In September 1872 the M.K.&T. railroad had arrived in Atoka County, making its current terminus at the tiny town of Atoka. Right off the bat the people of Atoka had an uphill battle in getting people to pronounce and spell the name of their town. What was the town called? Was it “Ar-tok-a,” or “Ah-tok-a,” or At-tok-ca,” or “Att-ka,” or maybe just “Ta-o-ka,”?
The word Atoka was new to most people – maybe not to the locals, aka the Choctaw people – but certainly to the increasing number of newspapermen, the railroad men, and the huge influx of foreign workers and merchants that followed the railroad.
The local newspaper of the day, The Vindicator, had just relocated their business to Atoka from Boggy Depot. On September 14, 1872, the editors painted this snapshot of A-tok-a, as the name of the town was spelled throughout the Sept. 14th issue:
- The construction train on the M.K. &T. railroad is now running to Clear Boggy.
- [Weather] TOO COOL – Ice cream don’t go worth a cent.
- The tide of emigration to and from Texas continues and is daily on the increase.
- The El Paso stage line is doing a good business.
- Our hotels are crowded daily.
- U.S. Deputy Marshalls are plenty as fleas in Sherman.
- Horse thieves are numerous. One of our citizens was bitten to the tune of $80 this week, by buying a stolen horse from Texas.
- New cotton is being received daily at the Depot for shipment North.
- Between fifteen hundred and two thousand head of cattle have been shipped from this place this week.
With all the newcomers in town, the Atoka newspaper felt compelled to address a persistent confusion over the town name in a bold and direct fashion:
The availability of daily passenger train service hinted at the rising prosperity of Atoka. A noon-day meal could be purchased at the Railroad Restaurant for fifty cents a meal. Advertisements announced a new store opened by W.C. Falconer, a new bakery, a new doctor, and new dentist. The esteemed Choctaw physician, Dr. Israel W. Folsom (son of Rev. Israel Folsom) moved his office to Atoka in December 1872.
Even the “King of Coal” J. J. McAlester could not resist opening a store at Atoka. His “Big Tent” advertisement sounds like our current-day “red light special” for eager shoppers.
In addition railroad agents were busy promoting the Atoka terminus as the cheapest way to ship cotton and beef east to St. Louis, and then on to New York. Merchants shipping goods (aka cotton) from Clarksville, Texas were promised cheaper rates than transportation costs to get their goods to Atoka – via wagon route through Pine Bluff, Jones’, and George Colbert’s. The railroad men were determined to make money.
The year 1872 is called the beginning of the Catholic Movement in the Indian Territory. Addressing a need of the foreign workers for a place of worship, Father Michael Smyth established St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Atoka. It was the first Catholic congregation within the Indian Territory. The original location was at the corner of Indiana and B Street next to the railroad tracks.
The St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was built on land owned by merchant and Irishman, John A. Dillon. In return for the gift of land, the church agreed that Mr. Dillon would be buried on the church premises, and so he was, upon his death in 1891. Dillon’s grave is still there, although the site is now a residential area. His headstone has been salvaged by the Atoka County Historical Society and returned to his descendants. Dillon was an interesting well-known person in old Atoka and may well be the subject of a future blog.
Four lumber mills were in operation that summer of 1872. Extensive coal deposits had just been discovered in the nearby hills. But in my opinion, the surest telltale sign of the booming economy was the opening of a photography studio – or Photographie Gallery, as it was called – by businessmen arriving from Kansas City.
Prior to the arrival of the railroad, the name Atoka merely designated a meeting place, so named for Captain Atoka, a Choctaw tribal leader who lived in the area. The main hub of commerce was actually located at Old Boggy Depot, established in 1837 by Chickasaws fourteen miles southwest, along the Texas-Fort Smith stage coach road. Historical Choctaw figures such as Rev. Allen Wright and Rev. Israel Folsom as well as the famous Chickasaw orator George W. Harkins (the nephew of Chief G.W. Harkins) and the legendary Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury made their homes at Boggy Depot.
The Choctaw and Chickasaw tribal court grounds and courthouse were situated just north of present-day Atoka along the Muddy Boggy River on land owned by A. J. Harkins. There were no structures; the meetings were held in the open around campfires. Geary’s Station, serving the short-lived Butterfield stage line 1858-1860, was nearby.
However, the Westview Cemetery within the current town of Atoka, gives us evidence of a burial ground in use at least by 1860. A Kentucky man by the name of Hugh C. Flack and his son Zeno Flack were killed on the same day on June 6, 1860 by Colonel D. F. Harkins over ownership of some cattle. Both are buried in Westview Cemetery (as we know of it today). His wife Eliza Juzan Flack is one of the legendary Choctaw women who helped to civilize the Choctaw Nation. She was the daughter of a Frenchman, Pierre Juzan and his Choctaw wife Peggy, and was known as a strong, determined character.
Upon Mrs. Flack’s death in 1890, the Atoka newspaper, The Indian Citizen, published a wonderful and detailed tribute to Mrs. Flack, which can be read on her Memorial Page.
