Primary Source: The Birth Of Oklahoma (New York Times - April 26, 1896)

THE BIRTH OF OKLAHOMA - AN ENERGETIC, SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE APPEALING FOR STATEHOOD (The New York Times - April 26, 1896). Slightly Edited for Classroom Use. 

GUTHRIE, Oklahoma Territory, April 25.- States are not usually born in a day, nor created in a year; long, tedious, laborious stages of evolution, from the frontier settlement, through the varying degrees of sacrifice, suffering and privations; passing through long periods of “opening up” the little clearing, planting a few acres of corn, subsisting for many years on the coarsest food, and wearing homespun clothing – these were some of the attending incidents to the birth and growth of most of the states.

But Oklahoma was born in an hour and was made in a night. At 11:45 Monday morning, April 22, 1889, Oklahoma was a wild, desolate, uninhabited territory. Sixty minutes later it was alive with 50,000 of the most active, earnest, determined home builders, and the morning sun of the following day spread its glory over that territory, fully occupied and settled.

Every quarter section contained at least one claimant, while all the more desirable quarters were occupied by from two to six contesting claimants. Such a scene of magical transformation was never before witnessed in this or any other land. The correspondent of THE NEW-YORK TIMES has been about the world a bit for nearly half a century, personally encountering many interesting and novel incidents, but nothing that equaled this, the birth and the building of a great state in a day.

David L. Payne and the ‘Boomers’

Oklahoma, antedating that great opening when an immense army of men and women rushed like a herd of wild steers in the direction of the “promised land,” runs back into the early days of Indian councils and treaties. By the treaties of 1866 the Government secured the privilege of locating small plains tribes and freedmen on the lands embraced in what was by Capt. Payne named Oklahoma.

Payne and others soon discovered that a few miles square would answer all the requirements of the Poncas, Otoes, Nez Perces and other almost extinct tribes. Early in the seventies Payne began agitating the opening of this fine land to homesteaders, declaring it was public domain. Many well-informed officials would not deny this view of the matter, but the Indian lobby and Indian attorneys and agents at Washington began a mighty howl and were joined by all sorts and kinds of Indian rights agitators, who knew as much about the facts as Jerry Simpson does about the Koran.

The result was, Payne and his colonists were frequently arrested by troops and United States Marshals, but were never able to obtain a trial. Meanwhile the cattle kings were ranging a million cattle, practically free of rent and absolutely free of taxes. The raids of Capt. Payne and his “boomers” continued. In 1883 they formed a large town on the fine lands along the North Fork of the Canadian River and called it Payne City. The ruins of the huts and farm buildings were there at the time of the great opening in 1889.

These raids and the claims made by Payne attracted the attention of Congress, which resulted in the introduction of the Springer bill. Several Congressmen from Kansas and Missouri championed the movement for quieting the imaginary title which the attorneys for the Indians had hatched out. The Springer bill failed, but on March 3, during the last hours of the session, an “Oklahoma opening” rider was tacked on one of the last appropriation bills, and in that manner was passed. 

The happiest man in the country was Capt. Payne, but he died of heart trouble a few weeks before the opening. His death prevented the realization of two happy events. One the morning of his death he was preparing to take the train from Hunnewell to Michigan, where he was to marry a brave girl who had been waiting for many years for her lover to secure the opening of Oklahoma, when he was to return and make her his wife. The other was that he might, with his bride, legally enter into this land he had so long coveted and for the opening of which he had labored so earnestly.

The Great Rush

The story of that great rush has been frequently but never fully told. There were thousands – tens of thousands  of quiet, peaceable men (and women) instantly transformed into frenzied beasts, with every particle of human instinct lost in that wild, mad rush for lands and town lots; a desperate struggle for the possession of something they might call their own, on which they hoped to finally build a home. 

Valuable horses were ridden to their death; unfortunate riders were left disabled on the wild prairie by their best friends; friends, even relatives, became bitter contestants for the same claim; women on horses, riding as do men, went flying past their male contestants who were poorly mounted; distanced and desperate homeseekers shot down “sooners” who had hidden in the country and were on their coveted claim soon after the others had crossed the line. For weeks Federal troops were kept busy preventing fatal conflicts between rival town-site companies. Lot jumping and even street jumping were too common to attract more than passing notice. 

