Southeast Oklahoma in December


The landscape of southeast Oklahoma is dominated by the Ouachita Mountains (dubbed the “Little Smokies”).  The Ouachita and Ozark Mountains together form the U.S. Interior Highlands, the only major mountainous region between the Appalachians and the Rockies.  The Ouachitas were formed when the South American plate pushed north over the North American plate.  This process, called orogenesis, is non-volcanic.  Once as high as the Rockies, time and the elements have worn the Ouachitas down to less than 3,000 feet, with many ridges less than 1,000 feet.

Native tribes in the region collected and traded a dense microcrystalline quartz identified as novaculite, prized for spear and arrow points.  The colors typically range from monochrome white to black, but sometimes include red, pink, purple, blue, or brown.  As European settlers moved into the region in the early 1800’s, they began to quarry novaculite for whetstones to sharpen razors and tools (Latin novacula “sharp knife” or “razor”).  These whetstones, still produced today, are often called “Arkansas” or “Washita” stones.


So is it Ouachita or Washita, and what does it mean?  Like the spellings, sources vary.  Other than a 1541 exploration by Hernando de Soto, the first Europeans to explore and settle near the rivers and mountains that now bear these names were French and French-Canadian.  They interpreted and spelled the names of tribes and landmarks in that peculiar French way.  The most plausible accounts indicate the Ouachita were a small tribe within the loose Caddo Confederation, living in northeastern Louisiana.  Many sources claim the name is a combination of two Choctaw words, ouac and tchito or owa and chita, and offer various meanings ranging from “big bison” and “good hunting grounds” to “silver water”.  Yet, if the Ouachita spoke a form of the Caddoan languages, and if this was the name they gave themselves, then it was probably not a Choctaw word since Choctaw is part of the separate Muskogean language family.  The similarity of the Choctaw name for their hunting expeditions may account for a misattribution.

Prior to European settlement, the Ouachita region featured open woodlands of southern pines, oaks, and hickory, thinned and rejuvenated by fire about once a decade.  The understory grasses and scattered meadows fed deer, bison, and elk.  From the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, timber companies swept through with “cut out and get out” operations, first targeting the pines, then the hardwoods.  Farmers followed behind to plant on the clearcut lands.  But in 1915, the Choctaw Lumber Company, a subsidiary of Dierks Lumber and Coal Company, began to move away from outright clearcutting and abandonment, leaving seed trees to reforest the land.  After the Depression in the 1930’s, many abandoned farms were added to the Ouachita National Forest.  While the trees were allowed to regrow, the prevailing policy of fire suppression created dense forests that could not support the range animals.

In 1969, Weyerhaeuser acquired all of the Dierks mills and 1.8 million acres of timberland in Oklahoma and Arkansas.  Weyerhaeuser considered the lands “underutilized”, and quickly ramped up production.  This brought much-needed jobs to the area, but also saw the return of clearcutting, and expansion of monoculture pine plantation forests.  In the Ouachita National Forest efforts have been underway for the past decade to restore the open woodlands ecosystem through a combination of prescribed burns, 120-year logging rotations, replacing non-native trees, and selective timber harvesting.

From before statehood to the present day, southeastern Oklahoma has remained an isolated rural backwater.  The Choctaw Nation, following the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, reluctantly left their homelands in Mississippi and moved to Indian Territory.  Ironically, a few white settlers were forced to leave to accommodate them.  A very small number of Choctaw were wealthy enough to own slaves, and brought plantation farming with them, but most were poor and lived off the land.  After the Civil War, white Southerners, many of them sharecroppers, joined the Choctaw in the territory.  The region of “Little Dixie”, with few roads and far from any population centers, languished in poverty and obscurity well into the twentieth century.  McCurtain County is the third largest in the state at about 2,000 square miles, but only has seven incorporated towns and 33,000 people.  According to census data, in 1960 almost 60% of the county population was below the poverty line.  This dropped to 37% by 1970 as Weyerhaeuser moved in and a chicken processing plant was established in Broken Bow.  Yet in 2010 the poverty rate was still 27%.

There were virtually no north–south roads cutting across the Ouachita Mountains until about fifty years ago.  For example, southbound US-59 turns east about fifteen miles below Heavener and runs to Mena, Arkansas.  Even this section of federal highway was still a gravel road in the early 1950’s.  In 1953, work began on State Highway 103 running south from the US-59 bend and switchbacking over Mount Kiamichi.  In late 1961, at the behest of powerful senator Robert S. Kerr, President Kennedy was on hand in Big Cedar (population 2) to dedicate US-259, which combined OK-103, OK-87, OK-21, and TX-26.  Reputedly, Kennedy’s speech described it as “a mountain road that starts nowhere in particular and goes to a suburb of the same place”.

Somewhere between 1958 and 1961, some private citizens of McCurtain and Le Flore counties erected an austere monument on the summit pass of Mount Kiamichi.  Now titled the Three Sticks, the columns represent Land, Wood, and Water.