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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Among the most successful and daring early Oklahoma entrepreneurs were John and William Shirley, Irish immigrant brothers who traded, ranched, and invested in a variety of enterprises along the Washita River from 1859 through the 1880s. John Shirley, the eldest and a practicing physician, began the Shirley Trading Company through a license to operate a sutler's store for the Wichita Agency in 1859. When the store was burned during the Civil War in a surprise attack by Union-allied Indians, Shirley moved his center of operations to Cherokee Town near present Pauls Valley. For the next several years the Shirleys traded with Plains Indians and refugee tribes near the store. The traders also began large-scale ranching and farming. When Fort Sill was established in 1869, William Shirley reopened the Wichita Agency store, began a farm and mill, and secured contracts to supply hay for the U.S. Army.

A need arose for a road to transport supplies and mail from the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway depot at Atoka to Fort Sill. Dr. Shirley received the government contract, craftily bringing the road past his Cherokee Town store, which was located on a well-known Washita River crossing. It was less than happenstance that the crossing had both a toll bridge and ferry controlled by the Shirleys.

Never far from danger during their career, the Shirleys lost two employees and much livestock to hostile American Indians. William was also forced to abandon his store during the Red River War of 1874–75. Following Dr. John Shirley's death in 1875 at age forty-seven, his widow sold the Cherokee Town operations and moved to Silver City on the Chisholm Trail. William continued his business interests, becoming a popular figure who declined to have the Caddo County community of Anadarko named for him, suggesting instead that it be named for his wife's tribe. William Shirley died circa 1907.

Michael Tower

Last updated August 19, 2021


"Dr. John Shirley," Chickasaw Biographies, Vertical Files, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

Michael Tower, "Traders Along the Washita: A Short History of the Shirley Trading Company," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 65 (Spring 1987).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Michael Tower, “Shirley Trading Company,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=SH026.

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