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A History of Hunter’s Home

Hunter’s Home in the early 1900s

The history of Hunter’s Home began when Minerva Ross and George Murrell first met sometime in the 1820s. Born in January 1819, Minerva was the oldest of five children born to Lewis Ross and his wife Frances. They were a wealthy, influential family in Tennessee where Lewis operated a mercantile. Not only was Lewis Ross treasurer of the Cherokee Nation, but his brother John was the first principal chief.

Minerva Ross Murrell
George Murrell

Born in 1808, George Murrell was part of a wealthy, white, Virginia plantation family. He moved to Tennessee in the 1820s to partner with his brother, Onslow, in a mercantile operation. It was here that George came into contact with Lewis Ross and met his first wife Minerva. The couple were said to have eloped after asking and being denied permission to wed. According to family history, they snuck out of the house and ran to the Hiwassee River along the back of Ross’ property where Murrell had hidden a canoe. They were married in Athens, Tennessee, at the Cherokee Agency in McMinn County on July 7, 1834. They set up household with four enslaved people on a property in Athens.

Before the Cherokee removal to Indian Territory, Murrell reportedly traveled to Park Hill with the Ross brothers, Lewis and John, to find a new place to settle. When Murrell saw Park Hill Creek and the land surrounding present-day Hunter’s Home, he approached Jack McCoy, the Old Settler living there, and asked to buy his improvements. Cherokees did not own the land but held it in common. This meant Murrell could not purchase the land, but he could buy the improvements. McCoy told Murrell he would not sell even if he offered $2,000. Murrell promptly produced $2,000, and McCoy sold the improvements. Lewis Ross presented the cabin McCoy had lived in to Minerva upon her arrival to Park Hill.

According to an 1862 census, 42 enslaved people lived at Hunter’s Home. Among the enslaved people were skilled workers such as a seamstress, cook, blacksmiths, teamsters, and those adept at fiber arts, as well as field hands. Upon arrival at Park Hill, Murrell set his enslaved people to construct the mansion and clear the land for planting. The home was built on a rise above Park Hill Creek on foundations of sandstone blocks quarried nearby. The home’s architectural style is Greek Revival and was originally L-shaped with a parlor and sitting room at the front of the house, separated by a central entrance hall and a dining room in the back of the home. Directly behind the parlor was the dining room, which was separated from the kitchen by another porch. Two sets of stairs provided access to the second level of the house, which contained three guest bedrooms (one of which was used as the winter bedroom), a balcony, and the stairway leading to what was once the clerestory. A clerestory was an antebellum version of air conditioning. It enabled circulation of air throughout the house, helping to keep it cool.

According to a diary written by George’s niece Emily Murrell, a library was added to the house and used as a family sitting room as well as an office. They converted a side porch into a solarium, filled it with houseplants, and installed a large cage that they filled with canaries. A kitchen garden accessible via the kitchen stairs provided vegetables for meals and a surplus to preserve for later use. Herb gardens provided for spices and seasonings as well as medicines to relieve everyday complaints such as stomachaches, scrapes, and other maladies.

The outbuildings included a springhouse to provide fresh water and cold storage for the house; a smokehouse to preserve meat; barns; stables; kennels; and various sheds and coops for fowl, pigs, and sheep.

A log cabin on the east side of the plantation served as George’s mercantile where he sold items such as pencils, ink, cooking implements, silks, gentlemen’s beaver hats, and china. He also installed post office boxes in his store when he became postmaster of Park Hill.

At the blacksmith shop located somewhere near the mercantile store, enslaved workers forged everything from horseshoes to plows—producing additional income for the plantation.

Other sources of income and supplies for the plantation included apple orchards and acres of field crops such as corn, sorghum, and pumpkins. The Murrells claimed an estimated 800 acres in the Park Hill area for their use.

Visitors to the house walked up a long tree-lined path or rode in their horse-drawn conveyances to the entrance at the east porch. The Murrells enjoyed a rich social life as family and friends often stopped to visit or to join in the many socials at the home. George and Minerva hosted a great variety of weddings, dinners, and parties.

Minerva, a devout Methodist, entertained members of many churches at the house. Emily noted in her diary the many evenings Minerva hosted prayer meetings, and that she went to church services every Sunday, except when she was too ill. While their lives were rich in family and friends, the Murrells had no children, possibly due to Minerva’s illness. She loved children though, and invited neighborhood children to her home where she read Bible stories and served cakes and candies. The couple also helped raise Minerva’s cousins, Jenny Pocahontas Ross and Joshua Ross. Jenny later married Murrell’s nephew, John Dobbins Murrell, and Joshua established a general store of his own in Muskogee.

In 1855 Minerva passed away due to complications from malaria. She was a month shy of her 37th birthday.

