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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

The Oklahoma Historical Society was founded in this Kingfisher building, May 1893
(20615.10, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS).


On May 27, 1893, in Kingfisher, Oklahoma Territory, nineteen members of the Oklahoma Press Association (previously known as the Territorial Press Association) conducted their third annual business meeting. Their attention turned to William P. Campbell, of Kingfisher, who discussed a successful program to save newspapers in Kansas. He asked fellow editors to sponsor a similar historical society to collect and to preserve newspapers of Oklahoma Territory. The assembled editors agreed. With a show of hands, they began the first century of the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS).

From roots planted in 1893 the society grew at a pace dictated by opportunity, resources, and the battle cry of "preserving and perpetuating the history of Oklahoma and its people." In 1893 the society had no bylaws, no operating budget, no staff. There was, however, William P. Campbell, "Historical Custodian." Although he received no salary or office, Campbell quickly issued a call for donations and stated his objectives, "the collection of newspapers, books and periodicals, productions of art, science and literature, matters of historic interest, etc."

Within four months Campbell had accepted complete sets of nine daily and forty-seven weekly newspapers, several books, and contemporary government documents, which were housed in a room in the Kingfisher courthouse. These efforts earned the support of territorial governor William C. Renfrow. One month later, when the press association attempted to capitalize on that support, they discovered that they already had a partner, the University of Oklahoma (OU).

In December 1894 French S. E. Amos, an OU history and civics instructor, had also organized a historical society and filed incorporation papers with the secretary of state, a step that had not been taken by the press association. A charter was granted on January 21, 1895. With legal status, Amos enlisted the support of university president David Ross Boyd, who promoted legislation making the new historical society the trustee for territorial records and appropriating two thousand dollars for its operations. Modeled after the Kansas Historical Society, the new organization had articles of incorporation providing for a board of directors with twenty-five members, who would be appointed for one-year terms, and for the offices of president, two vice presidents, secretary, and treasurer. Soon the collections were moved to the OU campus in Norman. The next seven years brought new collections, most notably the records of Cimarron Territory in the Panhandle.

In 1901 the legislature, probably responding to the increasing political clout of Oklahoma City, allowed the future transfer of the society's collections elsewhere and provided that the society would eventually move into the Capitol building. When the new Oklahoma City Carnegie Library offered free space in 1902, the directors voted to move the society's collection from Norman. When the Capitol building was completed in 1917, the society moved into another temporary home until the Wiley Post Building, in the Capitol Complex at 2100 North Lincoln Avenue, was completed in 1930. In November 2005 the society moved to the newly constructed Oklahoma History Center, located in the Capitol Complex, east of the Capitol, at 2401 North Laird Avenue.

By 1907 the OHS collections included 3,034 bound volumes of newspapers, 1,027 books, 1,884 documents and official reports, 208 speeches and papers, 656 manuscripts, and 426 legislative records. The First Legislature instructed territorial agencies to send all surplus documents and records to the Oklahoma Historical Society. By 1925 the newspaper files included more than ten thousand bound and unbound volumes, including issues of one of the first newspapers published in Indian Territory, the Indian Journal. The library comprised 4,500 volumes, including a rare copy of the first book published in present Oklahoma, a Muskogee-language primer entitled Istutsi in naktsokv, or The Child's Book (1835).

Visibility generated increased donations for the archives. In 1917 Alice Robertson and her sisters donated the journals, letters, and diaries of their grandparents, the Worcesters, pioneer missionaries among the Cherokee. Personal papers added to the collections included part of the diary of Dan Jones, who recorded, day by day, the passage of herds on the Chisholm Trail, and the letters of Cassandra Sawyer Lockwood, who described the adventures of a trip from Boston to Dwight Mission in 1838. Additionally, the board of directors purchased the 1820–26 journal of the Union Mission.

In 1927 the OHS board of directors voted to take all American Indian records, including those of agencies, courts, and tribes, as they became available, and in 1929 a clerk was hired to help Grant Foreman catalog those collections. The documents remained the property of the federal government until March 1934 when national legislation transferred all tribal records in Oklahoma to OHS, which would in effect serve as a repository agent for the federal government. During the Great Depression, New Deal funding put unemployed individuals to work indexing the OHS newspaper collection, arranging and classifying archival documents, and assembling a biographical index to the book and periodical collections. OHS and the OU History Department received a Work Progress Administration (WPA) Writers' Project grant, which employed writers to conduct interviews with Oklahomans. Those interviews were compiled into 112 volumes known as the Indian-Pioneer Papers.

In 1935 the Oklahoma Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) nudged the society deeper into genealogical research when that organization placed its collections in the library. The state DAR bought two microfilm readers, and the OHS began purchasing U.S. Census microfilm. At the turn of the twenty-first century the library, archives, and newspaper collections were part of the Research Division of OHS.

