Boomers & Sooners, Part Three (Sooner Born & Sooner Bred)

Far & AwayYou may remember the movie Far & Away – if for nothing else than Tom Cruise's wonderful Irish brogue ("I'll Get My Land! Yellow Moons! Green Clovers!") It also had an impressive Oklahoma Land Run as its finale, featuring the adorable Christies doing some adorable cheating for adorable reasons.

Wealthy landowners from Ireland, they were nevertheless stuck in a rut personally and socially, and after their home was destroyed by Irish tenant farmers (“Captain Moonlight!”) they came to the U.S. in pursuit of their daughter, Nicole Kidman, and ended up as Sooners in the 1893 Land Run (not the first, but the biggest) which opened the Cherokee Strip. 

Not all Sooners were such loveable characters, however. 

The stories told of the opening-day exploits are as varied as they are entertaining. The impression seems to be general that at noon of that day there were enough men in the Territory to take up every available homestead.

“The fact is,” said an intelligent boomer from Marshall County, Kan., “the soldiers were not half so anxious to keep people out of the territory as they were said to be. I know perfectly well that the train on which I journeyed from Arkansas City… left several hundred men inside the proscribed territory. They dropped off at every station and hid in freight cars, or crossed the prairie to the nearest brush and secreted themselves. 

Monday’s event showed that at the hour of noon men appeared as if by magic around the stations of Oklahoma City, Norman, and Walker, and of course the same scenes were witnessed at Guthrie… What possible show did an outsider have against these men?”

“Too Many In Oklahoma,” The New York Times, April 25th, 1889

All of this was possible because the Boomers had finally “won” – at least in terms of the public debate. In March of 1889, Congress passed an amendment to the Indian Appropriations Act (1871) opening the Unassigned Lands in Indian Territory to settlement under the same terms as the Homestead Act (1862).

All of which sounds a bit dry, so we usually just go with “the Boomers had finally ‘won’.”

It was soon announced that these lands would be opened via “Land Run” – an approach which certainly simplified the process for claiming a section of this last remnant of American frontier, now being referred to more and more often as "Oklahoma." Still, it was a weird system – even in a time period far more interesting than usually credited.

The 1890s Approacheth 

The 1890s was going to be a big decade for the “common man.” The Wounded Knee Massacre effectively ended Amerindian resistance on the Great Plains (or anywhere else, for that matter), the American Frontier was decreed to have officially passed away, the Second Industrial Revolution was beginning in the northeast, and thanks to that first big land run, the Organic Act began nudging Oklahoma towards statehood. Populism becomes a thing, returning in various forms as Progressivism, the New Deal, the Great Society, and eventually Obamacare and Teen Mom 3.

People were reading Kate Chopin, H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde, while Arthur Conan Doyle had only recently introduced a character named “Sherlock Holmes” who would prove rather popular. 

Those kids from Newsies, led by a young Bruce Wayne, were doing that thing they wanted the world to know, although it’s unclear whether they used the same choreography as in the movie. 

Wiz FriendsL. Frank Baum was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz so that schoolchildren a century later could discuss bimetallism without losing consciousness, and those guys who kinda invented flying machines just prior to the Wright Brothers were crashing them in interesting ways as part of their efforts to claim the skies.

There was a depression in 1893, but other than that things were pretty good until Mark Twain labeled it “The Gilded Age” – a term suggesting it was all a thinly veiled illusion masking sickness and corruption, and now a universal chapter title in any American History textbook covering the advent of the 20th century. 

Twain was SUCH a downer.

Even before the census codified it, the sense that the nation was filling up and land was running out was hardly news to Boomers and others chasing those last few opportunities in the west. The future state of Oklahoma, once so disparaged that they put the Indians there so white guys could have the GOOD land, was looking better and better as other options fell away. 

Necessity, it seems, was the mother of invasion.

Sooners at the First Land Run (April 22, 1889)

President Benjamin Harrison, as one of his first acts in office, officially set April 22, 1889, exactly at noon, as the starting time for this madness. Three or four times the number of settlers as there were plots, competing under limited supervision, for land they no doubt considered essential to their very survival? Social Darwinism, thy name is Oklahoma.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that so many cheated. Sometimes it wasn’t even a question of WHETHER you’d cheated, but whether you’d cheated ENOUGH:

{Two Sooners, Grant and Crossman,} had taken advantage of the temporary absence of the troops from one of the fording places and crossed in advance of the main column, so that when the signal was given they were probably a mile beyond the river. They rode at a gallop the entire distance and came upon the desired ground just as a man broke from the timber with a hatchet in his hand and planted a stake in one of the claims. The man then quietly mounted his horse and waited for the friends to approach.

“Rather got ahead of ye, didn’t I, boys?” he asked, when they came up.

The tone and the accompanying leer excited Crossman beyond measure, and he drew his revolver and fired at the stranger. The bullet went wide, and the man, without an instant’s hesitation, hurled his hatchet at Crossman. The blade struck him full in the forehead, and he fell dead in his tracks… 

“Too Many In Oklahoma,” The New York Times, April 25th, 1889

It’s difficult not to judge the past by the standards of our far-more-comfortable present. Perhaps Hatchet Man, and Grant – who went on to shoot the now-unarmed intruder – may be excused in the context of the times for their Lord of the Flies behavior.

But they were only one kind of “sooner.” Others were less entrepreneurial and more calculated and exploitative. They weren’t really stealing from the government, or even from Amerindians – not by this point. The worst of them decreed through their actions that the wants and needs of those lined up for one last chance at the American Dream weren’t nearly as important as their personal avarice. As their presumption.

LOTF

Never mind those families, those hopes – those rule-abiding suckers. We want OURS! 

