Have you taken a road trip to visit the locations you’ve only read about in history or the records of your ancestor? Standing on the ground where they walked can help us visualize their lives and give us additional insights. My great-grandparents married in Indian Territory and moved several times within what would become Oklahoma in 1907. I recently visited key locations mentioned in their children’s histories. In this blog post, I’ll share their story, my photos, and some tips for a successful ancestor road trip.
Dora Algie Royston and William Huston Shults married on 11 December 1898 in Pauls Valley, Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory. 1 Dora was born on 25 January 1882 in Montague County, Texas, to Robert Cisnie Royston and Isabell D. Weatherford. 2 William Huston Shults was also born in Texas – on 13 February 1877. 3 Both Dora and William moved with their families north to the Chickasaw Nation sometime between 1880 and their marriage in 1898. What was Indian Territory, and why did my ancestors make the move north?
The concept of “Indian Territory” or “Indian Country” began in 1763 with the British Indian Reserve. The term referred to land set aside for the relocation of Native Americans and originally consisted of the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Following the American Revolution, new policies of the United States government resulted in Native Americans being pushed farther and farther west. Treaties and laws resulted in the eventual removal in the 1830s of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southeast United States to an area in present-day Oklahoma named “Indian Territory.” These tribes were named “Civilized” based on some tribal members’ adoption of practices such as Christianity, written constitutions, centralized governments, literacy, plantation slavery practices, and intermarriage with white Americans. The tribes tended to maintain stable political relations with the European Colonial powers and then with the United States government.
The Five Civilized Tribes were the Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Seminole. Once the tribes had relocated to Indian Territory, the United States government promised the lands would be free from white settlement. However, “white intruders,” or non-citizens, began entering Indian Territory from the very beginning, generally being allowed to perform a service needed by the tribes. Major immigration started in 1889 with the opening of unassigned lands to non-Indian settlers. Additionally, the Five Tribes brought their African American slaves west to Indian Territory. After the Civil War, this group became known as freedmen. Emancipated slaves from adjoining states began moving into Indian Territory and lived together in All-Black Towns. Indian Territory ceased existence in 1907 when Oklahoma statehood incorporated Oklahoma and Indian Territories as one.
With the opening of the unassigned lands, people from not only Texas but other states as well were drawn to Indian Territory. What was the land like to pull these settlers to leave established homes and start over? A gazetteer and business directory of 1902-1905 gives this description:4
With an area a little greater than that of the state of Indiana. With a climate whose health-giving breezes are nowhere excelled: with an altitude invigorating and inspiring; geographically of the south. But politically of the north; with a mixture of northern push and energy with southern comfort and hospitality; with scenery of rugged mountain and valley. Far stretching prairie and wooded hill: with soil as fertile as the valley of the Nile; with rainfall and other climate conditions favorable to the successful growing of all the crops of the temperate zone. Here is the ideal location for a home and the opportunity for agricultural and commercial enterprise.
The following map shows the location of the Chickasaw Nation in the south-central part of Oklahoma, on the Texas border. My great-grandparents moved within this area for much of their early married life. 5
Having read the city directory’s glowing description many times, I wanted to see the land for myself! My husband agreed to drive while I navigated to the various locations for Dora and William’s lives, armed with maps and family histories. My great-aunt, Loraine, wrote an amazing history with ample details about those years. She wasn’t born until 1913 and was the seventh of Dora’s ten children, but she had an amazing memory and knew the family’s history. My grandfather, Charles Leslie Shults, was born in 1904 and also left a history, not surprisingly quite different from Loraines. Where hers was rich in details about early housekeeping and farming, my grandfather’s history was all about the stories. As we drove, I studied the histories and discovered new insights by comparing the location with the story.
Marriage and Early Years
Aunt Loraine began her history by describing her parent’s marriage and early years.
Dora Algie Royston and William Houston Shults were married in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, in 1898. They lived in Elmore, Oklahoma on a farm on Wild Horse Creek. When they left Elmore, they moved to Maxwell, Oklahoma, and lived in a double log house with a breeze way in between. One room for cooking, the other, about 12×12 for sleeping. It was there that Robert and Leonard and Leslie were born. Robert and Leonard died there and were buried at McGee, one mile north of Strafrod. They were three and five years old. They died of Membrous croup. Both were buried in the same grave with a double tombstone.
