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How did counties get their names?

Mary Phillips Published: November 6, 2013
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Oklahoma has 77 counties. And, while some are familiar names, others like Roger Mills make us wonder how they came to be.

On April 29, 1919, The Oklahoman published an excellent article about how the counties got their names and for whom or what they were named.

Here is some of the information gleaned from that article and checked with the “2011-2012 Oklahoma Almanac.”

“The state of Oklahoma has grown by a series of additions to the ‘Unassigned Land’ originally opened in 1889. Since the development has been gradual, the names of the counties reflect the sentiment of a people extending over a long period of years. Many of these names are connected with Indian history, while others commemorate many local and national statesmen.”

Oklahoma has 13 counties named for Indian tribes: Caddo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Creek, Delaware, Kiowa, Muskogee, Osage, Ottawa, Pawnee, Pottawatomie and Seminole.

Rivers supplied names for several counties: Beaver, Canadian, Cimarron and Washita. And the railroad gave us the names for Woodward and Wagoner.

There are six counties named for U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland.

Prominent Indian families have provided the names for eight counties: Adair, Carter, LeFlore, Love, Mayes, McCurtain, McIntosh and Rogers.

Military officers have provided names for our counties: Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Admiral George Dewey and Captain David Payne.

Sequoyah, Atoka, Pushmataha and Douglas H. Johnston are Indian leaders whose names are honored with counties.

Alfalfa, Coal and Cotton counties were all named for the products grown or mined in their land. Although, Alfalfa County has also been attributed to Gov. William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, honoring the great Oklahoma leader. Another governor so honored was Charles Haskell, the state’s first governor.

Harper, Ellis, Major, Hughes and Latimer were named for members of the constitutional convention.

Pittsburg County is the namesake of the Pennsylvania town, while Pontotoc, Nowata, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Tulsa and Oklahoma are Indian words or place names.

We have Texas County in the Panhandle, and Texans Roger Q. Mills, John Alexander Greer and John H. Stephens have Oklahoma counties named for them, too.

Chief Justice John Marshall lent his name to Marshall County.

Kentucky Gov. C.W. Beckham; James G. Blaine of Maine; Williams Jennings Bryan of Nebraska; Henry W. Grady, Georgia orator; Ohio Gov. Juddson Harmon; Gen. John A. Logan of Illinois; John W. Noble, interior secretary from Missouri; and South Carolina Sen. Benjamin R. Tillman are nonresidents who have their last names immortalized as Oklahoma counties. Sam N. Wood, a Kansas attorney killed as the result of a county seat fight in south Kansas, has a county with his namesake. However, an “s” was added in error to the ballot, and so the county became known as Woods County.

Frank Craig, a McAlester banker and advocate for statehood; Samuel J. Garvin, a freighter and rancher; and Charles M. McClain, a pioneer resident of Purcell, contributed to familiar county names in southern Oklahoma.

Kay County’s name came from the old “K” county designation before statehood. It is now spelled out, and the description for Kingfisher County reads ” … a cattleman, whose cognomen was Kingfisher, had his ranch headquarters about a mile north of the present town of Kingfisher and that from this man the creek received its name. The history recedes further still, and the creek originally received its name from two men whose names were respectively, King and Fisher.”

With the first counties being named in 1890 and the last, Cotton County, in 1912, either by popular vote, constitutional committees or in the case of Caddo, Comanche and Kiowa, named by Congress, we can see how some of these names seem perfectly logical and others reflect the sentiment of a different time.