In the coming weeks, Tulsa gets its national close-up with the opening of Gathering Place, the product of the largest private donation to a public park in American history.
It’s a cause for celebration, to be sure. As visitors descend on this 100-acre plot of land just south of downtown, they will be treated to European play structures, sensory gardens and fairy tale-like forests.
Lost in the buzz around the park is the history of one of Tulsa’s most important — and forgotten — people.
Most of the land now occupied by Gathering Place was allotted to Tuckabache, a Muscogee man who embodied Tulsa’s connection to Tallasi, the ancestral tribal home of the Locvpokv Creeks in Alabama.
Born in 1815, Tuckabache experienced all the major events in 19th century Creek history; going through the trauma of removal from Tallasi to Indian Territory as a boy and seeing the ancestral Creek town reborn under the Council Oak Tree in 1836.
Tuckabache settled only a mile south of the Council Oak tree, at or near what is now the Chapman Adventure Playground within Gathering Place.
When the Creek Nation sided with the Confederacy, Tuckabache and other loyal Creeks fought for the Union. Headed by Opothle Yahola, the loyal Creeks fought three battles north and west of Tulsa against Confederates during the grim Trail of Blood on Ice.
The U.S. government promised loyal Creeks like Tuckabache refuge in Kansas, but when they arrived at Fort Row, there was virtually nothing. Around one quarter of the loyal Creeks, along with civilians and escaped slaves, died during the trek. Still, Tuckabache made it back to his home near the Arkansas River with his son, Ned.
Are these events unfamiliar to you? You’re not alone.
Well into middle age, Tuckabache kept fighting. He was second chief under Isparecher and fought against assimilationists during the Green Peach War.
Creeks resisted the dissolution of sovereignty until the turn of the 20th century, when Tuckabache, an old man then, finally secured a deed from the Dawes Commission to the 160 acres he had settled decades before. He maintained a cabin and spent his last years fishing in the Arkansas River and hunting deer along Cincinnati Avenue. His son’s allotment would have stretched along Riverside Drive from 21st Street to 31st Street. Tuckabache maintained a family cemetery only a block east of the park border.
Ned died shortly before his father under mysterious circumstances. By the time Tuckabache died in 1910, his land represented some of the most prime real estate in the burgeoning city of Tulsa.
Real estate and oil men John Kramer and Charles Grimes (for whom the Tulsa elementary school is named) served as witnesses when Tuckabache dictated his will. He died three days later.
As was the custom, Tuckabache’s children’s affairs were controlled by white guardians, who quickly moved to break the will and sell the land.
One of the grandchildren, Jennie Hickory, signed an “X” and received $1,000 for the deed. Her guardian, Sam Davis, sold it to his wife, Ethel. Ethel then flipped it to the Travis brothers, who built the mansion now housing the Tulsa Historical Society. The purchasing price was $52,400. The swindle was on.
Even as developers opened the area south of Maple Ridge for development in the 1920s, the presence of Tuckabache still loomed large.
M.R. Travis discovered at least 17 graves only a few blocks east of the current Gathering Place site; they were all removed and reburied at Oaklawn Cemetery. Tuckabache’s headstone, a testament to the “old soldier,” is still there, but nothing commemorates him or his family at their original gathering place.
Later, at least one of the great-grandchildren of Tuckabache challenged his guardian in court. Sammie Hickory thought he and his family had been swindled out of a piece of land quickly filling up with homes worth much more than the paltry sum his mother had been paid for her allotment. The Oklahoma Supreme Court finally ruled that his guardians had not acted in his best interest but the deed had been executed.
There was no going back. By the 1920s, the deck was stacked against the descendants of Tuckabache, just as it was throughout the new state of Oklahoma.
The lots in the new Sunset Terrace development were being bought up with a starting price of $13,000 in 1921. The Aaronson Mansion (later Leon Russell’s home) was valued at $750,000 in the 1920s.
The peculiar Oklahoma institution of guardianship, as historian Angie Debo so carefully documented, was part of a “criminal conspiracy” on the part of the state’s leading men to defraud Native Americans and enrich themselves. Ninety percent of the lands allotted to Creeks were in white hands by 1951.
There’s no changing that fact, just as there’s no doubt that Gathering Place will further benefit Maple Ridge landowners with higher property values as people discover our lovely new park.
I am one of those landowners, so I shouldn’t complain. We are, however, living through a moment with past idols falling and new heroes emerging.
Tulsa Public Schools made the courageous and wise decision to honor Tulsa’s indigenous heritage by renaming Lee School as Council Oak School. A gesture of good faith on the part of Gathering Place would be to rename Midland Valley Trail “Tuckabache Trail,” as the Creek historian and activist J.D. Colbert has suggested.
Jeff Stava, the executive director of Gathering Place, says the park is involved in an ongoing conversation with the Creek Nation about a meaningful memorial or permanent exhibit to Tuckabache. It’s hard to fathom why it’s taken so long.
But Tulsa has long had a bad habit of trying to sweep the not-so-pleasant aspects of our history under the Magic City rug.
Becoming more honest about who we are and how we got here is a small step toward reconciliation. I think we’re finally getting there.
To paraphrase William Faulkner, Tulsa’s Creek past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.
As the current arguments over the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 have shown, covering up history doesn’t erase trauma. It only defers that trauma to the next generation.
Russell Cobb is a modern language and culture scholar whose forthcoming University of Nebraska book is, “The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Class, and Lies in America’s Oddest State.”