By Kevin Hudson
Ryan Clark’s experimental form for his poems, in which he dismantles his source material and rearranges it using homophonic translation, in some ways mirrors the history of the towns he chose to portray. Whereas today’s Greer County is contained within Oklahoma, Frazer and Navajoe are part of an older and larger Greer County, a region that stretched over modern-day southwestern Oklahoma.
When submitting his work to Poor Yorick, Clark wrote, “These poems are a part of my Old Greer County project, which is a series that explores the history of the part of southwest Oklahoma that was once Greer County, Texas. In writing these poems, I used a unique method of homophonic translation which relies on the re-sounding of a source text, letter by letter, according to the various possible sounds each letter is able to produce. For example, cat may become ash by silencing the c as in indict, and by sounding the t as a sh- sound, as in ratio. The source text for these poems was found among archival materials from The Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus, Oklahoma.”
Beyond the floods, dust storms and tornadoes that have ravaged the area, inhabitants have been the victims of an international tug-of-war since the early 1700s. As a result, Greer County has flown many flags over the course of its history.
After having concentrated their efforts on trade, French colonists moved into the area around 1682. That’s when the explorer La Salle built a fort near Memphis, Tennessee, and claimed the region for France, calling it La Louisiane, after King Louis XIV. In 1762, after the French and Indian War, France gave the territory to Spain.1 Then, in a move that I’m sure made the new inhabitants’ heads spin, Spain gave the region back to France, which then passed it over to the United States, a transaction known as the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. This deal doubled the size of the United States, containing a huge area that added the Mississippi’s western basin that included two of the river’s major feeders, the Missouri and the Arkansas, as well as the Red River. It was the latter river that defined the boundaries of the Old Greer County.
Clark explained, “The area was not officially settled until the creation of Greer County in the mid- to late 19th century, as part of Texas. Before that point, it was part of an area controlled by the Wichita, Kiowa, and Comanche, of whom only the Wichita ever established semi-permanent villages in the area.”
So, if it isn’t already complicated, an 1819 surveying mistake makes it even more so. What began as a border treaty between the U.S. and Spain later became a border dispute between Oklahoma and Texas. The still relatively new United States (having by now accumulated 21 states) wanted ownership of the territory where Florida lies today, but at the time it was in the hands of Spain. In the Adams-Onís Treaty, Spain agreed to hand over Florida in exchange for clear borders for its territories west of the Mississippi River. However, GPS and surveying instruments not being what they are today, a cartographer placed the Red River farther north than it actually is. No one paid any attention to the mistake at first, but it would later have repercussions on who controlled Greer County. In the meantime, the treaty, under Article 3, put Greer County under the Spanish flag.2
Two years later, in 1821, when Mexico gained independence from Spain, Greer County became part of the now Mexican state of Texas. But, history was not quite done with the fate of Greer. In 1836, after the Battle of San Jacinto, Texas broke away from Mexico and formed the Republic of Texas. Clark said, “The Alamo was a major defeat, and the Battle of San Jacinto is what won Texas its independence from Mexico. Also, veterans of the Battle of San Jacinto were later offered tracts of land in Greer County once the county was formed in the 1860s, and this is actually what began the settlement of the area.” Then, in 1845, Texas, pulling Greer along with it, joined the United States, making it the fifth country to claim the region. And this is not counting any claims that Native Americans, like the Comanche, Kiowa, and Wichita, had to the land.3
But back to the story of Greer’s changing sovereignty because it’s not quite over: After decades of the back and forth, the county, whether it was part of Spain, Mexico, or the Republic of Texas, was still within the region called Texas. But today, Greer is not part of Texas—it is part of Oklahoma. Remember that mistake the surveyor made in 1819 with the location of the Red River? Well, later surveyors figured out that earlier ones were using an upper channel as a border, not the main one which lay farther south. Noting this correction, Oklahoma went to court and sued for Greer County. In 1896, they won the case, pushing Oklahoma’s border farther south, thereby reducing the size of Texas. With that final change in sovereignty, Greer County then became what it is today, a region of Oklahoma.4 Old Greer County is now made up of Greer, Jackson, Harmon, and part of Beckham counties, as the larger county was broken up into smaller parts to better serve the settlers of the area once it began to become a bit more populated in the early 1900s.
With all the flag changes Greer County endured over more than two centuries, I can’t imagine what that did to their concept of patriotism. Through all those political transformations and all those natural disasters, some of which are mentioned in Clark’s poems, their allegiance must be first and foremost to their family and their community. This also, I suppose, might help us understand the nature of the frontiersman.
1. Library of Congress. “Louisiana: European Explorations and the Louisiana Purchase.”
2. World Heritage Encyclopedia. “Adams-Onís Treaty.” Project Gutenberg World Publishing Press. http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/Adams–Onís Treaty.
4. Oklahoma Historical Society. “Old Greer County.” http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=GR025.