Located in southeastern Oklahoma, Hughes County is bordered by Okfuskee County on the north, McIntosh County on the northeast, Pittsburg County on the southeast, Coal County on the south, Pontotoc County on the southwest, and Seminole County on the northwest. In 2010 the incorporated towns included Atwood, Calvin, Dustin, Gerty, Lamar, Spaulding, Stuart, Wetumka, Yeager, and Holdenville, the county seat. Encompassing 814.64 square miles of total land and water area, Hughes County was carved out of land belonging to the Creek and Choctaw nations. Organized at 1907 statehood with 19,945 residents, the county was named for W. C. Hughes, an Oklahoma City lawyer and member of the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. Located in the Sandstone Hills physiographic region, the county is drained by the North Canadian, Canadian, and Little rivers. Prehistory of the area has been revealed in eight sites dating to the Archaic period (6000 B.C. to A.D. 1), one to the Woodland period (A.D. 1 to 1000), and eleven to the Plains Village period (A.D. 1000 to 1500). Of significance is the Red Stick Man Site, at which a pictograph representing a human figure was drawn on the ceiling inside a sandstone shelter.
The Creek first arrived in the area in the late 1820s, and the Choctaw came in 1831–32. The northern portion of future Hughes County was located in the Wewoka District of the Creek Nation, and the southern portion of the county was situated within the Moshulatubbee District of the Choctaw Nation. One of the first settlements was Edwards's (Edwards's Store), owned by James Edwards. Built on the Little River, the post was southeast of present Holdenville. In 1834 Camp Holmes, named in honor of Lt. Theophilus Hunter Holmes, was established nearby and was a cantonment used by the 1834 Dodge-Leavenworth Expedition. Edwards's settlement moved north when the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad built a line through the area in 1895. The town was named for railroad official James Franklin Holden. Because the name was so similar to another post office at Holder, the name was changed to Holdenville, and the post office opened on November 15, 1895. As the county seat Holdenville was incorporated in 1898. In 1908 voters selected Holdenville over Wetumka as the county seat. County officials used the federal building until a new courthouse was built in 1920. The edifice was designed by the Oklahoma City architectural partners Layton, Wemyss Smith, and Forsyth.
The arrival of rail transportation was paramount for Hughes County's economic development as an agricultural area. At the turn of the twentieth century four railways provided access to markets and products, the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway passed through the northwestern corner of the county, the Fort Smith and Western Railroad through the northeastern corner, the Missouri, Oklahoma and Gulf Railway (later the Kansas, Oklahoma and Gulf Railway) northeast-southwest through the center, and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway east-west through the center. By the 1920s approximately 85 percent of the county was used for farming, with 15 percent in timber. Cotton, corn, sorghum, and wheat were the main crops. The petroleum industry came to play a significant economic role as well, as Hughes County lay on the eastern edge of the Greater Seminole Oil Field. The field developed in the mid-1920s, and Hughes County and Holdenville participated in the boom. Refineries and other related industries clustered around Holdenville through the 1930s.
Prominent politicians have included Frank Crane, E. C. Holloway, Bob Howell, Tom Phillips, James W. Rogers, Jr., Hugh Sandlin, and Frank L. Warren. Crane was the Democratic alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1948; Holloway was Republican alternate to the national convention in 1944; and Warren was at the Republican National Convention in 1932. Among its natives is oilman and entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens, born in Holdenville in 1928; Holdenville's Grace M. Pickens Public Library is named for his mother.
Holdenville's population jumped from 2,932 in 1920 to 7,268 in 1930 due to the oil boom. In 1930 the county population peaked at 30,334, but it declined as the oil industry stabilized, reaching 29, 189 in 1940, 20,664 in 1950, and 13,228 in 1970 but rebounding to 14,336 in 1980. During the 1930s the Works Progress Administration funded the construction of several buildings that have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including the Holdenville National Guard Armory (NR 88001386) and the Wetumka National Guard Armory (NR 88001390). At the turn of the twenty-first century the county population was 14,154, and in 2010 it was 14,003. Of these, 68.1 percent were white, 18.2 percent American Indian, 5.3 percent African American, and 0.2 percent Asian. Hispanic ethnicity was identified as 3.8 percent. The county was served by U.S. Highway 75, traversing the county in a north-south direction and U.S. Highway 270, crossing the area in an east-west direction. State Highway 9 passes through the extreme northern part of the county, and State Highway 48 provides access to Interstate 40.
At the end of the twentieth century primary employers in Hughes County included Davis Correctional Center, Tyson Foods, Wes Watkins Technology Center, and Aquafarms. Retail and wholesale services as well as farming and cattle raising have also benefited the county's economy. Primary crops have continued to include cotton, wheat, corn, oats, peanuts, and soybeans.
Local annual events include Hog Wild Days and IRA Rodeo in Holdenville and Sucker Days in Wetumka. The latter started in August 1950 after a traveling salesman sold promotional tickets for a circus that never came to town. Holdenville and Wetumka lakes also provide recreation. In August 1979 the Hughes County Historical Museum opened in Holdenville.
Brad Agnew, "The Dodge-Leavenworth Expedition of 1834," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 53 (Fall 1975).
Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 30 April 1961 and 12 May 2003.
W. Edwin Derrick and James Smallwood, "Miles of Track: The Coming of the Railroads to Oklahoma," Red River Valley Historical Review 6 (Summer 1981).
Grant Foreman, Advancing the Frontier, 1830–1860 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1933).
Donovan L. Hofsommer, ed., Railroads in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1977).
J. [James] F. [Franklin] Holden, "The B.I.T.: The Story of an Adventure in Railroad Building," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 11 (March 1933).
"Hughes County," Vertical File, Oklahoma Room, Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Oklahoma City.
"Hughes County," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
James C. Milligan, “Hughes County,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=HU002.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.