The rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted. — James Madison
On April 22, 1889 the largest land give-away in history began. At precisely high noon, thousands of would-be settlers make a mad dash into the newly opened Oklahoma Territory to claim cheap land.
The nearly two million acres of land opened up to white settlement was located in Indian Territory, a large area that once encompassed much of modern-day Oklahoma. Initially considered unsuitable for white colonization, Indian Territory was thought to be an ideal place to relocate Native Americans who were removed from their traditional lands to make way for white settlement. The relocations began in 1817, and by the 1880s, Indian Territory was a new home to a variety of tribes, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Apache.
By the 1890s, improved agricultural and ranching techniques led some white Americans to realize that the Indian Territory land could be valuable, and they pressured the U.S. government to allow white settlement in the region. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison agreed, making the first of a long series of authorizations that eventually removed most of Indian Territory from Indian control.
To begin the process of white settlement, Harrison chose to open a 1.9 million-acre section of Indian Territory that the government had never assigned to any specific tribe. However, subsequent openings of sections that were designated to specific tribes were achieved primarily through the Dawes Severalty Act (1887), which allowed whites to settle large swaths of land that had previously been designated to specific Indian tribes.
On March 3, 1889, Harrison announced the government would open the 1.9 million-acre tract of Indian Territory for settlement precisely at noon on April 22. Anyone could join the race for the land, but no one was supposed to jump the gun. With only seven weeks to prepare, land-hungry Americans quickly began to gather around the borders of the irregular rectangle of territory. Referred to as "Boomers," by the appointed day more than 50,000 hopefuls were living in tent cities on all four sides of the territory.
The events that day at Fort Reno on the western border were typical. At 11:50 a.m., soldiers called for everyone to form a line. When the hands of the clock reached noon, the cannon of the fort boomed, and the soldiers signaled the settlers to start. With the crack of hundreds of whips, thousands of Boomers streamed into the territory in wagons, on horseback, and on foot. All told, from 50,000 to 60,000 settlers entered the territory that day. By nightfall, they had staked thousands of claims either on town lots or quarter section farm plots. Towns like Norman, Oklahoma City, Kingfisher, and Guthrie sprang into being almost overnight.
An extraordinary display of both the pioneer spirit and the American lust for land, the first Oklahoma land rush was also plagued by greed and fraud. Cases involving "Sooners" — people who had entered the territory before the legal date and time— overloaded courts for years to come. The government attempted to operate subsequent runs with more controls, eventually adopting a lottery system to designate claims. By 1905, white Americans owned most of the land in Indian Territory. Two years later, the area once known as Indian Territory entered the Union as a part of the new state of Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 was the first land run into the Unassigned Lands and included all or part of the 2005 modern day Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma, and Payne counties of the U.S. state of Oklahoma. The land run started at high noon on April 22, 1889, with an estimated 50,000 people lined up for their piece of the available two million acres.
The Unassigned Lands were considered some of the best unoccupied public land in the United States. The Indian Appropriations Bill of 1889 was passed and signed into law with an amendment by Illinois Representative William McKendree Springer, that authorized President Benjamin Harrison to open the two million acres for settlement. Due to the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, legal settlers could claim lots up to 160 acres (1/4 of a Section) in size. Provided a settler lived on the land and improved it, the settler could then receive the title to the land.
After years of trying to open Indian Territory, President Grover Cleveland, on March 2, 1889, signed the 1889 Act which officially opened the Unassigned Lands to white settlers via homestead. On a side note, Grover Cleveland signed the Act into law days before his successor, Benjamin Harrison, took over as President of the United States. However, under a section in this original act, those who entered these unassigned lands illegally, before their respective racing times as designated in the President’s opening proclamation, would be denied the rights to the lands they claimed. These people were termed "Sooners,” with this section of the act being termed as the "sooner clause.” But there was growing political pressure to open these unassigned lands to settlement quickly. Thus, later in 1889, an amendment to the Indian Appropriations Act allowed President Benjamin Harrison to be involved in this historical bill as well, proclaiming unassigned lands were open for settlement under much less stringent rules.
The opening to settlement of a choice portion of Indian Territory in Oklahoma set off one of the most bizarre and chaotic episodes of town founding in world history. A railroad line crossed the territory, and water towers and other requirements for steam rail operation were located at intervals along the tracks that connected Arkansas and Texas. Two places — Oklahoma Station and Guthrie Station — seemed particularly well located for eventual urban development. In the months before the territory was opened, individuals and groups representing town site companies scouted these locations and prepared town plans for these sites.
