A serene rural cemetery in Murray County, Oklahoma, is the final resting place of five-term Chickasaw Governor Cyrus Harris, a determined advocate for the Chickasaw Nation before and after removal from the homelands.
One hundred and twenty-six years ago this month, January 6, 1888, Gov. Harris died at his home on a cold winter day. But the story of this remarkable man did not end with his death.
He was buried in the Old Mill Creek cemetery along the banks of Mill Creek and the original town site of Mill Creek in present day Johnston County, Oklahoma.
Local resident Harold Dean Garrison chronicled remembrances of Gov. Harris’ 1888 death from a Harris grandchild and a Pauls Valley undertaker in his book “Mill Creek, The Life and Times.”
The undertaker was alerted by a 1 a.m. knock on his door in January 1888. Two men on horseback had traveled from Mill Creek to Pauls Valley, about 45 miles, in the wee hours of the morning to have the best coffin made for the former governor. “(The coffin) was made of the best lining and had the best handles and cost $40,” according to the book.
Harris was laid to rest on his land in the Old Mill Creek cemetery, located along Mill Creek and near the grist mill he built. The building of the mill led to the name of the creek being changed from Cherokee Creek to Mill Creek.
Almost eight decades later, in the 1960s, Gov. Harris’ burial site was in danger when Mill Creek’s banks flooded and eroded into the cemetery.
Cries to save the historic Chickasaw leader’s grave were chronicled in the July 17, 1960 issues of the Ada Evening News by reporter Eric Allen.
Allen visited the cemetery with the late Jack Penner, Gov. Harris’ great-grandson, as his guide.
The cemetery was situated on what is now the Penner Ranch in Johnston County. At the time, the remains of Gov. Harris’ home, a small log cabin, still stood on the property at the edge of a tree-lined meadow three miles west of the present town of Mill Creek. The cabin and surrounding area were once the center of the original Mill Creek, Chickasaw Nation town site.
The town of Mill Creek was moved to its present site, three miles east along State Highway 7, after the railroad was built in 1901 and bypassed the original town.
Gov. Harris’ burial place was north of the cabin. In 1960, it was overgrown with trees and knee-deep brush.
“You will find it hard to believe that one of those broken and lichen-covered tombstones marks the grave of Cyrus Harris,” Mr. Allen reported in the Ada News article. “It would seem incredible to you that the resting place of a five-time governor of the Chickasaw people hasn’t been better preserved.”
At the time of the reporter’s visit, the creek had cut into a corner of the graveyard and washed out a section of the old iron fence.
The reporter speculated an abutment could be built to save this important burial site from being wiped out.
“Fifty years from now, or a hundred, some student or writer may be disappointed to find vanished forever the burial place of an Indian who five times had been bestowed upon him the highest honor that could be offered by the people of his tribe,” Mr. Allen wrote.
Fast forward about a year and the reporter’s pleas for preservation were answered when the governor’s remains were relocated.
Former tribal Judge Charles Tate shared notes his late mother, Chickasaw Hall of Fame member the late Juanita Tate, had preserved about moving Gov. Harris’ body to Drake-Nebo Cemetery, located a few miles west of the original burial place.
The Tates are decedents of Gov. Harris.
“They (family members) voted to move the grave back with his wife whose body was moved (to Drake Cemetery) in the 1900s,” according to Mrs. Tate’s notes.
Family members L.E. Kinney and Wilber White helped with the 1961 re-interment, according to Mrs. Tate’s notes.
Judge Tate said he would like to see the gravesite become a destination site or have a historical marker erected along the highway noting the important site.
The Drake-Nebo Cemetery was named for the surrounding communities, the rural Drake-Nebo Cemetery is the final resting place for several members of the Cyrus Harris family and more than 500 gravesites.
The Harris family gravesite is located in the middle section of the cemetery’s west side. A wrought-iron gate surrounds the burial plot.
For many years, the gravesite was maintained by the Chickasaw Nation cemetery program.
Also interred here are five members of the Williams family who were killed by a tornado in 1917. A monument to the family, who had been buried in unmarked graves for many years, was erected.
The cemetery is located six miles south of Sulphur, off of U.S. Highway 177, west on Goddard Road for 1 mile, then south 1.5 miles, and west 1/4 mile.
Cyrus Harris was a businessman, interpreter, and first Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, Cyrus Harris was born August 22, 1817, in Pontotoc, Mississippi.
Courtesy Chickasaw Nation
A descendant of James Logan Colbert, Gov. Harris attended school in Mississippi and Tennessee and returned home in 1830. In 1835, as the Chickasaws were preparing to remove to Indian Territory, Gov. Harris, who spoke English and Chickasaw fluently, served as an interpreter at a government land office established at Pontotoc.
In 1837 Gov. Harris and his mother, Elizabeth Colbert Oxbury-Gunn, left for Indian Territory and arrived at Blue River in present Johnston County, Oklahoma, in 1838. Gov. Harris moved three more times before settling at Mill Creek, where he resided until his death. He began his political career in 1850. He was twice sent as a delegate for the Chickasaw Nation to Washington.
Cyrus Harris was elected the first governor of the Chickasaw Nation in 1856, and was reelected in 1860, 1866, 1868, and 1872. In 1872 he approved the establishment of a boarding school at Wapanucka.
Supporters of Gov. Harris in 1878 submitted his name for governor, but in a contested election Benjamin C. Burney won by five votes. To maintain order, Gov. Harris withdrew and retired from politics. Throughout his life he was married three times and had 11 children.
Courtesy Marcy Gary
Gov. Cyrus Harris’ great-great grandson Harris Penner surveys an old water pump which was once stood in the center of old Mill Creek when Gov. Harris established the town in the 1800s. The Harris family’s remains were moved from the property in 1961 to near-by Drake-Nebo Cemetery when Mill Creek threated the burial place.
The Penner Ranch is the oldest continuously family-owned business in Oklahoma, the Penner Angus Ranch can trace its roots to 1855, when Cyrus Harris founded the town of Mill Creek in present Johnston County and began raising stock, among many other business ventures.
Gov. Harris’ daughter Amanda married Felix Penner, a Texas native born to German immigrants, in 1891, according to Chickasaw Nation marriage records.
Mr. Penner expanded the livestock operations and introduced Angus cattle to the area in 1912. The ranch eventually contained 11,000 acres. Charles and his brother Cyrus continued the ranching operation after Felix Penner died in 1939.
In 1995 the ranch received an Oklahoma Centennial Farm and Ranch award. At the time, the Penner Trust owned the Penner Angus Ranch and is developed around the families’ original Chickasaw allotments.
The ranch is still in operation today as a cow-calf operation with Cyrus Harris’ great-great grandson Harris Penner and his family at the helm.