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J. J. McAlester.
Courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society.

James Jackson McAlester (1842-1920)

In 1901, James J. McAlester appeared in the City Directory of Denison, Texas. His entry read: "Vice-President, the National Bank of Denison. Residence, McAlester, Indian Territory." The bank was located at 231 West Main Street, at the corner of Rusk Avenue. President was C. S. Cobb; and R. S. Legate, cashier.

As the attached profiles suggest, McAlester was a prominent citizen of Indian Territory. As vice-president of the National Bank of Denison, he had replaced another wealthy member of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. That was D. Osborne Fisher, who had passed away in 1898. It is not known how Fisher's estate was handled, nor how McAlester came to possess his interest in this Grayson County bank. Nor is it known how long he was involved, as he subsequently played a major role in the movement that turned Indian Territory into the State of Oklahoma. In any case, his resources, connections, and expertise undoubtedly made him a welcome addition to the bank's management.

McAlester, James Jackson (1842-1920)

James Jackson McAlester, also known "J. J." McAlester, contributed to the development of the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory and later emerged as a prominent and influential leader in the state of Oklahoma. He has been hailed as "the Father of Eastern Oklahoma," and contemporaries acclaimed him as the founder of the Oklahoma coal industry and the southeastern Oklahoma town of McAlester. McAlester served as one of Oklahoma's most respected businessmen and politicians.

Born in Sebastian County, Arkansas, on October 1, 1842, McAlester spent his formative years in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Volunteering for service in the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, he rose to the rank of captain prior to discharge. At the conclusion of war McAlester boarded with Oliver Weldon while pursuing studies in Fort Smith. Weldon, a former engineer who had surveyed Indian Territory, gave McAlester his memorandum book that detailed vast coal fields at the Cross Roads area in Indian Territory. With this valuable information, McAlester left school and moved to Indian Territory. At age twenty-four he entered the Choctaw Nation. He found employment with the Indian trading firm of Harlan and Rooks. Later he worked for Reynolds and Hannaford, a firm of post traders. Eventually McAlester bought out his partners and established a store near the outcroppings of coal.

In 1872 McAlester courted and married Rebecca Burney, a Chickasaw girl and sister of Ben Burney, a future governor of the Chickasaw Nation. This union brought McAlester full citizenship and rights in both Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. His citizenship entitled him to stake a claim to coal deposits within a one-mile radius from point of discovery. Over time, McAlester's interests in coal burgeoned, and with the arrival of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway through the Cross-Roads area, the J. J. McAlester Mercantile Company flourished as coal production soared.

During McAlester's colorful lifetime he worked in politics, mining, banking, business, law enforcement, and ranching. In 1893 U.S. President Grover Cleveland appointed him the U.S. Marshal for Indian Territory. He served one term ending in 1897. From 1907 to 1911 he acted as a member of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. In 1911 the people of Oklahoma elected him lieutenant governor under Gov. Lee Cruce. On September 21, 1920, J. J. McAlester died in the town that bears his name.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Coleman Cole Collection, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma. Linda C. English, "Inside the Store, Inside the Past: A Cultural Analysis of McAlester's General Store," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 81 (Spring 2003). J. J. McAlester Collection, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma. Dawes Roll Census Card, 22 September 1904, "James Jackson McAlester," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City. Paul Nesbitt, "J. J. McAlester," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 11 (June 1933).

Author: LaRadius Allen

Oklahoma Historical Society

J. J. McAlester

James Jackson McAlester (October 1, 1842 – September 21, 1920) was an American Confederate Army soldier and merchant. McAlester was the founder of McAlester, Oklahoma, as well as a primary developer of the coal mining industry in eastern Oklahoma. He served as the United States Marshal for Indian Territory (1893–1897), one of three members of the first Oklahoma Corporation Commission (1907–1911), and the second Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma (1911–1915).[1]

He was born in Sebastian County, Arkansas, on October 1, 1842. He grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas. After the defeat of the Confederacy he returned to Fort Smith, where he met engineer Oliver Weldon, who gave him details of the location of coal deposits in the Cross Roads area of Indian Territory (now the McAlester area of Oklahoma). In 1866 he went to the Choctaw Nation and worked as a trader to the Indians.[1]

On August 22, 1872, he married Rebecca Burney (born 1841 in Mississippi - died May 4, 1919, in Oklahoma), a member of the Chickasaw Nation. This made it possible for him to gain citizenship in, and the right to own property in, both the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. Using the knowledge he had gotten from Weldon, he was able to make many lucrative coal claims in the area and to establish what eventually became McAlester Coal Mining Co. His trading company, J. J. McAlester Mercantile Company, was the company store for the miners, since much of their pay was issued in the form of scrip redeemable only at J. J. McAlester Mercantile.[1]

McAlester House, J. J. McAlester's home in McAlester, is on the National Register of Historic Places listings in Pittsburg County, Oklahoma.[2]

He was elected as Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma, and during his tenure McAlester had the occasion to serve as acting governor of Oklahoma, during the absence of Governor Lee Cruce from the state, as evidenced by a pardon he issued in 1915 in the case of Sibenaler v. State (1915 OK CR 45).[3]

He died on September 21, 1920, in McAlester.[1] Rebecca Burney predeceased him. They had four children, including a set of twin girls, all born in Indian Territory:[4][5]

1.   Liza McAlester, 1873–1874

2.   Sudie McAlester, 1873–1959

3.   James Burney "Bunn" McAlester, 1875–1937

4.   William Berry McAlester, 1879–1937

J.J. McAlester, his wife, and three of their four children are buried in Oak Hill Memorial Park in McAlester.  Liza McAlester is buried in North McAlester Cemetery. [5]

J. J. McAlester's store served as the basis for the store visited by U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the 1968 novel True Grit by Charles Portis (and the subsequent 1969 and 2010 feature film versions).[6]


1. Biography of James Jackson McAlester (1842-1920). - Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. - Oklahoma State University.

2. State Historic Preservation Office listing for McAlester House. - Oklahoma Center for Geospatial Information (OCGI) at Oklahoma State University.

3. Sibenaler v State (1915 OK CR 45). - The Oklahoma Supreme Court Network. - 15 May 1915.

4. Genealogy of Rebecca Burney

5. McAlesters buried in McAlester, Oklahoma. Find A Grave.

Hoefling, Larry J. (2008). - "Pittsburg County". - Images of America. - Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. - pp.17-21. - ISBN 978-0-7385-5182-1.

James Jackson McAlester

2nd Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma

In office:               January 9, 1911 – January 11, 1915

Born                     October 1, 1842, Sebastian County, Arkansas

Died                      September 21, 1920 (aged 77), McAlester, Oklahoma

Political party      Democratic

Spouse(s)             Rebecca Burney

Profession            Confederate States Army captain, politician, coal mine owner, banker, merchant, United States Marshal and rancher


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