Did you know that Blackburn’s Station, a scheduled stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route — also known as the Pony Express — crossed present Pittsburg County on its way west to California gold mines and elsewhere?
Did you know that Blanco, located about 10 miles northeast of Kiowa in southern Pittsburg County, was named for Ramon Blanco y Erenas, the governor-general of Cuba in the late 1890s? Or that Arpelar was named for Aaron Arpelar, county judge of Tobucksy County in the Choctaw Nation? Or that Dwight, the post office at the Indian Boys School at Jones Academy near Hartshorne, was named for Simon T. Dwight, a popular and respected Choctaw leader?
Those examples only skim the surface of the townsites, small and large, that have dotted the Pittsburg County landscape from time to time.
Vonna Simpson and Karen Talbot, volunteers at the Pittsburg County Genealogical & Historical Society, said town names often provide interesting insights into local, regional and state history.
“It’s very interesting to read about how towns in Pittsburg County received their names,” Simpson said. “Most are included in a book, but I don’t believe I’ve seen a complete list of just Pittsburg County names. My philosophy about preserving the history of our area is: ‘If you don’t know where you’ve been, how can you know where you are going?’”
Talbot said one of the society’s top priorities is an elevator, which would enable all visitors access to historical exhibits on the top two floors of their three-story building. The bottom floor is available to everyone.
“An elevator is something that we really need,” she said. “We want everyone to have an opportunity to enjoy and to be excited about our incredible past, a past that is remarkable, one that we can all be proud of.”
Simpson said the society receives requests each year from researchers across the nation, as well as those who are just curious about Pittsburg County history.
“Carl Albert was the first president of our genealogical society,” Simpson said. “Everything here is done by volunteers. Membership fees are only $15 a year, which also includes three issues of the Tobucksy News, edited by Vonna (Simpson).”
Simpson said the settlement of Pittsburg County, first in the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory and later in the state of Oklahoma, is a fascinating story.
“Well, the Choctaw Nation had a lot of influence on town names,” she said. “And coal producers, railroads and other things did, too.”
The area that comprised present Pittsburg County during Indian Territory days was called Tobucksy County, a part of the Moshulatubbee District in the Choctaw Nation.
Many colorful characters stepped foot in Tobucksy County before statehood. One of the most historic was Judge Isaac Parker, often called the “Hanging Judge.”
Parker came to our area from Fort Smith, Ark., where he was a district judge. In 1875, present Pittsburg County — then the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory — was populated not only by the Choctaws but by cattle and horse thieves, whiskey peddlers and bandits who sought refuge in the untamed territory without a “white man’s court.” Parker’s was the only court with jurisdiction over Indian Territory — the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Parker traveled many times to Arpelar, where he often sentenced offenders to a quick death by a jerk of a rope. The old courthouse, just west of the city of Arpelar, is still standing off State Highway 1.
What’s in a name?
The naming of a town was, at times, a comical venture for fledgling communities in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma.
Residents of a small town in Oklahoma Territory in the early 1900s recalled how their community was named. When shopping for supplies at the general store, a lady, the story goes, said, “I need a 25-pound bag of flour, please.”
After looking around for a miracle, then scratching his balding head, the merchant often replied, “Ma’am, I’m slap out of flour, but I’ll have some Tuesday, for sure.”
No matter, those gritty settlers must have had strong backs — and a sense of humor. When town leaders applied for a post office, they chose Slapout.
Another struggling rural community, located in western Oklahoma, must have experienced the same sort of frustrations of those at Slapout, naming their community Needmore — as in, “We need more of everything.”
Maybe living in Slapout or Needmore was aggravating enough at times to drive its residents batty, but they could have moved to Looney, a town established in 1892 in southwestern Oklahoma. And some residents of another Oklahoma town must have been thrilled with their hens’ output, naming their post office, Rooster.
Names of those interesting, colorful towns and their origins are included in “Oklahoma Place Names,” compiled by George H. Shirk, a renowned Oklahoma historian.
Like most other counties in Oklahoma, especially those that sprouted up in Indian Territory days, Pittsburg County towns offer a rich, interesting variety of names. Some are rooted in the Choctaw tribe, while others honored the area’s connection to coal. Still other town names were influenced by the area’s railroads or for judges, doctors, postmasters, children and any number of others.
Sometimes, postal officials in Washington arbitrarily named Oklahoma towns. For example, town leaders in a small Pittsburg County community, located about 11 miles northwest of Kiowa, had applied for the town name of “Pearl City.” But when the town’s post office opened for business on Oct. 1, 1902, the name out front on the building — Ashland.
Naturally, several town names in Pittsburg County were named for the Choctaw tribe. Aaron Arpelar, the county judge of Tobucksy County before statehood, was the namesake of the town located about 12 miles west of McAlester. Another Choctaw, Simon Dwight, was the namesake for Dwight, a post office located at Jones Academy near Hartshorne, and Krebs was named for Judge Edmond F. Krebs. Other county towns like Quinton, Massey and TI — the backwards initials of Indian Territory — were also related to the tribe.
In one instance, the Choctaw Nation and coal production were combined in the town of Pocahontas, which took its name from the Pocahontas Coal Co.
Several other towns reflect the importance of coal on the local economy: Adamson, Backe, Carbon, Dow and Edwards are just a few examples.
Railroads crisscrossed Indian Territory after the Civil War, leaving an indelible mark in towns like Savanna, named for the private railroad car of the general manager of the Katy Railroad, Robert Stevens. And Alderson honored an employee of the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad.
There’s also Scipio, named for nearby Scipio Creek, which had been named for the Roman general who defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama.
Some of Pittsburg County’s towns have been renamed over the years. Pittsburg, located about three miles east of Kiowa, was originally known as Cowper. Later, the town’s name became Edwards, and on Aug. 27, 1909, it became Pittsburg.
During the past two centuries, some Pittsburg County towns flourished, but a few fell by the wayside as the coal-mining industry weakened and rail lines missed communities. But — in some way — each settlement, from those that are now ghost towns to the ones that prospered, have impacted our area.
The Pittsburg County Genealogical & Historical Society is located in the old Busby office building, built by the Great Western Coal and Coke Co. in 1903. It was donated to the City of McAlester in 1973 by Elmer “Bud” Hale. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. It is closed for most major holidays. Visit the society at 113 E. Carl Albert Parkway in McAlester, or phone 426-0388 or go online: www.pittsburgcogenealogical.org.
“We believe that every little community that has ever existed in the area that is today Pittsburg County is important and we are trying to preserve their history,” Simpson said. “That’s why we volunteer. Every town and every resident has — in some way — left their footprints behind. We’re here to help anyone who wants a link to their past and to their future.”
For more on this story, see Sunday's print edition of the McAlester News-Capital.
Contact Leo Kelley at email@example.com.