Courtney Flats Sesquicentennial
150 Years of History
One hundred and fifty years ago, in the early months of 1870, Henry Courtney permanently settled on the Flat on the west side of the mouth of Mud Creek. Surrounded by thick cross timbers, it was a flat stretch of prairie grass roughly a mile wide and some six miles long on the north side of Red River in the Chickasaw Nation. He was the first to settle that far west in the Nation along Red River due to deadly attacks by Comanche. The Cloud Ranch was located a few miles down the river on the east side of the mouth of Mud Creek. A short two miles across the river southeast was a small frontier settlement of Illinois Bend where only six years earlier a Comanche raiding party massacred thirteen settlers.
He chose a location on the east end of the flat just inside the cross timbers near a clear freshwater spring. Assisted by two of his sons and two older African Americans he set out to build a log cabin and clear a small space for crops. The two older gentlemen had previously been slaves of the Chickasaw.
Courtney was forty-three when he settled on the Flat. He stood 5’4” and maintained a well-groomed mustache and beard. By then he already had a lifetime of experiences. Born Henry DeCourtney on August 22nd, 1826 in Morgan County, Virginia (WV), he spent his youth in Fairfield County, OH.
At age nineteen Courtney was in Cleveland on the south shore of Lake Erie where he entered a U.S. Army recruitment office enlisting for a term of five years. He mustered in as a sergeant in the 6th Infantry under Captain Walker at the U.S. Army outfitting and training post at Jefferson Barracks, MO, just south of St Louis.
War broke out with Mexico the following year and Courtney’s company was engaged till the close of the war in 1848. The final year of his enlistment was spent at Ft. Kearney, NE, an outpost on the Oregon Trail where he married a few weeks before his schedule discharge to Mary Williams on May 6, 1850.
The newlyweds settled at Ft. Smith, Ark and over the years their family would grow to include eight children. Courtney embarked on a career serving as a contractor providing supplies to the military and at times serving as wagon master for the military and other outfits. For the next twenty years the Courtney family lived on the peripheral of various military post in the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations including Ft. Towson, Ft. Washita, Ft. Arbuckle, and Ft. Cobb.
In 1859 Courtney settled near the newly established Ft. Cobb outside the western edge of the Chickasaw Nation. The Wichita Agency, located nearby, administered to the so called “wild tribes” including the Comanche, Kiowa, and what remained of the Wichita tribes of Taovayas (now Waco), Towakoni, and Kieche.
In the summer of ’61 tragedy struck the Courtney family. The seven-year-old twins, Joseph and Josephine, were playing at the creek behind the cabin. Suddenly Kiowa warriors on horseback sprang from the woods, scooped up the young boy, bludgeoned him and tossed his lifeless body to the ground. Screams brought Henry scrambling with rifles blazing but he was too late. A detachment from the fort pursued but returned empty handed.
With the tragic loss of their son, Courtney moved his family to the safety of Ft. Arbuckle. He didn’t serve in the Civil War but cast his lot with the South serving as postmaster for the Confederate States Post Office at Ft. Arbuckle.
With the establishment of Ft. Sill further west in 1869 Ft. Arbuckle was abandoned and dismantled. At this point in their lives, Henry and Mary decided to separate. Mary and most of the children would stay on the farm outside Ft. Arbuckle. Henry and a couple of sons would venture south to the rich farmland he had heard about on Mud Creek. The couple remained on good terms however and often visited each other at their respective farms, some forty miles apart.
A wealthy Chickasaw mixed blood cattle rancher at Silver City named Montford Johnson claimed a large area of land on Red River at the mouth of Mud Creek. The first permit issued for a non-citizen to settle on the place was to Henry Courtney. Each newcomer on the west end of the flat had to secure a Chickasaw permit from Montford. A decade later, in 1881, Montford transferred his Courtney area claim to his nephew C.B. Campbell who also resided at Silver City and was well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in the Nation.
Montford Johnson is the subject of the book The Chickasaw Rancher by author Neil Johnson. In 2017 the Chickasaw Nation Productions began work on the film of the book with Martin Sensmeier starring as Montford Johnson.
It was handed down in our Carnahan family, as told by Henry Courtney, that while out on the plains he had come across a young Indian boy with a broken leg. He took the injured boy in, nursed his leg, and kept him until he was well. To show his appreciation, the boy’s father told Courtney of the rich farmland on a flat near the mouth of Mud Creek.
I have always wondered if Henry Courtney may have come across the injured boy on the plains near Ft. Cobb. Remnants of the Taovayas (now Waco), Towakani, or Kiechi had been settled in the area near the Wichita Agency. Older members of the tribes would have remembered when they lived on the west end of the flat some forty years prior.
Or perhaps the injured boy was somehow connected with Montford Johnson. Courtney would have been well acquainted with Montford Johnson when he was postmaster during the War at Ft. Arbuckle. Montford ran military dispatches between the fort and Texas Confederate troops stationed at Illinois Bend, the likely origins of the Cloud Ranch Road. Discovering the prime farming land along the flat may have influenced Montford’s claim location, and his first permit granted to Henry Courtney.
The mid 1870s saw a reduced threat of Comanche raids and soon the remainder of Courtney Flats and the Mud Creek Valley were claimed by citizen “landlords”, all descendants of the Chickasaw Love family.
Judge L.L. Wood married a Chickasaw Ellen Burney in 1876 and quickly claimed farmland on the Flat west of Montford Johnson’s. “Chickasaw Bill” Bourland and his Choctaw wife Lorinda (Harkins) of Tishomingo claimed an area on the west end of the flat and settled there. Bourland was a prominent citizen of the Chickasaw Nation serving in the government at times as Senator, head of the Chickasaw Militia, and a Judge. Chickasaw Matilda Criner of Burneyville claimed an area across from Spanish Fort, (north side of Petersburg) stretching to Mud Creek. The citizen landlords issued permits and the settlers came. They cut timber, built log cabins, rail fences, and put in crops.