Initially, a simple museum, with archaeology, history, and other exhibits organized from the collections, was located in the Capitol basement. By 1925 the museum had increased its artifact collection, and items were grouped according to archaeology, ethnology, Oklahoma history, U.S. history, and miscellaneous. During the 1940s and 1950s the fastest-growing segment of the museum collection was in portraits, a trend that could be traced to 1927 when OHS board member Anna B. Korn organized the Oklahoma Hall of Fame to recognize outstanding Oklahomans. As a program sponsored and supported by the OHS, the associated portrait collection came to the museum. In 1971 the hall of fame board of directors organized the Oklahoma Heritage Association, and the historical society loaned the portraits for display at the Oklahoma Heritage Center in Oklahoma City.

In 1972 the State Museum first applied for accreditation from the American Association of Museums (AAM), which had recently set minimum standards in collections care, outreach, and exhibits. The society applied for a federal grant to conserve Indian artifacts, to adopt acquisition and deaccession policies, to expand educational programs, and to update exhibits with more interpretive focus. In 1975 the State Museum became one of 320 (of 5,000) museums in the country to be accredited by the AAM.

When funding for the Diamond Jubilee of Statehood was appropriated from 1980 to 1982 to the society, the State Museum installed a new security system, designed and constructed a new American Indian gallery, and created a new exhibit called "Seventy-Five Years of Statehood," the museum's first effective attempt to interpret the post–World War II history of Oklahoma. After the Diamond Jubilee exhibit rotation found its stride, with interpretive displays ranging from aviation and African American history to television and the role of women in Indian culture. At the turn of the twenty-first century museum exhibits were developed and featured in four large galleries comprising a total of twenty-eight thousand square feet in the Oklahoma History Center.

The turning point in expanding the source of funding was the implementation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. In 1967 Gov. Dewey F. Bartlett appointed George H. Shirk, president of the OHS board of directors, as the state historic preservation officer, a position responsible for allocating funds through the new federal program. The society's newest division, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), devoted its activities to writing nominations to the National Register of Historic Places and to reconstructing and rehabilitating historic sites owned by the society. Federal involvement in historic preservation continued to grow, however, and with it came increased resources, new regulatory duties, and higher standards for state participation. In 1975 the National Park Service set new conditions for the state's share of the program. A professional staff was hired, and the number of properties listed in the National Register were to be increased.

Over the next five years the society added a staff of historians, an archaeologist, and an architect. Since that time the SHPO has administered the State Landmarks Inventory and the National Register, conducted federal review such as environmental impact and tax act certification, and offered educational outreach publications, workshops, and a preservation conference. In addition, the SHPO played an important role in expanding and developing the society's historic sites projects, including Old Central (Stillwater, Payne County), Fort Washita (Bryan County), the State Capital Publishing Museum (Guthrie, Logan County), Parris Mound (Sequoyah County), and the Drummond Home (Hominy, Osage County). But the pace of site and museum acquisition had slowed, affected first by Gov. David L. Boren's veto of 1976 and then by the Reagan's administration's decision to eliminate "bricks and mortar" money from the SHPO program. The long period of expansion was ended by a state budget crisis after the oil boom ended in 1982.

Through appropriations for survey and development, the society expanded its ownership of historic sites. In 1959 the board acted on a recommendation from the Historic Sites Committee and voted to help restore the Old Chief's House, a log cabin near Swink (Choctaw County). The following year the society took title to the property. Attention then turned to Fort Washita, because an archaeologist reported that he had mapped eighty-six structures, fifty foundations, and two structures that were still standing. In 1962 the site was purchased with donated funds. The society purchased a historic sod house near Aline in 1962. None were well funded. A new, potential source of funding had a psychological effect that combined with the enthusiasm generated by the Civil War Centennial Commission from 1960 to 1965. In 1967, before federal funds were available, the society acquired the first plots of land at Honey Springs, the site of the largest Civil War engagement in Indian Territory. The next year Fort Towson, another Confederate outpost, was purchased. The society also accepted title to the Murray-Lindsay Mansion at Erin Springs, the Chickasaw Council House at Tishomingo, the Jim Thorpe Home at Yale, and the Thomas-Foreman Home at Muskogee.

Acquisition with federal funds became a reality in 1970 when the society teamed with the American Institute of Architects to buy and to restore the Overholser Mansion in Oklahoma City. Under the arrangement, the architects, the Heritage Hills neighborhood, and others raised $100,000, which was matched by a Housing and Urban Development grant received by the OHS. The society acquired title to the house and then leased it for one dollar a year to the architects, who maintained and operated the Victorian-era mansion. Federal funds also were instrumental in acquiring a lease for Old Central on the campus of Oklahoma State University and the eventual acquisition of the State Capital Publishing Museum in Guthrie.

