Finding a Prairie Home
Oklahoma State University lands in Payne County in 1890
Story by David C. Peters
Edmon Low Library
For hundreds of years, the rolling hills of tallgrass prairie served as a boundary between the Osage on the east and the Kiowa on the west. Big Bluestem growing up to ten feet tall shared this nurturing plains environment with Little Bluestem, Switchgrass and Indian Grass. Native flowers added the colors of the rainbows seen after morning and evening showers. Winds and breezes created undulating waves on a sea of vegetation which enormous herds of bison meandered through during seasonal migrations. Periodic wildfires promoted the dominance of this grassland environment and limited the habitat of trees to the protected banks of streams and rivers.
The arrival of the Spanish, and later the French, established the first early forms of western governance and law but brought little change to this region located far from colonial headquarters. However, the arrival of the horse did alter the range and migration of First Nation populations on the plains of the Louisiana Colony area. As the nomadic tribes became more mobile with the ability to cover greater distances, the territory available to them was shrinking.
The United States purchase of the Louisiana Colony in 1803 remains the largest transfer of territory in the nation’s history. This purchase transferred 828,000 square miles at roughly 4 cents an acre from the French to the control of the young nation still building its new capitol known as the city of Washington located in the District of Columbia. With the creation of the state of Louisiana in 1812, the remaining area to the north was renamed the Missouri Territory.
In 1819, the southern portion of the Missouri Territory was designated as the Arkansas Territory. The Arkansas territorial borders were reduced twice between 1824 and 1828. When Arkansas achieved statehood in 1836, the area north and west of Arkansas was designated as the “Unorganized Territory,” but also referred to as “Indian Country.” With the creation of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs office as part of the War Department in 1832 and the passage of the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834, the forced removal of eastern Native American groups to their new homes on the plains had begun.
The area in the north central Indian Territory south of the Cherokee Outlet was initially designated for the Creeks and Seminoles before being subdivided with the northeastern portion granted to the Creeks. Later subdivisions continued to reduce Native American allocations, and eventually a section of “Unassigned Lands” was created in the center of the Indian Territory. In 1866, the Choctaw and Chickasaw had agreed to have their treaty boundaries and territory surveyed in preparation for allotments. On July 25, 1870, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior through the General Land Office awarded a contract to Ehud Noble Darling to subdivide Choctaw and Chickasaw lands according to the standards established in the United States Public Land Survey System. An official Manual of Surveying Instructions had been written in 1851, with revisions in 1855 and 1864 that provided the standards and guidelines for these surveys.
E. N. Darling was born on December 7, 1832, in West Berkshire, Vermont, the eldest of Hiram and Sarah Noble Darling’s ten children. As a young man, he moved to the Minnesota Territory frontier and started his career as a land surveyor. He referred to himself as a “Surveyor & Astronomer,” but generally had others assist him with astronomical observations. In 1856, he secured a contract with the General Land Office to divide townships west of Minneapolis into 40-acre plots in preparation for sale.
The Civil War brought a temporary end to most of the federal land surveys and Darling joined the 8th Regiment, Minnesota Infantry in August of 1862 at St. Paul. He was promoted to corporal in May of 1863 and appointed in September of 1864 to the 18th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry as a first lieutenant in Company H. Darling completed his military service in February 1866 and headed west to resume surveying.
The Homestead Act of 1862, passed during the war, provided a mechanism to distribute public lands to American citizens and newly arriving immigrants, but surveys had to be completed before these properties would be opened for settlement. By the summer of 1868, Darling was establishing the boundary between what would become the states of Colorado and New Mexico. This border is known as “Darling’s Line.”
Darling and his partner, Theodore H. Barrett, arrived at Fort Arbuckle in the Indian Territory during the summer of 1870 and used the fort as a base for their activities. There had been survey activity in the territory earlier to confirm treaty boundaries, but nothing had been done to establish the public land survey system of townships. This system was known as the Land Ordinance of 1785 and was referred to as the Rectangular System. Townships were comprised of 36 square mile sections with each section containing 640 acres of land. Sections were further divided into four quarter-sections, each with 160 acres.
