In the late 1870s, Muskogee was in its infancy with only a few scattered businesses and homes rising up from the treeless prairie. They were built around the depot that had been established by the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad (the Katy) near the Texas Road. Located about two miles to the west of this little windswept prairie town was the Union Agency on Agency Hill.

Two of the first merchants to establish a business in the Three Forks region were J.S. Atkinson and James A. Patterson. When the Katy Depot was completed, Atkinson and Patterson moved their stores from Creek Agency near Fern Mountain into the new town.

Soon most of that community had also moved to Muskogee, and the town of Creek Agency faded away. These businessmen were optimistic about seeing their new town grow into commercial and political importance.

But a newly appointed Union agent did not come with a philanthropic interest in either the Indians or Muskogee. This agent sought to move the Union Agency about 12 miles south of Muskogee with the intent of seeing a new town develop there.

The man and some of his cronies recognized that it was only a matter of time before the Indian Territory would be fully opened to non-Indian settlement and tribal ownership of land would end. They hoped to position themselves in a town of their making to profit from these changes.

Over the dining table in their favorite eating establishment near the Katy Depot, the Indian agent and his friends plotted their strategy. A source of water would be important, so digging a well at the new site would have to be their first order of business. Something in their covert conversations over the next few weeks aroused the suspicions of the quiet, but shrewd proprietor of the eating house.

Not only were they planning to move the Agency, but they were also planning to convince the railroad to move its depot to the new site. The well they were digging was now completed. The Agency would soon be moved if something wasn’t done to stop them. The proprietor realized this plan could ruin the town of Muskogee.

Keeping this information to himself, the restaurateur made his way to the Patterson Mercantile and placed an order for a large barrel of salt to be delivered to his eating establishment as soon as possible. The store clerk was surprised at such an odd request, but filled the order without question. At dusk that evening, a friendly railroad conductor loaded the man and his salt barrel onto the caboose of a train heading south.

The next day when the agent and his force of men took the train to inspect their new townsite and the just completed well, they found something odd. The water in the well appeared clean and clear, but it was as salty as seawater.

They apparently assumed the groundwater in that area was too briny for human consumption so they did not attempt to dig another well. Their plan to move the Agency had been defeated by one quiet, resourceful businessman.

Sometime later, the owner of the eatery was sent a bill for the barrel of salt. He took the bill to Mr. Patterson and explained the circumstances that had led to such an unusual purchase and what had been the result of its use. Mr. Patterson marked the bill, “Paid in Full.”

Reach Jonita Mullins at

React to this story: