Tucked away in the backroads of Spiro, Oklahoma, in the southeastern part of the state sits a relatively unknown monument to native history: Skullyville Cemetery.
Officially the cemetery is known as the Skullyville Choctaw National Cemetery. It sits in a rural part of town on a shady lawn surrounded by forest with a few residential homes nearby.
Graves here date back to the early 1800s with the settlement of Skullyville (Scullyville), a community in what then was Indian Territory in the Choctaw Nation. It remains unknown exactly how many native bodies lay buried in this cemetery as most sit in unmarked plots. It’s estimated hundreds to even thousands may be at rest on this land.
A stone when you enter the cemetery reads:
“The founding of Skullyville dates back to 1832 when the removal of the Choctaws to their new home was in full progress.
“The old cemetery has all the interest usually attached to these ancient places. Early on our people used rocks or stones to mark their loved one's gravesites. Though most of the rocks and stones that were not engraved or marked in some way have been removed, it is known that hundreds of Indian people lie here in unmarked graves.
“The stones that are left with engraving date back to the early eighteen thirties. It is a peaceful spot where numerous trees cast their shade over the last resting place of many of our ancestors.
It was on May 2, 1998, that Miko (Chief) Gregory E. Pyle unveiled this monument with the wording above to symbolize Skullyville Cemetery as the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s national cemetery.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, Skullyville was established in 1832.
Although Skullyville seems like the perfect name for a cemetery, the name doesn’t have any relation to skulls. It comes from the Choctaw word for money, “iskuli.” Skullyville could be roughly translated to “Money Town” because it was here that Choctaw people received federal annuity payments.
Officially, Skullyville was actually known as the Choctaw Agency and later Oak Lodge. Skullyville was the capital of the Moshulatubbee District of the Choctaw Nation.
Skullyville fell into decline after the Civil War when it aligned with the Confederacy and suffered significant damages from fires. The construction of the railroad at Spiro also bypassed the town, further sealing its demise.
Not much remains of the settlement now but the historic cemetery.
Skullyville, known as one of the oldest Choctaw cemeteries, is the final resting place of many Trail of Tears survivors. There are also former chiefs of the Nation buried here, such as Colonel Tandy Walker and Edmund McCurtain.
Their resilience is captured on monuments in the cemetery, such as the one pictured above.
It reads, “A Tribute to the Natives of Many Tribes of This Hemisphere: We knew God and knew he was the creator of all creation. ‘Our blessed Father sayeth the Lord, I will put my laws into their mind and write them in their hearts.’ We knew God’s laws and kept God’s commandments. We never were savages. Cruel, brutal, ferocious barbarians. We knew ‘the truth,’ we lived ‘in order, decency, peace and freedom.’ Until the foreigners invaded our country.’”
The Trail of Tears was a time in the 1830s when around 60,000 Native Americans were forcibly relocated to Indian Territory, or present-day Oklahoma, as part of the Indian Removal Act. Hunger, disease, exhaustion, and exposure to the elements killed thousands. Removed natives stemmed from several Native American tribes, including the Choctaws.
Although many graves at Skullyville are aged, several broken or chipping away, the cemetery itself is relatively well-maintained. Choctaw families continue to have a stronghold in the region, including many descended from those buried at Skullyville.
The Choctaw Nation remains prominent in the region. The Tribe has several casinos, Travel Plazas, health clinics, community centers, gyms, and hospitals. Despite the cruelty bestowed upon their ancestors, the Tribe often holds free public dinners and hosts a free Labor Day festival yearly for all to attend, native or not.
Skullyville Cemetery remains a monument to the resilience of the Choctaw, and all native, people. It is my hope this cemetery remains a viable part of native history for years to come.