Iti Fabvssa is currently running a series that covers the span
of Oklahoma Choctaw history. By examining each decade since the
Choctaw government arrived in our new homelands using Choctaw-created
documents, we will get a better understanding of Choctaw ancestors'
experiences and how they made decisions that have led us into the
present. This month, we will be covering 1870-1880, an era dominated
by Choctaw Nation's engagements with railroad companies, its entry
into the coal mining industry, and constant attempts by U.S. Congress
to undermine Choctaw sovereignty over our own lands.
For years, railroad companies wanted to build a route between Kansas
and Mexico through Indian Territory. But these companies were unable
to do so because the Five Tribes owned their lands in fee simple.
By holding outright title unusual for an Indigenous nation
at the time it made it more difficult for Congress to pass
legislation that would force them to give up their lands. Given
this, Congress took advantage of the post-Civil War reconstruction
treaties of 1866 to leverage concessions like allowing one north-south
and one east-west railroad to be built through Indian Territory.
As these treaties were being ratified, companies began building
Since there could only be one railroad in each direction, railroad
companies raced each other to lay down track. The first company
to build a railroad from one of its existing lines to the border
of Indian Territory would be granted the official right of way through
Indian Territory. Three railroads competed, but it ultimately came
down to two: the Missouri River, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad (MRFS&G)
and the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway (MK&T, also nicknamed
the Katy). Due to trickery on behalf of an individual working for
the MK&T, the MRFS&G laid track up to the border of the
Quapaw reserve, a place where they could not cross. As a result,
when the MK&T reached in the Cherokee border in June 1870, Congress
granted it the right to build through Indian Territory. From there,
the MK&T passed through the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) Nations
before arriving in the Choctaw Nation in 1871.
Following the 1866 treaty, the Choctaw Nation considered developing
its own railroad to prevent outside companies and U.S. settlers
seeking profits related to the railroad industry from invading our
territory. The closest that the Choctaw Nation came to creating
its own railroad was with the Choctaw and Chickasaw Thirty-Fifth
Parallel Railroad Company. It published its charter in 1870 and
distributed it among Choctaws and Chickasaws in both English and
Choctaw languages. According to this charter, it would have only
granted usage of the space, not land ownership. This was an important
distinction, for the Choctaw Nation would have been able to maintain
control over the land. Under U.S. laws, U.S. railroad companies
sought to own the land that the railroads were on as well as townsites
where the railroad would stop. Before any track for the Thirty-Fifth
Parallel Railroad could be laid, Chickasaw opposition stopped a
Choctaw-owned railroad from moving forward.
As the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad was built through Choctaw
Nation, it gave rise to many of the towns that still exist today.
The MK&T stopped in the towns of Reams, McAlester, Savanna,
Kiowa, Stringtown, Atoka, Caney, Caddo, Armstrong, Durant, Calera
and Colbert. In 1872, MK&T line construction was ended upon
reaching Denison, Texas. Once completed, the MK&T made Indian
Territory far more accessible to outside markets which proved
to be especially useful for the increasing industrialization of
coal mining in the Choctaw Nation. Coal quickly became Indian Territory's
most important export and spurred massive changes in Choctaw Nation.
In August 1872, James Jackson McAlester applied for a permit to
marry Rebecca Burney, a Chickasaw woman who was a citizen of the
Choctaw Nation. McAlester first arrived in Choctaw Territory in
1869, when he received a permit to work at a trading firm within
the boundaries of the Choctaw Nation. According to Choctaw law,
white people could only live and work in the Choctaw Nation if they
held a work permit for specific jobs, like doctor or trader, or
intermarried citizens. Before coming to the Choctaw Nation, an engineer
who helped survey Choctaw lands in the 1820s drew McAlester a map
with the location of coal outcrops. McAlester followed that map
with the hope of striking big. Because he was not a Choctaw citizen,
he was unable to own land until he married Rebecca Burney.