Yet out of this seething, agitated, chaotic incident there was evolved, as if by magic, a great Commonwealth. Oklahoma has, in an incredibly short space of time, developed all the elements of a strong young State – spirited and vigorous, but intelligent and responsible. 

Peace & Prosperity

There are over 300,000 inhabitants, many times the population of several of the larger States at the time they were admitted into the Union. The assessed valuation of taxable property is now $39,000,000. There are in the territory 102 banks. There are 157 newspapers, 8 of which are dailies. 

There are tens of thousands of fine farms, on which are grown enormous crops of wheat, corn, cotton, and about everything raised in either Kansas or Texas. The early planted orchards are now bearing, while grapes and small fruits are growing in such abundance that large quantities are allowed to go to waste, while wild fruits are found everywhere in great variety. 

The legal history, or rather the judicial history, of the Territory shows that Oklahoma has enjoyed a freedom from crime not known in many of the States during the time of their settlement. Little crime has been committed by the people residing in Oklahoma since the first of the great rush, seven years ago. The most of the work of the courts and officers has been the protection of her peaceable, industrious citizens from bandits and outlaws from beyond her borders. Farmers and business men still retain the rifles and artillery of the “opening” days, but they are needed only at the “receptions” given the criminals. 

Other Land Openings

Since the great Oklahoma opening, in April, 1889, there have been four others, most notably the Cherokee Strip. In all these the authorities at Washington appear to have ignored all the wretched experience of former incidents, and the last was even more deplorable than any of the former. 

The Cherokee Strip, containing about 6,000,000 acres, did not furnish the fine agricultural lands found along many of the streams in Central and Eastern Oklahoma. Little timber and less running water made it little more desirable than much of the western section of Oklahoma, and it will never make the valuable farming section found either north or south of it. 

The eastern third of the strip, like Western Kansas, should never have been robbed of its native buffalo grass. That peculiar and highly nutritious grass was capable of sustaining stock during any ordinary Winter, while the dry climate will not allow corn or wheat to mature properly one season out of seven, and the water is not available for even supplemental irrigation on a fourth of the tillable land. But the indiscriminate sale by the Land Department of every quarter section to some hungry but ignorant home seeker has ruined a great tract of fine grazing land and produced nothing but absolute failures in farm making. 

There were several unfortunate incidents connected with the opening of the Cherokee Strip, not the least of which was holding the prospective settlers along the borders from early Spring until September. The disastrous results would have been lessened if the home seekers could have been assured that the opening day was deferred until the cattle kings could enjoy another Summer’s grazing. With that assurance the men would have planted, tilled, and raised something on the land to be secured within one or two days’ drive of the line. 

As it was managed – or mismanaged – the claim seekers were kept in suspense and on expense the entire Summer. They witnessed the successful game of the cattle men, and took their revenge in destroying grass, fences, and other ranch property belonging to the cattle men. When the opening was made, nine-tenths of the poor people had ruined themselves in the senseless, impatient wait, so that they started into the Winter on bare, bleak, burned-off claims, with nothing for family or teams. The hardships endured by most of the strip settlers will never be forgotten by them, and they have it all charged up to the authorities at Washington. 

Suddenly Guthrie

No other city was founded and builded in an hour, as was Guthrie. The first train out of Arkansas City on the north, and the first out of Purcell on the south, reached the site of the “future great” about the same time. As these trains approached the little station house, their speed was slackened, and almost before they could stop, half the people were scrambling, jumping, or falling from the cars. Impatient at the prospect of a few men on the platforms and on the tops of coaches getting a few seconds the start, the occupants of the cars tossed their hand-baggage through the windows and jumped after it. 

The correspondent of THE NEW-YORK TIMES occupied about ten by twelve inches on the front platform of the first car. He “marched in light order,” and was soon on the “Government acre” on the top of the hill. The scene or scenes from that point for the next forty minutes are beyond the power of any pen artist. 

In that wild rush for lots in the future capital city, the dozen men in the lead actually passed good corner lots, fearing the other fellows would get in the lead and be able to secure something better further on. It must have been here that the inspiration of the new game of football was obtained, as the most desperate rush plays of that game had their originals at the “settling” of Guthrie. 

