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Greer County

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Once it encompassed nearly 1.7 million acres, an area larger than Rhode Island or Delaware. But then the law makers, bureaucrats and lawyers got involved and things changed forever.

Like most significant legal matters, it was complicated.

When the United States and Spain agreed in 1819 on what constituted the border between Spanish territory and the U.S., the Red River east of the 100th meridian was part of that boundary. Subsequent treaties with Mexico and then the Republic of Texas also set the Red River as the northern border. And it was assumed by all that the Red River began with its northern fork.

For generations, all this was relatively moot since no one lived in the area but Indians. Even after Texas became a state in 1845, no one could have foreseen what would become the first Red River rivalry between Texas and the future state of Oklahoma.

On Feb. 8, 1860, the Texas legislature created Greer County, a big chunk of land east of the 100th meridian and south of the North Fork of the Red River. For the next 36 years all of what are now the Oklahoma counties of Greer, Harmon, and Jackson, plus the southern half of Beckham County, were part of Texas.

Congress created the Northern Judicial District of Texas in 1879, and Greer County was among the counties included. That same year, Texas claimed all unappropriated land in Greer County and set aside half of it to support schools and the other half to pay for public debt. The state also began giving land grants in the county to Texas military veterans.

The well-worn Western Cattle Trail soon cut through the county, which was formally organized in 1886, and the Texas Rangers provided law enforcement. Greer County was considered as much a part of the Lone Star State as any of its other political subdivision.

The county seat was originally known as Tin City. That name was born of the frugality of store owner Henry Sweet, who cut open empty tin cans and tacked them on the outside of his framed building to keep out the cold and dust.

"When all the trail herds were coming through he charged cowboys five cents for a can of beans if they ate them at the store, ten cents if they took them with them," said Elizabeth White, a retired registered nurse who volunteers at the Old Greer County Museum in Mangum.

Pretty soon, she said, folks were calling the collection of frame business houses Tin City. That lasted until it came time to get a post office and the town was named Mangum in honor of Capt. A.S. Mangum, who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto.

Meanwhile, Texas cattlemen had bought or leased thousands of acres in Greer County. That's when the federal government, which oversaw Indian reservations just to the east and north of the Texas county, asserted that due to old surveying and mapping errors, the land did not really belong to Texas. It was federal land. Cavalry troopers from nearby Fort Sill marched in to notify the ranchers that they needed to vacate the area, but the property owners stood firm and the Army did not try to enforce Washington's edict.

This might have been around the time Satan came to check out Greer County, joked White. "The devil," she said, "climbed up Hay Stack Mountain, looked over the landscape and declared: 'As far as I can see, I don't want. This is God's country.'"

The range boss of Hell may not have coveted Greer County, but the men running cattle on it sure did, as did the federal government. The issue led to a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before being decided against Texas in 1896. Proof enough of the complicated nature of the land dispute is the length of the lawsuit-1,400 pages.

"The lawsuit is full of interesting depositions," said Stephen Dock, museum director. "Some of it [the document] reads like a Western novel."-

When Texas lost Greer County, few of its residents were particularly excited about suddenly becoming residents of the Oklahoma Territory.

One of those people was Joseph Fletcher Thompson, White's grandfather on her father's side. A cowboy, he had come to Greer County in 1879 from Grayson County, becoming one of the area's earliest settlers. By the 1890s, he owned three sections-1,920 acres. At least he thought he did.

"When Oklahoma got aholt of it [Greer County], he lost two and a quarter sections," White said of her grandfather.

After the Supreme Court rendered its decision, some Greer Countians opted to get the heck out of Dodge, well, Mangum. "My great-grandfather on my mother's side, James Coy Smith, moved to Colorado," White said. "A lot of people left, but my grandfather Thompson stayed here. He had a wife and four kids to take care of."

He remained for a long time, too, dying in 1926. "He lived to be 90 years and six months old," she said.

So, are the good people of Greer County, OK happy to be Okies or would they really rather still be Texans?

"I'd say it's about half and half," said White.

Dock, a retired firefighter, didn't hesitate with his answer.

"It depends on whether you want to pay a state income tax or high property taxes."

Oklahoma has the former; Texas, in the opinion of many, has the latter.

Wegefarth and Greer Ghost Counties TX 1876 RR Map
Texas Ghost Counties: Wegefarth and Greer - 1876 RR Map
Courtesy of the Texas General Land Office
See Texas Ghost Counties
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February 6 , 2019

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  • Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

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  • A Coffin Just in Case 1-2-19

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