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Oklahoma Journeys

Bernard de la Harpe Enters Oklahoma, February 27, 1719


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French invaders make the news this week on Oklahoma Journeys. After many centuries of isolation the native residents of what is now Oklahoma were rudely interrupted by the sudden and unannounced appearance of European explorers. Bernard de la Harpe was one such explorer. His story is the topic of this week's Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

For many centuries, the native inhabitants of North America lived undisturbed by outside influence or intrusion. This situation, of course, all changed with the entry of Europeans into the American continent. Less than fifty years after Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola and called it India, European countries began swarming over to these new found lands. The initial explorers were Spanish who dominated the southern portions of the current United States, moving through and charting the vast open expanses of Texas, western Oklahoma, and Kansas. The other major players on this invasion front were the French and to a lesser extent the English.

While Spain dominated the southwestern part of the country, the English managed to grab a toe hold on the east coast, most of the province of Canada and Mississippi River Valley was the dominion of the French. Rejecting the Spanish method of travel using large trains of mules and horses, the French, using canoes plied the waterways of the interior lands. From Canada, French fur traders, trappers, and priests began to make their way south down the Mississippi River intent on expanding their ever developing network of trade. The ultimate goal for the French was to not just trade with Native Americans but to develop those relationships with the indigenous tribes so they would have some legitimacy to their claim of ownership over the region.

Spanish explorers were simultaneously doing the same thing as they moved up from the south to the north so the event became kind of a race for the middle with the land that is now Oklahoma becoming a major prize. Spain had already laid claim to the western panhandle section of the state with the travels of Coronado, and it was in this week of 1719 that the French officially made their entry into Oklahoma as well. Earlier in the year 1719 French explorer Bernard de la Harpe, along with a small military contingent, made their way up the Arkansas River passing through what is today the Kerr-McClellan waterway. This move was important to the French because it helped solidify their claim to the area and their right to trade with the regional native tribes. The French presence in Oklahoma really beginning in this week of 1719 was long lasting and important. The French influence can be seen in the names of geographical features and towns. Verdigris, Kiamichi, Boggy, Canadian, LeFlore, Poteau, and Chouteau are all common place names that came about because of de la Harpe's expedition.

Many explorers of various nationalities made adventurous treks through Oklahoma, and you can walk in their footsteps at the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.