John Fowler secured a permit from Montford Johnson and put in a blacksmith shop in 1874 and the town of Courtney was underway. Over the years a general merchandise followed, and then another, a cotton gin, livery stables, an apothecary, and a ten-pin alley. The schoolhouse served as a church with both Baptist and Methodist congregations. On the east edge of town was a big spring with tubs, pots, battling blocks and paddles for the town’s use on laundry day. Several houses fenced with rails soon sprang up around the new town and the Courtney ferry provided transportation across the river to Illinois Bend.
Horse racing and betting were popular pass times and “Hurst Downs” was one of the most popular. It was thought to be located near the center of the Flat in earlier years but in the early eighties located in the Mud Creek Valley on the back side of Courtney. It was common to see two or three hundred spectators at the races, including the now friendly Comanche from Ft. Sill with their fast horses.
In late 1878 Wm R. Watkins and his Chickasaw heritage wife Betty Tyson swapped their farm on Red River near the mouth of the Washita for Judge L.L. Wood’s place at Courtney Flat (west of Montford’s). Watkins was an enterprising, successful man and in a few years began to buy up other “citizen farms” along the Mud Creek Valley.
Watkins opened a general merchandise in the town of Courtney and in 1883 received approval to open a U.S. Post Office in his store which he registered as “Watkins”. His attempts to change the name of the town from Courtney to Watkins failed however and three years later the name of the post office was changed to “Courtney” to match the town.
Watkins turned a blind eye when it came to the “lawless” element of settlers permitted on his claim. The wooded cross timbers and ravines along Mud Creek on the back side of Courtney provided an ideal landscape for outlaw hideouts. William Watson was the shrewdest member and leader of Courtney’s resident “Watson Gang” which included Bud Starr, Bill Weems, members of the Jackson family, and many others.
Spanish Fort Deputy Tucker described the Watson Gang, “Theirs was a policy of intimidation and sometimes robbery. To a man, they were tough and proud of it. All went armed and were careless with their guns. When the Watson Gang came to town, they announced their intentions openly and the people took to their houses or other places of shelter!”
The Watson Gang entered Spanish Fort early one morning intent on taking the town. Coming in by twos and by threes they met up at the saloon with one gang member riding his horse into the saloon. When the gun fight began the lawmen hit three gang members and five horses. The gang made their escape out of Spanish Fort and across the river to Courtney.
In 1885 Wm R. Watkins had illegally transported goods from Spanish Fort to his new general merchandise at Courtney. Indian Agent Owens ordered the goods removed but Watkins refused. Spanish Fort Deputy Tucker made up a party of sixteen men including the Indian Policeman Murray, the Montague County Sheriff, six wagon drivers, deputies, and posse men intent on removing the merchandise from the Courtney store, and to get a crack at the Watson Gang.
Indian Policeman Murray led the procession on his horse while the rest of the lawmen were concealed in the six covered wagons that followed. As they approached the town of Courtney the Watson gang poured out of the houses for a standoff. The lawmen jumped from the wagons and an old west gunfight ensued.
In Jan of ’86 Courtney’s Watson Gang returned the favor descending on Spanish Fort with guns a blazing culminating in a fierce gun fight. After the wounding of several gang members and downing of a horse, the gang retreated across the river.
As the years went by the law-abiding citizens across the Flat were no longer willing to put up with outlaws. The Watson Gang dispersed with some of the gang becoming prominent leading citizens in the area. Their notorious leader William Watson was eventually captured in a gunfight with deputies at Wewoka.
By the turn of the century statehood approached and the privatization of land through Chickasaw/Choctaw allotments would be the death nail for the town. Chickasaw Bill Bourland and his son Frank where in charge of allotment claims in the Courtney Flats area. In 1908 Frank Bourland laid out a new townsite more centrally located between Courtney and Petersburg and named the site after his newborn daughter Belle. Most of the old Courtney town site was allotted to members of the Chickasaw Rubottom family. Some of the businesses from the town of Courtney relocated to the newly established townsite of Rubottom on the east side of Mud Creek. Other Courtney businesses, including the Courtney Post Office, relocated to the new site of Belleville. The town of Courtney was no more.
Henry Courtney died on Dec 16, 1898 and didn’t live to see the final closing of the town. He had lived to see a great deal of change since he arrived on the Flat twenty-eight years earlier.
By 1928 the area schools of Courtney, Belleville, and Rubottom combined creating Courtney Consolidated Schools. The Courtney Schools educated students thirty-nine years with the last graduating class in 1957.
The 1920s and’30s was probably the peak population across the Flat. Over the years the population across the Flat rapidly dwindled with the move from rural areas to cities and farming innovations leading to fewer, larger, less labor-intensive farms.
Courtney Flats remains today a beautiful and productive farming community. The post office, school, cotton gin, and stores have long gone, and the population reduced to a handful of enterprising families served by a community center, volunteer fire department, Landgraf Fertilizer, and Methodist Church.
Each year I find my way back to Courtney to visit my father and childhood home and look forward to visiting my cousin Cindy Rose. She has a beautiful home with a large porch stretching across the front. We take our place in the large rockers and with the ghostly coyote tree in the distance we reminisce. Six generations of our Hancock family have called Courtney home, arriving only a few years after Henry Courtney arrived one hundred and fifty years ago. By Scott Black.