Through marriage, McAlester was granted the rights of Choctaw citizenship.
He then worked with other white intermarried citizens to lease lands
from Choctaws, so they could then lease the lands to coal
companies like the Osage Coal and Mining Company which he
had a controlling interest in. The various permits that McAlester
had to get before he became a citizen show how the Choctaw Nation
carefully regulated its lands and how permits were important tools
for curbing the tide of white intrusion into Choctaw lands and affairs.
While wary of possible interference by outsiders, some leaders
in Choctaw government saw coal mining as an opportunity for raising
money to operate the government and improve life for Choctaw people.
In 1875, Chief Coleman Cole called on the General Council to use
natural resources to fund schools. As the coal industry grew, the
General Council established the office of the Mining Trustee to
keep track of all mining-related business, tracking information
like how much coal was produced and shipped outside of Indian Territory.
The Mining Trustee kept track of all the companies operating in
Choctaw Nation and made sure they paid the required fees and taxes
to mine. While the mining industry became an important source of
revenue for the Choctaw Nation, the Tribe did not have complete
control over the industry because of constant interference by U.S.
citizens and Congress. In the early years of coal mining, white
men like McAlester exploited loopholes in Choctaw law to purchase
land that they would then lease to coal companies to enrich themselves
at the expense of the entire Choctaw community. This had lasting
The introduction of railroads and the emergence of the coal mining
industry in the Choctaw Nation led to a massive influx of non-Choctaw
people who worked in the railroad and coal industries. Indian Territory
quickly became known in coal mining communities as having new opportunities
for work especially for individuals who got blacklisted by
East Coast mines for trying to improve mining working conditions.
Many of these workers were recent immigrants from Italy, Poland
and Ireland. To learn more about these mining communities in the
Choctaw Nation, see Iti Fabvssa's November 2020 article, "Putting
the Coal in Coalgate, exhibit teaches about past." This migration
of workers put massive pressure on Choctaw government that led to
greater U.S. intervention in Choctaw affairs.
Following the Treaty of 1866, Choctaw Nation delegates working
out of Washington, D.C. were constantly fighting against proposed
legislation that would make Indian Territory into a U.S. territory.
As an official U.S. territory, the U.S. would have more power over
the Indigenous nations and pave the way towards statehood. To do
so, the U.S. would have broken numerous treaty promises. In an 1870
response to a bill to territorialize Indian Territory before Congress,
Peter Pitchlynn submitted a 21-page formal protest against the bill.
He argued, "[Choctaw Nation] can plainly foresee that when such
a Territorial government has once been established, their country
will be filled with white men, their people defrauded out of and
robbed of their lands, as they were in Mississippi, with the connivance
of the officers of the Government; that the jurisdiction and powers
of their local legislatures and judiciaries will be encroached on,
and these themselves be soon swept away; and that at no distant
day the Choctaw people will have disappeared, and the tongue of
their ancestors have become a dead language." This was precisely
what the Choctaw Nation did not want and was made clear in the 1830
removal treaty that stated, "that no part of the land granted them
shall forever be embraced in any capital Territory or State." Nevertheless,
the U.S. Congress still worked to claim and take over the Five Tribes
and their lands.
Next month, we will cover the period of 1880-1890 when Choctaw
Nation faced increasing challenges in governing its lands due to
the massive migration of white settlers as well as attempts by the
U.S. government to allot Choctaw lands and break up our government.
Additional reading resources on this period are available on the
Nation Cultural Service webpage (https://choctawnationculture.com/choctaw-culture/additionalresources.aspx).
Follow this Iti Fabvssa series in print and online at https://www.choctawnation.
If you have questions or would like more information on the sources,
please contact Megan Baker at
The completed Missouri,
Kansas and Texas Railway, traveling through Indian Territory.
Courtesy of: Box 72, Robert S. Stevens Collection, Stevens
family papers, #1210, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections,
Cornell University Library.