The Capital War

by Scott Carter

(Author’s Note: The period between 1890 and 1910 was one of the most unique and dynamic in Oklahoma history. Not only did the Twin Territories merge to become a state but Oklahoma’s Constitution was written and adopted. After the Constitution’s passage, then-President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation making Oklahoma the 46th state of the union. But other events — which weren’t so positive — also took place, including an incredibly racist gubernatorial campaign and the development of onerous legislation that disenfranchised thousands of African American and Native American residents. These stories explore this period and are based on documents, written first-hand accounts and other resources obtained from the Oklahoma History Center and the state’s official archives. In light of recent events and the nationwide call for racial harmony, we believe these stories provide much deeper context for the state’s often troubled racial history. This is the first story in a multi-part series.)


 The tale is a familiar one among Oklahomans: Sometime after midnight on Sunday, June 12, 1911, a group of men – acting on the orders of Charles Haskell, the state’s first elected governor – talked their way past the guards at the Territorial Capitol Building in Guthrie and made their way to the office of Bill Cross, the Secretary of State.

Once inside the office, the men removed the state seal (a large stamp used by officials to certify official pronouncements and documents) and wrapped it in a bundle of laundry. From there, the men made their way out of a building to a waiting Cadillac. Once in the car, they took the backroads from Guthrie to Oklahoma City.

Several hours later, the men met the governor at the Lee-Huckins Hotel in Oklahoma City and delivered the seal to Secretary of State Bill Cross. Once they were safely ensconced at the hotel, Haskell borrowed a piece of hotel stationery and began writing a gubernatorial proclamation. Cross used the secretly-moved seal to emboss the proclamation, making the document official.

At that moment, the state of Oklahoma had a new capital, Oklahoma City.

At least that’s the legend.

And, as with most legends, there is a core of truth to this tale. Haskell did tell his men to move the seal and the seal was smuggled out of Guthrie and driven to Oklahoma City. Beyond this, however, the story enters the domain of legend.

The Oklahoma State Seal

One version has the men escaping through a window, after hearing footsteps. Another involves the help of an African American maintenance man, Jim Noble, whom is supposed to have carried the Seal from Guthrie and, for a few hours, became the most powerful man in the state. Still another has Haskell, himself, taking the seal and hotfooting it out of Guthrie to Oklahoma City.

Yet another story involves a chase, a shooting, several guns and at least one accidental death.

It really doesn’t matter which version of the tale is told, because the story of the ‘stolen seal’ persists even today.

The myths surrounding how the seal was moved have become, over time, the primary answer to the question of the how and why Oklahoma’s capital was moved from its home in Guthrie to Oklahoma City. Because the legend focuses on only on the seal and how it was taken out of Guthrie, questions about the Capitol’s relocation remain even to this day.

But there is much more to the story of the capital’s removal than just a tale of a stolen seal. The story of the capital’s removal is a story that has been lost over time.

Little has been said about the tension between the city of Oklahoma City and Guthrie, and how the citizens of both communities – and others such as Kingfisher and Shawnee – fought to gain control of what would be one of the largest political prizes in state’s early history.

Less has been written about Governor Haskell’s racial beliefs and his disdain for Guthrie because he viewed it as the headquarters for progressive Republicans – Republicans who sought to grant full citizenship to African Americans.

And while a few histories of Oklahoma touch on the tension between Governor Haskell and Frank Greer, the no-holds barred publisher of Guthrie’s Daily State Capital newspaper, history has all but forgotten Haskell’s role as newspaper publisher. Almost nothing has been written about and how sometime after 1909, when the fight over the capital’s location was reaching its apex, Haskell quietly moved his newspaper – the small, eight-page weekly The New-State Tribune – from its home in Muskogee to Oklahoma City, lured by a $20,000 payment from ‘investors’ in Oklahoma City — during the exact same time Oklahoma City was pushing to be the home of state government.

Hardly anything has been written about the methods used by Haskell and other state officials to fraudulently call a statewide removal election or how the results of that same election could be canvassed and counted in 1910 during a single four-hour period.

The players are long dead.

The legends have now become facts and the real history of the capital’s removal has remained hidden in plain sight for the 117 years since Charles Haskell sat in the governor’s chair.

Today the story told to school children across Oklahoma has become tinted and painted over by third-hand tales and published accounts that rely more on demagoguery than documents.

