Race, land and the business of oil in Indian Territory -
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Race, land and the business of oil in Indian Territory

Since 2019, the Helmerich Center for American Research (HCAR) at Gilcrease Museum has hosted a postdoctoral fellow each year under the Duane H. King Postdoctoral Fellowship. This fellowship enables scholars across diverse fields to mine HCAR’s collection of over 100,000 rare books, maps, manuscripts and photographs as well as present at a works-in-progress seminar and teach courses at The University of Tulsa.

Man in blue shirt smiling
Mark Boxell

In 2021-22, HCAR is honored to host its third King fellow, Mark Boxell, Ph.D., an American West expert who earned a doctorate from the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma in 2020. Boxell’s interests revolve around the American West, with a particular focus on the region’s conjunction with oil and the environment, as well as the two fields’ intertwined histories.

Prior to arriving in Tulsa, Boxell spent his undergraduate years studying at The University of Evansville, where he first discovered his keen interest in environmental and western history. After graduating in 2014, Boxell migrated further west to Fort Collins, Colorado, where he went on to receive a master’s degree in history from Colorado State University. While there, he studied the environmental history of public lands in the west and wrote a thesis that examined the history of fossil-fueled transportation in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Race, land and oil

Black and white photo of a burning oil tank
A family poses in front of a burning oil tank near Healdton, OK, c. 1915.

Currently, Boxell is conducting research for a book on the interactions between race, land and the petroleum industry in the Mid-Continent oil region, particularly in Indian Territory/Oklahoma in the early 20th century. As part of this project, Boxell intends to further explore the allotment of the Five Tribes’ collective land base and its intersection with the production of oil. Additionally, Boxell is interested in understanding the growth of cities like Tulsa and the connections between white settlers and the petroleum industry. “Petroleum became central to white settlers’ identities and their growing institutions,” stated Boxell.

The collections related to oil and Oklahoma at HCAR, specifically the Jackson Barnett collection, especially appealed to Boxell’s scholarly goals. Barnett — a Muscogee man otherwise known as “The Richest Indian in the World” — and his family became embroiled in controversy over questions of inheritance surrounding Barnett’s tremendous oil wealth. “Barnett had been a member of Chitto Harjo’s group of separatist ‘full-blood’ and African Creeks,” said Boxell. “He attempted to rebel against white settlers and the federal government at the turn of the 20th century, and like a number of Muscogee individuals, his allotment in the Cushing area proved tremendously rich in oil.”

From fellow to professor

Black and white photo of a river and oil derricks
Oil derricks erected along the Cimarron River in Oklahoma, c. 1915. (Source: U.S. Geological Survey)

As part of his King fellowship, Boxell has had the opportunity to teach a couple of courses at TU related to his field. In the fall, Boxell taught a graduate course in the Museum Science and Management program called “Racial Violence and Public Memory.” Students examined the history of racial violence and studied how such instances are subsequently commemorated and/or whitewashed in their respective societies. “We often discussed the Tulsa Race Massacre,” stated Boxell, “and how the effort to spread awareness of these instances of violence has required a lot of labor from the affected communities.” Boxell gave the Eddie Faye Gates Collection as an example of this; specifically, the oral histories passed down from survivors recounting the role that oil played in Tulsa leading up to the massacre.

This spring, Boxell is teaching an undergraduate course for the Department of History titled “American Environmental History.” An introduction to the field at large, this course examines the ways that people have interacted with the natural world over time and how the natural world has responded and shaped societies, cultures and ideas.

After his fellowship at HCAR concludes, Boxell will be taking with him the knowledge and experience he has gained to The University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he will be an assistant professor of American and environmental history.

The Helmerich Center for American Research is open to visiting faculty, students and scholars from all over the world. Consider checking out HCAR for all your American history and culture explorations!