At 3 o’clock teams from the east line had arrived, and were hauling water from the well at the railroad tank, from Cottonwood Creek, and from springs a few miles away. Thirsty men with dusty throats gladly paid a nickel for a tin cup of water, while men and boys coined money from a pailful of water and half a dozen lemons, a drink of which only seemed to increase the thirst of the drinker. 

The bright, warm sun of April 23 rose on a “city” of more than 10,000 people, every one of whom was intensely occupied with his own work. Before noon the roof was on several temporary business buildings. During the afternoon and night hundreds of carloads of supplies, lumber, and freight of every conceivable description had been unloaded. 

Hundreds of teams were engaged in draying. Men who could saw a board or drive a nail were getting good wages as carpenters. Wells were being dug, boarding tents hastily erected and opened, and everything and everybody hustled and jostled together. Before noon many of the streets were filled with tents of lot jumpers who could not find an opening anywhere else. Postmaster C.T. Flynn and an army of clerks were busy “establishing” a Post Office in a hospital tent which had been borrowed from the troops. 

Five o’clock Wednesday morning found several thousand men in line at the Post Office, some of whom did not reach the tent before noon. There were several wagonloads of letters – paper mail being pushed aside for days – and the majority of the people received letters from their friends in “the States.”

The First Elections

The campaign for Mayor of the future capital of Oklahoma began in Arkansas City on Sunday, the day before the opening. Two meetings were held during the day at which speeches were made by men representing about every State in the East and North. Those most prominently mentioned for Mayor were ex-Mayor Constantine of Springfield, Ohio; Col. H.T. Sumner of Arkansas City, Kan.; Senator H.B. Kelly of Kansas, and H. Hoggett of Dakota. Each of these men had his friends, and considerable factional feeling was started before the parties left Arkansas City. 

At noon on Tuesday men on horses were sent through the new city announcing that a “town meeting” would be held on the “Government acre” at 2 o’clock. At that time several thousand men assembled, and a wagon was drawn into the crowd, from which numerous speeches were made, all counseling moderation and due consideration of the important matters soon to be acted upon. But every man was too busily engaged in holding down a good lot, and an adjournment was had until the next afternoon, when a Committee on “Public Order” was selected, and directed to appoint a Police Judge and a City Marshal.

On Thursday and attempt was made to elect a Mayor. Over 2,000 voters were present. Friends of the various aspirants mounted the old wagon, and with efforts which a listening Pottawatomie Indian characterized “Heap talk; all noise,” nominated Kelly of Kansas, Hoggett of Dakota, and R.W. Hill of Oregon. 

The vote was taken by having the three candidates take positions in different parts of the lot, and their followers got into line, four deep, in which manner they were counted. It was found that no candidate had a majority, and the “town meeting” was adjourned to 10 o’clock the next morning. 

During the night and early morning it was discovered that none of the candidates could be elected. At the assembling of the voters again an effort was being made to bring Col. D.B. Dyer of Kansas into the race in order to break the dead-lock, but Kelly suddenly withdrew. The friends of Hill and HOggett agreed that Judge Shackleford of Muskogee and United States Marshal Needles should line up the voters and count them. But a lot of gamblers tried to have a gang of their men counted twice, and the meeting broke up in great confusion.

That night the name of Col. Dyer was sprung, and both Hill and Hoggett were persuaded to withdraw. They each selected three prominent friends, these six selected the seventh man, and the meeting the next morning agreed to accept the Mayor chosen by these representative men. In a short time, they presented the name of Col. D.B. Dyer, who was unanimously elected and sworn in by Judge Shackleford, and at noon of April 27 he was acting as Mayor of Guthrie. 

Guthrie Flourishes 

Within an hour the entire political atmosphere of the city cleared up, people went about their business affairs with an air of security and confidence not before known, and before night orders were telegraphed East for machinery for water works. When the sun of Saturday set, at the end of the sixth day – because they all rested on the seventh – Guthrie had 269 houses under roof and over 500 more nearly completed. 

Many good wells were supplying the bets water from a depth of twelve to twenty feet. J.H. Eisenhart was making brick near the city before he had been there three days. The first fire occurred on the night of the 25th, when Marshal Jones’s tent and contents were burned up.

