Land!

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Among the fifty states, no other had a beginning like Oklahoma’s. Its settlers did not arrive singly, or in small groups, but in masses of thousands, all at once. Many of them, moreover, rushed to areas where cities were likely to develop, hoping that the claims they staked out would fall on a choice corner of a still-unplatted town; in order to run their lines for lots and streets, surveyors had to elbow their way through mobs of squatters. As various segments of the Oklahoma Territory were made available for white settlement by “runs”—of which, between 1889 and 1895, there were five—the lands were fully occupied in a matter of hours, with every trade and profession represented, and more people than could be used effectively.

In that first run in 1889, when the pictures on these pages were taken, the settlers came by train, horseback, wagon, or on foot, and they did not come at a leisurely pace, looking carefully for likely pieces of property. They set off at full speed, from controlled borders, at the starting signal of a pistol shot, and raced every other person in sight for plots of farmland or for the areas already designated, hopefully, as future metropolises. Taking possession was the initial step in land ownership, and if a man had enough ammunition and endurance he eventually could “prove up” (that is, legally establish his claim) on the property he had selected.

Most of the western states were settled by people migrating directly west of their original homes. Georgians rarely went to Minnesota when they moved west, nor did New Yorkers head for Texas. But Oklahoma was an exception: its settlers came from every state and territory. They were rich and poor, crooks and upright Christians, businessmen and bums. The driving force of the gambling instinct, together with the promise of adventure, lured not only the landless and penniless who intended to stay, but men and women who came only as speculators playing the odds for doubtful stakes.

Even before the first legal settler arrived in 1889, Oklahoma’s history had been without parallel. Its rough outline first took shape on maps after 1803, and attracted the attention of President Andrew Jackson when in 1830 he was hunting a new home for Indians from the eastern and southern states. Jackson was looking for a place that white settlers would never need or want. The Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and Creeks—known to history as the Five Civilized Tribes —were moved, sometimes by force, to this remote region. This relieved, for a few decades, the immediate pressure of the Indian problem.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

But following the Civil War, when the westward movement reached its height, nearly all Indian-occupied land was coveted, and effort was made to compress still more Indians into Oklahoma. Because the Five Civilized Tribes had sided with the Confederacy, they lost the western portion of their holdings by the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866. Other tribes were then moved into the land the Five Tribes had ceded to the government. When it appeared that all the various Indian peoples that could be moved were settled, there remained an unused area of nearly two million acres, in the very heart of the territory. It became known as the Unassigned Lands, or the Oklahoma District.

In 1879, Elias C. Boudinot, a Cherokee of a famous family, who was employed in Washington as a clerk for a House committee, published an article about these “Unassigned Lands.” He claimed that they belonged to the public without encumbrance, having been ceded by the Indians to the United States by the treaties of 1866. The following year the first of the Oklahoma “boomers” appeared. He was David L. Payne—Indian fighter, Civil War veteran, and former doorkeeper of the House of Representatives—and over the next few years he led several sorties of white settlers into the District, only to be driven out each time by military force. During the eighties several congressional schemes for settling the area were proposed (among them, one that would have peopled it with freed slaves), but eventually the balance in Congress tipped in favor of opening the land to white homesteaders. Finally, Indian title to the area having been extinguished by treaty and purchase, a bill to open the Oklahoma District to white settlement became law, and President Benjamin Harrison set April 22, 1889, as the date for the opening.

Thousands of prospective settlers, some of whom had been waiting on the border for years, were ready. Others, with only a month between the issuing of the proclamation and the actual opening, had to hurry to the border. Some came by train and bought horses for the run. Others came all the way in their wagons.

High noon, on April 22, was the time set for the opening signal, but hundreds did not wait. They sneaked in during the night to hide in the underbrush near the best farmlands or most likely city lots. These “sooners” as they were called—hence Oklahoma’s official nickname, “the Sooner State”—created problems that lasted for years, clouding the land titles of the honest and leading to hundreds of homicides.