Perhaps we can excuse, if not entirely justify, the actions of desperate individuals willing to take big chances – to hide in the bushes or sneak past armed defenders. But many “sooners” didn’t have to sneak in at all. They were there with permission. By orders, actually.

They were there being paid with the tax dollars of the fools waiting patiently for the starting gun.

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…

“THE RUSH TO OKLAHOMA” - William Willard Howard - Harper's Weekly, May 18, 1889

Six or seven thousand people are huddled together in tents or shanties… enduring privations which assuredly had no part in the programme mapped out previous to the invasion. Today not fewer than one thousand men departed with disgust plainly stamped on their faces…

The cause of this revulsion of feeling on the part of men who a few weeks ago were singing the praises of the projected town, is the action of the United States Marshals in appointing as Deputies many real estate sharks and others who went to Guthrie solely to secure town lots in advance of the great body detained on the border by order of the Government. These so-called deputies appeared in Guthrie and Oklahoma City Saturday, and had the former site surveyed and selected before 10 o’clock Monday morning… 

When the hour of 12 arrived Monday the deputies go in their work so effectually that when the trainload of boomers came in from the north some time later, all the best lots had been claimed… 

“Too Many In Oklahoma,” The New York Times, April 25th, 1889

Soldiers, land-surveyors, law enforcement – anyone with the right connections to get themselves into the territory ahead of time and scope out the best land – they composed the majority of our oft-celebrated “sooners.” Some, at least, announced their resignations a few minutes before noon, to whoever happened to be in earshot – so that technically they weren’t violating the terms of their employment.

Others didn’t bother. 

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.

“We're done for,” said a town-site speculator, in dismay. “Someone has gone in ahead of us and laid out the town.”

“Never mind that,” shouted another town-site speculator, “but make a rush and get what you can.”

Hardly had the train slackened its speed when the impatient boomers began to leap from the cars and run up the slope. Men jumped from the roofs of the moving cars at the risk of their lives. Some were so stunned by the fall that they could not get up for some minutes. The coaches were so crowded that many men were compelled to squeeze through the windows in order to get a fair start at the head of the crowd...

I ran with the first of the crowd to get a good point of view from which to see the rush. When I had time to look about me I found that I was standing beside a tent, near which a man was leisurely chopping holes in the sod with a new axe.

“Where did you come from, that you have already pitched your tent?” I asked.

“Oh, I was here,” said he.

“How was that?”

"Why, I was a deputy United States marshal.”

"Did you resign?”

"No; I'm a deputy still."

“But it is not legal for a deputy United States marshal, or any one in the employ of the government, to take up a town lot in this manner.” 

“That may all be, stranger; but I've got two lots here, just the same; and about fifty other deputies have got lots in the same way. In fact, the deputy-marshals laid out the town.” 

“THE RUSH TO OKLAHOMA” - William Willard Howard - Harper's Weekly, May 18, 1889

Legal recourse was widely sought, of course, but those with the resources to pursue extended legal actions weren't usually hanging out in the middle of nowhere running for land. Most Sooners kept their plots – especially those who’d acted collectively. How do you kick out an entire town, community leaders and all? 

Why should we care, 125+ years later? Because cheating the system is hardly historically unique to the “sooners,” and because that sort of advantage is self-perpetuating, even after the nefarious foundations have faded from memory.

Sooners… Later

Sooners were far more likely to farm successfully, having started with better farms. They tended to become more prosperous as merchants or other businessmen, having established ideal locations and opened for business while others were still gathering basic supplies. They’d produce the healthiest children who’d receive the best educations and have the best opportunities due to family connections and social savvy.

Guthrie BandSome of this could simply reflect “grit” – whatever else Sooners were, they weren’t lazy. Maybe the same drive that led them to cheat helped in legitimate endeavors as well. It would be silly to reduce the next century of development to who started where.

But it doesn’t take long before yesterday’s plunder is today’s hard-won prize. How many days passed before Sooner families began to credit themselves with the pluck and determination to make the run successfully? To disparage those less successful, who had THE SAME CHANCE and couldn’t cut it – slinking away in frustration and failure?

“Hey, we were all part of the same run! Everyone had their shot. Are you saying I didn't work for what I have?”

There’s little to gain in wringing our lil’ hands and hearts over the sins of our forebears. Land was a big deal, and people did worse for it than sneaking, or even cheating. Move on, people.

But that doesn’t mean we have to glorify it, or reframe it as something of which we should be particularly proud. You don’t see other states excited about labeling themselves the “Overseers,”, the “Soiled Doves,” or the “Unrepentant Confederates.”

Actually, forget that last one. They actually kinda do. But you get the general point.

The Past Is Prologue 

We may express periodic ambivalence towards Pretty Boy Floyd or the Daltons, but they at least robbed and killed those representing the system – the powerful – “the man.” Sooners robbed the commonest of common men, and did so just as that common man was risking everything to improve his condition and claim his small slice of the American Dream.

The Sooners were both unique in American history and reflective of a larger reality involving privilege and its fallout. In this, as in all of our collective history, we would do well to periodically reconsider who and what we glorify in our past – not to deny it or rewrite it, but to help us maintain clarity and honesty about ourselves. 

It’s easy to overdo lamentations and retroactive accusations; our history is too broad and varied to be solely about regrets and failures. Besides, we invented the phone, and fast food and stuff – so there’s that. 

But if our goal is to let the past illuminate the present, and to make better decisions about the future, that’s worth a little discomfort. Surely it’s far better to confront whatever benefits we’ve drawn from the sins of our fathers than remain insulated and comfortable as we pass those sins on to our sons and our daughters.

Jack Swagger Sings Oklahoma Fight Song

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