The Incorrect History Of Oklahoma’s Oldest Building
As my catalog of posts may indicate, I am a pretty enthusiastic history buff. I'm also the King of random useless trivia and facts, but mostly the history thing. I'm the type that will be watching a show or movie and hit pause so I can Google stuff about the places and things that take place in the script.
Example: Years ago, AMC debuted a new "based on history" show called Turn. It was the story about George Washington's spy ring on Long Island during the Revolutionary War. As I was enthralled in the storyline, I began to seek information about the places and towns in which the story took place, really to see if the locales would make for a good vacation.
Over the four years that it took AMC to tell the embellished - but true - story, I ended up down an internet rabbit hole gaining a fascination for how I could literally have a meal today at a 300-ish-year-old restaurant in America... which in the grand scheme of the world is relatively unimpressive... there's a 1219-year-old restaurant in Spain and countless other 600-1000-year-old similar eateries all over Europe... but 300-plus years qualifies as rich history since that's older than the United States itself.
Still going down the rabbit hole, looking at all of the oldest restaurants and homes in New England, I wondered what the oldest building in Oklahoma was, and while historians say one thing, the actual history says something different.
If you were to hop in your own rabbit hole about Oklahoma's oldest things, you'll find (mostly) two common things. Different outlets list different places as "Oldest In Oklahoma," and while the technicalities may be on point, in reality, you can't flub the data.
If you took Oklahoma history around the turn of the century (2000) you would have learned about Fort Gibson - AKA - the first military garrison in Indian Territory, but while the story is interesting, the actual history just isn't there.
According to the official story, Cantonment (Camp) Gibson was first established in April of 1824 to "keep the peace on the frontier" when Oklahoma was considered the American West. That's the official story, but in reality, the US was expanding and Gibson was established to guard the Southern border of the Louisiana Purchase. While not very well done, it is somewhat documented to reflect that.
Camp Gibson was born relatively quickly into a fortification along the Arkansas River. With an abundance of wooded areas in Northeast Oklahoma, the original fort and buildings within were built very quickly and served their purpose... but the structures didn't last long at all.
The area officials chose to build happened to be a low-lying area close to the river. As the river kept the soils moist, and as a result of the occasional seasonal flood when rains were heavy, the wood logs used to build the original fort rotted away within the first fifteen years. It was later reconstructed during the Great Depression as a WPA project... It looked like this originally.
Some might be inclined to say that this is the oldest building in Oklahoma, but it's not. Sure, an identical structure may have existed there in the beginning, but it rotted away to nothing. In fact, in an 1870 depiction of Fort Gibson, you can see the lack of fort in the low-lying area where the original fort was located.
As the current Fort Gibson fort was built in the 1930s and later restored in the 21st century by volunteers, it doesn't qualify... but there's another "Oldest Building" common candidate at Fort Gibson.
After Cantonment Gibson was redesignated Fort Gibson, there was ample evidence and a renewed interest in the area that provided funding to rebuild the fort. As such, the military moved Fort Gibson up the hill and away from the moist soils that degraded the original installation. As they built Fort Gibson became an important cog in the federal wheel that was the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears, so there was a need for further expansion and a boost in federal troop populations... this is where some historians start to get the story wrong.
It was in 1844 that the US granted the building and expansion of the barracks at Fort Gibson... Since most people (looking at the journalistic media with untrusting eyes) stop reading when they think they've found a quick answer, the barracks are billed as "Since 1844," making the structure the oldest building in Oklahoma... but there's more to that story.
1844 is the year funds were made available and construction was started, not completed. It wasn't actually until after the American Civil War that the project was completed in 1867. Still, it's an old building.
Like any other old building in America, it was built, run-down, abandoned, then placed in the care of a private interest group. The original barracks have been restored and you're welcome to tour the historical places in Fort Gibson today... but that's a story for a different day. For the record, this is what they look like today.
I think the weirder story is how one military installation can exist simultaneously in two different locations so far apart from each other... These barracks, as well as all of the "newer" buildings of the fort were built atop a hill overlooking the original cantonment.
So what is the actual oldest building in Oklahoma? Well, it's complicated. There were structures found in Deer Creek built by the Wichita people dating back to when Coronado's conquistadors passed through in the 1540s, but historians agree they don't count since the whole area is still off-limits to visitors and treasure hunters, a federal felony charge of trespassing the area... so the oldest building in Oklahoma technically belongs to a courthouse in Tahlequah.
What you're looking at above is the Cherokee National Supreme Court, constructed in 1844. Well taken care of over the last 178+ years, it stands still today and serves as the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum, open to the public and full of super-interesting details from the annals of history.
While things could technically change, this court remains atop the list of Oklahoma's Oldest Buildings at least for now. If you get the chance to go see it, do so. Tahlequah is a fascinating place with one of Oklahoma's most tropical-ish clear water diving and snorkel lakes located close by.