Originally called Grand Saline, later known as the Old Salt Wells and now present day Salina Oklahoma, located in Mayes County, is very rich in history. For thousands of years indigenous peoples had lived along the rivers in this area, with varying cultures. By the time of European encounter, the Osage was a major tribe in the area. In 1541 the Spanish Explorer Hernando de Soto’s expedition passed through the area, as did the 1721 expedition of Bernard de la Harpe. Then in 1796, Major Jean Pierre Chouteau, a French-Creole fur trader from St. Louis established under the Spanish flag, a trading post at the junction of the Grand Neosho River and Saline Creek to trade with the Osage Indians.
At that time the area was a part of the Province of Louisiana. In 1803 the United States took possession of the land which was included in the Louisiana Purchase and later the area became part of what is known as “Indian Territory” of the United States. By 1817 keelboats were landing goods at Salina from Ft. Smith, AR., and in that year Chouteau’s son Auguste Pierre and his partner Joseph Revoir received an exclusive license from the Spanish to trade with the Osage and in 1820 the Spanish government took the monopoly away. Chouteau convinced the Osage tribe to migrate into Indian Territory near the trading post, and ensured the survival of the business. By the mid-1820s Chouteau led the most influential trading operation in present Oklahoma. He moved to an elaborate, two-story, log, dog-trot home named “La Grande Saline” in 1822 at present Salina and coordinated an extensive trading enterprise. The lawn of this frontier palace was planted with flowers and shrubs, which included Paradise Trees imported from France. The Home also became a center for social activities, with the family entertaining contemporary icons, Sam Houston, Nathaniel Pryor, Washington Irving and future notables like Jefferson Davis who was stationed at nearby Fort Gibson. Irving’s account of his visit, accompanied by Houston on Oct. 6, 1832, is described in his book A Tour on the Prairies.
The Indians boiled salt from the water rising from limestone rock about a mile south of the trading post. The springs included one hot geyser that shot boiling water 8 to 10 feet in the air. Chouteau obtained the springs in a treaty in 1825 and sold them to Sam Houston in 1830. A Cherokee Captain, John Rogers, began making salt from the springs and named them Grand Saline. Here is where salt was manufactured and sold to the Indians at fifty cents a bushel. Ox teams came from hundreds of miles and salt was hauled away by the wagon loads. The huge salt kettles used, came from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and were transported down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and up the Arkansas and Grand rivers to a forge near where the Salina bridge is now located . Rogers built his home nearby.
In 1838 the government began moving the Cherokee’s to the area in implementation of the Indian Removal Act. By 1839 Rogers was operating 115 salt kettles. He lost the salt works in 1844 to the Cherokee Nation under new law defining their territory. The Cherokee Nation leased the works to Lewis Ross, brother of Chief John Ross. Ross built a house there and operated the salt business using African American slave labor. Drilling for salt water, in 1859 Ross accidentally hit the first vein of oil in Indian Territory. It flowed at the rate of 10 barrels a day for a year. He also operated two stores in Salina.
In 1862, during the American Civil War, Union soldiers came down unopposed on the Grand River to Salina and set all slaves free. In 1873, the Cherokee Nation purchased the Ross home for $26,000 and used it for years as the Cherokee Orphan Asylum. It was destroyed by fire in 1903. The rock remains were used in the construction of the local gymnasium which is still standing.
In 1906 the Cherokee Chief, Samuel Houston Mayes established a ferry and mercantile business on the Grand River. During his term as Chief, the Dawes Commission of 1902/1906 divided the Cherokee lands into allotments of approximately 110 acres per household, breaking up the communal lands.
Salina, established in 1796, is the Oldest Permanent White (European-American) Settlement in Oklahoma.
The establishment of the Old Chouteau Trading Post at Salina was commemorated on October 10-11, 1938 making it a State Holiday. It is celebrated annually on October 10th or the closest Saturday to the 10th. The site of the original Trading Post was covered by water when the lake was built. It is just south of the bridge on the west end of present day Salina.