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The Invasion of Oklahoma

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By James Cox in 1903

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Oklahoma, the youngest of our Territories, is in many respects also the most interesting. Many people confound Oklahoma Territory with the Indian Territory, but the two are separate and distinct, the former enjoying Territorial Government, while the latter, unfortunately, is in a very anomalous condition, so far as the making and enforcing of laws is concerned.

 

Up to within a few years Oklahoma was a part of what was then the " Indian Territory." Now it has been separated from what may be described as its original parent, and is entirely distinct.

 

It contains nearly 40,000 square miles, and has a population of about a quarter of a million, exclusive of about 18,000 Indians. It contains more than twice as many people to the square mile as many of the Western States and Territories, and is in a condition of thriving prosperity, which is extraordinary, when its extreme youth as a Territory is considered.

 

 

 

Oklahoma Land Run

1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, April 22, 1889, photo by McClenny Family. This image available for photographic prints and  downloads HERE!

 

 

 

In 1888, Oklahoma was the largest single body of unimproved land capable of cultivation in the Southwest. It was nominally farmed by Indian tribes, but the natural productiveness of the soil, and the immense amount of land at their disposal, cultivated habits of indolence, and there was a grievous and even sinful waste of fertility. To the south was Texas, and on the north, Kansas, both rich, powerful and wealthy States. The Indian possessions lying between disturbed the natural growth and trend of empire.

Seen from car windows only, the country appeared inviting to the eye. It was known, from reports of traders, to have all the elements of agricultural wealth. And this made the land-hungry man hungrier.

The era of the "boomer" began; and the "boomer" did not stop until he had inserted an opening wedge, in the shape of the purchase and opening to settlement of a vast area right in the heart of the prairie wilderness. When the first opening took place it seemed as though the supply would be in excess of the demand. Not so. Every acre--good, bad, or indifferent--was gobbled up, and, like as from an army of Oliver Twists, the cry went up for more. Then the Iowa and Pottawatomie reservations were placed on the market. They lasted a day only, and the still unsatisfied crowd began another agitation. Resultant of this, a third bargain-counter sale took place. The big Cheyenne and Arapahoe country was opened for settlement. Immigrants poured in, and now every quarter-section that is tillable there has its individual occupant and owner.

But still on the south border of Kansas there camped a landless and homeless multitude. They looked longingly over the fertile prairies of the Cherokee Strip country, stirred the camp-fire embers emphatically, and sent another dispatch to Washington asking for a chance to get in. Congress heard at last, and in the fall of 1893 the congestion was relieved.

 

The scenes attending the wild scramble from all sides of the Strip are a matter of history and do not require repetition. Five million acres were quickly taken by 30,000 farmers.

 

The old proverb or adage, which states that the man who makes two blades of grass grow where one grew before is a public benefactor, would seem to proclaim that Oklahoma is peopled with philanthropists, for the sturdy pioneers who braved hardship and ridicule in order to obtain a foothold in this promised land, have, in five or six years, completely changed the appearance of the country. A larger proportion of ground in this youthful Territory shows that it is a sturdy infant, and it is doubtful whether in any part of the United States there has been more economy in land, or a more rapid use made of opportunities so bountifully provided by nature.

 

Boomers entering Oklahoma Territory, 1905, John D. Morris and  CompanyTruth is often much stranger than fiction, and the story of the invasion of Oklahoma reads like one long romance. Many men lost their lives in the attempt, some few dying by violence, and many others succumbing to disease brought about by hardship.

 

Many of the men who started the agitation to have Oklahoma opened for settlement by white citizens are still alive, and some of them have had their heart's desire fulfilled, and now occupy little homes they have built in some favorite nook and corner of their much loved, and at one time grievously coveted, country.

 

Oklahoma came into the possession of the Seminole Indians by the ordinary process, and remained their alleged home until about thirty years ago. In 1866, the country was ceded to the United States Government for a consideration, and in 1873, it was surveyed by Federal officers, and section lines established according to law.

 

Captain David L. PayneIt was the natural presumption that this expense was incurred with a view to the immediate opening of the Territory for settlement. For various reasons, more or less valid, and more or less the result of influence and possible corruption, the actual opening of the country was deferred for more than twenty years after its cession to the United States Government, and in the meantime it occupied a peculiar condition. Immense herds of cattle were pastured on it, and bad men and outlaws from various sections of the country awoke reminiscences of biblical stories about cities of refuge by squatting upon it, making a living by hunting and indifferent agriculture, and resting secure from molestation from officers of the law.