The real backstory of the capital’s removal has remained buried in the stacks of old paper, interviews and mountains of yellowed newspaper clippings. Time, like the Oklahoma wind, covered over who exactly was involved and why they acted and what, exactly they did.

Until now.

Oklahoma Territory’s first governor, George W. Steele

The red prairie dust, stirred wild by the land run of 1889, had barely settled before the fight to move Oklahoma’s seat of government began. Though Guthrie, with railroad connections and fledgling infrastructure, had been established as the Territorial Capital, by May of 1890 an effort was well underway to shift the seat of state government to Oklahoma City.

Under the Oklahoma Organic Act, introduced by U.S. Senator Orville Platt on February 4, 1890 and signed by then-President Benjamin Harrison on May 2 of that same year, Oklahoma Territory and neighboring Indian Territory were officially incorporated as ‘twin territories’ of the United States.

The main intent of the Organic Act was simple: make Native American tribes – who had been forced to relocate to Indian Territory in the mid-1830s – give up their tribal governments and become United States citizens, and eliminate tribal reservations and the concept of communal ownership of property.

A third provision, which would prove wildly controversial over the next two decades, established Guthrie as the first meeting place for the Territorial Legislature. But the bill, historian Irvin Hurst wrote in the book, The 46th Star, included a provision which allowed the governor and the legislature to “locate a permanent capital” as soon as both parties deemed it expedient.

For a while, Republican control on both the federal and the territorial level, helped keep the seat of government in Guthrie, but that hold was tenuous. Guthrie, as headquarters for the territory’s progressive Republicans, was repugnant to both Haskell and Democratic Party. 

This battle would explode by the end of Haskell’s term. Yet for a brief moment, Republicans believed they would continue their dominance of territorial politics.

Holding a slim majority in the House of Representatives and the State Council (now the State Senate) Republicans expected to organize both houses of the first legislature. At the same moment Guthrie emerged from the red dirt, a few miles to the south, Oklahoma City – a sprawling wild, tent settlement – entered the fray, rowdy and hungry for both residents and patronage.

To make matters worse, a political move by handful of recalcitrant legislative delegates prevented the GOP from assuming control of the legislature and shifted their allegiance away from Guthrie.

Complicating the location issue, across the territory more than one community began to jostle for position in the race to secure the capital.

And once the legislature convened, the fight turned ugly.

On August 27, just five days after the Territorial Legislature opened its first session, J.L. Brown, a member of the Legislative Council introduced Council Bill 7. The proposal authorized the removal of the state capital and relocated it Oklahoma City. As part of the deal – and to ensure the votes of representatives from the communities involved – Council Bill 7 also created and located three institutions of higher education: Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College in Stillwater, a normal school for training teachers (now the University of Central Oklahoma) in Edmond and the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

In addition, Council Bill 7 required both the Legislature and the Oklahoma Supreme Court be relocated in Oklahoma City and added an additional requirement that the newly moved legislature convene during the first two weeks of February in 1891.

For the next 35 days, Council Bill 7 consumed the legislature, eventually passing the House by a two-vote margin and the Council, later, and by single vote on October 8.

For a moment, it looked as if Oklahoma City had prevailed. Oklahoma City lawmakers returned home to cheers, a parade – and a premature celebration.

In Guthrie residents weren’t taking the news well.

“Guthrie partisans swarmed the legislative halls,” Hurst, the historian, wrote. The crowd, angered by the House action, began looking for someone to blame and found House Speaker Arthur N. Daniels on the street in front of Guthrie’s Palace Hotel, just after the legislative session had ended.

Surrounded by a group of furious residents Daniels, fearful and in a panic, told the crowd that Representative Dan W. Perry had possession of the removal bill. Perry, a member of the legislature’s engrossing and enrolling committee, had been tasked with taking the bill to the Council president and then to territorial Governor George W. Steele for their signatures.

Acting on Daniels’ statement, the crowd turned and chased Perry. Perry broke free of the crowd and ran. “They gather around in scores and were crying for a rope and made all manner of demonstrations, declaring that I had stolen the Capitol Bill,” Perry told historians years later. “I got up against the door of the Senate (Council) chamber. There were a number of my friends inside the Senate Chamber who came to my assistance. They knocked and shoved and pushed the crowd right and left and got me in the Senate Chamber and shut the door in the face of mob.”

Documents from the Oklahoma History Center show that Perry slipped out of the chamber through a different door and raced down a side street until he found a butcher shop. In the shop, he hid behind a refrigerator and waited.