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Root Hog or Die

“Root hog or die” is slang for self-reliance derived from the early colonial practice of turning pigs loose in the woods to fend for themselves. Follow the adventures of the staff and volunteers at Hunter’s Home in Park Hill, Oklahoma, as we work to transform a static house museum into a living history farm depicting life on an 1850s farm in the Cherokee Nation.

We invite you to follow the Hunter’s Home Blog—Root Hog or Die—as this historic property transitions from a static house museum into a living history farm depicting life on an 1850s farm in the Cherokee Nation.

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The George Murrell Home as it appeared during much of its history as a static house museum

Across the country attendance at traditional house museums has been declining. To remain relevant to today’s audience and share the rich history of Indian Territory, change is necessary. When the site was originally acquired by the State of Oklahoma in 1945, 100% of the operating funds came from state appropriations. That funding pattern has shifted over the years with declining appropriations, rising costs, and greater expectations. Today funding comes from three main sources: 1/3 from state appropriations; 1/3 from earned income such as admissions, program fees, and gift shop sales; and 1/3 from the Cherokee Nation. With declining state appropriations, change is necessary. To survive, the property now needs to generate much of its own income and with declining interest in visiting a static historic home, a new mission was needed. That mission is to return the site into what it once was—a working farm in the Cherokee Nation in the 1850s.

The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department began operation of the property in 1945 as the George Murrell Home. We will cover the early history of the property as well as its inhabitants in our next blog post. In 1991, the property was transferred to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

After making the decision to work toward development of a historical farm, the next step was to restore the original name to the property. Historical records confirm that family, friends, and area residents referred to the property as Hunter’s Home—the name given to the property by George Murrell and his first wife, Minerva Ross.

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Hunter’s Home with the original porch construction restored and the original paint color, determined from paint analysis

The Murrells followed the southern custom of naming their properties. George Murrell was an avid fox hunter, so the name Hunter’s Home was bestowed upon the Park Hill property. The family property in Louisiana was named Tally Ho, and their Virginia property was named Rose Hill. Restoring the name the family gave to the home reconnected it to an important piece of the past. The Murrell family always referred to their home as Hunter’s Home, and the descendants continue to do so today. The home was part of a working plantation when the Murrells lived there, and we are working to bring a piece of this back to life.

We invite you to join us on our journey.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

By David Fowler

As we work to return Hunter’s Home to a working farm, fencing is one of the first necessary improvements. Fencing is not only functional, it can be aesthetically pleasing and set the stage for the visitor as we invite them to step back into the 19th century. During a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I liked seeing a wide variety of fencing as I explored the site. It made my experience more enjoyable and educational to see how vital fencing was in 18th-century Virginia, and how various fencing types served different functions. When I returned to Hunter’s Home, I realized the landscape was missing this essential element.

What type of fencing would be appropriate for our 1850s farm? Unfortunately all the original wood fencing from the era is long gone. However, part of a stone fence from the 1850s remains, which marks the location of the once-thriving orchard at Hunter’s Home. The foundation is still clearly visible. It survived a lack of maintenance since the 1960s and damage during the construction of the nature trail in the 1970s. This fence was built more by accident than by design. Plowing an orchard was common in the 19th century. Plowed up stones were stacked at the edge of the field, or in the case of a hillside orchard, pitched in a wash to prevent erosion. As rocks piled up and the wall grew taller, usually two or three feet high, a rider fence would be built on top—extending the height to protect the growing crops within from roaming livestock. Other clues come from letters and diaries written by Murrell and Ross family members, which include some descriptions of fences. Finally, thanks to noted Cherokee photographer Jennie Ross Cobb, we have photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that show fencing.

Hog Tight, Ox Strong, and Mule High—The Virginia Zigzag Rail Fence

photo via Jennie Ross Cobb

Farmers used to build fences to keep livestock out, not to keep them in. Although they had corrals near barns and sheds to protect valuable or vulnerable animals, livestock were free-range. Hence, branding or marking animals was critical to distinguish your livestock from your neighbor’s. Most fencing was utilitarian. It had to be tight, strong, and high. According to the colloquialism, fencing had to be “hog tight, ox strong, and mule high.” Zigzag or snake rail fences were one of the most common types of fencing. This simple fence was made from rough-split logs placed horizontally on the ground in a zig-zag pattern. The rails were usually ten or eleven feet long. The farmer, or as in the case at Hunter’s Home, the enslaved people, would leave one foot of overhang at the intersection of the rails—giving the fence an eight-foot run to each section. Each section typically had six to eight rails stacked roughly eight inches apart (hog tight), making it about five feet high. Two eight-foot rails would be driven about twelve inches into the ground at each rail intersection using a wooden mallet. The rails would then be lashed together about twelve inches from the top. These rails served as bracing to make the fence ox strong. Another rail called a headrail or buck rail would be placed on top, spanning from brace to brace. This made the fence about seven feet high, or mule high. This style of fencing works well in a region like the Ozarks, where rocks are not as plentiful.  

