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What's in a Name? Oklahoma, Muriel Wright, and Chester Howe

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An excerpt from the little book, "Land Laws of the Indian Territory" by Chester Howe (1904). Transcription: One of the sub-chiefs or mingo's [sic] of the Choctaw people has been signally honored by having a Territory and future State named after him. Oklahoma was the nephew of Pushmataha who resided at Coosha, now in Mississippi. He was of a noted family and was a brother of the wife of Pierre Juzan, a French trader of note. His head chief was Iskifa Chito, and when Tecumseh made his trip to the Southern Indians in 1811, he was one of the principal men to prevent an alliance between him and the Choctaws. At this time he was a grown man, and his name is found upon an authentic roll as late as 1834, but where he died or when is unknown, at least no evidence can be found with relation thereto. His descendants are, however, among the Choctaw people at the present day.

Muriel Wright and Chester Howe explained different versions of how the state of Oklahoma achieved its name.

It's always interesting to look at sources about the same historical event and then play "spot the difference!"

Muriel Wright (1889-1975) was a long-time editor of the Chronicles of Oklahoma and noted historian of Oklahoma, who penned extremely influential books that were used in colleges and schools in the mid-1900s. Due to her prolific writing, Muriel Wright is seen as the "grand dame" of Oklahoma history. According to her article from 1961, her grandfather, Choctaw Principal Chief Allen Wright, was the person who suggested the name "Oklahoma."

"Oklahoma" means "Red Man" or "Red Earth," depending on the dictionary -- Okla is "people" homa (humma) is "red."

Sounds good! This is established history! Let's move on! The Wrights have spoken!

Right? Hmmm.

I've always been confused by this translation, though. Okla means people. While Homa can mean red, the word may be more descriptive of how the color is used by a person and observed by others and not necessarily a determinant of hue. For example, painting a body in red ocher when going into battle is a sign or preparedness; painting an object (like a vessel) in red lines distinguishes it from the original clay; fashioning a bead from red clay "pops" opposite the beige of a tanned hide. If humma (homa) is seen in this light, Oklahoma more rightfully translates to "Distinguished People." See here for an even better explanation; or just think of the "Baton Rouge" or "Red Stick" Creeks, who distinguished themselves with "red ceremonial war clubs."

OR... ahem (wild speculation on my part) the Choctaw language as used today was first transcribed by the Presbyterian Minister Cyrus Byinton into a dictionary in the second half of the 19th century and as such, many mis-translations have now been recorded as academic.

Today, I came across a book called "Land Laws of the Indian Territory" by Chester Howe, a land attorney from Washington D.C. whose firm "furnished records... of land, lease, or town lots in the Indian Territory." His little book (less than 100 pages) was published in 1904.

Howe claims that the name for Oklahoma Territory (which became a state in 1907) derived from Mingo (sub-Chief) Oklahoma, a nephew of legendary Choctaw Chief Pushmataha (1764-1824) and related to Chief Pierre Juzan (1838-1841). Mingo Oklahoma resided in the original homelands of the Choctaws in the 1700s and early 1800s and was apparently counted in the final Choctaw census of Mississippi in 1834. I'm sure his name was enumerated as Okla Humma; or, it was a title bestowed onto him in this major period of flux, as 1834 was the final year of Choctaw removals from their homelands east of the Mississippi River; or, Howe missed a given name and noted only the man's role with his people. I've delved, somewhat, into this period's history but have met dead ends, especially in leadership histories from the years prior to 1820, when the Choctaws entered into their first removal treaty negotiation.

Perhaps the French archives can shed some light? Because right now, the 1834 census by the United States is on microfilm and not online. So Howe's claim of Mingo Okla Humma (Chief of the Distinguished People?) will have to stand prima fascia, for now, just as Muriel Wright's story stands in the cannon of Oklahoma history.

Muriel Wright's article, which appeared in the Chronicles of Oklahoma in 1961, claims that her grandfather named the state. Transcription: The story of the naming of Oklahoma in 1866 had come down as a tradition first told by Allen Wright to Dr. Murrow and friends when Oklahoma Lodge was founded by the Masons at Boggy Depot, the first Masonic lodge organized in the Indian Territory after the Civil War. Mr. Wright always told the story with much amusement of how the older Indian members of other tribal delegations had looked as if he had spoken out of turn with his quick response suggesting the name "Oklahoma" during the treaty making at Washington. Little did Governor Allen Wright (elected Chief of the Choctaws, 1866) realize in his lifetime the importance of offering the name Oklahoma as that of a future great state.

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