The first community established at this site was named Metz, named for its first postmaster, Fred Metzner. The name was changed even before the railroad was built in 1889. Nowata served as a train stop for Native Americans from the East being resettled by the government. Some controversy exists about the meaning of the town name. The Lenape tribesmen who passed through named it "nuwita," meaning "friendly" or "welcome." In the Cherokee language, the town is called ??????? (A-ma-di-ka-ni-gunh-gunh, roughly), which means, "water is all gone," translating what it sounded like the word meant: No Water.

In 1889, the Kansas and Arkansas Valley Railway (later part of the Missouri Pacific Railway) built a line through Nowata. A post office was established in the town on November 8, 1889. Nowata was incorporated April 17, 1899. By 1900, Nowata had 498 residents.

Oil and gas were discovered nearby in 1904, stimulating the Nowata economy. The find established Nowata as "...a region (having) a reputation for being the world's largest shallow oil field." Some wells in this field have continued to produce into the twenty-first century.

A Federal court was established in 1904, and met on the third floor of the new building owned by the First National Bank of Nowata. The building housing the court burned down in 1909, destroying all records and forcing the court to move temporarily to another building. When Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907, Nowata County was created and named for the city, which was designated as the county seat. By that time, the city population had climbed to 2,233. A permanent Nowata County Courthouse was completed in 1912, and remains in use at present. It is the only local property listed on the National Record of Historic Places.

Nowata's peak population was 4,435 in 1920. The city became the southern terminus of the Union Electric Railway, which continued to serve the city until 1948. Newspapers included the Nowata Herald and the Nowata Advertiser. The town had 850 telephones by 1930. However, the 1930 census showed the first population decline in the city's history, to nearly the 1910 level.

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