Swiping the Seal—Guthrie vs. OKC for State Capital


Even in 1910, when this panoramic image was shot, Oklahoma City’s population was already nearly six times that of Guthrie’s—approximately 64,000 to approximately 11,000. As of 2017, OKC’s population is approaching 650,000, its metropolitan population around 1,400,000. Guthrie’s is smaller than it was in 1910, at 10,000. Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.

I was reminded a few years ago of how long historical grudges can linger. One of my Oklahoma History students at Southern Nazarene University was a delightful person and excellent student. When the topic of Oklahoma City and Guthrie’s battle for the state capital of early Oklahoma arose, however, her demeanor changed. For this longtime Guthrie resident and partisan, the wrong city won that battle.

In a June 11, 1910, statewide election, the people of Oklahoma determined their state’s permanent capital. They chose from among the current capital Guthrie; the state’s largest city, Oklahoma City; and Shawnee, a hub of political activity. The winner would gain enormous opportunity and influence.

Roadside billboard political advertisement during the intense 1910 contest for permanent state capital of Oklahoma.

The contest proved fierce, but Oklahoma City won in a landslide, garnering more than triple the total of Guthrie’s and Shawnee’s combined votes. Governor Charles Haskell, acting on the prevailing Democratic notion that state capital Guthrie was, in his own words, “a nest of Republican vipers,” immediately engineered a middle-of-the-night heist of the state seal to the rougher, more Southern- (and Western-) flavored Oklahoma City. Many Republicans decried OKC as nothing more than a vulgar cow town.

Oklahoma’s first governor, the estimable Charles Haskell of Muskogee.

Fred Branson, (first) state chairman of the Democratic Party, and later chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, recalled the words of Haskell upon learning of Oklahoma City’s victory. According to Branson, Haskell told his private secretary W. B. Anthony, on a long-distance phone call: “Get hold of Bill Cross, Secretary of State, go up to the Logan County Court House. Get the seal of state and bring it to Oklahoma City and meet me there in the morning. …We are leaving here on a special train on the Frisco and will be in Oklahoma City by 7:30 A.M.”

The state seal of Oklahoma.

The position of “private secretary” in that era carried much weight and was the modern equivalent to a political leader’s chief of staff. Tennessee native Anthony’s resumé already included his eight years as mayor of Marlow, his founding the Marlow Review newspaper, and a stint in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He proved equal to Haskell’s audacious challenge to physically remove the seal that should abide in the head of state’s office to Oklahoma City.

How he did so makes for fact that is more dramatic than most fiction. Anthony took a car rented by the OKC Chamber of Commerce to Guthrie, arriving at his rented room at 3:00 a.m. He never set foot near the capitol building, at which the suspicious Republicans had stationed a phalanx of deputy sheriffs as guards. Instead, he dispatched three other Haskell subordinates, ostensibly to fetch laundry and clothing he had indeed left in the governor’s office.

“The seal of state and the recording book were concealed in the bundle of laundry and clothing and removed from the building to my room without anyone except the principals ever knowing what was going on,” Anthony later wrote, to correct a legion of mythologies the event spawned.

The Lee-Huckins Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City, to which Governor Charles Haskell had the state seal spirited in 1910, and set up his new OKC-based gubernatorial operations.

Oklahoma founding father “Alfalfa Bill” Murray claimed in 1952 that the plotters called upon Jim Noble, a black messenger and custodian in the state offices of the era, to secretly carry the seal on his person to Haskell at the Lee-Huckins Hotel in Oklahoma City, since a man of his race would not be questioned. A prior series of Daily Oklahoman newspaper articles and an enduring African-American oral history agree with Murray.

Guthrie’s Carnegie Library, built in 1902. It no longer serves as the town’s library.

Guthrie’s outraged fathers had no intention of giving up the town’s cardinal place in Oklahoma life and power without a fight, particularly considering the dirty and illegal manner they felt Haskell had employed to transfer the seat of government. They built their case on this provision of the 1906 Enabling Act that had cleared Oklahoma’s entrance into the Union: “The capital of said state shall temporarily be at the city of Guthrie….and shall not be changed there from previous to Anno Domini 1913.”

Modern Guthrie, which still contains many beautiful historic buildings.

The fight for possession of the state capital raged for nearly a year. Guthrie won a district court decision in its own Logan County. Then Haskell called the Oklahoma Legislature into an unusual special session, and they passed a bill relocating the capital to Oklahoma City. Undaunted, Guthrie fought back. As Branson described, “The books and records and offices of the officials, other than the governor and the secretary of state which were in Oklahoma City from the morning of the 12th day of June 1910, remained at Guthrie, by reason of another suit which was brought at the instance of the city of Guthrie.”

When the case made its way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Oklahoma City won. It finally landed before the United States Supreme Court. There, the justices ruled that nothing contained within the Enabling Act or anywhere else prior to statehood could diminish Oklahoma’s right to govern itself on an equal basis with any other state in the Union, including the decision—by both the people and their elected representatives—to relocate their capital in Oklahoma City.

Modern OKC.

John J. Dwyer | redriverdwyer@gmail.com | OKLAHOMA, USA

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