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July 2024
7min read

When the Oklahoma District was opened, boomers staked their claims. Sooners staked theirs sooner. Thousands of both were on hand, all with a single aim:

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.

The land had been divided into 11,000 sections of 160 acres each. As the gun went off, people rushed in from all four sides of the district to scramble for land and lots, but there were enough sections, for only one in ten. Guthrie, the provisional territorial capital, was considered the choice site for prospective merchants and tradesmen, but Oklahoma City, thirty miles to the south, attracted almost equal interest. Several other towns, such as Stillwater, Kingfisher, and Norman, drew smaller groups.

After Guthrie and Oklahoma City overflowed, other towns formed quickly along the railroad that crossed the middle of the territory. Some survive as hamlets, but most disappeared after their speculative value dwindled.

No law existed in the territory, and order was kept by a scattered group of United States marshals and soldiers. (Captain Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas MacArthur, commanded the troops at Guthrie.) They had no authority to determine ownership of property or settle quarrels. All they could do was to try to keep the homesteaders from killing each other.

To regulate the masses of people a plan of government by consent was followed. Officials were elected by towns that had no money for salaries. It took five years for a homesteader to take title to his land—or fourteen months if he paid $1.25 an acre; therefore there was no tax base in the territory. Nevertheless, Guthrie elected a mayor the day after the opening, although with difficulty. The first election was nullified: supporters of each of the candidates voted by joining a particular line and filing past a counter; some had run back to get into line again. Oklahoma City, which tried an election a few hours after the opening, at least had a ballot box—an empty coffee pot—but there was so much pushing and shoving that the voting had to be postponed for a few days.

A Department of the Interior ruling stated that each town was to occupy only 320 acres of land, since the territory was expected to be primarily agricultural. Guthrie overflowed its allotted limits on the first day of the run and soon covered four times the planned acreage. The problem was solved by forming four towns, each with its own set of public officials. Police pursuing a wanted man could not cross the dividing lines—which were merely streets—nor could delivery wagons go from town to town without paying special taxes in each.

None of the towns had been surveyed before the crowds came, and some settlers put up their tents on lots that were later found to be in the middle of streets. These unfortunate people lost their claims and had to be evicted, sometimes by soldiers with bayonets. The principal thoroughfare of one new community was cleared by laying a heavy log across its full width and hitching a team of mules to each end. As the mules pulled the log down the street, two marshals walked ahead of the log, Winchesters cradled in their arms. The reluctant claimholders struck their tents.

Gamblers who came from the mining towns of the West with their faro and chuck-a-luck games inadvertently helped the struggling towns during these precarious days: since town officials could raise money in no other way, they fined the gamblers each morning and raised enough money for surveying and grading the streets.

Citizens were sometimes extraordinarily resourceful in making a living in an area where there was no employment and little money, and where the soil was years away from supporting communities. One woman, remembered as Button Mary, who had known all the boom towns of the West, charged ten cents for replacing missing buttons; anyone who refused to pay received a painful prod with her needle.

Three men started a bank, even though they did not have enough money to buy a bundle of shingles for their building. Each made out a note for $10,000, after which they exchanged the notes among themselves and opened for business—with an announced capital stock of $30,000. They used a potbellied stove for a vault until they could buy better facilities. The bank prospered, and proved a boon to the community.

One man built a public rest room on his lot, surrounding it with leafy branches which he renewed every other day. He made enough money to start a harness shop. Another group made bricks from the red clay of the vicinity; five buildings still stand in Guthrie that were made from their bricks.

A blacksmith, watching a dentist treat long lines of patients, decided to become a dentist himself, advertising by hanging the teeth he extracted on a line across the door of his tent. William Wrigley, Jr., rolled his first slab of chewing gum in a tent store at Guthrie. G. W. Knowlton, an early-day barber, perfected his Danderine formula there. Fred Bonfils, who became a Denver publisher, built stores in Guthrie that are still in use. Tom Mix tended bar there after saloons became legal, and Lon Chaney was a carpenter.

Two men who believed every trade was too crowded found a novel way to make a little money. They felled two huge trees and made a foot bridge across the unfordable Cottonwood River, which bisected the town. Then one went up in the brush and fired a gun, while the other ran to the busy section of the town with an excited story of a murder. The crowd followed him across the bridge to a grove of trees, but found no body. When they tried to return, each was charged ten cents for a dry crossing.

Oklahoma remained without organization for nearly thirteen months, until Congress officially designated it as a territory and appointed George W. Steele of Indiana as the first governor. Thereafter its development was rapid, but it was not until 1907, after other districts had been added, that Oklahoma became a state.

Guthrie continued as the capital city until June 11, 1910, when Oklahoma City was chosen by popular vote. Thereupon Guthrie went into a decline, but it is still an interesting place, rich in history.

Strangely, none of the important boomers who were instrumental in the opening of the territory to white settlement found in Oklahoma the Eden they expected. Payne died five years before the opening, and even the lesser members of his original band were hounded all their lives as sooners; those who stayed in Oklahoma eventually purchased their land outright so that there would be no doubt about the validity of their titles.

Only about one in ten of the original frenzied homeseekers “proved up” on the claims they staked, and few of the original businesses continued for more than a year. Here, perhaps, is the only similarity between Oklahoma and the majority of frontier settlements: the first settlers lacked both capital and experience. It remained for those who came later to change the face of the land.

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