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Cherokee National Prison Museum

Author: Eric Neher
Category: History | Museum
Date Published: September 27, 2020

There is a cer­tain macabre romance that one feels when enter­ing the Chero­kee Nation­al Prison Muse­um. The muse­um is locat­ed in the heart of the Chero­kee cap­i­tal of Tahle­quah and has stood there since 1875, con­tin­u­ing to func­tion for the Indi­an Ter­ri­to­ry until 1898.

Cot in cell

The build­ing has tak­en on an air of friend­li­ness, a fab­ri­cat­ed mist, if you will, that attempts to buffer the mis­ery of gen­er­a­tions. The cells them­selves, reflect the often pri­mal nature of mankind. These rebuilds are sur­round­ed by pho­tographed faces absent of joy, hang­ing from cold sand-stone walls which, for some, was their final home. One can only assume that the sound of the trap door being acti­vat­ed man­aged to fil­ter through the barred win­dows from the gal­lows which sat just a few feet away. And yet this gal­lows was not the first choice for a law that was forced to con­tend with the bru­tal­i­ty of its time. This prison was not built for the sole pur­pose of pun­ish­ment, indeed, these walls held with­in them a chance for reha­bil­i­ta­tion; a labor dri­ven school, of sorts. Sec­tions of the prop­er­ty includ­ed a black­smith as well as a gar­den. These were, after all, hard times for a peo­ple who had recent­ly been forced out of their own homes, sup­plant­ed and aban­doned. Over­whelm­ing anger flour­ished, and with it came hope­less­ness. All of this had been tak­en into account when the prison was built. This com­pas­sion for their peo­ple was quite appar­ent when ren­der­ing judgment.

The Dunawas Boys

Still, some crimes went beyond lenien­cy. One such case con­fronts you as you climb the stairs to the sec­ond floor. It is just beyond the sin­gle cell for women that you will find the broth­ers Fred and George Dunawas. Two con­vict­ed mur­der­ers sen­tenced to die for the killing of their cousin and local leg­end: Wash­ing­ton Jess Lee; a sur­vivor of The Trail Of Tears who became one of the first Light Horse Law­men. This sto­ry illus­trates just how quick­ly things can esca­late. Fred was in love and had mar­ried a girl by the name of Lizzie. Lizzie and her new step-cousin’s wife became engaged in an alter­ca­tion and by alter­ca­tion, it seems to have been a knock-down fight. Wash­ing­ton Lee stepped in and phys­i­cal­ly broke up the two women. Lizzie rushed home claim­ing that Wash­in­ton had struck her and demand­ed that her hus­band, Fred, avenge her and if not she would leave him. This, of course, left Fred with only one option. He con­front­ed Wash­ing­ton and soon a bat­tle ensued which, accord­ing to records, left Fred rather bruised and defeat­ed. Luck­i­ly George was close by and man­aged to pull his broth­er away. But this fam­i­ly squab­ble was far from over and soon the broth­ers devised a plan. A few days lat­er they hid away in a line of tall grass as Wash­ing­ton led his horse over to a near­by pas­ture It was then that they made their move. At first, the plan was to pul­ver­ize the man but Wash­ing­ton, armed with a rock, began to get the bet­ter of the two boys, so they drew their guns and opened fire. On the plus side, Fred man­aged to remain mar­ried until death did they depart.

These young broth­ers sit for­ev­er pic­tured in black and white wear­ing the best suits that their con­flict­ed fam­i­ly could pro­vide, their pho­to­graph was tak­en just min­utes before they were exe­cut­ed. They died like they killed; together.

Fam­i­ly dis­putes, much like now, were quite com­mon in those ear­ly days. Ball Christie was con­vict­ed of mur­der­ing his uncle George Dick and was sen­tenced to hang but the day before his sen­tence was to be car­ried out was sent home due to his los­ing bat­tle with tuber­cu­lo­sis. He died while en route. 

Front of prison museum

Odd as it seems, this prison was once report­ed­ly vis­it­ed by Frank and Jesse James, although not as unfor­tu­nate res­i­dents. Dur­ing this time Okla­homa was Indi­an Ter­ri­to­ry and it served as a haven for noto­ri­ous out­laws. Many would come and walk freely through the streets of Tahle­quah know­ing that there was no Fed­er­al juris­dic­tion. The James broth­ers, so the sto­ry goes, had arrived and were then wel­comed by the act­ing sher­iff who dou­bled as the war­den. They were then giv­en a tour of the prison. A deputy, after being told that they were in town, grabbed his gun and went to find them. He rushed into the prison, his gun held in his hand.

“We ain’t here to rob you,” said Jesse.

“I know,” said the deputy. He then pro­ceed­ed to fol­low them where ever they went. These are just a few of the inter­est­ing sto­ries that you will find when vis­it­ing the museum.

The orig­i­nal sand-stone struc­ture was three sto­ries with the top sto­ry hous­ing the warden/sheriff and his fam­i­ly. They lived direct­ly above the pris­on­ers. Even more inter­est­ing is that no stairs con­nect­ed the low­er lev­els to the third sto­ry. The war­den and his fam­i­ly used a lad­der that led to a win­dow that was then removed dai­ly, pro­vid­ing them with a bizarre sense of secu­ri­ty. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the third floor was lost in a fire and was not replaced.

For over thir­ty-five years this tes­ta­ment to a strug­gling peo­ple was able to sur­vive, only to be decom­mis­sioned with the Cur­tis Act of 1898. But if you hap­pened to be a pris­on­er dur­ing the tran­si­tion you would have cer­tain­ly thought that it was time to hit the card table. All remain­ing pris­on­ers not being held for mur­der were par­doned and free to go. The prison wasn’t com­plete­ly retired and served as a coun­ty jail until the 1970s when it was then placed on the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places in 1974.

Stove and prep area next to cell

This muse­um offers a real-time walk into the past. It includes pre­his­toric shack­les and whip­ping post, an authen­tic black and white striped prison out­fit com­pli­ment­ed by a man­nequin hold­ing a hoe, indica­tive of the labor that was expect­ed. An authen­tic, rus­tic stove still sits with­in one sec­tion of the muse­um, cast iron skil­lets rest­ing on top.

The muse­um is inun­dat­ed with infor­ma­tion that is both appeal­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing, not to men­tion hor­rif­ic warn­ings about break­ing the law or at least get­ting caught. One trip upstairs to where the packed pris­on­ers were forced to serve their time is sti­fling, to say the least. And to then be able to gaze out of a barred cov­ered win­dow at the repli­cat­ed gal­lows below is enough to pro­duce a chill.

The gal­lows

And yet this struc­ture was built out of neces­si­ty. A six-thou­sand dol­lar ven­ture cre­at­ed, not because they want­ed it, but because they had to have it. But in the end, like so many oth­er things, it was stripped away. Along with the loss of the prison, the Cur­tis Act took back nine­ty- mil­lion acres of promised trib­al land, cre­at­ing even more fric­tion in an already volatile sit­u­a­tion. To walk with­in these prison walls is to face the harsh­ness of our past. Sur­round­ed by humor­ous slants on tragedy and repli­cants of sor­row, some jus­ti­fied, some not so much. It pro­duces a train of thought that leads to empa­thy and hope for bet­ter days to come. And the wait continues.

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