The Settlers Call this place the Town of Stillwater

by Ammie Bryant, Director  of Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History

There are many different stories and legends about how Stillwater got its name.   Some people say that Native American Indians in the area called the nearby creek “Still Water” because the water in the creek was always “still” except during rain.  Cattlemen using the stream often stated that there was “still” water in the creek, even during dry spells.  We’ve even seen claims that David Payne walked up to the creek and declared “This town should be named Still Water.”  Yet another story says that the name was brought from Stillwater, Minnesota by some of the boomers who camped along the creek banks.

A historian’s responsibility is to sift through the sources and determine which is credible and verifiable and which cannot be proven.  Always, we look to the primary sources—the firsthand accounts—not the secondary sources or what someone says that someone said or did. Hard evidence can be found in original manuscripts, letters, government documents, journals, receipts, photographs, and sometimes objects. Historians never rely on secondary accounts.  To only look at secondary resources (history books and articles, encyclopedias, Wikipedia and websites, or someone’s high school history report) is essentially playing a game of telephone with history.

The earliest written record of the name “Stillwater” can be traced to late 1884.  After the Civil War, the central section of Indian Territory was not assigned to any particular Native American tribe.  The Oklahoma District also known as the Unassigned Lands, became the focal point of the Boomer Movement’s push to open up the territory for homesteading.  Because it was not assigned to any of the tribes who had been relocated to the Territory and it was often used by the Cattle Ranchers who leased land throughout the territory, the Boomers believed that the Unassigned Lands were public domain and it could be homesteaded.  

Led by David Payne, the Boomers had chosen a wooded valley just 60 miles south of Arkansas City, Kansas as one of the targets for their encampments in the territory. The Boomers chose the location because of its proximity to water and supply and mail lines as well as its respite from the bareness of the treeless prairie. Many attempts were made to settle at this location beginning in 1879, just ten years before the first land run. Each time the Boomers made an attempt, they were forced to leave, and were escorted back to Kansas by U.S. Soldiers.   

On December 12, 1884, over 200 Boomers arrived at the location again.  This time they planned to stand their ground and claim the lands they believed they had a right to claim. Led by William Couch, after the recent death of David Payne, the Boomers worked in the cold and wintery mix of spitting snow and sleet to build shelters and fortifications.  More wagons from Kansas joined them during the following two weeks, and the population of the settlement grew, doubling its original size.  

On December 24, 1884, Lt. M.W. Day and forty cavalry troops arrived at the Boomer town and were met by “about 200 men armed with double-barreled shotguns and Winchester rifles.  I made every endeavor to arrest them peaceably, but they resisted.  I placed a troop in camp in the town and sent a courier to Fort Reno for instructions.”  While, this was not the first time soldiers had been sent to force the Boomers to leave, it was the first time they were met with resistance. They were outnumbered and instructed to return to Camp Russell to await a larger force.  

It was in Lt. Day’s report on the following day that we find the earliest known documentation of the name of the settlement. “The settlers call this place the town of Stillwater,” Lt. Day wrote.  This place Lt. Day describes is in the area of Couch Park today.

A month later, on January 25, 1885, Colonel Edward Hatch leading approximately 600 cavalry with two cannon arrived.  Couch managed to restrain the more hotheaded Boomers from firing on the soldiers, insisting that if shots were to be fired, it would be the soldiers who initiated the altercation.  Colonel Hatch chose to cut off the Boomers’ supply lines instead, effectively giving them no choice but to give up.  

The standoff made headlines in the New York Times and national attention turned to the complicated legal status of the Unassigned Lands. The government worked to clear the path for the Springer Amendment to be added to the Indian Appropriation Act of 1889.  The Amendment would allow settlement of the Unassigned Lands under the Homestead Act of 1862.  The bill was signed into law on March 2, 1889, allowing President Benjamin Harrison to issue a proclamation opening the lands “at and after the hour of 12 o’clock noon on the 22nd day of April next”.

On April 22, 1889, at noon, the cannons fired signaling the race to acquire land in the territory that would eventually become present day Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma, and Payne Counties.  Overnight, cities were born in Oklahoma, and new beginnings were made.  And among the cities that sprang up overnight was Stillwater, located just to the northwest of the original location of the “town of Stillwater” where Lt. Day and his troops encountered the Boomers just four and half years before.