The crowd searched for Perry, but he remained hidden. After waiting for several hours, Perry emerged from the butcher shop and, accompanied by a fellow Representative, C.W. Jones and packing a Colt .45 revolver Jones had given him, he returned to the Council chamber.

Settlers in Oklahoma Territory

What the mob didn’t know, however, was that Perry had already given the bill to another Council member, R.J Nesbitt before being chased out of the building. Nesbitt secured the required signatures and sent the bill to Governor Steele.

The furor died down and the crowd dispersed. Perry left the chamber and headed to the opposite side of Guthrie for dinner – with the delegates from Kingfisher. A short time later, Nesbitt was overtaken by a group of Guthrie residents, searched and then released.

While Steele pondered the bill, Perry and the delegates from Oklahoma City had dinner with several representatives from Kingfisher and brokered a secret agreement.

The agreement, documented in the 1930s by historians from the National Theater Project, was simple: Kingfisher’s delegates, who also wanted to break Guthrie’s grip on the capital, agree to vote for Oklahoma City as the new location. If, however, Council Bill 7 failed, and Oklahoma City wasn’t successful, then Oklahoma City delegates would support a different bill, this one to move the capitol to Kingfisher – the site of the second Federal Land Office.

“That night we formed an alliance with the Representatives of Kingfisher,” Perry said. “They agreed to come over and support us the next day, provided that should the Governor veto our bill we would agree to locate the capital in Kingfisher.”

Representatives from Kingfisher argued their community was a natural choice for the capital because it was centrally located and because the town was the home of the second land office, Kingfisher they said, offered a good alternative to the Guthrie-Oklahoma City debate. 

Governor Steele, however, wasn’t impressed.

While the legislature held its breath waiting on the governor’s decision, the delegates from Kingfisher – sensing a chance to score the capital – double crossed Perry and the rest of the Oklahoma City delegation.

“The delegates from Kingfisher played dirty,” historian Glenn McIntyre wrote. “The delegates told Steele of their deal with Perry and presented a petition to the governor, asking him to veto the bill that made Oklahoma City the capital.”

Steele, aware of the potential for more violence, vetoed the bill.

“This pressure, combined with lobbying from the people wanting Guthrie to be the capital, was enough to cause Steele to veto Oklahoma City as capital,” McIntyre wrote.

But in Guthrie, however, the crowd remained unruly. After rumors circulated that Steele had actually signed the bill, a crowd of about 500 Guthrie residents rushed toward the executive offices and confronted the governor.

Steele stood his ground. “He came down the stairs and stood on the steps at the east entrance and faced the crowd,” a story in Sturm’s Magazine noted. “He spoke to the crowd and in substance congratulated Guthrie upon its still being the capital and advised the citizens to ‘go home and behave themselves.’”

The crowd, now thoroughly chastised, turned and departed.

After Steele’s veto, the Kingfisher delegation, without revealing their end run, called in their debt, reminding the delegates from Oklahoma City of their promise. For the moment, Kingfisher’s double cross remained a secret.

Days later, a second removal measure passed both chambers of the legislature. On November 10, the bill naming Kingfisher as capital was sent to Steele. But by this time, Guthrie residents and their legislative delegates had discovered the scheme and, once again, pushed Steele for a veto.

Supporters of the Kingfisher plan, however, attempted to hedge their bets and tried to bribe Steele. Shortly after the Kingfisher bill landed on Steele’s desk, “an audacious enthusiast…entered the governor’s office and tossed a package containing $20,000 into Mrs. Steel’s lap and precipitately fled.”

Though Mrs. Steele may have been startled, published accounts of the incident reported the governor maintained his wits, followed the miscreant and “threw the money at the man as he sprang down the stairway.”

For the second time that fall, Steele vetoed a capital removal bill. The seat of government remained in Guthrie by default.

The governor’s veto message left little to the imagination: “You need not be informed that when the first capital bill was passed and sent to me, there were hints that it had been brought about through the influence of a combine made at the opening of session,” Steele wrote. “There is no longer reason for doubting that a combination was made in which had great influence; nor need you be advised that more serious charges are now made concerning the passage of this bill, by the press and almost openly by citizens, which will receive proper attention in due time.”

Guthrie had prevailed this time, but the fight was far from over. In fact, the debate over the Capitol’s location would continue for more than two decades.

Up Next: Why Governor Haskell hated the town of Guthrie

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