Allotment horror remains unsettled at Oaklawn Cemetery
(MUSCOGEE NATION) Land and oil rights. Dead American Indians. Wealthy benefactors.
As “Killers of the Flower Moon” debuts the tale of the Osage Murders at the Cannes Film Festival, the deadly series of events is a familiar one for Lucinda Hickory Research Institute founder Tatianna Duncan.
It may be over a century later, but the mysterious deaths and post-mortem circumstances of her Mvskoke Creek family remain under investigation in Tulsa to this day, and they all point to a dark secret within the oldest public cemetery in the city.
“I feel like Muscogee Nation was the blueprint for the Osage murders,” Duncan said.
Both LHRI and its namesake are descendants of Tuckabache, a Mvskoke Creek warrior and medicine man who settled along the Arkansas River after being forced to Oklahoma on the Road of Misery (Nene Estemerkv), commonly referred to as The Trail of Tears, with 14,000 other Mvskoke Creeks.
Tulsa’s Gathering Place now sits on his allotment. Nothing exists to recognize his life or his role in the community’s history, but we have been told some kind of formal recognition is in the works.
Tuckabache outlived all three of his children as well as his son-in-law. Rich in land but far from comfortable, experts like Native author and LHRI cofounder J.D. Colbert say Tuckabache was threatened and abused up until he died.
“There was testimony that has survived in written form that indicates Tuckabache had bumps and bruises and other injuries about his face and his head in the very last days of his life,” Colbert said.
His will had been penned just three days earlier.
“The other highly suspicious circumstance was at the time that Tuckabache was dictating his last will and testament, two very important, two very prominent Tulsans were in his humble log cabin just right over, this park behind my shoulder, 24th and Cincinnati,” Colbert said. “One was John Kramer, who was then the elected treasurer for the City and County of Tulsa, and another was a prominent lawyer, educator Charles Grimes.”
Notably absent was Tuckabache’s family. Family is paramount in Muscogee Creek culture, precisely why the federal government’s attempts to destroy that culture focused on the dismantling of American Indian communities and forced allotments of land.
“We also see a lot of young native men going to prison at this time,” Duncan said. “It was a way, I think, to break down the family structure. And with Tuckabache's grandchildren, they're sent away to Indian boarding school. I'm not sure if it's before or after their mother died, so yeah. It's all a very troubling history.”
The City of Tulsa predates statehood, officially incorporated as a city into Oklahoma Territory in 1898, 60 years following the forced relocation of American Indian tribes to Indian Country.
The city is just under 200 square miles, over 125,000 acres allotted to more than 700 people, mostly Mvskoke Creek.
After Tuckabache died, his grandchildren and great grandchildren then stood to inherit his estate. But it was a wealth they would never see. His grandchildren were Tom Coney and Jennie Hickory (nee Coney).
The circumstances that led up to and followed Tuckabache’s death are the same as the allegations that fill the pages of the Indian Rights Association’s 1924 report “Oklahoma's poor rich Indians”.
The report followed a preliminary investigation into Oklahoma’s probate system conducted by Indian Rights Association Secretary M.K. Sniffen Oklahoma in November and December 1923, which focused on the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole tribes.
“The report discloses a situation that is almost unbelievable in a civilized country, and makes it clear that a radical and immediate change of the system in vogue in necessary if the members of the Five Civilized Tribes are to be saved from pauperization and virtual extermination,” Sniffen wrote.
Indian probate jurisdiction passed from the Interior Department to Oklahoma’s local county courts in 1908, the year after Oklahoma became a state.
Sniffen’s reported allegations included Indian children left to die of lack of nourishment from professional guardians, young Indian girls being robbed of their virtues, and the purchase price of Indian land going for four-tenths of its actual value or less.
The final report also alleged “That some attorneys cooperate with ‘flappers’ to ensnare wealthy young Indian men into matrimony, making free use of bootleg whiskey as an aid. Soon thereafter a divorce usually follows and the court allows liberal alimony to the flapper wife, which she shares with her co-partner, the attorney.”
It is a fate eerily similar to the one which befell Tom Coney, who died the same year as his grandfather Tuckabache, just eight months after marrying his white, teenage wife.
A woman named Ethel Davis contested the validity of Tuckabache’s will soon after his death, saying all the land should go to his heirs since he was incapable of devising it, that it was procured through fraud and undue influence, and he was not in his right mind.
