Forgotten History: How UA Little Rock’s Sequoyah National Research Center helped preserve historic Cherokee courthouse

Dr. Daniel Littlefield, director of the Sequoyah National Research Center, stands among the center's extensive collection of Native American information. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UA Little Rock Communications.

Dr. Daniel Littlefield, director of the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, recently saw a piece of his local history restored to life.

The former Saline District Courthouse in Rose, Oklahoma, is the only one of nine district courthouses built in the 1800s by the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory still in existence. In August, it was reopened to the public as a cultural museum after years of ongoing work to restore, preserve, and modernize the historic building.

The Cherokee Nation designated the courthouse and the 14-acre grounds as the Saline National Park, the first Cherokee national park. What few people may know is that UA Little Rock’s Sequoyah National Research Center, then known as the American Native Press Archives, played an important role in the building’s preservation.

“The Cherokee Nation made a contract with the American Native Press Archives to produce a restoration/preservation report,” Littlefield said. “Chief Smith knew that I had intimate knowledge of the structure and its site. I was born less than five miles from there, had attended a two-room rural elementary school about 2 1/2 miles away, and had a large number of close relatives who lived only a short distance from the site.”

In 2004, Littlefield hired Fuller Bumpers, then a first-year law student at William H. Bowen School of Law and now a successful attorney, as an intern. The pair had the summer to complete a report and make a recommendation on whether the courthouse should be restored to the original structure built in 1884 or preserved as it was, having undergone many changes during a century as a private residence.

Littlefield and Bumper turned in their report on Sept. 15 and presented their findings to the Cherokee Nation on Oct. 9, 2004. Much of the research was completed at UA Little Rock since Sequoyah holds much of the Cherokee Nation’s records from the Civil War through World War I.

“On the basis of our report, the Cherokee Nation decided to preserve the building,” Littlefield said. “A volunteer group organized to work toward that goal. To raise funds in those days before the flush time of casinos, the group published our report, ‘Saline District Courthouse: Historical Contexts Study,’ and sold copies. The grounds and the building were open to the public, but then closed in preparation for the latest stage in its history.”

Littlefield said that the recommendation to preserve the building came after taking into account the building’s long history. When the building stopped serving as a courthouse in 1898, it became a private residence, underwent significant changes, and has become an iconic fixture in the local community.

“The building became a cultural icon through the 20th century,” Littlefield said. “There was no one living who would have remembered the original structure. I’m very pleased that the building is now more accessible and appealing to the public. The Cherokee Nation has a rich history that they want to preserve.”

The Saline Courthouse Museum holds two galleries featuring historical and cultural exhibits and the work of Cherokee artists, a gift shop, a public space, and a video presentation room. The first historic exhibit, “Saline Courthouse: Home to a Community,” highlights the history of the courthouse.

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