Commemorating a daring escape from its walls, the Cherokee National Prison Museum invited visitors Friday to have their pictures taken in period garb behind its venerable bars.
“Escape to the Cherokee National Prison Museum” recalled the bold escape of Tom Ross and Cornelia Hendricks. The two were never recaptured, though it is reported they both returned to live in Tahlequah.
“This was an opportunity to educate the public about the prison,” said Travis Owens, manager of planning and development for Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism. “It allows us to remember one of the prison’s notable escapes, and people like the idea of getting their pictures taken behind bards. It’s a fun twist: People get a commemorative photo, and they can learn about the escape and the entire history of the prison.”
On Feb. 26, 1886, the Cherokee Advocate reported: “Tom Ross an inmate at the National Prison de camped last Sunday taking with him the High Sheriff’s fine bay horse. Cornelia Hendricks also disappeared at the same time on R.B. Ross’ large dun horse. No tidings as yet to their whereabouts, although a reward of fifty five dollars has been offered.”
The New York Times reported the escape on March 8, after receiving a dispatch from Little Rock, Ark., the day before.
The Cherokee National Prison was the first penitentiary in Indian Territory and the only facility to hold prisoners in the territory for nearly 30 years. Conditions were what might be expected in a 19th Century territorial prison, and punishments could be harsh for the most egregious offenses. Many citizens believed a prison contradicted more traditional Cherokee methods of dealing with criminal behavior.
However, Owens said the Cherokee Nation took an alternate view of crime and punishment.
“It wasn’t just about punishment, but also reform,” he said. “Prisoners were taught trades and learned to return as citizens of the Nation. As the Nation progressed, this institution was one of the ways we adapted and took care of the Cherokee people. Perhaps someone had endangered the life of another, but we tried to bring that person back in. The museum is one more way to share Cherokee history and culture with the public.”
In its early days, the prison sat on a large spread of land. There was a 40-acre garden and the gallows was sited away from the building. The original structure had three stories, though the top floor was removed when it was condemned. It remained in use by Cherokee County until 1979. The facility was vacant before the Nation funded a renovation and opened it as a museum in 2011.
“The prison is an asset to Tahlequah,” Owens said. “We invite everyone to embrace this facility and enjoy its the significance to the community.”
The Cherokee National Prison Museum is at 124 E. Choctaw St. Hours are Tuesday - Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, and children under 5 are admitted free. For information, call (877) 779-6977 or visit www.cherokeetourismok.com.
To read about the history of the Cherokee National Prison Museum, go to tahlequahTDP.com