 

To remedy this anomaly, and to secure homes for themselves and families in what was reported to be one of the most fertile tracts in the world, Captain Payne and a number of determined men organized themselves into colonies. There has always been a mania for new land, and many people are never happy unless they are keeping pace with the invasion of civilization into hitherto unknown and unopened countries. Many who joined the Payne movement were doubtless roving spirits of this character, but the majority of them were bona fide home-seekers, who believed as citizens of this country they had a right to quarter-sections in the promised land, and who were determined to enforce those rights.

 

No matter, however, what were the motives of the "boomers," as they were called from the first, it is certain that they went to work in a business-like manner, planned a regular invasion, and formed a number of colonies or small armies for the purpose.

 

We will follow the fortune of one of these colonies in order to show what extraordinary difficulties they went through, and how much more there is in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our humdrum philosophy. The town of Caldwell, on the southern line of Kansas, was the camp from which the first colonists started. It consisted of about forty men, and about 100 women and children. Each family provided itself with such equipment and conveniences as the scanty means at disposal made possible. A prairie schooner, or a wagon with a covering to protect the inmates from the weather and secure a certain amount of privacy for the women and children, was an indispensable item.

 

When the advance was made, there were forty such covered wagons, each drawn by a pair of horses or mules, and each containing such furniture as the family possessed. The more fortunate ones also had in the wagons certain material to be used in building the little hut, which was to be their home until they could earn enough to build a more pretentious residence.

 

Eye witnesses describe the starting of the colony as one of the most remarkable sights ever witnessed. The wagons advanced in single file, and some few of the men rode on horseback in order to act as advance guides to seek suitable camping grounds, and to protect the occupants of the wagons from attack. In some cases one or two cows were attached by halters to the rear of the wagons, and there were several dogs which evidently entered heartily into the spirit of the affair. The utmost confidence prevailed, and hearty cheers were given as the cavalcade crossed the Kansas State line and commenced its long and dreary march through the rich blue grass of the Cherokee Strip.

 

The journey before the home-seekers was about 100 miles, and at the slow rate of progress they were compelled to make, it was necessarily a long and arduous task. Some few of the women were a little nervous, but the majority had thoroughly fallen in with the general feeling and were enthusiastic in the extreme. The food they had with them was sufficient for immediate needs, and when they camped for the night, the younger members of the party generally succeeded in adding to the larder by hunting and fishing.

 

We have all heard of invading armies being allowed to proceed on their march unmolested only to be treated with additional severity on arriving at the enemies' camp. So it was with the colonists. They got through with very little difficulty, and no one took the trouble to interfere with their progress. Men who had been in the promised land for the purpose, had located a suitable spot for the formation of the proposed colony, and here the people were directed. One of the party had some knowledge of land laws, and after a long hunt he succeeded in locating one of the section corners established by the recent Government survey. This being done, quarter-sections were selected by each of the newcomers, and work commenced with a will. Tents and huts were put up as rapidly as possible, and before a week had passed the newcomers were fairly well settled. They even selected a town site and built castles in the air of a most remarkable character.

 

That they were monarchs of all they surveyed seemed to be obvious, and for some weeks their right there was none to dispute. Then by degrees the cowboys who were herding cattle in the neighborhood began to drop hints of possible interference, and while these suggestions were being discussed a company of United States troops suddenly appeared. With very little explanation they arrested every man in the colony for treason and conspiracy, and proceeded to drive the colonists out of the country.

 

People line up for the Oklahoma Land Run in Caldwell, Kansas

In 1893, more than 15,000 people lined up for Oklahoma Land Run in Caldwell, Kansas.

 

The men were compelled to hitch up their horses, and, succumbing to force of numbers, the colonists sadly and wearily advanced to Fort Reno, where they were turned over to the authorities. After being kept in confinement for five days they were released, and told to get back into Kansas as rapidly as possible. Government officials saw that the order was carried out, and then left the colonists to themselves.

 

The men lost no time in making up their minds to organize a second attempt to establish homes for their families, and once more they made the march. A bitter disappointment awaited them, for they found that their cabins had all been destroyed and they had to commence work over again. This they did, and they had scarcely got themselves comfortable when another small detachment of troops arrived to turn them out. The men were tied by means of ropes to the tail-ends of wagons, and driven like cattle across the prairie to the military fort. For a third time they conducted an invasion, and for the third time they were attacked by Government troops.

 

A spirit of determination had, however, come over the men in the interval, and an attempt was made to resist the onslaught of the soldiers. The Lieutenant in charge was astonished at the attitude assumed, and did not care to assume the responsibility of ordering his men to fire, as many of the colonists were well armed and were undoubtedly crack shots. He, accordingly, adopted more diplomatic measures, and, by establishing somewhat friendly relations, got into close quarters with the settlers. A rough and tumble fight with fists soon afterwards resulted, and the hard fists and brawny arms of the settlers proved too much for the regulars, who were for the time being driven off.

 

 

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