Historical Salina

"We are not makers of history, we are made by history."

   Originally called Grand Saline, later known as the Old Salt Wells and now present day Salina Oklahoma, located in Mayes County, is very rich in history. For thousands of years indigenous peoples had lived along the rivers in this area, with varying cultures.


By the time of European encounter, the Osage was a major tribe in the area. In 1541 the Spanish Explorer Hernando de Soto’s expedition passed through the area, as did the 1721 expedition of Bernard de la Harpe. Then in 1796, Major Jean Pierre Chouteau, a French-Creole fur trader from St. Louis established under the Spanish flag, a trading post at the junction of the Grand Neosho River and Saline Creek to trade with the Osage Indians. At that time the area was a part of the Province of Louisiana.


In 1803 the United States took possession of the land which was included in the Louisiana Purchase and later the area became part of what is known as “Indian Territory” of the United States. By 1817 keelboats were landing goods at Salina from Ft. Smith, AR., and in that year Chouteau’s son Auguste Pierre and his partner Joseph Revoir received an exclusive license from the Spanish to trade with the Osage and in 1820 the Spanish government took the monopoly away. Chouteau convinced the Osage tribe to migrate into Indian Territory near the trading post, and ensured the survival of the business.


By the mid-1820s Chouteau led the most influential trading operation in present Oklahoma. He moved to an elaborate, two-story, log, dog-trot home named "La Grande Saline" in 1822 at present Salina and coordinated an extensive trading enterprise. The lawn of this frontier palace was planted with flowers and shrubs, which included Paradise Trees imported from France. The Home also became a center for social activities, with the family entertaining contemporary icons, Sam Houston, Nathaniel Pryor, Washington Irving and future notables like Jefferson Davis who was stationed at nearby Fort Gibson. Irving’s account of his visit, accompanied by Houston on Oct. 6, 1832, is described in his book A Tour on the Prairies. 

   The Indians boiled salt from the water rising from limestone rock about a mile south of the trading post. The springs included one hot geyser that shot boiling water 8 to 10 feet in the air.  Chouteau obtained the springs in a treaty in 1825 and sold them to Sam Houston in 1830. A Cherokee Captain, John Rogers, began making salt from the springs and named them Grand Saline. Here is where salt was manufactured and sold to the Indians at fifty cents a bushel. Ox teams came from hundreds of miles and salt was hauled away by the wagon loads. The huge salt kettles used, came from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and were transported down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and up the Arkansas and Grand rivers to a forge near where the Salina bridge is now located . Rogers built his home nearby. 

   In 1838 the government began moving the Cherokee’s to the area in implementation of the Indian Removal Act. By 1839 Rogers was operating 115 salt kettles. He lost the salt works in 1844 to the Cherokee Nation under new law defining their territory.  The Cherokee Nation leased the works to Lewis Ross, brother of Chief John Ross. Ross built a house there and operated the salt business using African American slave labor. Drilling for salt water, in 1859 Ross accidentally hit the first vein of oil in Indian Territory. It flowed at the rate of 10 barrels a day for a year. He also operated two stores in Salina. 

   In 1862, during the American Civil War, Union soldiers came down unopposed on the Grand River to Salina and set all slaves free. In 1873, the Cherokee Nation purchased the Ross home for $26,000 and used it for years as the Cherokee Orphan Asylum. It was destroyed by fire in 1903. The rock remains were used in the construction of the local gymnasium which is still standing. 

   In 1906 the Cherokee Chief, Samuel Houston Mayes established a ferry and mercantile business on the Grand River. During his term as Chief, the Dawes Commission of 1902/1906 divided the Cherokee lands into allotments of approximately 110 acres per household, breaking up the communal lands. 

   Salina, established in 1796, is the Oldest Permanent White (European-American) Settlement in Oklahoma. 

   The establishment of the Old Chouteau Trading Post at Salina was commemorated on October 10-11, 1938 making it a State Holiday. It is celebrated annually on October 10th or the closest Saturday to the 10th. The site of the original Trading Post was covered by water when the lake was built. It is just south of the bridge on the west end of present day Salina.

