Charles Colcord - Guardian of Early Oklahoma

January 30, 2017

The larger-than-life biography of the good and great Charles Colcord (1859-1934) reads like a half-century chronicle of territorial and early statehood Oklahoma, or at least of its most dramatic events. Born before the Civil War and living nearly until World War II, this iron-willed Westerner and consummate man of action helped blaze the Chisholm Trail, helped build one of the greatest cattle dynasties of nineteenth-century America, rode in three Oklahoma land runs, proved himself one of the greatest lawmen of the Old West, was the first police chief of Oklahoma City, the first sheriff of Oklahoma County, and a frontier U.S. Marshal, and built many of OKC’s first generation businesses, as well as its first skyscraper, the Colcord Building, which still thrives over a century later.

Charles Colcord in later years as one of Oklahoma’s preeminent civic and business leaders.


Twelve-year-old Charley Colcord’s father William, a Confederate Civil War colonel from Kentucky, moved the boy from the New Orleans area to Texas to preserve his malaria-stricken life. The move proved a good one, as Charley was droving cattle up the Chisholm by the time he was fourteen. The daring, headstrong youth ran away from home at one point to cowboy on his own, then returned to tell his father about the need for horses in Kansas and the grazing lands open for rental from the Cherokees in the Cherokee Outlet.

 

The elder Colcord moved his operation north and formed the Jug Cattle Company in northern Indian Territory and southern Kansas, with teenaged Charley the range boss. For a while, the Colcords lived in an earthen dugout. Then, from the late-1870s through the mid-1880s, William, Charley, and some of their neighbors proceeded to build one of the greatest cattle kingdoms in history, the Comanche Pool. They did so largely on reservation and other lands they leased from the Natives, which channeled enormous amounts of American dollars into tribal coffers. The Colcords battled brutal weather, including colossal open range blizzards, harsh terrain, wild animals, and periodically violent Indians. They cooperated with their colleagues in the Comanche Pool for common defense and shared resources.

“Chuck Colcord, Scourge of the Cattle Rustlers,” the front cover title of an Old West magazine story chronicling the exploits of lawman Charles “Chuck” Colcord. The veracity of the particular exploits portrayed in the magazine is uncertain, but that of Colcord’s deeds inspiring them is not.
 

At its peak in the mid-1880s, the Pool ran more than eighty thousand cattle. Roundup time covered over three million acres that stretched across central and western Kansas, the length of western Indian Territory south to Red River, and west to the Texas-New Mexico border. The cattlemen served customers as varied as New York City restaurants and the western Indian Territory reservations now hosting thousands of Natives. In 1885, the federal government broke up the Comanche Pool and others to hasten the way for American settlement of the Indian lands.

 

The same year, Colcord married Harriet Scoresby, the daughter of an English-born Methodist Episcopal minister. As he recorded in his memorable The Autobiography of Charles Francis Colcord, 1859-1934, he pursued his own path for this as with so many other things in his life:

 

I went up to Elm Creek to attend a dance given by Mrs. Slack, an elder sister of Harriet Scoresby and fell violently in love with her at first sight and determined to have her for my wife. The second time I met Harriet I was driving a herd of cattle from the range into Kansas. Her father, her uncles and all other members of her family were bitterly opposed to Harriet marrying a wild cowpuncher. I made up my mind all the preachers in Kansas could not stop me. I talked to Harriet's brother-in-law, who lived in Barber County, Kansas and he told me the whole family was opposed to me because people had exaggerated reports about me. I think this brother-in-law did a lot towards breaking down this opposition and Harriet's mother, who was one of the greatest women I ever knew, was favorable toward me from the very start. Also a young brother, O. C. Storesby, who was something of a wild kid himself, seemed to take a liking to me and often helped me out in meeting his sister.

 

Harriet and Charley wed on February 9, 1885 and remained so through flush and thin until his death a half-century later.

Charles Colcord was Oklahoma City’s first police chief, its first sheriff, and a deputy U. S. marshal in Oklahoma Territory. Here, in August 1890, he sits with the other officers of OKC’s first police department. Courtesy Edna M. Couch Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society.

 

When disease decimated the already scattered cattle of the Comanche Pool and sunk the Colcord financial fortunes, Charley and Harriet migrated west to Arizona where he managed a ranch. His autobiography modestly recounts various adventures, including sliding while mounted to the precipice of a mountain cliff, the horse partially protruding over it before Charley could bring them both out. The Colcords returned to present-day Oklahoma for the 1889 Unassigned Lands Run, which included present-day Stillwater, Kingfisher, Guthrie, Edmond, Oklahoma City, Moore, Norman, and Purcell. Still brimming with restless energy and daring as he entered his thirties, it was the first of three lands runs he rode in between 1889 and 1893. They netted him property in Hennessey, Oklahoma City, and Perry, where he accepted a commission as U.S. Deputy Marshal and battled some of the most formidable outlaws in the Old West, including the Doolins and Daltons, and emerged with his life to tell about it. When Colcord’s autobiography touches at all on such events, it does so with more modesty than others’ accounts of his exploits. One notable scene he does recount is a shootout with a bullying saloon keeper wherein Colcord acted in self defense, had the quicker draw, and wounded the man.

 

In 1898, the Colcords settled down in OKC. Now forty-two, thrifty, and hard working, Charley rose quickly to leadership in the boisterous, fast-growing pioneer city. He founded one bank, served as vice president of another, president of the Oklahoma City Building & Loan Association, and director of the Oklahoma State Fair Association. He developed numerous residential areas and helped spearhead establishment of the first meat-packing firm in the Oklahoma City Stockyards, as well as construction of both the Commerce Exchange Building and the swank Biltmore Hotel.