“In about 1853 or 1854 the Flacks moved from Blue County to their place on Middle or Muddy Boggy, known then as Flack’s stage-stand on the Butterfield overland route to California–now within the town of Atoka. When she kept the stage stand, her house was noted from Arkansas to California for its cleanliness and excellent food.”
Mrs. Flack raised six children, all of whom preceded her in death. She remained at this same place until her death, the last member of the first family and the original homestead of the town of Atoka.
Stage Stops apparently ran in the family. Her sister Lucy Juzan was the wife of A.W. Geary, who had been granted the privilege of erecting a bridge and establishing a tollgate near his residence at the crossing of Little (North) Boggy on the Fort Smith-Boggy Depot road. (Approved October 21, 1858.) The site is now flooded by the building of the Atoka Reservoir.
Her half-brother James Trahern also ran a stage-stand for the Butterfield Company. Known as Traherns’ Station, it was located west of Shady Point in LeFlore County and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
No mention is made of the Flack family in the online “The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture”. Instead the article recalls the contributions of Mr. J. D. Davis and Rev. Murrow. In 1867 the Choctaw Nation made an agreement with a white settler James D. Davis to build a courthouse at Atoka for the Choctaws. In the same year, another pioneer, Baptist missionary Joseph S. Murrow, established a mission to the Choctaws and later a church in 1869. The structures encouraged the growth of a community around it. A post office was established in 1868 to serve the small settlement of Atoka.
In contrast to Atoka’s late beginnings, the first structure at Old Boggy Depot was a log cabin built in 1837 by several Chickasaw families to be near their annuity grounds in the vicinity. And the post-office for Old Boggy Depot was established November 5, 1849, with Chickasaw William R. Guy as postmaster.
Still the Choctaw Nation was thinly populated. Between the censuses of 1860 and 1867, the Choctaw population remained approximately 13,000 (according to a recent blog by the Choctaw Nation).
But growth was inevitable and the railroad and coal industries certainly helped. “Census data in the 1870s showed a Choctaw Nation recovering steadily from the ravages of the Civil War. The Choctaw Nation’s Census of 1872 reported a total population of 16,000.” (from the Choctaw Nation website)
By 1875 the town of Atoka was as prominent at any other town in the Choctaw Nation. The raw edge of the wilderness, coated with dust from an unending parade of wagons and stages, had slowly evolved into a comfortable, prosperous community, with the iron horse now opening gateways to a whole new world. I think of (ex-Chief) Rev. Allen Wright traveling back to his alma mater in Schenectady, New York, and several of his lovely daughters riding the train to their school in Kirkwood, Missouri. My guess is that they were Anna and Kate, who both were teachers at Tuskahoma Female Academy.
By the turn of the century, Atoka already has witnessed many, many remarkable changes. You may think of Atoka as a dusty stage stop, or a noisy railroad town, or the birthplace of Catholicism for the Choctaws. I will always think of Atoka as the homeplace of Eliza Ann Juzan Flack, the brave stalwart Choctaw woman who, like many of our forebears, persevered through so much heartache and poverty with the help of her community.
NOTE: The Choctaw man, A.J. Harkins, who provided the land for the Choctaw courthouse, remains a mysterious presence. It is thought by some researchers that he was a son of Choctaw Chief George W. Harkins of Doaksville (but please ignore the photo at the link – it is not correct, being a photo of his nephew by the same name). There were other close Harkins relations in the Atoka area – his brothers Col. David Folsom Harkins and Henry Clay Harkins, who had a son named A.J. Harkins. All persuasive arguments.
***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
Please sign up on my blog page at WordPress to receive notifications by email (since Facebook notifications do not work well for this blog.)
The town of Atoka, The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (online).
Atoka County, The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (online).
John Michalicka, “First Catholic Church in Indian Territory, 1872—St. Patrick’s Church at Atoka,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 50 (Winter 1972–73).
Muriel H. Wright, “Historic Places on the Old Stage Line from Fort Smith to Red River,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 1933); all you ever wanted to know about the Butterfield stage stops through the Indian Territory.
Muriel H. Wright, “Old Boggy Depot”, Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 5, No. 1 (March, 1927) Page 5; includes plat of Old Boggy Depot drawn by Muriel based on the personal knowledge of her father Dr. E. N. Wright, who grew up in Boggy Depot.
Rev. Joseph S. Murrow, The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (online). In addition, Rev. Murrow’s Find-A- Grave memorial page. “In 1872 Father Murrow called upon the Choctaw and Chickasaw people to establish the Choctaw and Chickasaw Baptist Association, which proved to be beneficial for both nations. He organized more than seventy-five Baptist churches in the Indian Territory.”
“Numbers Tell A Story“, about Choctaw census results through the years, at the Choctaw Nation website.
List of Advertisers, Atoka Independent (Atoka, Indian Territory) Friday, July 27, 1877, Page 3
Rev. Allen Wright Announced the President of Union Theological College in New York,(Vinita, Indian Territory), July 1, 1885.
Atoka Museum and Visitor Information Center, FREE admission, Monday-Friday, 9am – 4 pm, located at 2902 N Hwy 69; operated by the Atoka County Historical Society.