Webbers Falls has history of booms, busts and tragedy

BY TESINA JACKSON
Former Reporter
11/25/2015 08:00 AM
Video with default Cherokee Phoenix Frame
Main Cherokee Phoenix
George Miller, Webbers Falls Historical Society and Webbers Falls Museum president, points to a photo of the Cherokee Female Seminary at the Webbers Falls Museum in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma. TESINA JACKSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
A photo of the Highway 64 bridge at the Webbers Falls Museum shows how traffic once flowed through the Oklahoma town of Webbers Falls. TESINA JACKSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. – Located in Muskogee County along the Arkansas River is a small town that has survived for more than 180 years. After facing Civil War, fires and floods, it continues with its rich Cherokee history.

Named after an Arkansas River waterfall and Walter Webber, a Western Cherokee or Old Settlers leader, the town today has more than 600 residents.

“People would say ‘the falls at Webbers’ and eventually it became Webbers Falls,” Troy Wayne Poteete, Webbers Falls Historical Society founder and Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Justice, said.

Poteete said when the Cherokees were trying to find a settlement along the Arkansas River, they reached the falls and couldn’t go any further, so they stopped and created Webbers Falls.

Moving to Indian Territory before the Trail of Tears, Webber established a trading post, portage service and salt works in 1828.

“Webbers Falls, after reading a lot of older newspapers, was supposed to have been one of the nicest, largest towns in Oklahoma, they predicted it to be and it never did make it,” said George Miller, Webbers Falls Historical Society and Webbers Falls Museum president. “I think the maximum amount of people that lived here was probably 700, maybe 800 people.”

After the Indian Removal Act, many Cherokees settled in Webbers Falls.

“Webbers Falls was home to several prominent Cherokees who fought in the Civil War, served as justices on the Cherokee Supreme Court and were very involved in Cherokee government and politics,” Poteete said.

One prominent Cherokee was Joseph “Rich Joe” Vann. A wealthy man, Vann established a cotton plantation in Webbers Falls and built a replica of the mansion he was forced from in Georgia. Vann also established a steamboat business.

In 1842, in an attempt to escape Indian Territory to Mexico, nearly 25 slaves of Vann’s and other wealthy Cherokee slave owners revolted and fled with guns and horses. More slaves joined on the way. However, the slaves were pursued and 14 were killed or captured in a conflict that resulted in the pursuers turning back for reinforcements. The other fugitives continued to south.

The slaves were recaptured and five were executed for killing two slave catchers in an effort to free a slave family being taken to Choctaw territory. Vann put his surviving slaves to work on his steamboat. Vann later died aboard his steamboat after the boiler exploded.

In 1863 during the Civil War, while trying to capture Cherokee Confederate Gen. Stand Watie, who stationed his troops in Webbers Falls, the Union Army burned Vann’s plantation along with most of the town. The town was later rebuilt.

“Most of the people here sided with the Confederacy eventually,” Poteete said. “After the Civil War this was designated as the place for Confederate sympathizers and Freedmen. Not many of the freed slaves came here but several Confederate Cherokees who thought they couldn’t live in peace in the other parts of the Cherokee Nation, they moved here and one of them was the last Confederate general to surrender, Stand Watie.

After statehood in 1907, Webbers Falls was home to Brewer’s Academy, which was later named Webbers Falls Public School. Brewer’s Academy was named after the Brewer family that resided in town. Oliver Hazard Perry Brewer was born in 1829, attended the Cherokee Male Seminary and married Delia Vann, the daughter of Joseph Vann, in 1856. Brewer was elected to the Cherokee Senate in 1859 and was elected CN superintendent of education in 1871 and 1876. He was selected as Cherokee Board of Education president in 1881, and in 1890, was appointed to the CN Supreme Court. He died in office a year later.

His son, Oliver Hazard Perry Brewer Jr., was born in Webbers Falls in 1871 and also attended the Cherokee Male Seminary. He also was elected to the tribe’s Senate and served as CN Board of Education chairman. In 1906, he was a Constitutional Convention delegate. In 1913, Brewer Jr. was appointed postmaster in Muskogee until 1921. He then was elected a Muskogee County judge for three terms, and in 1931 he was appointed by the U.S. government as a CN “chief for a day.” He died in 1951.

Another prominent Cherokee in Webbers Falls was Robert T. Hanks, who held several positions in the CN government, including secretary.

“Robert T. Hanks was considered to have been the best fiddler in the Cherokee Nation and was the first historian of Webbers Falls,” Poteete said. “He was also a writer. He was a correspondent to the newspapers in Muskogee, in Fort Smith (Arkansas). He published a paper here himself, and until he passed away, he was given to writing letters to the editor taking positions on political issues and they dubbed him Black Fox, sage of the Cherokee.”

In 1911, Webbers Falls burned down again and was rebuilt with brick in 1912. Most buildings continue to stand. That same year, the Webbers Falls, Shawnee and Western Railroad began connecting Webbers Falls to Warner, allowing the town to grow and become less dependent on river trade.

Throughout the 1920s, the town’s population grew to nearly 500 and a bridge was built across the Arkansas River as a part of Highway 64, which cut through Webbers Falls, allowing traffic and businesses to boom.

“All the traffic from Highway 64 came through here and we had five or six Phillips stations and cafes, two grocery stores, two banks,” Miller said. “As the trucks grew, the bridge didn’t and the trucks could not get across so they put a light up and made it a one-way road across, and after the bridge came in the train slowly went away.”

In 1943, the town experienced massive flooding in the downtown area causing people to be rescued from rooftops.

Miller said what really affected Webbers Falls’ growth was when Interstate 40 was opened because it bypassed the town.

“When they got I-40 in they tore the bridge down and built the Highway 100 bridge across, a little further up, but nothing came through Webbers Falls anymore and the town just slowly died until what it is today,” Miller said.

In 1971, the Webbers Falls Lock and Dam and Reservoir was created on the Oklahoma portion of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, which provides for barge traffic on the Arkansas River. In 2002, the I-40 bridge collapsed, killing 14 people and injuring 11, after a barge collided with a bridge pier.

Although Webbers Falls has experienced growth, tragedy and decline, it still holds the same Cherokee values with which it was created.

“People were moving west to continue a Cherokee way of life, and many families that were here before are still here,” Poteete said.

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