1912 Event of Pratt Company Developing Salina

Ferry Street In The Early 1920's

Looking East Down Ferry Street In The 1950's

Looking West Down Ferry Street In The 1950's

Orphan Asylum Laundry House, Also Used As
The First Bank During The Building Of Salina

   In 1873, after the Cherokee orphans had been cared for at Tahlequah for several years, the Cherokee Nation purchased the large three story brick and stone home and farm of Louis Ross, a Cherokee citizen, located in the eastern part of Mayes County, adjoining the present town of Salina, and converted it into a home for Cherokee orphans. In 1875, the large Ross mansion was enlarged and the school was prepared to care for one hundred or more orphans. This home was admirably adapted for the purpose to which it was dedicated. The farm consisted of about three hundred acres of land, approximately one-half of which was fertile bottom land, the other half consisted of timber and pasture land. Horses, cattle and hogs were raised, and the bottom land produced abundant crops of corn, oats and wheat. The timber land furnished fuel for the home, fencing and lumber for the improvement of the farm. Everlasting springs of pure water bubbled out of the nearby hillside, furnishing an abundant supply of pure water for the home and livestock.

   For nearly a third of a century the Cherokees cheerfully supported this institution entirely from their own tribal funds, expending annually about twelve thousand five hundred dollars for the support of about one hundred and fifty of their orphan boys and girls, but on the 17th day of November, 1903, the entire home, including the original building and the three wings which had been added was destroyed by fire. The fire occurred at noon, causing no loss of life as all 146 children were saved but consuming almost the entire contents of the building. About fifty of the orphans were transferred to the Whitaker Home at Pryor Creek and the others were cared for at Tahlequah. The orphan home, or asylum, as it was called, was never rebuilt, and a mound of old brick was all that was left to remind the Cherokees of their historic home, which for thirty years was one of the institutions in which they manifested special pride. That pile of brick and stone can still be seen today as it is the foundation on the old gymnasium in Salina. A plaque on the building is dedicated to the stones and states their use. 


The Stones On The Foundation Of The Old
Gymnasium In Salina Are Those From The 
Cherokee Orphan Asylum, Destroyed By Fire
In 1903

Orphan Aslyum Destroyed By Fire 11-17-1903
E.C. Alberty was Superintendent At The Time

Cherokee Orphan Asylum

   Early pioneers faced innumerable hazards as they traveled westward, not the least of which were river crossings.  Most attempted to schedule their journeys in more moderate weather during the summer or fall, but even the best laid plans usually were foiled at some point. Today, travelers utilize modern bridges and as we pass over the swirling waters of any river, particularly at flood stage, we should reflect in wonderment at the courage of our predecessors. The Grand River was no exception, capturing enormous amounts of rainfall as it drained more than 10,000 square miles of water through eastern Kansas and western Missouri before it funneled through the valley of north-eastern Oklahoma.

   When Jean Pierre Chouteau floated down the Grand River in search of a trading post site, he took time to look for a shallow rocky crossing which, after two days, he located at today’s Salina. But pioneers anxious to reach a distant destination in the west were eager to cross the water barrier and move on. So ferry entrepreneurs along the Grand River Valley capitalized on their urgency, as well as the rivers, by providing a much needed service and an income for themselves. Ferries were not elaborate structures. Most were logs with planks laid over them and guard rails on the side.The most reliable were run by a cable strung across the river, which was attached to a windlass to pull them back and forth.More primitive rafts were simply propelled by pike poles. Fees varied depending on what was transported. In early years, individuals were charged 5 cents each and horses 25 cents, but a team of oxen cost $2 because of their stubborn nature in loading and unloading. Occasionally, the ferry owner would trade for produce

   Mayes County ferry service was provided by the Riley and Lewis families across the Grand River now inundated by Lake Hudson and further south by the Markham family, early pioneers in the 1840’s. The area they farmed near the Grand River became known as Markham’s Prairie because, in addition to the ranch, the Markham’s had a general store and shortly thereafter added a ferry service located on the southwest end of Lake Hudson on a gentle slope along the Grand River.

   The Markham Ferry was located on an important trade route for farm families. However, unlike other ferries long forgotten, in 1962 more than 120 years later the Markham Ferry name would be preserved by the United States Corps of Engineers, which approved construction of Kerr Dam while referring to the location as The Markham Ferry Project.

   In 1906 the Cherokee Chief, Samuel Houston Mayes established a ferry and mercantile business on the Grand River.

   Just as many small businesses that serve a contemporary service, ferries were initiated then disappeared, some due to floods resulting in destruction of the raft and eventually all to the construction of bridges. But for the time they were in existence, ferries were a welcome site to weary travelers and a viable income for their proprietors.