Congress had failed to provide for any form of civil government. Although the area had been surveyed into the standard system of 6-mile square townships and mile-square sections of 640 acres each, no sites for towns had been designated let alone laid out in streets and lots. The rules simply provided that at noon on April 22 persons gathered at the Arkansas or Texas borders would be permitted to enter, seek a parcel of unclaimed land, and file a claim of ownership in accordance with the applicable Federal laws governing the disposal of the public domain. Federal marshals, railroad personnel, and other persons lawfully in the territory before the opening ("legal sooners") were prohibited from filing land claims — a provision that was more violated than observed.
On May 18, 1889 a William Willard Howard wrote for Harper’s Weekly:
“In some respects the recent settlement of Oklahoma was the most remarkable thing of the present century. Unlike Rome, the city of Guthrie was built in a day. To be strictly accurate in the matter, it might be said that it was built in an afternoon. At twelve o'clock on Monday, April 22d, the resident population of Guthrie was nothing; before sundown it was at least ten thousand. In that time streets had been laid out, town lots staked off, and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government. At twilight the camp-fires of ten thousand people gleamed on the grassy slopes of the Cimarron Valley, where, the night before, the coyote, the gray wolf, and the deer had roamed undisturbed. Never before in the history of the West has so large a number of people been concentrated in one place in so short a time. To the conservative Eastern man, who is wont to see cities grow by decades, the settlement of Guthrie was magical beyond belief; to the quick-acting resident of the West, it was merely a particularly lively town-site speculation.
The preparations for the settlement of Oklahoma had been complete, even to the slightest detail, for weeks before the opening day. The Santa Fe Railway, which runs through Oklahoma north and south, was prepared to take any number of people from its handsome station at Arkansas City, Kansas, and to deposit them in almost any part of Oklahoma as soon as the law allowed; thousands of covered wagons were gathered in camps on all sides of the new Territory waiting for the embargo to be lifted. In its picturesque aspects the rush across the border at noon on the opening day must go down in history as one of the most noteworthy events of Western civilization. At the time fixed, thousands of hungry home-seekers, who had gathered from all parts of the country, and particularly from Kansas and Missouri, were arranged in line along the border, ready to lash their horses into furious speed in the race for fertile spots in the beautiful land before them. The day was one of perfect peace. Overhead the sun shown down from a sky as fair and blue as the cloudless heights of Colorado. The whole expanse of space from zenith to horizon was spotless in its blue purity. The clear spring air, through which the rolling green billows of the promised land could be seen with unusual distinctness for many miles, was as sweet and fresh as the balmy atmosphere of June among New Hampshire's hills.
As the expectant home-seekers waited with restless patience, the clear, sweet notes of a cavalry bugle rose and hung a moment upon the startled air. It was noon. The last barrier of savagery in the United States was broken down. Moved by the same impulse, each driver lashed his horses furiously; each rider dug his spurs into his willing steed, and each man on foot caught his breath hard and darted forward. A cloud of dust rose where the home-seekers had stood in line, and when it had drifted away before the gentle breeze, the horses and wagons and men were tearing across the open country like fiends. The horsemen had the best of it from the start. It was a fine race for a few minutes, but soon the riders began to spread out like a fan, and by the time they had reached the horizon they were scattered about as far as eye could see. Even the fleetest of the horsemen found upon reaching their chosen localities that men in wagons and men on foot were there before them. As it was clearly impossible for a man on foot to outrun a horseman, the inference is plain that Oklahoma had been entered hours before the appointed time. Notwithstanding the assertions of the soldiers that every boomer had been driven out of Oklahoma, the fact remains that the woods along the streams within Oklahoma were literally full of people Sunday night. Nine-tenths of these people made settlement upon the land illegally. The other tenth would have done so had there been any desirable land left to settle upon. This action on the part of the first claim-holders will cause a great deal of land litigation in the future, as it is not to be expected that the man who ran his horse at its utmost speed for ten miles only to find a settler with an ox team in quiet possession of his chosen farm will tamely submit to this plain infringement of the law.
Some of the men who started from the line on foot were quite as successful in securing desirable claims as many who rode fleet horses. They had the advantage of knowing just where their land was located. One man left the line with the others, carrying on his back a tent, a blanket, some camp dishes, an axe, and provisions for two days. He ran down the railway track for six miles, and reached his claim in just sixty minutes. Upon arriving on his land he fell down under a tree, unable to speak or see. I am glad to be able to say that his claim is one of the best in Oklahoma. The rush from the line was so impetuous that by the time the first railway train arrived from the north at twenty-five minutes past twelve o'clock, only a few of the hundreds of boomers were anywhere to be seen. The journey of this first train was well-nigh as interesting as the rush of the men in wagons. The train left Arkansas City at 8:45 o'clock in the forenoon. It consisted of an empty baggage car, which was set apart for the use of newspaper correspondents, eight passenger coaches, and the caboose of a freight train. The coaches were so densely packed with men that not another human being could get on board. So uncomfortably crowded were they that some of the younger boomers climbed to the roofs of the cars and clung perilously to the ventilators. An adventurous person secured at great risk a seat on the forward truck of the baggage car.
