1880s: Boomers & Sooners, Part One (The Unassigned Lands)

Boomer Marching Guy

It’s impossible to live in Oklahoma any length of time without being thoroughly marinated in the thundering pulse of the University of Oklahoma’s “Boomer Sooner.” If you’re dyed deep in just the right shade of maroon, you may even know the words:

Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner
Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner… OKU!

Those aren’t ALL of the words, of course – that would be silly. The second verse takes the theme to new depths:

Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Oklahoma
Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Oklahoma… OKU!

Most of you are at least generally aware that both “Boomer” and “Sooner” refer to some sort of law-breaking, rule-bending, cheating, stealing, land-grabbing behavior on the part of the state’s earliest settlers. It’s an origin story whose shadows linger over a century later, despite efforts to festify the whole mess with celebrations and annually reenacted “land runs.”

A broader view, however, suggests that cheating and stealing land are actually way down the list of atrocities involved in the birthing and developing of our 46th State. Compared to Indian Removal, the Dawes and Curtis Acts, lynching, the Tulsa Race Riots, fracking, and the current state legislature, a little hiding in the grass seems rather tame.

Of course, no state is perfect. It would be unfair to ignore the many contributions Oklahoma has made to the nation as a whole over the years. Oil comes to mind, of course, along with… um…

Well, oil comes to mind.

Despite popular misconceptions, “Boomer” and “Sooner” are very different terms about very different types of people. Whether praising or condemning them, we should at least get our facts straight.

Indian Removal

5CT in ITThe groups now often referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes” – the Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole – were moved to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma, more or less) by force in the 1830s. The atrocities of Indian Removal are well-documented elsewhere, but what’s less-recognized is that for those who survived, life in I.T. was not completely horrible for the next generation.

The land was very different, but they adapted. Governments and schools were rebuilt, newspapers re-established, and life generally settled into a kind of “new normal” - a calm which hadn’t been possible for nearly a century in the Southeastern U.S. The Five Civilized Tribes and their slaves (yes, they had slaves – a story for another time) were largely left alone, thanks to the high value white Americans placed on the treaties both sides had signed in good faith.

HA! Just checking to see if you were paying attention! They were left alone because no respectable white man would have come to Oklahoma by choice during this time. It was completely undesirable land. That's why the Indians were put there. (You thought we'd give them California?)

Either way, the Tribes were left alone for a few decades. Textbooks often call this a “Golden Age” for the Tribes, although to be fair the bar wasn’t very high, given the centuries before and after.

The Civil War in I.T.

Then came the American Civil War – something about slavery, or tariffs, or states’ rights, or whatnot. Initially, most of the Amerindian population in I.T. was content to stay on the sidelines and watch this one play out. “Don’t mind us; you guys go right ahead. We’re completely and totally fine with white people killing each other. In fact, here – borrow my rifle.”

Civil War GraphicAs it turned out, staying out of the conflict wasn’t as easy as they’d hoped. When pushed, many sympathized with the South, especially after Confederates promised them a better deal should they prevail. The “Great White Father,” as President Jackson and others were fond of referring to themselves, hadn’t proven particularly reliable, and Washington, D.C., was remembered as far more responsible for the miseries of removal than, say, Georgia. While some remained loyal to the Union, and others went to great lengths to resist involvement altogether, enough of the Five Civilized Tribes became Confederates to satisfy the needs of historical oversimplification.

By the end of the war, then, homes were destroyed, lives were lost, families were torn apart… outcomes which should sound vaguely familiar to anyone who passed American History in high school. The impact of the war in I.T. was as severe as anywhere else in the South – maybe worse.

Reconstruction Treaties in I.T.

As the ironically-named United States began reconstructing, Radical Republicans confronted a defiant, vain, feet-dragging South who – despite their brutal defeat – simply refused to cooperate with the whole “no, seriously – all men are created equal” thing. While slavery was legally banished, it was another century before serious efforts were made to secure “certain unalienable rights” of those formerly enslaved. Despite four years of death, destruction, and war being “hell,” the cult of private property retained sufficient pull that efforts to redistribute the land of the defeated were repeatedly quashed. Hundreds of thousands of newly freed American citizens were left without any realistic pathway to self-sufficiency or political legitimacy.

The defeated Tribes in I.T., though, had already been subjugated and stripped of any means of resistance. Now they were again at the mercy of the Federal government, who had a fresh excuse to change the rules one more time. Their representatives fought back with words and legalities, but in the end they were condemned for having fought with the wrong side, and were forced to accept Reconstruction in ways the Old South would not. They also lost roughly half of Indian Territory in preparation for fresh arrivals.