Before individual Native American allotments could be determined in the Indian Territories, their lands needed to be surveyed to mark boundaries so that ownership locations could be recognized.This would also be true for homesteads settled during later land runs, allotments, lottery and bids placed to confirm individual land possession.
Darling and Barrett established the Initial Point for the survey about one mile southeast of Fort Arbuckle between two small streams near the center of the Chickasaw lands. A monument was placed at this location with a marked stone. From this point, the Indian Base Line (latitude 34 degrees, 30 minutes north of the equator) extended out to the east and west with a perpendicular line known as the Indian Meridian (longitude 97 degrees, 14 minutes, 30 seconds west of Greenwich, England) stretching to the north and south. These two lines would form the foundation of a grid system that eventually would cover the territory, and the coordinates associated with these lines would define land ownership boundaries for all territorial citizens. Darling surveyed the lands on the east side of the Indian Meridian, and Barrett was assigned the area to the west. The southern boundary was the Red River and, to the north, they reached the south fork of the Canadian River.
Chains measure land
On December 3, 1870, Darling and Barrett were granted the contracts to survey the former Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole lands north of the Canadian River to the Kansas state line between the 96th and 98th meridians of longitude west of Greenwich. They would accomplish this survey by extending the Indian Meridian created at the Initial Point near Fort Arbuckle north to the border with Kansas.
The law establishing the public land surveys required a mathematical impossibility. The townships were to be based off the meridians and be six miles square. Since the meridians decrease in distance as they approach the Earth’s north and south poles, it is impossible to maintain equivalent rectangular townships with individual sections of 640 acres on a round planet. The Manual of Instructions allows that sections are “as nearly as may be.” Darling documented these slight distance discrepancies in his field notes and on individual township maps. Streams, wooded areas and geologic formations were also noted on the maps.
The public land surveys were labor-intensive activities. Darling and Barrett hired a number of assistants to work with them to physically layout the grid system. First, each township of six by six miles was laid out and boundaries marked. Then, each of the individual square mile sections were surveyed starting along the southern and eastern boundaries and moving to the north and west. The procedure was prescribed both in the law and surveying manual, any deficiencies in measurements would be reflected on the north and west sides of the township. All of these measurements were noted in triplicate. Correction lines were drawn every four to five townships or about every 24 to 30 miles.
The direction of a survey line was established using a compass, and crews used chains, which measured 66 feet to establish the line. Each chain consisted of 100 links, with each link being 7.92 inches in length. Eighty chains equaled one mile. After five chain lengths had been measured, a tally pin was used to mark that location. Eleven tally pins were used and the person installing the tally pins would provide a count as they were placed in the ground. After setting ten tally pins, the first or forward chainman yelled, “tally” to the crew following them. The second individual or the hind chainman would keep a separate record as they were removed, and then both individuals would confirm the count before continuing down the line. They would alternate forward and hind positions after each tally. This procedure helped insure the accuracy of these measurements.
There were many challenges, but perhaps the most difficult involved measurements over uneven ground or around impassable obstacles. On uneven ground, the chains were kept as horizontal as physically possible. When unable to measure through or over an obstacle, a parallel line was created near the impediment with measurements back to the opposite side of the obstacle to continue the line.
Township and section corners could be marked using trees, stones or wooden posts. These would be given chops or notches. Single stones could be used for section corners, but small monuments of stones were to be used at township corners. Stones for sections and quarter sections were to be at least 14 inches by 12 inches and three inches thick. They were inserted into the ground up to eight inches and placed directionally either north/south or east/west. All stones were marked with a pick or chisel to create the notches on one edge providing location information regarding the township, section or quarter section. The stones with descriptions and measurements were described in the field notes. Distances to nearby fixed objects would also be noted. In early February of 1872, Darling and his crew were locating, notching and setting stones in township 19 North and Range 2 East. Seventeen years later this land would be the northern border of the area known as the “Unassigned Lands.”