A Ferry Boat Crossing The Grand River

 Bridge Over Grand River/Hwy 20 Built in 1922

Construction Of The New Bridge In 1963
From The North Side Looking South


   Mayes County is located in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma.  All of the land comprising Mayes County was formerly a part of the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, with the exception of one township on the south, being a part of the Creek Nation. In 1841 the area now comprising Mayes County became part of the Saline District of the Cherokee Nation. The creation of Mayes county began with the constitution for the proposed State of Sequoyah in August 1905. The document designated forty-eight counties. Nine of these, including Mayes, became part of the state by the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, effective at statehood on November 16, 1907. The county name honors Cherokee Chief Samuel H. Mayes. Pryor or Pryor Creek, named for early trader and Indian subagent Nathaniel Pryor, became the county seat.


   Mayes County's 683.51 square miles of land is divided by the Grand River, and of the total area 27.37 square miles is surface water.  The eastern half lies on the edge of the Ozark Plateau, or Ozark Uplift, characterized by flat areas divided by deep, V-shaped stream valleys.  The western half of the county lies in the Prairie Plains.  The county's incorporated towns include Adair, Chouteau, Disney, Grand Lake, Langley, Locust Grove, Pensacola, Pryor Creek, Salina, Spavinaw, Sportsman Acres and Strang.

   Mayes County has numerous prehistoric sites, with one Paleo-Indian (prior to 6000 B.C.), thirty-five Archaic (6000 B.C. to A.D. 1), twenty five Woodland (A.D. 1 to 1000), and thirty-one Plains Village (A.D. 1000 to 1500). The locations of most of these is confidential, and man-made lakes now cover some of them. The state's earliest mission, school, church and white cemetery were created in 1820 with the establishment of Union Mission in, five miles southeast of present day Chouteau. In 1828 the Western Cherokee acquired this region in present Oklahoma for its land in Arkansas.  In the 1830's Eastern Cherokee arrived from Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, where they had lost their homeland.  In 1835 Rev. Samuel a. Worcester installed Oklahoma's first printing press at Union Mission.

   During the Civil War military action occurred in the area. In July 1862 near present Locust Grove a skirmish occured when Union Col. Willaim Weer and three hundred of his troops surprised a Confederate force of a similiar number. Approximately one-third of the rebels surrendered, and the rest escaped.  In July 1863 the first Cabin Creek engagement developed as Col. Stand Watie attempted to intercept a Union supply train traveling to Fort Gibson.  Federal Col. James Williams defeated the famed Cherokee Confederate leader, who had expected reinforcements.  In September 1864 Brig. General Watie and Brig.General Richard Gano successfully captured a Union supply train near the same location in the second Cabin Creek engagement. This led to a skirmish at Pryor Creek when Col. James Williams's Union force-marched his troops to reclaim the supply train.  The Confederates escaped.

   Early transportation routes helped the region develop.  The East Shawnee Trail, an early cattle trail, followed the Grand River through present day Mayes County.  The Texas Road passed through, with two stage stops in the area.  Two railroads provided services.  The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad was built in 1871-72 and was joined later by the Missouri, Oklahoma and Gulf Railway, whose "Golden Spike" was driven at Strang in February 1913.

   Some of Mayes County's most notable citizens are Ben Tincup (1894-1980), born in Adair County, Ben was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian who played major-league baseball. On June 18, 1917, he pitched a perfect game for the minor-league Little Rock Travelers. Willard Stone (1916-1985), A Cherokee sculptor inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1970. Carl Belew(1931-1990), was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976 for his award-winning country songs, then in 1993 two years after his death he won the Music City News award for Best Song "Look At Us" a No 4 hit for Vince Gill in 1991. Bill Rabbit (1946-2012) one of the most successful Native American Artist iin the world, Bill recieved numerous awards and recognitions throughout his lifetime for his artwork. Including the Cherokee National Treasure, Five Civilized Tribes Master Artist and IACA Artist of the Year.

   There are currently six locations within Mayes County listed in the National Register of Historic Places: the Farmers and Merchants Bank (NR 83002091)in Chouteau, The Territorial Commercial District of Chouteau (NR 83002093), The Pensacola Dam (NR 03000883), Union Mission Site (NR71000668) near Mazie, Cabin Creek Battlefield (NR 71000669, and the Lewis Ross-Cherokee Orphan Asylum Springhouse (NR 83002092) in Salina. 

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P.O. Box 422, Salina, OK 74365

(918) 434-8181

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