The area in which Birch Lake is located was once occupied by prehistoric Indians and later was considered as Cherokee Indian Territory. In 1870 (through a series of treaties and negotiations), the Osage Nation relinquished control of the Kansas lands and was forced to move to this area. This land consisted of 500,000 acres in what is now Osage County, Oklahoma. James Bigheart, who became one of the great Osage chiefs, helped negotiate with the U.S. government over mineral rights on the tribal lands. By an act of congress in 1906, the Osage Nation retained ownership of minerals, and the discovery of oil later made the Osages the richest Indians in the United States. In 1905, the Midland Valley Railroad reached the present site of Barnsdall. A town soon began to develop and, in 1906, a post office was established and named for Chief Bigheart. In 1921, the town was renamed in honor of T. N. Barnsdall who was considered the world's first oil refiner and was the founder of the refinery at the present site of the Bareco plant at Barnsdall.
Visitors interested in early Oklahoma history will find sightseeing in the Birch Lake area rewarding. Markers describe historic landmarks such as the James Bigheart grave at the family cemetery located just east of Barnsdall on Highway 11. At Bartlesville, located northeast of the project in Washington County, the first commercial oil well drilled in Oklahoma is a point of interest. Woolaroc Ranch and Museum, located east of the project, is another interesting stop for the visitor. It traces the development of the southwest, through archeological specimens and artifacts. There are buffalo, deer, and other wildlife on the 4,000-acre ranch. Other nearby points of interest for the history buff are Barnsdall's Main Street Oil Well which was completed in 1914, the Bareco Refinery complex south of Barnsdall and the Osage Indian Museum in Pawhuska, Okla.
Birch Dam and Lake, a multipurpose project for flood management, water supply, water quality control, recreation, and fish and wildlife, was authorized for construction by the Flood Control Act of 1962. The project is part of the comprehensive plan for flood management and water conservation in the Verdigris River Basin. In addition to Birch, the plan includes construction of Copan Lake on Little Caney River, Sand Lake on Sand Creek, Candy Lake on Candy Creek, and Skiatook Lake on Hominy Creek, for management of the Verdigris River and tributaries. Estimated cost of the project is $13,400,000. The Tulsa District, Corps of Engineers, designed the Birch Dam and Lake project and supervised its construction by private contractors chosen by competitive bidding. Construction was started in November 1973, and the impoundment ceremony was held in March 1977.