Land Run of 1889
At the first of March in 1889, the Muscogee, Creek and Seminole Nations ceded over five million acres to the United States. Three weeks later, President Benjamin Harrison, who had just taken office on March 4, declared that the property in these “Unassigned Lands” would be opened for settlement by land claim occurring at noon on April 22, 1889. Land offices were opened in Kingfisher and Guthrie. At 12 p.m., thousands lined the borders, and with a gunshot, they swarmed into the territory to capture quarter sections of land or select town lots in communities established by that evening. Close to Stillwater Creek, 300 hearty settlers claimed a town site of 240 acres. Their new community was located about one mile northwest of the site William L. Couch had attempted to settle with other boomers five years earlier. On May 28, 1889, the post office was established, and the small town became officially known as Stillwater.
Wood-framed buildings slowly began to replace the tents and other temporary structures established during the spring of 1889. Without an adequate local supply of lumber, all building materials needed to be hauled in on wagons, and it took months to construct more permanent facilities. Other small towns also sprang up in the northeast corner of the Unassigned Lands. Within the year, Payne County was designated as one of the first six counties in the new Oklahoma Territory created on May 2, 1890. The territory included the Panhandle and all lands east of the Indian Territory. The first six counties settled in the 1889 land run dominated political activity in the Oklahoma Council organized to bring administrative structure to the citizens of the new territory.
Payne County leaders had first dreamed of bringing the territorial capitol to their county, but had also considered competing for the other public institutions that needed to be established such as hospitals, prisons and colleges. The Payne County representative on the Oklahoma Council was Populist George W. Gardenhire. He held the swing vote in the body composed of thirteen members with the remaining councilmen filled by six Republicans and six Democrats. Local Stillwater leaders met with Gardenhire on several occasions before selecting the territorial capitol as their objective.
However, the morning after this decision was reached, one local citizen, Hays Hamilton, called the group together one more time and suggested that the success of their initial objective was improbable due to Stillwater’s limited size and the fact that the nearest rail line was 25 miles away. Hamilton suggested instead that they consider vying for the land grant college and agricultural experiment station, which would be established under the conditions described in the Land Grant (Morrill) Act of 1862. A college and experiment station would receive both federal and territorial support, provide reliable recommendations to the local agricultural community regarding potential crops and livestock for successful production, and enhance local educational opportunities. Gardenhire carried this more realistic request to the council and supported Guthrie’s claim to remain the territorial capitol in exchange for Logan County’s support of Payne County for the land grant college. Bills supporting and developing territorial infrastructure were pushed through the legislature during the fall of 1890. Territorial Governor George Washington Steele signed the legislation to take effect on December 25, 1890. Colleges were established in Cleveland, Oklahoma and Payne counties. The land grant college was designated for Payne County to be administered by a board of regents with funding to come from both the federal and territorial governments. The county was to provide a site of at least 80 acres and provide $10,000 in bonds to support construction of a building on campus.
Stillwater was not the only community in the county to express an interest in attracting the college. The towns of Cimarron City, Clayton, Ingalls, Payne Center and Perkins began looking for potential sites in, or near, their communities. The Stillwater search committee consisted of John R. Clark, George Gardenhire, James L. Mathews and Frank J. Wikoff. They visited a number of tracts near the Stillwater town site before examining in more detail a site about a half mile northwest of the community.
Landowners at this site were contacted a second time and included Alfred N. Jarrell with his wife Elizabeth, and Frank E. Duck. The Jarrells and Duck each agreed to make 40 acres available. Duck would commit the 40 acres in the northwest corner of his homestead and the Jarrells agreed to make the 40 acres in the northeast corner of their property, which was adjacent to Duck’s land, available to the local search committee. Stillwater had its 80 acres site for the college. Charles A. and Martha Vreeland, who lived north of the Duck homestead, were also willing to part with the 40 acres in the southwest corner of their farm. Oscar M. and Sarah Morse who lived north of Jarrells offered to provide the southern 80 acres of their homestead and the college site quickly grew to 200 acres.
These homesteaders had arrived two years earlier with the land run of 1889. Duck was originally from Iowa, 25 years old, single and hoping to get a college education. He also knew that if this proposed campus site was accepted then his remaining property consisting of 120 acres would be located between the town and campus, dramatically increasing its value. Alfred Jarrell was 56 years old and from Virginia, and his wife Elizabeth, 39, was born in Massachusetts. He was a veteran of the Civil War, and they had several college age children. His remaining property would also most likely increase in value. Charles Vreeland, 35, was born in Minnesota, and his wife Martha, 28, had emigrated from England. Oscar Morse, 42, was from Michigan and his wife Sarah, 34, was born in New York. Both couples were offered cash payments if the Stillwater site was selected.
The $10,000 bond issued failed when brought forward to Payne County voters but, on May 5, 1891, Stillwater citizens supported a local bond issue for this amount in spite of limited property values which were unable to support the issuing of this value of bonds and an inadequate resident voting population within the town. These challenges were resolved several months later with some creative accounting and innovative census tabulations.
Governor Steele appointed a three-member site selection commission on June 1, 1891. William H. Campbell of Orlando, William H. Merten of Guthrie, and James M. Stovall of Norman were chosen to tour Payne County and select the location of the land grant college and agricultural experiment station. George Gardenhire personally led the tour of the proposed county sites during the commissioner’s visit on June 22, 1891. By this time the other interested communities had withdrawn or were unable to meet the minimum requirements.
Their trip began with the Stillwater site before a brief visit to the site proposed by the Perkins community. Perkins was willing to provide 80 acres in the fertile Cimarron Valley, but the sandy loam soil might have worked to their disadvantage. The commissioners returned to Stillwater for lodging that night, but didn’t retire until much later after an extended evening of entertainment and merriment sponsored by the Stillwater leaders.
On July 11, 1891, their final report was presented to the territorial governor. The commissioners wrote: “We were of the opinion, that the … site should embrace upland and bottom land, and selected a body of land containing two hundred acres that contained the various qualities of soil as we thought would be most suitable for the purposes for which the college is to be established and asked the citizens of the town of Stillwater and vicinity to make a formal tender of deeds conveying the same to the Territory.”
The commissioners seemed most concerned with providing a suitable environment for establishing the agricultural experiment station and wanted the station staff to confront the variety of soil conditions faced by farmers throughout the territory. The college campus and future facilities seemed to be less important considerations.
Stillwater would become the home of the land grant agricultural and mechanical college with experiment station. A board of regents was named during the summer of 1891, and
they began the process of establishing the college and station. One of their first decisions was to hire Dr. James C. Neal as the agricultural experiment station director. Neal moved
his family to Stillwater in August, and he began making the necessary preparations to develop a research station on the prairie,
Additional hires for both the experiment station and college faculty soon followed. Robert J. Barker served as the first president. With only limited resources available for hiring personnel initially, the Stillwater community was able to provide enough lodging to meet their needs. Many hired for the new staff positions were single, or they waited to bring their families until better accommodations could be arranged.
Four deeds were issued on Wednesday, November 25, 1891, the day before Thanksgiving, transferring property in Payne County to the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College Board of Regents. The property was less than one half mile northwest of Stillwater. The college campus and research station would have 200 acres of land, most of it to be used by the station. Frank Duck provided 40 acres and received $50. Alfred and Elizabeth Jarrell were also paid $50 for their 40 acres. Charles and Martha Vreeland received $200 for the 40 acres they provided, and Oscar and Sarah Morse made available 80 acres for which they were given $1200. It was felt that the remaining Duck and Jarrell properties would benefit most being located between the town and college. The Vreeland and Morse properties would benefit less because of their distance from Stillwater and they were compensated at a higher rate for their acreages.