Through additional research, Duncan found more instances of Tuckabache’s death that didn’t add up.
“I'm looking at Tuckabache's final account record, he's already passed away,” Duncan said. “MF Smith is the executor and he's already passed away. But there are things like carbolic acid, chloroform, syringes on this account record, and I just found that very alarming. And then as I've learned, carbolic acid was used to commit suicide or to kill people.”
It’s unlikely Ethel Davis had the heirs’ best interests at heart.
Records show Tuckabache’s other grandchild Jennie Hickory signing over her share of Tuckabache and his son Ned’s allotments to Davis through a General Warranty Deed at the same time she was contesting the will.
The names of Ethel Davis and her husband Sam Davis come up often in the probate cases of Tuckabache and his family.
Several months after Tuckabache’s death, property records show Tom Coney’s young wife, Verbia Cody, executing a Quit Claim deed to Ethel Davis for his interest in the Tuckabache estate the same day he died.
Property records also show Jennie Hickory executing a Quit Claim deed to Ethel Davis for her brother’s share of their grandfather’s allotment the same day he died.
The probate war over Tuckabache’s land was fought for seven years, all the way up to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“The people were never allowed to properly grieve, and they already had people eyeballing their land, who was going to get their land,” Duncan said. “And when we see Tuckabache's estate, because his estate included his own 160 acres, and his son Ned's land, so what I see in all of that chaos is it didn't matter who was going to win, the family was never going to benefit.”
Jennie Hickory died during the probate hearings, not long after the untimely death of her own 13-year-old daughter, Lucinda. Both of their exact causes of death remain unknown.
Future Mayor of Tulsa John H. Simmons was named administrator of Jennie Hickory’s estate.
As the family death count rose, more Quit Claim Deeds appeared.
Ethel Davis’s husband Sam was murdered in December 1916. Sam Davis’s brother-in-law JCW Bland took over his affairs, including guardianship of Tuckabache’s three surviving great-grandchildren and heirs to his estate.
Three months later, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Tuckabache’s will was valid, and the wealth was in Bland’s hands.
“He very rapidly effects a guardian sale in April 1917 to two of Bland’s country club buddies AEZ Aaronson and MR Travis,” Colbert said.
Colbert said as far as he knows, the great grandkids never saw a dime of the money.
“Which frankly was not unusual in the Oklahoma guardianship in the early part of the 20th Century regarding Native-owned lands and oil wealth,” Colbert said.
But the injustice didn’t end there.
Colbert said, in 1921, Aaronson and Travis were walking the property at 28th and Cincinnati when they came across Tuckabache’s family cemetery.
Reports state 17 bodies were found. Colbert believes there were more.
And the new property owners wanted to build houses. So, they dug up the graves and moved them to Oaklawn Cemetery. Cemetery records show 12 people reburied.
“So the question is, of the 17 that they found or reported to have found, where did the others go?” Colbert said.
The worst is yet to come.
Duncan said three years ago, she requested a Ground-Penetrating Radar survey be conducted on the land to determine if any bodies had been buried there at all.
The results indicated the bodies had been unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave.
“From what I understand about my Creek culture, is once they lay an Indian to rest, you're not supposed to touch them,” Duncan said. “They've been blessed. The medicine's been put on them.”
Duncan said she recalls coming across a newspaper article that reported Tuckabache asked to be buried with his weapons and for salt to be poured over them to deteriorate them, in order to deter marauders from disturbing him.
“So, to me, when I see that article, it just becomes even more haunting because they chose to dig him up anyway, move his whole family, which there's not enough room for his whole family here,” Duncan said.
We talked with Muscogee Creek Nation’s Historic and Cultural Preservation Department’s Cultural Technician Gano Perez about the study, who told us they are still analyzing the data but confirmed the bodies definitely appear to be buried all over the place and “not what you would expect during a proper burial”.
Duncan said she hopes the public premiere of “Killers of the Flower Moon” this October will result in more research, publicity and ultimately some justice for a history that has been ignored in Tulsa for far too long.
“It seems like some of the most guilty people in the whole history they thought were their friends, and I think that's the saddest part of all,” Duncan said.
“Stealing Tvlse” is a collaborative effort between VNN Oklahoma and the Lucinda Hickory Research Institute to spotlight crimes committed against Muscogee people during the Allotment era and how those crimes still impact Muscogee people today.
Learn more about this research and donate to Lucinda Hickory Research Institute directly at https://allotmentera.wordpress.com/
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