By Cady Shaw
The “Cherokee Prison: Post Statehood” exhibit is on display now through January 2019 at the Cherokee National Prison Museum in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. This exhibit highlights how the prison, built in 1875 by Cherokee Nation, was utilized after 1900 when the tribal government was shut down due to the passage of the Curtis Act.
In 1904, the Cherokee National Prison was sold to Cherokee County and first used as a makeshift insane asylum and then as a jail. In 1925, the Cherokee County jail was condemned and considered unfit for use due to the third floor being inaccessible through the interior. This floor was removed, and the county spent $5,000 to remediate the interior. Afterwards, the jail reopened.
From the mid-1920s through the 1970s, Cherokee County jail had its fair share of memorable inmates and lawmen. A few are highlighted in the exhibit, including Mrs. Kindness Garrett, who got in a shootout with her ex-husband and stood trial for his death. Somehow, local newspaper reporters were able to enter the women’s cell block and question her. Garrett’s case was reported as far away as California.
Another person profiled is former sheriff Grover Cleveland Bishop, who was known to carry a tommy gun and a small submachine gun around Tahlequah and the surrounding area while apprehending criminals. Bishop is on record as having killed 17 people while on duty, more than any other Cherokee County sheriff.
The exhibit features these stories and more, as well as providing a large, walk-on floor map of the jail as it was laid out during the county years. There is also an area where guests can leave their own personal stories about the county jail. Every week, visitors come to the Cherokee National Prison Museum and declare they have a story about the building when it was a county prison, and now they have the opportunity to leave those stories behind for others to enjoy! The only stipulation is that the stories are family friendly.
The Cherokee County jail operated for 75 years when it was closed and a new county jail opened.
Cherokee Nation regained ownership of the building in 1979 and used it for various purposes before turning it into a world-class museum in 2013. The Cherokee National Prison served in its intended use off and on for more than 100 years, which is a testament to Cherokee Nation’s forethought to build the facility.