Our fencing project started with post and rail fencing, using split red cedar. We dug post holes, set posts, and inserted rails into slots in the posts. The end posts have vertical slot openings that do not go all the way through. By contrast, the slots on the other posts go all the way through. The rails have a shaped end to fit in the slot on the post. This work requires two people to align the posts and hold them as the rails are inserted. Once the rails are in place, and the post is straight, the hole is filled in, and the next rail is inserted into the other side of the post. Then this process continues: measure, mark, dig, set posts, insert rails, and repeat. Since the posts and rails are split red cedar, some are twisted or tapered. Eyeballing a tapered post with crooked rails and determining whether the post is standing straight up and in line with the previous posts was a challenge since the crooked rails act as an optical illusion.

Next, we worked on the fence for the livestock interpretation area. Sometimes I had a crew from other OHS sites; other days, it was just me building the fence. The front and west sides of the farm are fenced, and we have gates allowing us to lock and secure the property.

Now we are working on the zigzag fence for our animal enclosure. It will isolate the apiary to keep visitors from disturbing the hives and keep livestock out of the garden and cornfield. Soon our farm will have sheep and draft animals, so “hog tight, ox strong, and mule high” is the perfect fencing for our farm.

Liquid Gold: Honey at Hunter’s Home

Staff here at Hunter’s Home recently finished the second annual honey harvest from our hives and received twice as much as last year! Since we have just completed the harvest, we thought honey would be a fun and timely topic for today’s blog post.

Honey harvested and bottled at Hunter’s Home

Honey bees came to join the many bee species already in America as early as 1622 and were used in a myriad of ways. Both the colonizers and the Native peoples made use of the products created by bees. Honey was important to the folks in Cherokee Nation for its use in cooking, sweetening, medicinal applications, and the goods it brought in through trade or sale. The wax was another bee product that was extremely important to 19th-century folks. Wax was used to make candles, and wax thread was used for sewing all manner of textiles from visiting dresses to sailcloth—it was even buffed into materials to help them shed water. Eliza, enslaved cook of Hunter’s Home, may have been familiar with the uses of honey in the kitchen if 19th-century recipes for honey glazed meats are anything to go by. Medicinal herbs were also infused into honey to make a sweeter treatment as well as to take advantage of the health benefits of the honey itself. Honey was also a satisfactory sugar substitute for those who may not have had access.

Greg McGee prepares the bees for the harvesting process by using a 19th-century smoking apparatus

At the time Minerva and George Murrell were moving to Cherokee Nation, honey and wax were harvested by cutting down the trees where the bees had settled, then removing the honey and wax. This practice was detrimental to the bee colony, as being left without both a food source and the shelter of their hive would result in the bees dying after the harvest. Beekeeping eventually evolved to hosting the hives in tree sections or the cone-shaped skeps made famous in Winnie the Pooh cartoons, but the harvest still included killing the bees. According to Shorrey Ross, cousin of the Ross sisters, there was a beekeeper who operated out of some nearby caves in the area. We are unsure as to what type of hives this gentleman used for his bees.

Eventually L. L. Langstroth patented his creation, the Langstroth hive. This is the type of hive that is most commonly used in modern beekeeping. If you have ever driven by a secluded spot and spied several boxes out in a field, whether painted bright flower colors or a brilliant white—you have likely seen a bee farm. The Langstroth hives are what we use today at Hunter’s Home. These hives are made to suit the preferences of the bees themselves and provide a familiar place for them to store their delicious honey. The bees also help to pollinate our fields, gardens, and soon, our orchards, which is an added benefit of beekeeping!

David Fowler collects the frames from the hives

Our honey harvest increased this year because our bees are more established, and resident beekeeper, Mr. McGee, also caught a few swarms over the past year and brought them back to the site—increasing our hives and overall honey output. Staff members spent a couple days pulling out the frames, cutting the caps that seal the honey into the hives, and popping them into the honey extractor. This machine extracts the honey from the frames by the simple method of spinning them, then allowing all of the honey to fly out and drain to the bottom of a sterile canister. Once our cut of the honey has been taken, the equipment is set out near the hives for the bees to clean. In a very short time, the bees clean our honey equipment so thoroughly it may as well have gone through a steam sterilizer! We only take a portion of the honey since the bees still need a certain amount to get them through winter. If winter comes and we find we have taken too much, we will need to provide the bees with food to sustain them until spring.

Today we put back enough honey to use in our programming, which includes cooking/sweetening food and beverages. Look forward to programs where we will make teas with herbs and flowers from the Hunter’s Home gardens, then sweeten them with honey! In the meantime, our surplus from the recent honey harvest is available for sale. We bottle it in 4 oz., 8 oz., and 1 lb. jars that sell for $5, $10, and $20 respectively. Get it before it’s gone!