse in the direction of the turkey roost. He was armed with his Winchester and pistol, with the usual shells amid other hunting necessities.

He tied his horse a quarter of a mile away from the turkey roost and he thought it would be best to steal up on them, by walking the remainder of the way. He had not gone very far when he heard a wolf howl in the direction that he was going but he thought nothing of it at the time. He walked on a ways and the howls were repeated and the youthful hunter did not feel so encouraged and decided to return home and let the turkey killing go for the present.

As he started back toward the direction where he had left his horse, he heard another wolf howl in that direction and it seemed to be near. As he heard that, he planned to reach his horse in a roundabout way, and when the hunter walked in another direction, another wolf howled from that direction so that he realized that he must be surrounded in every direction.

With this realization he began to remember what he had done to a wolf not so long ago, and he also remembered what his parents had told him.

He ran until he came to a large rock. He climbed upon it, meaning to waylay any of the wolves if they came within shooting distance. The howls of the wolves came closer and closer until the young Indian man was surrounded by wolves. The howling and yelping wolves leaped in his direction even as he thought he was on his refuge.

Although he had many weapons and he tried to use them, each of the shells only snapped and he was helpless.

Each time a wolf snapped at him, they all moved closer and closer to the rock. One of the wolves finally caught his boot in such a manner as to pull him off of the large rock. All the wolves began to fight over him as soon as he touched the ground. His clothes were badly torn, his face and body were scratched, but he was not seriously injured and it seemed that he was just covered with saliva of the wolves.

The wolves tossed their victim and rolled him around in every way until the early morning. The wolves would rest a short time and start again with their rough treatment of their victim. It was only when day was breaking that the wolves ceased their play-like treatment of the young man and all began to leave in several directions with their yelping and barking growing faint as they got farther and farther away.

When the young Indian man reached his home in a tattered and exhausted condition, his parents said, “We told you what might happen to you.” –Interview with Austin Harry, 1937, Wewoka, Oklahoma

***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***

Featured Image:  John James Audubon, Panther, 1891

And Ernest Thompson Seton, Black Wolf; see more of his artwork at The Seton Centre.

Full interview with Amanda Nail Kimball, part of the Indian Pioneer Papers Collection, Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

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