History of Tulsa

United States > US City Index > Tulsa > History

The word "Oklahoma" means "land of the Red People" in the language of the Choctaw Indian, one of the five civilized tribes that called this state home. This Native American influence carries over in the history of Oklahoma's second-largest city, Tulsa. The city had a humble beginning in 1836, when a group of Creek Indians, another of those five tribes, found the end of their Trail of Tears. As they sought shelter under an expansive oak tree near the Arkansas River, the Creeks decided to make this piece of Indian Territory their own, lighting a ceremonial fire and naming the land "Tallahassee" or "Tulsi". As the name has survived the many passing generations, so has the Council Oak Tree, a lasting symbol of the city's Native American history and its embrace of multiculturalism.

As the forced relocation of America's native people continued, the small settlement that would become Tulsa welcomed in more tribes -- including Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Seminole Indians. For many years the area's only settlers were Native Americans, who worked to rebuild their communities and cultures.

The 1840s saw a few white settlers brave the rugged frontier environment and establish homes and businesses in the Tulsa area. Unfortunately, this promising growth was stifled by the escalation of tensions between abolitionists and slave owners. When the Civil War erupted two decades later, the violence between Kansas and Missouri residents spread into Oklahoma Territory. With notorious outlaws like the brutal William Quantrill roaming so close to their homeland, many of Tulsa's settlers fled in fear.

After the war, Tulsa underwent a rebuilding process much like its neighbors to the south. The first sign of true cityhood came with a Federal Post Office, which opened in 1879. With this establishment came the need for an official city name: Tulsa -- one that kept the original spirit of the founding Creek Indians at the Council Oak Tree. Affectionately referred to as "Tulsey Town", the developing community of a few hundred people soon began to serve as a trading post, attracting ranchers and farmers from adjacent areas. Tulsa, due to its location, was also a popular stop for cowboys who drove huge herds of cattle from Texas to Missouri. The influx of goods and money in turn drew the attention of railroad companies.

Around 1882, a man who would come to be recognized as Tulsa's founder came to town, H.C. Hall. This same year, the city underwent a large construction project, in which a barber shop, general store, hotel, railroad depot and residences were erected. The cluster of buildings marked the foundation of downtown Tulsa. This steady growth in both agricultural and industrial commerce lured more settlers to the town, resulting in the population more than quadrupling in the years from 1882 to 1898. And then on January 18, 1898, more than 60 years after the Oak Tree meeting, Tulsa was officially incorporated as a city into Oklahoma Territory.

The new century brought an entirely new way of life. In 1901, crude oil was struck in Red Fork, across the Arkansas River from Tulsa. With the Sue Bland Number 1, as the well was named, the city went from being a modest cow town to being a potential goldmine for wildcatters. Exploratory drilling operations sprung up across northeast Oklahoma Territory, and hopes of striking it rich were soon rewarded. Four years later the largest oil strike the world had seen at the time was made in Glenpool, a little community south of Tulsa. Ida E. Glenn Number 1 and her rich underground treasure changed Tulsa forever.

The oil boom brought a construction boom with it, the money rolling in from oil sales going to fuel numerous urban projects like housing tracts, hotels and utility systems to accommodate the crush of people expected to relocate to the city. And true to predictions, the city's population exploded -- what was once a quiet town of 7,000 people grew to hold more than 70,000 in less than 15 years. T-town was now known as the booming "Oil Capital of the World"!

Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907. State colors of green and white were chosen, and its official motto was deemed: Labor Conquers All Things. But if one was to consider Tulsa, a more appropriate motto might have been "Oil Conquers All Things" and colors of black and gold. Many individuals became wealthy beyond imaging thanks to Tulsa's most profitable natural resource, and these blossoming benefactors poured funds into city beautification. It was during this heady time that downtown Tulsa was transformed from an idiosyncratic neighborhood into the art deco paradise it remains to this day. As natives are proud to point out, only New York City and Miami have more art deco buildings. Higher education also made its appearance in Tulsa in 1907. Henry Kendall College relocated here from nearby Muskogee -- now the grand institution is known as the University of Tulsa. But not all additions to the city were positive ones: gamblers and outlaws frequented the new hot spot of the south, bringing a wild element to the environment -- a passionate, no-holds-barred approach to life that has tempered somewhat through the years, but can still be seen in Tulsans' love of sport and outdoor adventure.

Yes, Tulsa was indeed open to all people, and many who were not allowed opportunities elsewhere found a home here. African-Americans especially flourished, and became so successful in creating businesses along Tulsa's Greenwood Avenue that the district was dubbed the "Black Wall Street" in the 1920s. The expansion of business in the city during this decade included the establishment of two of Tulsa's landmark heathcare facilities, St. John's Hospital in 1925 and Hillcrest Hospital in 1927.

Oil was good to the town and its residents, and while the boom lasted for several decades, prosperity began to falter. The 1930s saw the Great Depression sweep across the country, doubly detrimental for Oklahoma when coupled with the fierce Dust Bowl disaster. Tulsa's situation was more fortunate than the state's other cities, but the area did experience devastating droughts and record-breaking summer heat waves that demoralized struggling residents.

When Tulsans returned from fighting in World War II, they realized there would have to be a fundamental shift in the city. Ever increasingly, oil was being struck by offshore drillers -- Tulsa was no longer the epicenter of production. Capitalizing on the state's history in aviation, an industry whose potential was brought to the forefront of American consciousness by such pioneering natives as Wiley Post, Tulsa reinvented itself as a home for aviation companies. American Airlines was the first to move its operations to Tulsa and numerous other transportation-related corporations followed. At present, the city is home to several hundred aviation and aerospace businesses.

In the past few decades, Tulsa has again positioned itself at the forefront of an industry with incredible potential: telecommunications. Considered the most high-tech of Oklahoma's cities, Tulsa prides itself on being something of a Silicon Valley on the frontier. Now a major city in its own right, Tulsa holds nearly half a million residents in the rolling green hills that border the Arkansas River.

While a new breed of business is booming in T-town, the skyscraper skyline still consists mainly of those historic buildings with art deco facades. Regardless of what amazing innovations and economic prosperities come Tulsa's way, it is difficult to imagine anything with an ability to overshadow the old-style boom-town presence forever captured in so much of the city. The crown jewel of Green Country continues to embrace its legacy as a town of opportunity for all. History is a powerful force here, and it gives the town a rich, rich character -- and not just monetarily, either.