Primary Source: "A Chance In Oklahoma" (HCC - Harper's Weekly, February 23, 1901)

“A Chance In Oklahoma” (Helen Churchill Condee ~ Harper’s Weekly, February 23, 1901). Slightly Edited for Classroom Use. 

The first ‘land run’ opening up a portion of Indian Territory to white settlement took place in April, 1889. Over the next several years, other ‘runs’ continued the transition from ‘land of the red man’ to the last, best chance for white (and some black) homesteaders to claim their slice of the American Dream. In this piece, Helen Churchill Candee (sometimes misspelled Condee, as it was here) – a northern girl who lived in Guthrie for a time – tries to capture for folks elsewhere in the nation some of the dynamics of that transition.

Not all of us are successful in life; possibly this is because we have not had a fair chance. The government of these United States, while it is looked upon as a cold, unapproachable body, like a corporation, once conceived the beneficent plan of giving a chance for success to any of its sons who chose to take it.

In pursuance of this plan a tract of land containing about three million acres was thrown open in the middle of the Indian Territory, and every one was at liberty to take possession of one hundred and sixty acres without price. This was the beginning of Oklahoma, a Territory with a romantic and marvelous history of prosperity crowded into the short time of eleven years.

Additions have been made to the tract from time to time, and another is shortly to be made. This is the chance Uncle Sam is to give his unsuccessful sons and certain of his daughters.

The Indian Question

The new tract is the reservation of the Kiowa and Comanche Indians, with the possibility of the inclusion of the Wichita lands. It is not easy to decide on the justice of the question so far as the original owner, the Indian, is concerned. 

Those who live far from him look with disapproval on the gradual crowding into smaller and yet smaller space, of the taking away of his hunting-grounds and giving him the beef issue, of beggaring him by way of forcing civilization, of breaking even the treaties sworn to hold “as long as grass grows and water runs.” 

Those who live near the reservations see the Indian through different eyes. They regard him as a lazy, opulent child of fortune, possessing fertile lands, which lie fallow, himself rich through the simplicity of his needs and his share of the interest on the $43,000,000 which the government holds invested for his tribes. 

It angers a man who tills every acre of his quarter-section with unfailing industry to place his family above want to see his Indian neighbor, with boundless lands, cultivating but a tiny patch of corn, yet living in a cabin, keeping cattle, and driving off contentedly to receive from the government agent the issue of groceries and beef which the white man can only get in return for hard-earned dollars. 

Without the perspective lent by distance, the envious fail to see that the Indian’s rations are only a crumb of the just return he should be entitled to for evacuating all the continent except a few little reservations; and the white man covets. He does it so ingeniously, too, that its results work like logical morality, and crimes are committed under the excuse of civilizing the Indian.

The Promise of the Land

The lands about to be opened are some that have long been coveted by the white men. Greed of land grows on those who hold it. 

The Wichita Mountains have long been like the promised land to the people of the Southwest, and as a rider reaches a hill-top of the rolling prairie, he exclaims, with extended arms: “See! That’s the Wichita range!  Beautiful mountains, and they say they’re full of gold and silver, copper and zinc, with some outcroppings of coal and traces of oil.” 

And so, to get these lands, a bill was formed, but it stuck in the process at Washington. Then one day, as a surf-boat rolls safely up the beach on a big comber, the bill went through as a “rider” on a greater bill, and the opening of the new lands was made a certainty. Surveyors have been all over their surface now, and it is marked off into a checker-board of squares miles, each one containing four farms of one hundred and sixty acres – or a quarter-section, after the manner of the West.

The size of the Kiowa and Comanche tract is 2,968,893 acres. This, as the merchants say, is gross: the net number of farms which are offered to those who wish to make a hazard for new fortunes is about 10,000 of a quarter-section each. That means the redemption of ten thousand men, their fortune assured if they are made of the stuff that can labor and struggle for two or three initial years.

The remaining acres of the reservation, amounting to nearly half, are disposed of in a way which treats considerately both Indian and white settler. Each of the 2,900 Indians is to have an allotment of one hundred and sixty acres, and these Indians are to choose themselves before the gates of the country are opened for the rush. 

