Primary Source: In And Out Of Oklahoma (The Nation - May 2, 1889)
"In And Out Of Oklahoma" - The Nation (May 2, 1889). Slightly Edited for Classroom Use.
Oklahoma will be known in history as the Territory that was settled in one day and very nearly unsettled again two days later. On Tuesday, April 23, something like 50,000 people, some of whom had been camping on the borders of the promised land for two years, made a wild rush into it and seized upon its soil.
Ten or fifteen thousand of them squatted on one spot, called it the city of Guthrie, endeavored to establish a municipal government, opened a bank with a capital of $50,000, issued a newspaper – all between twelve o’clock noon and four p.m. They mapped out the city into squares, opened and named streets, and sold all the house lots, the corner lots bringing fine prices. At night they went to bed, some in tents, some on the ground.
Oklahoma City was established in another part of the Territory in a similar way, and smaller towns were established and named under much of the same circumstances. When night came at the end of the first day, it was estimated that every particle of desirable land among the 1,800,000 acres comprising the new Territory had a claimant. The country was settled. No less than three cities had been builded, not merely in a day, but in an hour, and there were more towns than can now be enumerated. It was said, with much eloquence, by a Chicago reporter who was there, that “Guthrie, which was at noon a name on the map, a little red station-house by the railway, was a nightfall a booming city of 15,000 inhabitants.”
But daylight of the following day, coming after a night which had made painfully evident the fact that the changes of temperature from heat to cold were very sudden in the promised land, made many other depressing revelations. It was noticed that the soil was rich enough in the main streets of the city of Guthrie, but that the surrounding country was sterile, capable of bearing nothing more than buffalo grass and cactus. It was discovered that the water in the one neighboring stream was not abundant; that the stream itself was small, and that the water had an alkaline flavor. It began to be suspected that there never could be a great city in such a spot, and that somebody had been working up the price of town lots for selfish purposes.
The second night came after a day of much suffering in body as well as in mind. There was scarcity of both provisions and water, as well as shelter. In the night a violent wind arose, filling the air with stifling alkali dust, and bringing in its train a pouring storm of rain. The next morning nothing except the lack of adequate transportation facilities saved the proud city of Guthrie, with its bank and newspaper, from instant depopulation. Everybody who could get upon a railroad train, either inside or outside the cars, got there, and started out of the promised land. Even the eloquent Chicago reporter lost heart and sent off this mournful tale: “Guthrie is without form. The original streets have disappeared, and new sections are being ploughed every hour. Values have fallen to practically nothing, and public confidence is at a low ebb.”
The story of Guthrie is the story, with slight variations, of the other parts of the new land. The rush to get out became on the second day as violent and frenzied as it had been to get in, and it is continuing daily. It is now estimated that not more than one-quarter of those who went in will remain.
Was there ever a more extraordinary exhibition of the restlessness of the American character than this Oklahoma episode has furnished? For ten years a constantly increasing throng of persons, until they numbered 50,000, has been struggling to get into Oklahoma. Probably not one in a hundred of them knew why he wished to get in. All he knew was that he was not allowed to go, and he reasoned that the land must be an extraordinarily attractive and desirable one because he was kept out of it.
There was never a more successful boom of politics than this of Oklahoma. It was started, as many a political boom has been, by the judicious uses of money. There is little doubt that the first boomers were paid by the railway companies to break into the Territory and endeavor to establish settlements. Every time that they broke in and were driven out again, the knowledge of their exploits spread over a wider area and reached the ears of more people. Why were they trying to get in, and why were they so often baffled? That they were ejected because the land was reserved by the Government for the Indians, did not sufficiently explain the proceedings. There must be something wonderful in the country itself which caused such unusual struggles.
Without reasoning further than this, the unsettled and roving dispositions of the whole country began to gather on the border and peer into the forbidden land. Every fresh raid had a larger number of participants, and the increased difficulty of ejecting them sent a louder rumor abroad. It even reached other countries, and recruits for the boomers began to come from Germany, England, and even Russia.
Finally the politicians had to take a hand, and a law was passed decreeing that a portion of the coveted domain should be thrown open for settlement, and a date was fixed by Presidential proclamation when legal possession could be taken. The Boomer “cities” stretching along the border swelled into marvellous proportions after this was known, and on the date of entry they contained in the morning their thousands of souls, and at night not on. They were all deserted and their inhabitants had founded new cities.
Two days later they were reinhabited for a few minutes by the same boomers getting back as fast as possible to a base of supplies. They had gone into the promised land, evidently expecting to find it literally flowing with milk and honey. They seem to have taken no thought as to what they were to subsist upon, how they were to be sheltered and clothed. They had rushed into a wilderness without stopping to think how they were to live when they got there. To reach the wilderness they had crossed over millions of acres of as good if not better land than they were to find there, which they could have had for a fraction of what they had spent to reach the wilderness, and upon which they could have established homes with the benefits of civilization within their reach, and the protection of organized state governments about them. But they paid no attention to that. They left all behind and rushed forward, to meet nothing but desert, privation, hunger, thirst, and mob lawlessness.
The only ones among the boomers who have profited by the expedition are the cool-headed scoundrels who went into it and kindled its excitement to fury for the gain which they could make out of it. Many of them are probably on the way out now with the money of their victims in their pockets.