Primary Source: In Oklahoma (HCC - The Illustrated American - April 4, 1896)

“In Oklahoma” (Helen Churchill Candee) - The Illustrated American (April 4, 1896)  {Slightly Edited for Classroom Use}

The vocabulary of districts varies so pronouncedly that each place has words of its own. A sharp depression between hills in Colorado is a gulch, but in Oklahoma it is a “draw;” likewise, a ranch in Wyoming is in Oklahoma a “claim,” and the reason for this has its root in the history of that section.

Civilization or extermination is the choice this era gives to the Indian, and if he refuse both he finds a compromise in an apathetic deterioration. He leases his land to white invaders, who farm them or put herds to graze upon them, and then the people send protests to Washington saying, “Are we not better fitted to own this land than the Indians, who by leasing it prove it unnecessary to their comfort or welfare?” Then the government decrees that it shall be appraised and bought from the Indians and thrown open to the white settlers, the preferences of the Indians not being consulted. Previous to the opening the people who sit in state at Washington get a map of the new district and lay it out in a sort of plaid, each square of which is called a section, and the roads which bound the squares are called section lines. A quarter-section is 160 acres, which is the allotment of each single claimant, but as adult members of families can all be claimants, an entire section is sometimes secured and thrown into one farm a mile square. 

The roads, being laid out on paper hundreds of miles from the country they cross, are theoretically beautiful and follow a scheme of parallels and cross-lines that would commend itself to a maker of checkerboards. The points of the compass are all observed, so that directions to a traveller are given thus;—Four miles west, one mile south and three west. But the people at Washington forgot that land is not smooth paper without obstacles. Therefore, when the Government surveyor had laid out the roads and pronounced his work good, the people who had to use them found ravines, streams and sometimes rocky heights directly in their path. But that is a detail and easily remedied by cutting through a man’s cornfield. 

Every one heard of the exciting opening of Oklahoma lands—how the people and the horses stood for days in line on the border, and when the signal was given the terribly greedy race began. Men were trampled, hundreds of horses fell dead by the way, there was fighting and bloodshed, and every man’s hand was against his fellow. “Free homes!” was the cry, but a price was paid for the lands, though not in money. 

After the rush, order at least settled down upon the country, but it was produced as order always is, by the power of the strong, not by virtue of right. The weaker were pushed away, and had either to relinquish peaceably or to risk being shot in the back at twilight or fired upon through the window when the lamps were lit at evening. To be sure, there was the law, but its processes are notoriously slow, and the money spent to employ its aid would perhaps purchase a claim from a more forcible possessor. To put up a building and live in it might be to prove ownership of the land, but if the rival contestant could procure some teams of horses he would gently draw the building off the disputed land at night and in the morning enjoy the chagrin of the ex-occupant. 

These things belong almost to the past. Notwithstanding the existence of a few feuds and some deadly hate (prompting and occasional cowardly murder), the land is peaceable now, and every one has settled down to work their claims and forget the sanguinary records of the past. Those who succeed in this new country are those who have enough money to build a home and shelter for stock and to buy farming implements, but the majority grow poorer, or at best hold their own. 

Among the home-seekers there were women—not helpless, discouraged women, inefficient and parasitical, but belonging to the large class who prefer work to dependence and who looked upon “proving up a claim” as a business measure, perhaps not expecting to spend all their lives in exile, but willing to conform to the time of residence stipulated by the Government, that they might sell the claim later with its improvements and realize a fair sum. 

But unless a woman is as brave as a lion and as self-sufficient as Webster’s Unabridged, it is a weary banishment. Houses are not huddled together in the territory; they are far apart, one every mile perhaps, and the majority occupied by negroes or the usual class of workers that open up the frontier, so there is no society for the woman “holding down” a claim, unless she is interested in humanity of the lowest sort. Her claim is probably from twelve to forty miles from the nearest railroad town; the other settlements scarcely count. And yet, inside her cabin you perhaps may see late magazines, a few books, and old Satsuma plate, some Oriental stuffs, to remind her of the world beyond the blackjacks and the rolling prairie. 

Her house began as a “dug-out,” but that is an out-building now and replaced by a small frame structure. Life in the dug-out comes hard to those who are accustomed to urban luxuries. It is getting uncomfortably near to nature’s heart to live in a square hole dug in the ground, even though the sides are banked with logs and a roof covers the whole. The dug-out is cool in summer and warm in winter, and the tireless hurricane that incessantly sweeps the territory is powerless to blow it over; but the soul of the woman longs for something more, and when the claim has yielded a profit she invests the money in a suitable house.

Practical life on a claim means farming. Large herds are a thing of the past, and the long summer droughts make sheep-raising a failure. Everything grows and grows well in the new soil, which needs no fertilizer. The farmer who fails here only proves himself at fault and not his land, but many fail from utter lack of technical knowledge, for the men at the rush were many of them strugglers of the cities—artisans, mechanics and clerks, who know nothing of farming. Having failed at their craft, they came to try another and thereby win a home, and they are still coming, deluded by erroneous ideas of the situation. They may be encountered on any of the dusty ways that lead through towns, in immigrant trains, for the “prairie schooner” is not here an extinct relic of the past, but a lively rival of the railroad. 

The immigrants travel usually in pairs, with all the stock gathered around, a mixed crowd of cows, horses and mules. Inside the wagons are the family; the men on the front seat, the women and children seated or lying on featherbeds peering from the round end-holes of the white canvas hood. When weather permits the canvas is thrown back and generally reveals a youngish woman, a very old one and an indeterminate number of children. The schooner-travellers wander all over the territory, only to find that their weary journey profits them nothing, for all desirable claims are taken. One old colored woman in Perry walked on foot all the way from Tennessee with her family, to find that the promised land was only free to those who had money to pay for it. Another spent every penny in getting there, hoping to gain the home she had longed for ever since the day of her freedom, but a stronger contestant  than she wrested her claim from her and she continued to live homeless. 

Women in the towns lead almost an insular existence and know little of life on a claim, except those whose husbands have two irons in the fire—those who conduct a business in the town and are also proving up a claim out on some section by living there part of the year. This is frequently done and the Government frankly deceived and its intents frustrated. Free homes were offered only to those intending to occupy them and not as gifts to speculators; in Oklahoma, however, as in every other part of the world, cheating is an active industry.

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