First Telephone in Indian Territory

(The Indian Pioneer Papers are the product of a project developed in 1936. The Oklahoma Historical Society teamed with the history department at the University of Oklahoma to get a Works Progress Administration (WPA) writers' project grant for an interview program. The program was headquartered in Muskogee and was led by Grant Foreman. The writers conducted more than 11,000 interviews and after editing and typing the work, the results were over 45,000 pages long. The following excerpt is from the interview of Ed Hicks, Tahlequah.)

The Cherokee telephone company which placed in operation the first line in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, came into existence in 1886. A franchise authorizing the erection of the line was granted by the Cherokee National Council at Tahlequah in the autumn of 1885. Work was begun the following year and before its close the first telephone line was a reality, connecting Tahlequah with Fort Gibson in the Cherokee Nation, and with Muskogee in the Creek Nation.

Before the completion of the line much delay was experienced in communicating from Tahlequah with the Union Agency at Muskogee, and also with businessmen at the Cherokee capital. E.D. Hicks, a young business man of Tahlequah began thinking of the great convenience and value of more direct communication and suggested to a number of the leading men the convenience and feasibility of a telephone line. Much interest was aroused among those to whom he talked, with the result that a franchise was requested of the Cherokee National legislative bodies.

The route selected for the telephone line lay through some rugged and densely wooded sections. There was no surveyor. Contrary to the belief of many the route did not follow that of the old and long-used road lying between Tahlequah and Fort Gibson, but led over heights and ridges, through flat woods and down steep-sloped valleys. In order to get the proper direction it was often necessary to ascend a hill and carefully observe the sylvan scene. There were times, too, when the weather conditions were bad, heavy rainfalls, resultant mud, snow and sleet, and gloomy days when the wind blew coldly from the North. But steady progress was made. No one sought to impede the workers, and eventually completion of the preparation of the route was realized. All that was necessary was to make correct connections.

No one of the workers had ever seen connections made, for this was the first telephone being completed in all the vast Indian Territory. The workers were nonplussed, but in their time of difficulty a blue-coated soldier from the fort upon the hill arrived. He had learned back in Ohio how the connections were made and offered his services, which were gladly welcomed. With a rather brief period the telephone was in working order so far as the office at Fort Gibson was concerned, but the same connection must be made over at Tahlequah, twenty-three miles eastward over the telephone route. No one at the old capital knew anything about telephones, so a good-sized picture or diagram of the parts which were to be assembled and connected with the wire was placed in the hands of Manuel Spencer, a large and very black Negro, and mounted on a horse, Manuel set out for Tahlequah. He was several hours on the road but he finally arrived at the store of J.W. Stapler and Sons and handed the diagram to James S. Stapler. The latter carefully studied the diagram, then set out to work, and soon had the proper connections made. Talking was in order between Tahlequah and Fort Gibson.

The bell rang. From Tahlequah came the query from James S. Stapler, "Who is this?" From Fort Gibson went back the reply from E.D. Hicks, "The devil and I'm coming after you."

In the beginning of the efforts to secure permission from the Council to operate the telephone line there were some who had misgivings, for there were some very conservative members of the Council. Several of the leading native members were consulted and they decided that the franchise should be granted. A short "sample line" was utilized by two notables in testing the powers of the telephone. George Sanders, usually called Soggy Sanders, a large man, weighing probably 300 pounds stood at one end of the line, and another leading Indian of the name of Smith at the other. These men held an animated conversation in the native tongue. At conclusion of their talk Sanders laughed and remarked that the telephone was allright. "It talks in Cherokee," he said.

The Cherokee Telephone Company was in operation until 1896, when E.D. Hicks and W.P. Thompson established an exchange in Tahlequah and the name Tahlequah Telephone Company superceded the original name.

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