In 1973 the board directed the staff to develop criteria for historic site acquisition. Although adopted, it did not limit the ambitions of the legislature. In a two-year period from 1973 to 1975, the legislature added ten properties to the society's care, including the first museums not associated with historic sites. Those museums included No Man's Land Museum in Goodwell, Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus, Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Frank Phillips Home in Bartlesville, Chisholm Trail Historical Museum in Waurika, Triangle Heritage Museum in Cleveland, and the State Capital Publishing Museum and the Oklahoma Territorial Museum in Guthrie. The acquisition frenzy ended only when Governor Boren line-item vetoed appropriations to local organizations and directed the society to spend funds only on properties already owned by the state.

Active outreach programs begun in the 1940s accelerated in the 1950s. One of the most successful was the annual tour begun in 1952 by board member Richard Gamble "R. G." Miller, who not only hosted the three-day tours but also promoted participation through his newspaper column in the Daily Oklahoman. The last tour was conducted in 1969. A more regular and effective outreach tool was an expanded publications program. In 1949 the legislature authorized a revolving fund and appropriated three thousand dollars as seed money to publish "sheets, folders, booklets, etc., containing historical data." The money was used to print postcards, a postcard folio, and a twenty-four-page booklet on Oklahoma's history.

After World War II the society and the Oklahoma Department of Highways established a highway marker program. With the help of OHS board member Gen. William S. Key, the legislature was convinced to authorize funding for markers. The OHS selected one hundred people, places, and events to commemorate with appropriate signage. In 1958 Muriel H. Wright and OHS board president George H. Shirk took charge of the effort and also produced Mark of Heritage, which listed 131 roadside historical markers. By the mid-1970s there were more than 250 markers beside Oklahoma roadways and on historic sites.

While the new enthusiasm for outreach programs grew progressively stronger during the three decades after World War II, the organization's primary focus remained the library, the archives, the museum, and its journal, The Chronicles of Oklahoma. Annual meetings, which had been limited to one-day business meetings in Oklahoma City since the 1950s, were expanded to three-day conventions located in a different quadrant of the state. Beginning with the convention attended by 125 people in Tulsa in 1986, the annual meeting developed into a major event with tours, exhibits, awards, paper sessions, and attendance exceeding four hundred. Coupled with the annual meetings was a new emphasis on a growing membership. Although staff and board members had mounted concerted membership campaigns as early as 1949, membership rarely exceeded two thousand in any one year before the 1980s. In 1986 the board created a membership committee that quickly revised renewal and application procedures and initiated regular direct-mail campaigns. By 1989 membership approached five thousand and by 2007 exceeded six thousand. Into the turn of the century the society's organizational structure included six management divisions: Administration, Research, Museums and Historic Sites, Publications, Oklahoma History Center and Museum of History, and State Historic Preservation Office.

Through the years OHS has published several newsletters and a historical journal. The Mistletoe Leaves newsletter was published between 1893 and 1895 and reinstated in 1973. Since that time the monthly newsletter has served to publicize the society, to inform membership, and to promote Oklahoma's state and local history. William P. Campbell issued a newsletter entitled Historia between September 1909 and July 1922. The first issue of the quarterly scholarly historical journal The Chronicles of Oklahoma was released in January 1921. Initially, the editorship of The Chronicles was assigned to University of Oklahoma history professors James Buchanan and Edward Everett Dale. Among the journal's editors and associate editors were historians Muriel H. Wright, E. E. Dale, Kenny A. Franks, Bob L. Blackburn, Mary Ann Blochowiak, and Dianna Everett.

In 1971 the publications program took a new direction when the board suggested that select articles from The Chronicles be pulled together and issued as books in an "Oklahoma Series." From 1975, when Territorial Governors of Oklahoma was released, to 1986, twenty-one volumes in the series were published on topics ranging from railroads and military posts to architecture and Indian leaders. The society released a succession of books outside the series format in the fields of narrative history, anthropology, and biography as well as reference works, teachers' guides, children's historical fiction, and illustrated photography. By 1978 the society had twenty-eight titles in print, including several in second and third editions. The multivolume reference work titled The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture was the Oklahoma Historical Society's major publication program to emerge in the twenty-first century.

Bob L. Blackburn


William P. Campbell, "The Oklahoma Historical Society: A Review in 1905," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 39 (Autumn 1961).

Thomas H. Doyle, History of the Oklahoma Historical Society (Oklahoma City, Okla.: The Society, [1930?]).

LeRoy H. Fischer, "The Historic Preservation Movement in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 57 (Spring 1979).

Grant Foreman, The Oklahoma Historical Society (Oklahoma City, Okla.: The Society, 1938).

Eva Riggins Johnson, "The Oklahoma Historical Society and Its Work," (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1926).

C. Earle Metcalf, "Oklahoma Historical Society Sites Holdings," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 57 (Winter 1979–80).

Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 25 April 1993 and 20 November 2005.

Fred Smith Standley, "The Oklahoma Historical Society, 1893–1943" (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1986).

Muriel H. Wright, "Organization of the Oklahoma Historical Society by the Oklahoma Press Association in 1893," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 40 (Autumn 1962).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Bob L. Blackburn, “Oklahoma Historical Society,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=OK057.

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