That Saturday night found well-supplied markets in Guthrie, with prevailing prices about 10 per cent above those at Wichita and Arkansas City. Retail stores of every kind were hourly opening, with good assortments, and strong competition was assured in all kinds of business. Two daily papers were regularly issued, work was in progress for city water works, and an electric plant had been contracted for. 

The one railroad, the Atchison, had brought to Guthrie and unloaded thousands of cars loaded with every conceivable kind of freight. This work was all done at a great disadvantage. The officers of the road were afraid to make any extensive improvements at the little switch called Guthrie, because of the possibilities that the opening might result in the founding of a town a few miles away on either side, which would eventually cause the abandonment of the station at Guthrie. 

The first Sunday in Guthrie was an index to the future moral development of the new city. People who had spent six days and almost as many nights in the work of creating a city, and whose nerve tension had been very high, almost to the breaking point, willingly laid aside their work and enjoyed a day of rest to the body and diversion to the mind. Business of every kind was closed. Public worship was held in two places, and was largely attended. 

Men left their lots for a few hours for the first time, and looked about the great city of which they had seen little or nothing. It was the first breathing spell for these busy builders, and they were themselves astonished at the wonderful results of their aggregated efforts. And thus the second week of the history of Guthrie opened with rested muscles and brains, with matured plans and renewed strength and courage. 

At the end of seven years of town building, Guthrie has 12,121 inhabitants. It has two National banks and one State bank, with $150,000 in capital, and over $500,000 deposits. It has two daily and five weekly papers; it has cotton gins, wholesale houses in the dry goods, drug, and grocery lines; it has planing mills, flouring mills, ice and other manufacturing plants; it has numerous fine churches and schools; substantial business blocks, handsome and commodious residences of the most modern style; it has practically no competition in the wholesale business between Kansas City and Dallas. And, above all, standing first and coming last, Guthrie has a population of wonderful energy and enterprise, most of whom have exerted a strong influence over the affairs of the city, from the hour of its magic birth on the afternoon of that memorable April 22, 1889.

The Statehood Movement

The Statehood movement is daily gaining ground. Every fair-minded member of Congress admits that Oklahoma is now entitled to full State rights. Even the members of the vicious Indian lobby admit that they will be obliged to change their tactics from opposition to Statehood, and make the best terms possible for their clients in the surrounding reservations. Some of the leading politicians among the wealthy “squaw-men” are greatly alarmed over the situation, as the granting of Statehood to Oklahoma sounds in their ears like the “crack of doom” to the present tribal governments, under which they have so long enjoyed valuable and exclusive monopolies. 

Among the friends of Statehood the question of “single” or “double” Statehood is of little consequence. While they know that the entire Indian country, including Oklahoma Territory, should be made one State, for numerous reasons, yet they realize that it is now to the best interests of all sections of this country, and especially of Oklahoma, to secure Statehood as soon as possible, with a provision which will permit Congress to change the boundaries of the new State without having first to obtain the consent of its voters. This would permit Congress gradually to open up the remaining reservations, and attach them to the new State without any further action of anybody.

That something must be done to remedy the present deplorable condition is evident. Oklahoma is practically surrounded by great areas of wild country, which is little else than the safe rendezvous of bandits and outlaw bands. The tribal laws, courts, and officers are absolutely powerless, and even with a disposition to break up these bands the members of the tribes would secretly harbor and protect the lawbreakers. 

Nothing short of absolute abolishment of these so-called tribal governments and their sham courts will work out any solution of these difficulties. No patchwork by Congress which continues the present political gangs of the Indian country in control of the tribal governments and courts, will give even a shadow of relief. They must all be wiped out, and their place and authority be assumed by Federal and State courts. 

The 300,000 people now devoting their energies, their lives, to the development of a great and prosperous State, in the midst of all these vicious surroundings, are entitled to some consideration from the present Congress. Territories with less than a fourth of the population have been granted Statehood. States have been made, the aggregated population, energy, and development of several of which did not equal that of Oklahoma. 

Her people have labored and worked out their own salvation, and are justly entitled to the reward of Statehood and self-government. There are no conditions entering into the question which even suggest further delay by Congress, while there are numerous and weighty reasons demanded immediate action. The query in the minds of these energetic, honest, industrious people is, will Congress permit the Indian lobby and the politicians to delay longer an act of simple justice?

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