In this way the train was loaded to its utmost capacity. That no one was killed or injured was due as much to the careful management of the train as to the ability of the passengers to take care of themselves. Like their friends in the wagons, the boomers on the cars were exultant with joy at the thought of at last entering into possession of the promised land. At first appearances of the land through which the train ran seemed to justify all the virtues that had been claimed for it. The rolling, grassy uplands, and the wooded river-bottoms, the trees in which were just bursting into the most beautiful foliage of early spring, seemed to give a close reality of the distant charm of green and purple forest growths, which rose from the trough of some long swell and went having away to meet the brighter hues in the far-off sky. Throughout all the landscape were clumps of trees suggesting apple orchards set in fertile meadows, and here and there were dim patches of gray and white sand that might in a less barbarous region be mistaken for farm-houses surrounded by hedges and green fields. Truly the Indians have well-named Oklahoma the "beautiful land." The landless and home-hungry people on the train might be pardoned their mental exhilaration, when the effect of this wonderfully beautiful country upon the most prosaic mind is considered. It was an eager and an exuberantly joyful crowd that rode slowly into Guthrie at twenty minutes past one o'clock on that perfect April afternoon. Men who had expected to lay out the town site were grievously disappointed at the first glimpse of their proposed scene of operations. The slope east of the railway at Guthrie station was dotted white with tents and sprinkled thick with men running about in all directions.”
Over the years there has been much debate and criticism of this legal land grab. There are those who say that this land grab took from the Native Indians land that had been promised them under several treaties. But, the fact remains that it opened vast tracts of free land to many easterners who wanted to challenge nature to establish a homestead that they could call home — a homestead with legal fee title that would allow them to live, farm or do with as they pleased as long as they met the requirements of the Homestead Act.
In my blog What Separates The Rich From The Poor I point out that the most single contribution to the economic success in the United States was the ability for free men to possess land — land that was theirs under the color of title — land that could be passed on to their heirs or assignees at their will. No other nation in history has had such a policy to allow opportunity to its citizens.
Today Oklahoma is a vibrant state with industrious citizens. It has farming, ranching, and oil. Historic Route 66 passes through much of this Oklahoma land. As I write in my 17 part essay on Route 66 (parts Nine and Ten):
“On April 22, 1889, the unassigned lands of the area were opened up for settlement, which quickly became known as the “Great Oklahoma Land Run.” When the signal was given along the outer boundaries, the Fort Reno soldiers were assigned to keep order among the many rushing pioneers flooding the area.
No sooner was the land opened for settlement when the Rock Island Railroad began to build a line from Caldwell, Kansas to the south bank of the Canadian River. Near Fort Reno, a settlement had sprung up called Reno City, which quickly decided to relocate nearer the railroad. Buildings, pioneers and businesses wasted no time uprooting and moving the entire town which they called El Reno. In January, 1890, the first train arrived in the community, which quickly became a rail center for the productive wheat harvests of Canadian County. In March of 1890, El Reno was named the county seat.”
Over the ensuing years Oklahoma developed from a territory devoted to Native Indian lands to one of the most productive states in the union. Even the Dust Bowl years of the 1930’s could not stop the industrious and persevering citizens of Oklahoma. As I write in Part Four of my essay on Route 66:
“Dust Bowl conditions fomented an exodus of the displaced from Texas, Oklahoma, and the surrounding Great Plains to adjacent regions. More than 500,000 Americans were left homeless. 356 houses had to be torn down after one storm alone. Many Americans migrated west looking for work. Some residents of the Plains, especially in Kansas and Oklahoma fell ill and died of dust pneumonia or malnutrition.
The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history within a short period of time. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200,000 moved to California. With their land barren and homes seized in foreclosure, many farm families were forced to leave. Migrants left farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, but all were generally referred to as "Okies".
The Homestead Act was also responsible for much of the settlement of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico. Today the federal government owns millions of acres of land. Perhaps we should consider another Oklahoma Land Grab for all of those who wish to leave the urban decay of our eastern cities and look for new opportunities and liberties under the blue skies of these fallow lands.