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April Marks 200th Anniversary of Choctaw Nation Exploration

April 2019 By BRADLEY GERNAND

April marks the 200th anniversary of the first scientific exploration of the area which is now the Choctaw Nation.

English botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) visited present-day southeastern Oklahoma during the spring and summer of 1819, taking copious notes. Those notes are a gold mine of information and offer a look at a vanished world. Of particular interest: the notes describe the area as the Choctaws found it when they began relocating to the region 15 years later.

Nuttall, who crossed into what is now Oklahoma near the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Smith, headed southwest, to scout out the confluence of the Kiamichi and Red Rivers. Nuttall accompanied Army Major William Bradford and a company of soldiers, who were ordered to remove white intruders from the area. Mississippi had become a state in 1817, and Choctaw Indians were expected to soon begin arriving from there. The Treaty of Doak's Stand signed the following year, gave the Choctaws much of present-day southwestern Arkansas and the region of present-day Oklahoma south of the Canadian River all the way "to its source," as the treaty stipulated.

Starting along the banks of the Poteau River, Nuttall found the ground to be "gently broken or undulated, and thinly scattered with trees, resembling almost in this respect a cultivated park." The meadows were covered with flowers. Everywhere in the area, he said the trees "appear scattered as if planted by art, affording an unobstructed range for the hunter, equal to that of a planted park."

Cavanal Mountain made an impression on Nuttall, who sketched it in his journal. The resulting drawing is of a landmark instantly recognizable to anyone in LeFlore County. Nuttall recorded in his journal seeing a prominent point on its summit which guides told him was a mound of loose stones, erected either as a funeral pyre or as a beacon by the area's Native American inhabitants. He also noted, "The natives and hunters assert that subterranean rumblings have been heard in this mountain." The mountain was named by French fur trappers, who used the word "cavanol," a corruption of the French word "caverneux," meaning "cavernous."

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Cavanal Mountain made an impression on botanist Thomas Nuttall, who sketched it in his journal. The resulting drawing is of a landmark instantly recognizable to anyone in Le Flore County.

After passing Cavanal Mountain, the explorers saw two very fat bears. They were much taken with the countryside. After crossing into the valley of Caston Creek, north of Lake Wister near the present-day community of Victor, Nuttall mused in his journal of the area's intense beauty and balance, saying "Nothing here appeared to exist but what contributes to harmony."

Proceeding southwest, Nuttall and his party crossed into the Winding Stair Mountains-then called the Mazerns, their original name. Near present-day Talihina, the group stopped in the Great Cove or "prairie of the Kiamichi." To the west, the party saw the Potato Hills, which Nuttall described as a "chain of piney hills, with remarkable serrated summits." Herds of bison roamed the prairie and bolted as the soldiers gave chase. In the bison trail was a pile of stones which Nuttall was informed: "had been thrown up as a monument by the Osages when they were going to war, each warrior casting a stone upon the pile."

At the junction of the Kiamichi River and Jackfork Creek valleys-at present-day Clayton-Nuttall and his party saw on a tall mountain a "beacon of the Osages, being a solitary tree fantastically trimmed like a broom." It was visible for miles. Nuttall appears to have been describing Flagpole Mountain, which may be seen several miles up the river valley.

South of Clayton, the group struggled through a trackless wilderness. The hills crowded the river, leaving no trails to follow. Turning west at the first gap in the mountains, they negotiated a rocky ravine, "scarcely passable for goats." Hours later they came again into hilly, open woods. This ravine is thought to be that of Peal Creek, below the presentday Clayton Lake. In addition to being impassable, the party also discovered, "The woods were now disgustingly infested with ticks."

Passing through the valley of Big Cedar Creek, north of Antlers, the party noted that deer were "uncommonly abundant, and scarcely timid, or conscious of the aim of their destroyers." The group continued southeast from this point, crossing Rock Creek and Possum Creek in the Rattan area and camped at the headwaters of Spencer Creek, near present-day Spencerville.

After reaching the mouth of the Kiamichi River-its destination- the group began its return to Fort Smith. The trip back was difficult. After struggling through the lofty ridges of the Kiamichi Mountains, Nuttall and his party left them to follow the Kiamichi River north. A fire appeared to have swept through the mountains, leaving half-burned trees with ragged limbs which clawed and clutched at each member of the party until "everything about us, not of leather, was lashed and torn to pieces." They camped for the night on the east bank of the river, somewhere.

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The above map shows the U. S. states and territories as of 1819. Nuttall crossed into what is now Oklahoma, to scout out where the Kiamichi and Red Rivers meet.

Salt was an essential and hardto-find commodity. Nuttall had been told of a salt deposit in the area near Moyers and tried to locate it. He had already passed the largest-on present-day Salt Creek near Hugo-and is thought to have been hunting for a smaller one near the confluence of Pine Creek and the Kiamichi River, north of Kosoma. It is difficult to spot, and he does not mention finding it.

Heading northeast through the Winding Stair Mountains, vast hordes of flies tormented the horses so much they bolted and raced into the Kiamichi River. The flies continued to pester the horses for the next two or three days, during which time they wearily scaled the mountains, which appeared now to the weary Nuttall to be as "high as any part of the Blue Ridge" mountains. At last, June 21, 1819, Nuttall reached Fort Smith. 

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English botanist Thomas Nuttall visited present-day southeastern Oklahoma during 1819, taking a wealth of notes. Those notes contain valuable information and describe the area as the Choctaws found it when they began relocating to the region.

 

 

 
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