Bill Tilghman and Charles Colcord, two of the Old West’s most famous lawmen, served together as deputy marshals in the Cherokee Outlet during the gigantic 1893 Land Run. They also took on some of the most dangerous outlaws in American history.

 

In 1901, Colcord, daredevil wildcatter Robert Galbreath, and others struck oil in the new Red Fork field, four miles west of the Arkansas River, across from the Creek-spawned village of Tulsa. Colcord shared his first-hand account of Oklahoma’s first great oil boom:

 

In the spring of 1901 the Federal government sold at auction the town site of Red Fork, a new community on the Frisco line which was then building about three miles west of Tulsa. Robert Galbreath, representing Colcord, Galbreath and C. G. Jones, attended this sale and purchased twenty-five or thirty lots. On a lot near these lots, where he lived, Doctor Bland was drilling for water and struck a small gas well. A number of other parties from Oklahoma City had bought lots…and we all began drilling about the same time. Years later I heard stories of several fellows who drilled the first oil well in Red Fork, but for all these years I have felt that we were the first to strike oil there.

 

Colcord, Galtbreath, and Chesley suspected that much more oil lay south of Red Fork. Four years later, they were hunting in the area when Colcord’s two Kentucky wolfhounds lit out after a wolf. While searching for the dogs, Chesley found oil seeping in plain daylight from surface rocks on land ten miles south of Tulsa owned by part-Creek Indian Ida Glenn and her family. The Oklahomans secured a gaggle of leases from the Glenns in and around the area. They shrewdly plied their time until federal restrictions on drillers softened. Then they chose their spot, drilled nearly fifteen hundred feet down—a deep well for the era—and brought in the Ida Glenn Number One in late 1905, followed by numerous other wells. These comprised the famed Glenn Pool field, one of the mightiest on record. It generated more revenue than the California Gold Rush and Colorado Silver Rush combined and helped build the new state of Oklahoma.

Charles Colcord built his Heritage Hills mansion in 1903, four years before Oklahoma statehood. Standing at 421 N.W. 13th Street in Oklahoma City, it was a replica of his father’s antebellum plantation home in Kentucky and symbolized the accomplishments of a people who had raised up a booming American capital city from the barren prairie in just over a decade. The foolish 1960s demolition of the home in order to replace it with a commercial building helped trigger the great OKC preservation movement. Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.

 

Oklahoma’s roughhewn frontier ethos persisted well into the twentieth century, despite the building of skyscrapers—of which Colcord built the first—and major cities. The newly christened capital city of Oklahoma City hurtled to the brink of war in its streets during a 1911 streetcar strike when out-of-state unions and their “muscle” encouraged streetcar workers disgruntled over wages and working conditions to strike. Former Police Chief, Sheriff, and U.S. Marshal Colcord, taking command by experience, reputation, ability, and strength of character, stepped into the breech and put out an alert from his downtown office that rippled across the city and its surrounding environs. It called for trustworthy men to drop whatever they were doing and head downtown, where he officed, and to come armed. Colcord marshaled hundreds of them from the city’s business and middle- and upper-class communities to confront the protestors. Meanwhile, not far away, famed Oklahoma reformer Kate Barnard’s stirring oratory inspired a crowd on a downtown street in favor of the strikers. Colcord commanded more guns than his opponents and the steely willingness to use them. As often before and since, that settled the issue peaceably.

 

In 1918, he formed the North American Oil and Refining Company and served as its President, and was appointed to the National Petroleum Conservation Board by President Woodrow Wilson. His civic and historic deeds did not prevent him from the greater deed of loving his one wife for the half century until his death, and siring and raising six children. He served as president of the Oklahoma Historical Society the last many years of his life and delivered a memorable speech in 1933, the year before his death, that constituted a virtual eyewitness account of the history of frontier Oklahoma. The same year, at age seventy-four and only months away from the end of his life, Colcord rose up one final time as “Guardian” of Oklahoma. When his close friend and fellow oilman Charles Urschel was kidnapped at gunpoint from his OKC residence by George “Machine Gun” Kelly, one of the most notorious gangsters in American history, and held for ransom, Colcord called Oklahoma City’s wealthiest men to his Colcord Building and collected an enormous amount of money—not for a ransom payment, but for a reward on the head of Kelly. The vicious gangster was soon captured and Urschel returned unharmed.

When completed in 1910, the Colcord Building stood twelve stories tall. It was Oklahoma City’s first skyscraper and the tallest building in the state. Ever the practical visionary, Colcord commissioned renowned architect William Wells to design the structure with reinforced concrete to avoid destruction like that wreaked by the recent San Francisco earthquake and fires. He also lavished the building with marble, nickel, and bronze. More than a century after its opening, the Colcord Building remains a vibrant hub of a resurgent downtown OKC.

 

Pearls of understanding and wisdom fill Colcord’s autobiography, not least his crediting his career ascent to having made good on previous commitments to men of leadership and means, who thus gained the confidence in him to participate with or back him in further ventures. Upon his 1934 gathering to his fathers, full of years and honor, the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce issued the following resolution:

 

Affluence came to (Charles Colcord) but left unspoiled his native   gentleness and simplicity. Always he was modest, humble, democratic, generous, just and kind. He remembered the less fortunate friends of his early days.

 

Charley Colcord’s Fairlawn Cemetery tombstone sits quietly amidst the city and state he labored so well to build into something special. It reads, appropriately:

 

            “His life was gentle, and the elements

            So mix'd in him, that Nature might stand up —

            And say to all the world, ‘This was a man’”

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