They then moved to another farm where Della and Lola were born on Dr. Sam Therekill’s place, who delivered Della, Lola, and Scrub. Scrub was born on Mack McGuire’s palce. These were all within a few miles of each other.
The marriage record stated that Dora and William were “of Elmore,” so I wanted to correlate that with Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. Viewing Google Maps, I discovered the two locations were about 20 miles apart, and they likely took a horse and wagon, so the trip could have taken up to five hours. 6 We made the drive in under thirty minutes!
We found Elmore City to be small – sporting just a few businesses. The main street had a small museum that was closed on the day we visited. Although we found Wildhorse Creek on the map, it was impossible to tell where Dora and William’s first home had been. I imagine the rolling hills and trees had not changed much, though, in 120+ years.
Dora and William went to Pauls Valley for their marriage because it was a federally appointed court seat of the Southern District of Indian Territory. Prior to statehood in 1907, marriages of white citizens in the part of the state known as the Indian Territory were recorded in the recording districts of the United States Federal Court. The Southern District included the following Chickasaw Nation Court Seats: Ardmore, Purcell, Pauls Valley, Ryan, and Chickasha.7
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Indian Territory was divided into counties, and Pauls Valley became the county seat of Garvin County. The current courthouse was built in 1918, but Dora and William had moved northeast to Okemah by then and likely didn’t transact any business there.
We visited Pauls Valley and imagined Dora and William arriving there after the long wagon trip. Although the marriage record gives no witnesses and the story doesn’t add details, they likely traveled with family members. Dora, at age 16, may have come with her parents, Robert and Isabell Royston, who had moved to Indian Territory in the early 1880s. William’s father had died in 1884, and his mother had remarried but died earlier in 1898. At age 20, perhaps he traveled with the Royston family, by himself, or with his siblings. The couple secured the marriage license on December 7, 1898, and A. B. Hughes, a Minister of the Gospel, married them a few days later, on December 11, 1898.
Dora and William made their home in Elmore City and, in 1900, lived next to Dora’s parents, Robert and Isabella Royston. 8 This census reported they had been married one year, and Dora had no children. Actually, her oldest son had just been born when the enumerator visited their home on 28 July 1900, but the census only reflected the household as of 1 June 1900.
Aunt Loraine’s history mentioned the two little boys who died of membrous [sic] croup and were buried in the same grave with a double headstone. I hoped to find the headstone in the McGee Cemetery near Stratford, but the cemetery was quite large and didn’t have a plat map. We searched what looked to be the oldest part of the cemetery but never found the headstone. We did notice that many of the headstones had worn down considerably and the writing was illegible. Perhaps this had happened to the grave of the boys. My dad had hired a researcher in 1966 to find the headstone, and the researcher reported, “the lettering on it [the marker] is getting just a little dim. It was a double marker and this is the information I wrote down from it.” 9
Robert G.[Shults] W. Linard [Shults] Son of W.H. & D.A. son of W.H. & D.A.
Born July 12, 1900 Born Dec 8, 1901
Died Mar 10, 1905 Died Mar 10, 1905
Perhaps over fifty years later, the wind and rain had erased all signs of the names. Standing in the cemetery, I imagined the sorrow my great-grandparents must have felt at the death of their two oldest sons. Aunt Loraine remembered Robert and Linard’s cause of death as “membrous croup,” which would have been membranous croup or diphtheria as it is now known. This terrible illness caused many deaths in people before the vaccine was developed.
Dora and William left Oklahoma briefly in 1907 when they made the trip west to Melrose, New Mexico, to try homesteading. My grandfather, Charles Leslie, wrote how the family lived with Dora’s parents in town and proceeded to dig a dugout on the land they hoped to patent. Dora had typhoid fever, though, and William decided to move his family back to Oklahoma. Apparently, he’d had enough of the plains. He put Dora and her new baby, Della, on the train, which took them all the way to Ada, Oklahoma. William and Charles Leslie drove the wagon and team back to Ada, where they lived for several more years.
We found the railroad that runs straight through Ada, and I could imagine Dora’s relief at taking the train instead of horse and wagon all the way back to Oklahoma.
