Tulsa History


The area surrounding Tulsa, once known as Indian Territory, was originally established to accommodate the relocation of tribes such as the Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokees, Quapaws, Senecas, and Shawnees. These Native American tribes moved into the region after the passage of the Indian Removal Act (1830), when they were forced to surrender their lands east of the Mississippi to the Federal Government in exchange for land in Indian Territory. Each of the larger tribes was given extensive land holdings, individual governments were formed, and tribal members began new lives as farmers, trappers, and ranchers. However, this was not a permanent arrangement and throughout the mid-nineteenth century, the tribes were made to accept a number of treaties which continued to further limit the amount of land each of them held. White settlers continued to push forward, railroads moved into the territory, and in 1892, the land was officially opened and all tribal members were forced to accept individual allocations of land.

In 1882, the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad extended its line to Tulsa to serve the cattle business, the city’s first industry. Ranchers and settlers, including Indians and whites, living within a one-hundred mile radius had been using Tulsa as a central trading point since the end of the Civil War. A stock yard, with cattle-loading pens and chutes, was built near the tracks, and cattle were driven from the Chickasaw Nation and Seminole country to Tulsa for shipment. Texas cattle were also shipped to the area and later shipped out to Northern and Eastern markets.

As the community grew, the citizens began to take an active interest in the direction of Tulsa, and the Tulsa Commercial Club, the forerunner of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, was founded. This organization pressured the railroads to put Tulsa on their lines, and was also responsible for the recruitment of many of Tulsa’s early businesses. In 1898, the city was incorporated. Just two years later, in 1900, Tulsa had a population of 1,390.

Tulsa changed from a cow-town to a boomtown with the discovery of oil in 1901 at Red Fork, a small community southwest of Tulsa. Wildcatters and investors flooded into the city and the town began to take shape. Many brought their families with them because Tulsa had the reputation of being one of the few “safe” frontier cities. Neighborhoods were established in Tulsa on the north side of the Arkansas River, away from the drilling sites, and began to spread out from downtown Tulsa in all directions. In 1904, Tulsans constructed a bridge across the river, allowing oil field workers, supplies, food and equipment to cross the river, reaffirming Tulsa’s position as the center of the oil field.

In 1905, the Glenn Pool oil field was discovered. This strike created such a large supply of crude oil that it forced Tulsans to develop storage tanks for the excess oil and gas and, later, pipe lines. It also laid the foundation for Tulsa to become a leader in many businesses related to oil and gas, in addition to being the physical center of the growing petroleum industry. Eventually, Glenn Pool established Oklahoma as one of the leading petroleum producing regions in the United States. Many early oil companies chose Tulsa for their home base. When a second surge of oil discoveries occurred between 1915 and 1930, the city was well-established as the “Oil Capital of the Nation.”

Every type of transportation was represented during the early years of the city. The mud-filled streets of the oil boom days turned to brick as automobiles arrived in Tulsa. Electric trolleys followed the neighborhoods as they developed further and further from downtown. Their service lasted until World War II.

The Tulsa economy was only slightly affected by World War I, and the 1920s were a period of extensive growth. Residential development continued in all directions. The lack of a good water supply, Tulsa’s greatest domestic problem, was solved when the Spavinaw Dam was constructed and water was pumped to Tulsa from a distance of sixty-five miles.

By the early 1920s, aviation had become an important part of the city’s economy. In 1919, the Curtis-Southwest Airplane Company was formed and, in August of that same year, they flew the nation’s first commercial interstate air freight shipment. By 1928, a municipal airport had been built and the Spartan Aircraft Company had been established.

In 1928, the Oklahoma City Oil Field was discovered and began to produce enormous quantities of oil. This field, combined with the plentiful supply of petroleum from eastern Oklahoma, overwhelmed demand during the early years of the Depression. The price of oil fell from its peak price of .50 in the early 1920s to ten cents a barrel. By 1931, the economic downturn of the nation was being felt in Tulsa.

During the early 1930s, growth in Tulsa, like many places across the United States, came almost to a complete halt. Few projects were built. Some public work projects, such as the Twenty-First Street Bridge completed in 1932, were built by the Works Progress Administration. By the mid-1930s, construction picked up and small houses were being built at the edge of the city limits. The streetcar lines were deserted when the automobile and the bus lines began to provide transportation in the city.

When World War II broke out, Tulsa’s oil industries, which had been in decline since the early 1930s, were converted to defense purposes. The 1940s ushered in a period of growth for Tulsa. Many aviation industries converted their factories to accommodate the war effort, and defense workers poured into the city. As a result, a tremendous number of small houses, built to be purchased with Federal Housing Administration loans, were constructed. Many of these houses were built in northeast Tulsa.

Redevelopment of the city began in the early 1950s. The growth of Tulsa to the south led to the construction of the Fifty-First Street Bridge, dedicated in 1953.

Infill and redevelopment, particularly in the downtown, continued throughout the 1960s. A number of early downtown commercial buildings were demolished to make way for modern high-rises. Residential properties were also targeted for demolition. Many north side homes were torn down to make room for new and better housing.

However, as the downtown was being redeveloped, retail establishments began to move to outlying areas where new residential neighborhoods were springing up. These new, suburban neighborhoods were primarily located in far south Tulsa.

During the 1970s, attempts were made to address the relocation of retail stores to the new malls in south Tulsa through such developments as the Main Mall, a pedestrian system in the core of downtown. This development spurred the interest in renovation and reuse of older buildings, and the trend continued through the 1980s. By 1980, Tulsa’s population stood at 360,919, ranking it the thirty-eighth largest city in the nation. Threads of its Native American heritage and oil boom days are still visible in the city’s historic fabric.