Tatanka!Between the Civil War and 1890, in a series of conflicts referred to collectively as the “Postbellum Indian Wars,” the U.S. took on the tribes of the Great Plains. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Wichita, Kickapoo, Pawnee, Apache, Comanche… and of course the Lakota Sioux. (Remember Dances With Wolves? Tatanka!)

Unlike the first “Indian Removal,” this one involved regular and often violent resistance from those being subdued and relocated. The most famous conflict of the era was the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana Territory, better known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” This momentary victory for the People of the Plains made a martyr out of Custer and sealed the fate of any remaining “savages” resisting the reservation lifestyle of handouts and degradation, spoiled food and rotting lives. The backlash from white America was unstoppable.

South Dakota’s Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890, terminated all resistance on the Great Plains and marked the end of overt warfare between Anglos and Amerindians. Not until the 1970s would the American Indian return to public consciousness as anything other than myths or tragic caricatures.

A Vanishing Frontier

When this second wave of Indian Removal was complete, someone noticed a section of I.T. which had somehow remained unassigned – nearly 2 million acres covering what we now know as Norman, Oklahoma City, Guthrie, and Stillwater.

According to the Homestead Act of 1862, there was a fairly straightforward procedure for homesteaders wishing to settle on available land in the west. Except... this land wasn’t technically “available.” It was still Indian Territory, even if this section hadn’t been allotted to a particular tribe.

Frederick J. TurnerBut as the new century loomed, the Great American Frontier was vanishing – at least according to the 1890 Census, which proclaimed the frontier “closed” – with no new lands left to settle or civilize. This was the statistic which prompted Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous “Frontier Thesis,” presented in Chicago in 1893 as part of the World's Columbian Exposition celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' voyage of discovery.

Every student of American History has a vague recollection of Turner and his “Thesis,” in which he must have said something important because you’re pretty sure it’s going to be on the test. Here’s the part you were probably expected to remember at some point:

Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development…

The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people – to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life…

Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character…

Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893)

Turner’s basic message was that with the frontier effectively closed – as in, it’s all been settled and civilized – Americans will lose that magic something that comes from perpetually wrestling with destiny and wilderness and the like. He envisioned citizens of the once great United States becoming spoiled, apathetic, and lazy, by virtue of having no real obstacles to overcome, presumably requiring constant drama and distraction merely to fill the void. Had he been chronologically able to incorporate hover chairs and giant Slurpees, he no doubt would have done so.

In any case, historians have long-since discredited such silliness on the part of Turner. It’s all but impossible to even imagine such a society today. Hey, you wanna order another pizza? There’s a Walking Dead marathon on.

A Time of Need

Unassigned LandsSo the frontier was “closing” at the same time Indian Territory seemed about as full as it was ever likely to be – and there was a tiny bit “left over.” The growing population of the United States showed no sign of slowing, and all those people were going to have to live somewhere.

On top of that, the American Dream relied on readily available land and the potential of white homesteading. Democracy itself was built on the presumption that the most humble citizen would have opportunity to prove himself worthy via 160 acres and some grit. If there’s no more land, it’s not just the remaining homesteaders or those yet to come who are in trouble – it’s an entire national concept. An ideal. Government of-the-by-the-for-the.

Power always follows Property… The only possible Way then of preserving the Ballance of Power on the side of equal Liberty and public Virtue, is to make the Acquisition of Land easy to every Member of Society to make a Division of the Land into Small Quantities, So that the Multitude may be possessed of landed Estates…

John Adams, letter to James Sullivan, May 26, 1776

I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison, 1787
Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS… {argued that} … Children do not vote. Why? Because they want prudence; because they have no will of their own. The ignorant and the dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest… As to merchants &c., if they have wealth, and value the right, they can acquire {land}. If not, they don't deserve it…

From James Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Constitutional Convention, August 7, 1787

Without sufficient land, American democracy would fail. If democracy failed here, it failed everywhere. Mankind would be plunged backwards into darkness and tyranny, savagery and despair. Monsters rule the earth.

Homestead Act AdvertisementNot every hungry homesteader was so historically-minded, of course. Many simply wanted their shot at what they perceived to be their birthright – the chance to work hard, take risks, and provide for themselves and their loved ones. But the systemic support necessary to make this possible for one last generation – or some portion thereof, at least – required an idealistic framework to justify and facilitate the actions necessary to secure that opportunity. 

Onto this historical stage, then, walked Elias C. Boudinot, Charles C. Carpenter, and David L. Payne. Boudinot was an advocate and editorialist who probably had some identity issues. Carpenter was a promoter, and possibly a bit of a charlatan. David L. Payne – well, Payne is someone every Oklahoman should try to remember.

He was about to become your daddy.

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