Vinita's original site was about two miles south of the present town, on the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway (Katy, now the Union Pacific) and within the Cherokee Nation's Cooweescoowee District. Elias C. Boudinot founded the town and named it for his friend, sculptor Vinnie Reams. However, Johnson Thompson and other Cherokees persuaded the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad) to reroute their tracks north to cross the Katy's at the town's present location, at the time called "the Junction" or "Downingville." Boudinot managed to later change the name to Vinita.
In 1871 the sale of lots began. Vinita was the second Cherokee town to incorporate under a law passed by the Cherokee Council. In 1898, after the United States passed the Curtis Act, abolishing tribal courts, Vinita incorporated under Arkansas law, which the U.S. government had extended over the territory.
According to a report of the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs by 1866 Vinita's population had grown to one thousand. In 1892 the First National Bank, one of the oldest banks in Indian Territory, was established. In 1894 Masonic Lodge Number Five was founded. Ranching played an important role in the area's economy.
From 1902 to 1907 Vinita served as the seat of the Northern District Federal Court. In 1907, when Craig County was created, Vinita became the governmental center. The Vinita Indian Chieftain, the first newspaper, began publication in 1882, and the Daily Indian Chieftain was added in 1899. The Vinita Leader first appeared in 1895. In 1907 the Vinita Daily Journal began and remained in publication at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Several other newspapers have also served residents.
During World War II Burke Aviation operated a glider school in Vinita and between September 1942 and March 1943 trained 225 cadets.
In 1912 Eastern State Hospital, a mental health center, was built on the northeast edge of town. In January 1913 the first patients arrived. This facility was one of the county's largest employers until its operations were reduced in the late 1990s. Since 2003, a new Oklahoma Department of Corrections facility, Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center, has occupied part of state hospital's land.
Educational institutions have remained important. Worcester Academy was established in 1883. In 1888 W. E. Halsell founded Halsell College in honor of his daughter Willie, who had died in 1883. In 1897 the Catholic Church established Sacred Heart Academy, a boarding school that continued operation until 1968. Attucks was a separate school for African American students. At the end of the twentieth century Vinita Public Schools accommodated about eighteen hundred students in grades preschool through twelve.
Will Rogers, who attended Worcester Academy and Willie Halsell College, suggested the idea of a local rodeo, and the Will Rogers Memorial Rodeo began in 1935. Lucien (Hoolie) Bell, a lawyer and member of the Sequoyah Constitutional Convention, and Ballerina Yvonne Chouteau were Vinita natives. Others with community ties are Cherokee Chief Thomas M. Buffington, Olympian Jeff Bennett, rodeo cowboy Tee Woolman, television show host Dr. Phil McGraw, former Illinois governor Jim Edgar, and Gene Autry, who lived in Vinita when discovered by Will Rogers. The current Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Church Hoskin, Jr., was born and raised in Vinita.
A number of local properties have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including the Craig County Courthouse (NR 84002994), the First Methodist-Episcopal Church, South (NR 99000673), the Hotel Vinita (NR 94001608), the Randall Tire Company (NR 95000029), and the Spraker Service Station (NR 95000030).
For information and displays about the history of Vinita, visit our Eastern Trails Museum.
Additional articles about the founding and history of Vinita: