Oklahoma's Early Banking An Era Of 'Wild West Capitalism'

Jun 30, 2014

Credit University of Oklahoma Press

Overzealous railroad builders and near-constant debates over the merits of gold vs. silver led to the worst financial crisis the United States had ever seen toward the end of the 19th century.

By the time the dust had settled after the Panic of 1893, the U.S. comptroller of the currency's annual report indicated 573 national, state, private, and savings banks as well as loan, trust and mortgage companies failed during the year.

Historian and principal researcher for the Oklahoma Historical Society's Oklahoma Bank and Commerce History Project Michael Hightower chronicles the Panic's effect on Oklahoma in his 2013 book Banking in Oklahoma Before Statehood.

On July 19, 1893, thousands poured into the streets outside the First National Bank in downtown Oklahoma City as depositors demanded their money long after the usual close of business. Hightower writes bank vice president T.M. Richardson, a successful lumber entrepreneur, addressed the crowd.

By nightfall, employees' nerves were frayed, and Richardson decided to call a halt to the drain on bank deposits. Mounting the front steps of the bank, he held up his hand to call for silence and told the crowd that tweelve hours of banking was enough for one day.

"We're going to close up now, folks," Richardson announced to the milling throng. "We will be open in the morning and all of you who haven't been waited on today can have your money if you want it. But I want to tell you that there is enough money in our safe to pay off every depositor in full."

"He said, 'If you can't get your money out of this bank, string me up by that telephone pole over there,' and pointed to a telephone pole," Hightower says. "What they didn't know is that those bags going in the back door were full of washers and scrap metal."

After buying that time, Richardson solicited the help of other banks, and received a $5,000 contribution from territorial treasury funds due to a family connection. The territorial treasurer was the father-in-law of Richardson's good friend Henry Overholser, a well-known early Oklahoma City civic leader.

Hightower writes, "The First National Bank's symbols of safety, buttressed by T.M. Richardson's bravado and an infusion of cold cash, had prevented a tense situation from spinning out of control."


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