The Shults family continue to move frequently throughout Oklahoma and then back to Texas, where Dora died in 1925, giving birth to her tenth child. We couldn’t visit her grave on this trip but did visit that of her father, Robert Cisnie Royston. Our last stop on the road trip was an adventure. We had used our GPS the entire time to guide us to these small towns and cemeteries and knew that Robert was buried in the Parks Cemetery in Stephens County.
I had seen photos of his grave next to that of his son and grandson, but the GPS seemed to lead us to the middle of nowhere. After driving up and down the road a bit, I finally noticed a gravel road, very overgrown with grass. We followed the road and came to Parks Cemetery. A woman was using a weedeater to cut the two feet tall dried grass so the headstones would be visible. We discovered that her family had taken care of the cemetery for many years. I hoped that the Royston headstones would be in an area already cleared, and after some walking about found them. Robert’s had been erected many years after his death in 1915 and has the Mason symbol at the top.
I imagine Dora and William would have been present at the burial, and the cemetery could have been a place where many family members gathered to pay their last respects to their father and grandfather. Over a hundred years later, I was able to visit and think about the life of this great-great-grandfather, who I had researched yet still knew so little about.
We spent several hours on the road visiting important locations in my great-grandparents’ lives – their marriage, first home, the cemetery where their oldest boys were buried, the cemetery where Dora’s father was buried, and the railroad that would take Dora and the children to new locations while William and my grandfather followed with the horses and wagon. I loved seeing the country and standing where they likely stood.
If you’d like to plan a similar ancestor road trip, here are a few tips.
- Make a simple timeline of the ancestor’s life with the year and event, locality, and what research you could do. Because I have several Oklahoma ancestors, I wasn’t sure how much we’d be able to see in one day, so I made a table for each couple and used it to guide our path.
- Print out a map. GPS is wonderful, but I perused the printed map throughout the day to get my bearings and discover the best routes on the back roads.
- Take a lot of photos and make a record of each in a notebook. It may take a while for you to record your trip, and you’ll need your notes.
- Find histories, print them out, and read them as you travel. If you’re lucky enough to have histories, you’ll love reading the stories as you visit the locations.
- Write about the trip, so you can share it with other family members. Not everyone can travel, but you can write the story of your ancestor and your discovery and share it with others.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
- Carter County, Oklahoma, copy of original marriage license and certificate, unpaginated, Shults-Rayston,11 December 1898, Indian Territory Southern District, recorded 1943, County Court Clerk, Ardmore, Oklahoma
- Texas State Board of Health, death certificate, Dora Algia Shults, Reg. Dis. No 3184, Registered No. 476. Lubbock,1925; “Texas, Death Certificates, 1903–1982,” Lubbock, 1925, Jan-Mar, image 11, Ancestry (http://search.ancestry.com: accessed 20 February 2016)
- A.O. Hobbs, Notary Public for Fresno County, California, Affidavit of Birth Personal and Statistical Particulars, William H. Shults, 1942, Fresno.
- R.L. Polk & Co.’s Oklahoma and Indian Territory Gazetteer and Business Directory – 1902-1905, pt. 1 (Chicago & Detroit: R.L Polk & Co, 1902-3); digitized book, FamilySearch, p. 70.
- Rand McNally and Co., Map of the Indian and Oklahoma Territories, 1892
- “How Long Would it Take for a Horse to Travel 20 Miles?” Horse Racing Sense (https://horseracingsense.com/how-long-it-take-a-horse-to-travel-20-miles/ : accessed 12 November 2022.
- Oklahoma Historical Society, “Indian Territory Marriage Records,” OKHistory (https://www.okhistory.org/research/terrmarriage : accessed 13 November 2022)
- 1900 U.S. Census, Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory, population schedule, township 2S range 5W, enumeration district (ED) 166, sheet 24B (penned), dwelling 378, family 396, W.H. Shults; digital image, Ancestry, (http://www.ancestry.com accessed 17 February 2016); citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 1849.
- Mrs. Jack Lambert (Stratford, Oklahoma) to Mr. Shults [Bobby Gene Shults], letter, 18 August 1966; privately held by author, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], 2016. [Bob Shults gave letter to author].