Plowing the plains
Less than one week later on Tuesday, December 1, 1891, James Neal led a small crew of community volunteers to the new site northwest of town. Most of the land was still virgin prairie. During the two years since settlement, the former landowners had plowed only 40 acres in scattered fields. With Neal were Henry Keller and his sons Owen and Burt, James H. Swope, and Henry and Jesse Osborne. The team started by locating the section stone placed by Darling’s crew marking the corner of the southern boundary (present day intersection of Sixth Avenue and Washington Street) between sections 14 and 15 in Township 19N-2E.
They then measured to the north 20 chains, 440 yards or a quarter mile, to locate the southern boundary (present day University Avenue) of the college and station. From here, they measured 20 chains east (present day Knoblock Street) and west (present day Stout Lane) from this point (present day intersection of University Avenue and Washington Street). At the east end, they turned north for a half mile, or 40 chains, through Duck’s property and half way into Vreeland’s homestead. This point would be the northeast corner of the site (present day intersection of Knoblock Street and Hall of Fame Avenue). The crew then traveled three quarters of a mile west, or 60 chains, through Vreeland’s and splitting the Morse property in half. This was the northwest corner of the campus and station (approximately the corner of Hall of Fame Avenue and Walnut Street). They then went south for a quarter of a mile, back east for a quarter mile, and then south a quarter mile to connect at the southwest corner (present day intersection of University Avenue and Stout Lane). After checking to make sure everything lined up correctly, they marked the corners of the tract and identified the connecting borders by burning off the tallgrass prairie to mark the extent of the property. Experiment station employees using horses and mules to pull a plow began turning the prairie sod the next day. It would take several months to complete the job of plowing the entire 200 acres.
Student registration was held on December 13, 1891, for classes to begin the next day. Over half the students would be in the preparatory program. Many did not have high school diplomas, and this program would allow them into the college curriculum only if they could complete it successfully. Most students lived with their parents in Stillwater and surrounding communities.
The registration and first courses were conducted at various locations in Stillwater. It would be months before construction would take place on campus and almost three years before the first permanent building would be dedicated.The college and experiment station had a home on the prairie, only recently altered by the plow. Few had any inkling of what potential would grow from the seeds that were being planted.
The lives associated with establishing the new college on the Oklahoma plains would change as well. Ehud N. Darling had married in 1873 and lived in Washington, D.C. until his death on June 20, 1912, while visiting his sister in New York. Darling, a widower, had been in poor health for some time and was living on his government pension. When he died, his few possessions included only several pieces of furniture and his compass. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. A sign 10 miles west of Stillwater on Highway 51 is dedicated to Darling’s survey and the location of the Indian Meridian.
The Jarrell’s son, Alfred E., would join Frank Duck as members of the first graduating class of the college. The rest of the Jarrell family soon moved to Sulphur, Oklahoma. The Vreelands moved to Pawnee County before 1900, and the Morse family returned to Michigan within a decade after homesteading. The remaining Vreeland and Morse property would eventually be incorporated into the college campus. Frank Duck would remain in the area the longest before eventually settling in California during the Great Depression. Duck Street near the campus is named in honor of the Duck family.
Dr. Neal would die in the winter of 1895 after suffering a stroke while walking from his experiment station office in the new college building to the
family home nearby on campus. His daughter, Katie, who was scheduled to graduate with Jarrell and Duck in the spring of 1896, left Stillwater with her mother and sister one semester shy of completing her degree.
The Osage would establish a new home on their traditional lands in northeast Oklahoma, and the Kiowa would eventually be settled in the southwest corner of the state, with both groups losing much of their aboriginal territory. The tallgrass prairie with herds of bison would survive but within a much smaller area. And the land grant college and experiment station in Stillwater would expand its influence across the state, nation and world as few would have imagined when it was established 125 years ago.
Uploaded on September 1, 2015