The Crazy Tale of Oklahoma’s Oldest Town
If you were to seek out Oklahoma's oldest town on the internet, odds are you'd be directed to the story of Fort Gibson - AKA - the earliest military installation in the state. It was built in 1824 when this land was still Indian Territory.
Yes, Fort Gibson is really old and some of the historic buildings are still there, but the history of it being the oldest town in Oklahoma is wrong.
The actual oldest town in Oklahoma was settled just north up the river from Fort Gibson when George Washington was still president of the US and the tale and history of how it came to be likely full of unknown factoids to most Okies.
The tale begins with the Spanish.
The travels, battles, and exploits of Spanish Conquistadors across The New World are not as well-known as American history teaches us in school. Everyone is familiar with Ponce de Leon and his "discovery" of Florida and his legendary search for the Fountain of Youth.
People tend to be more familiar with Fransisco Vazquez de Coronado. Simply known as Coronado, he was likely the most brutal conqueror that pillaged South, Central, and North America including a trip through modern-day Oklahoma where it's rumored he left a pile of gold...
The story of Salina begins with the tale of Conquistador Hernando de Soto. He landed in Florida in 1539 for a fully-funded expedition of The New World to claim territory and riches for Spain. While the official history claims he never traveled through Oklahoma, the Osage Nation has a well-documented history of their interactions.
If it was Spanish, how did France claim it?
Spain's failed attempts to colonize most of what we call The South are somewhat famous. It's quite literally what cost Coronado his life. Conquistadors were drunk with power and confidence after experiencing such positive results in Central and South America... but when they faced America's native warriors, the tribes fought back against their tyranny with even harsher brutality. A lesson the French learned a lot from.
While Spain remained relevant in Central America and the American Southwest, the French were able to establish New France - AKA Louisiana - by politely offering gifts and respect to tribes along with establishing strong trading relationships by the late-1600s.
In learning the fates of Spanish explorers from the native tribes, French trappers expanded deep into the heart of America along the river systems, many of which are well-documented across Northeastern Oklahoma.
By the time the American Revolution started, the French had been trapping, selling, introducing, and trading furs across our country's interior for over a century. It was an ultra-profitable industry that allowed the common man to make his riches.
As the settlements of New France grew into cities, there was a natural curiosity growing among city-dwellers about the wilds of The New World with a particular interest in the native tribes.
In a visionary moment, a French trapper from Saint Louis named Jean-Pierre Chouteau ventured into Osage Nation territory to establish a trading post, but the furs weren't the bounty he was after. He traded for native goods that he could take back to Saint Louis to sell to his countrymen.
Nestled where the Neosho River and Saline Creek meet, the settlement that grew around his trading post was named Salina for the salty waters that flowed there.
Welcome to Salina, Oklahoma... Established 1797.
in 2023, Salina may be just a dot on the map, but it's still on the map.
The main road through town looks like any other Main Street in rural Oklahoma. There are old buildings with lots of character and older homes surrounding them, and it's the type of place where everyone knows everyone else's business... probably.
The trading post is long gone but the Chouteau legacy still remains. In fact, the Chouteau family grew into history, famed for their fur trading across the region. As a result, you'll find a town and creek named in their honor in Oklahoma, as well as historical buildings and bridges across Missouri and Kansas.