Tulsa: History

City's Native American Roots

French traders and plains-culture Osage tribes occupied the region now surrounding Tulsa when the United States bought the land from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Soon the federal government sought to remove communities of the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole—from their traditional lands in the southeastern United States to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. After violent protest, in 1826 the Osages ceded their land in the Tulsa area to the U.S. government, which in turn gave it to exiled Creeks and Cherokees. Many of the Native Americans who were forced to resettle in Oklahoma brought black slaves with them. In 1836 Archie Yahola, a full-blood Creek, presided over the region's first council meeting, held under an oak tree that came to be known as the Council Oak. The tree still stands in Tulsa's Creek Nation Council Oak Park.

The settlement convened at the Council Oak was first named Tallassee-Lochapoka, for the Alabama regions the Creeks had left behind; eventually it became known as Tulsey—or Tulsee—Town. The name Tulsa became official for the settlement in 1879 with the establishment of the post office, which also marked the beginning of Tulsa as an economic force in the area. When a railroad connection reached Tulsa in 1882, the town began to supply beef and other staples to the East, South, and Midwest. Ranching and farming—mostly by Creeks or Cherokees—flourished. Tulsa grew steadily and became incorporated as a municipality on January 18, 1898.

Oil Spurs White Settlement; Racial Uneasiness Surfaces

In 1901 oil reserves were discovered in Red Fork, across the Arkansas River from Tulsa. Enterprising Tulsans built a toll bridge to connect their city with the oil country, and oil men crossed the river to make Tulsa their home. Despite Indian Territory laws that discouraged white settlement, the region became increasingly open to whites, and Tulsa grew into a business and residential center. Oil gushed again in 1905, this time from the Glenn Pool well. Oil companies built headquarters in Tulsa, bringing families of corporate executives, urban tastes, and money. In 1906 the U.S. Congress passed the Enabling Act, which merged Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory, achieving statehood for Oklahoma and bringing down the last barriers to settlement of the region. The decade of the 1920s was a tumultuous period for Oklahoma as a whole, with oil wells gushing, whites and Native Americans becoming fabulously wealthy, and the Ku Klux Klan boasting close to 100,000 members statewide. A race riot erupted in Tulsa in 1921 that has been described as one of this country's worst incidents of racial violence. Some 300 people died and 35 city blocks of Tulsa's Greenwood section, known as "the Black Wall Street," were destroyed after a black man was arrested for allegedly assaulting a white woman. In 1997 the Oklahoma state legislature named an 11-member Tulsa Race Riot Commission to unearth the facts behind the incident. In early 2000 the commission recommended direct payments to survivors and victims' descendants, scholarships, a tax checkoff program to fund economic development in the mostly black Greenwood district, and a memorial to the dead.

Modern Economy Diversified

Between 1907 and 1930, Tulsa's population grew by 1,900 percent. By the 1920s Tulsa was being called the Oil Capital of the World. But not content to be an oil capital only, Tulsa continued its expansion into other commercial and industrial areas as well. In fact, several of Tulsa's firms had a part in the U.S. moon-thrust endeavor, Project Apollo. Today, oil retains importance but Tulsa primarily relies on aerospace, telecommunications, energy, and environmental engineering/manufacturing for its industrial base. In 1996 Nation's Cities Weekly described Tulsa as "a unique social, cultural and corporate melting pot that somehow maintains a 'downhome' feeling."

Due in large part to planning and intelligent growth, as well as a general demographic shift that has seen continued growth in the southern and southwestern states, Tulsa joins a number of other mid-sized cities enjoying revitalization in the early 21st century. In 2004, based on Tulsa's strides in preparing itself for the new global economy and its opportunities for tourism, business investment, relocation, education, retirement, and better quality of life, the city was selected as one of America's Most Livable Communities by the Partners for Livable Communities in Washington, D.C.

Historical Information: Tulsa Historical Society, 2445 South Peoria, Tulsa, OK 74114; telephone (918)712-9484