In addition, 480,000 acres are allowed for Indian pasture. Fort Sill has a front lawn and back yard of 60,000 acres out of the tract, and about three hundred and thirty thousand acres make up the amount of land set aside for the support of schools and colleges. This disposes of the Kiowa and Comanche country.

Everything is now in readiness, and awaits the proclamation of the President, which is to declare the gates open, and which will say in effect, “Run in, my children, and help yourselves, but remember that only one grab is allowed for each.”

Preparing to Run

…No one is allowed within the new lands now under penalty of one thousand dollars fine and six months imprisonment – a wise provision against “sooners,” but it also prevents intended settlers from making judicious selections beforehand. Therefore, reading is the only way to learn, unless a man is fortunate enough to go to Oklahoma before the opening, and can see and hear much that is astonishing and useful… 

The whole country is divided into townships six miles square, subdivided into thirty-six sections, each of which contains four farms. A most ingenious plan guides the home-seeker – that is, if he have a map, plenty of time, and a good head for mathematics, but some of these requirements will be lacking, and disappointment will result. A stone with six marks on its sides indicates the corner of a township; a stone with four marks on one side and two on the other means the corner of a section, which is respectively four miles and two miles from the township corner; and thus the number of a claim is discovered, which is the first requisite of filing a claim at the nearest land office. But there are perplexing matters in the way. 

From a distance it seems a simple thing to run across the border, jump onto a rich bottom-land or fertile upland, and make instant improvements, which mean usually the driving of stakes and lopping of limbs of convenient black-jacks. But you may have lost a precious opportunity by settling on one of the quarter-sections allotted to the Indians or set aside as school lands, even if you have no fellow-traveler who has claimed your square. 

There is no way for it but that every man who makes the run must carry a well-conned map and a township square, on which he must exercise daily for weeks, that he may be able to interpret at a glance the corner-stones which are his only guide in an unpeopled prairie. Besides these, he must have in his pocket the little fetish of the plains – a compass – for on its points is built the whole scheme of Western settlement… 

Planting Eden

What is to be found in the new lands? A climate which has short, sharp winters, and long, hot summers, a spring which strews the prairies with flowers in early March, and an autumn that sends the children to school in print frocks up to Thanksgiving day. 

And what can be raised on the prairies? Everything, apparently, except polar bears and other arctic creatures. The land is rich beyond belief, as the phenomenal wheat story of Oklahoma shows full well. The virgin prairies are broken with a sod plough and corn put in. Next year, anything you like. 

Wheat has so far been the showiest crop, and this is put in year after year without intervals, without fertilizers. As soon as the great reapers and threshers have left the fields, the ploughs and harrows begin, and tracts that were green in the spring are green again in the autumn with promise of next summer’s crop. Cotton is held by some to be the best crop a farmer can plant, for the climate here favors it, and it brings a quick return. Castor-beans yield three pickings before frost, and bring the farmer nearly a dollar a bushel. Corn grows everywhere, but nowhere better than here. 

Alfalfa sinks its roots fifteen feet in earth, and when once planted grows a dozen years or more without renewing, and may be used for building up huge stacks of fragrant hay or for fattening grazing stock. Kaffir corn grows well in the heat, and saves a farmer in a hot, dry season, or cheerfully fills a waste corner where the land is poor. 

And as for fruit, everything grows here that lives outside the tropics. Melon-fields look as though it had been raining melons, and the fruit – both canteleups and waterleups, as the little girl said – is unsurpassed for sweetness. Such peaches grow here as California never saw, for they have not only size, but flavor, and the trees are prodigal of their favors. Grapes grow in such abundance that they cannot be shipped away, and wine-making is a necessity. Apples, too, are plentiful. 

Then as for live-stock, the conditions are ideal for that. Cattle do not range the plains, but are cared for more successfully in smaller bunches with better results, and hogs are fattened on corn, alfalfa, and peanuts.

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