It is generally unknown that the French explored Oklahoma in 1719, a year after the founding of New Orleans. Bénard de la Harpe, born in Saint-Malo, France, and his team ascended the Red River up to present-day Idabel in southern Oklahoma.
On horseback they headed north where they entered the Wichita Mountains before turning west near what is now Hochatown where they reported having seen unicorns (outlined in white on the accompanying diagram). On September 3, after 23 days of trekking, they arrived at a large Native American village inhabited by some 8,000 indigenous peoples from nine distinct tribes of the Wichita Nation, including the Taovayas.
Ceremoniously smoking the peace pipe
Upon arrival the French were honored with a peace pipe ceremony, a Native American sacred ritual for connecting. They stayed in the village for about ten days. Archaeological excavations carried out by the University of Tulsa in 1988 did reveal the white visitors’ presence on the site of this historic encounter on the banks of the Arkansas River at the southern end of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second largest city. French-made pieces of rifles were unearthed, among many other artifacts.
It is believed the unicorns seen by La Harpe were mule deer whose antlers are more upright than those of white-tailed deer, and whose ear-size is equivalent to that of mules. Today, the Hochatown area proudly stands out as the “world deer capital”. Its fame goes back to 1719.
At the confluence of the Arkansas River and Deer Creek, near the actual community of Newkirk in northern Oklahoma, there was an unnamed Wichita village of 3000 souls. For the French-speaking Louisians, this “Village at the end of the river” was located where the larger canoes (e.g., the North Canoes and the Montreal Canoes) could no longer navigate. From 1720 to 1760, many French, Canadian and Creole pioneers took up residence there because game was turned into meat for the communities of Lower Louisiana. The production of pemmican, a dried meat that could be easily preserved, was the main output. Around 1762, a war between aboriginal tribes forced villagers to move south on the shores of the Red River. This “Village at the end of the river” near Newkirk, unknown to the general public, was the first white settlement in Oklahoma. It is registered with the US National Register of Historic Places under the name Deer Creek Site.
Where Saline Creek flows into the Neosho River, Auguste Pierre Chouteau, a noble merchant from Saint-Louis, erected a trading post in 1796 named “La Grande Saline” (now Salina) to trade in French with members of the Osage Nation. The first settlers were francophone and most of them married Native American women. This customary cultural mix was an integral part of French America’s DNA.
North of Tulsa
The Verdigris River (see image in the lead) is a major tributary of the Arkansas River and a legend of the American West. It is about 310 miles (500 kilometers) long. Indications are that over decades several trading posts were erected along its shores. The name is of a rich French origin, “Verdigris” meaning waters of a greyish green.
Did you know that in 1719 Claude-Charles Du Tisné, born in Paris, France, negotiated with Native American Nations, notably the Missouri, Osage and Wichita, a right to explore the Great Plains extending west of the Mississippi River tallgrass prairie and east of the Rocky Mountains foothills. According to several archaeologists, Du Tisné ascended the Verdigris River in the summer of 1719 up to the actual community of Neodesha, where a large Wichita village was situated, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Toronto, Kansas.
Today throughout Oklahoma, traces of French facts are evident, for instance, Calumet (meaning peace pipe in English) is a town in Canadian County that is part of the Oklahoma City Metropolitain Area. It lies in the area that in 1803 was part of the Louisiana Purchase. Moreover, the communities of Poteau (French word for post) and Manard (a family name) are believed to be names from early American days when French was the working language of the fur trade economy.