Poteau, the county seat of LeFlore County, is located in beautiful Southeastern Oklahoma. It is a growing, progressive city with an eye on the future and a historical heritage few other communities can match.
Poteau, a French word for "post" , is located on the banks of the river bearing its name. Nestled in the fertile Poteau River Valley, it is almost completely surrounded by mountains. Looking eastward across the Poteau River, one can see the peak of Sugar Loaf Mountain in the distance. On the southern horizon the Winding Stair Mountain Range can be seen. Immediately to the west is Cavanal Hill, the world's highest hill.
Various races of men have called this region home. Between 500 and 1300 A.D., Mound Builders built their temples and burial places in what is now the Spiro area and northern LeFlore County, and roamed southward into the mountainous regions of LeFlore County. It has been said that Mayan Indians pressing up from Mexico, Central, and South America may have clashed with the Mound Builders hundreds of years ago.
Runestones found in Poteau and Heavener have been cited as evidence of European travel in the Poteau River Valley prior to the historically recognized exploration of the area. A stone is currently located on Poteau Mountain just outside Heavener's city limits. There is much speculation as to the origin and meaning of the ancient stone's runic carvings, some even say that the stone is evidence of Viking people traveling to this area. There is such interest and curiosity in the stone and surrounding area that a state park has been erected around this mysterious rock.
Although it is possisible that Francisco Vázquez de Coronado may have explored the area around Poteau as early as 1514, the first "confirmed" European exploration of the area began in 1719 when the French explorer Bernard de la Harpe led an expedition to the Poteau area. The City of Poteau has its origin in 1885, with a few houses and Bud Tate's general store. In 1888 the Poteau post office was established, and the town of Poteau was incorporated on October 8, 1898. In that same year a school was constructed of native stone. The building was erected through the contributions of the Poteau residents that voted to tax themselves $6,000 for the school. This was the first free school in the Indian Territory.
The Federal court was moved to Poteau from nearby Cameron in 1900. By 1903 most activities in town centered on the court, and the two railroads, the Kansas City Southern and Frisco, which had recently finished running lines through town. The Bank of Poteau and The First Bank of Poteau were established in 1901, and in 1904 were nationalized. The deposits of each were estimated to be about $50,000.
The early 1900's were years of rapid growth for Poteau. The Amos Handle Factory thrived, and The Poteau Daily News and Sun, first published in 1895, had a subscription list that grew to around 350. In 1903 the Witteville Coal Mine was operating near Poteau, and although that mine was later abandoned, others opened in its place. Coal mining has continued to employ many citizens of the community to this day.
A telephone company was granted a franchise in 1904, and was quickly followed by electricity and a waterworks system in 1906. In 1908, a year after the Indian Territory was admitted to statehood, the required population of 2,000 was attained and Governor C.N. Haskell issued a proclamation declaring Poteau "a city of the first class." In 1910 one of the first natural gas wells in the Poteau area was discovered.
In 1922 Poteau became the first city in the United States, with a population under 5,000, to be granted a charter for a Rotary Club, and in 1933 the first two-year community college in the state of Oklahoma was founded in Poteau, this college was later named Carl Albert State College after House Speaker Carl Albert. It was also the first public school in Oklahoma to fully integrate students of all races.
The late United State Senator Robert S. Kerr loved Poteau so much that he built a home here and invested money into a ranch and cattle. With the growth of navigation on the Arkansas River, he saw the potential for Poteau to be a major city. He correctly pointed out to Poteau residents, that the Poteau River, with its mouth on the Arkansas River at historic Belle Point in Fort Smith, could be made navigable to the city of Poteau.
The Kerr Museum has artifacts spanning the entire "known" history of the Poteau River Valley, including Indian artifacts from various tribes, material dealing with the famous Runestones, artifacts from the Spiro Mound complex, and articles used by Oklahoma and western pioneers in the building of the Indian Territory of the Great West. This includes a collection of more than 300 types of barbed wire. In 1978 the museum was donated to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.