Primary Source: The Romance of a “Land Boom.” (The Leisure Hour - July 1889)

OKLAHOMA: The Romance of a “Land Boom.” (The Leisure Hour, July 1889). Slightly Edited for Classroom Use.

The colonisation of new countries has ever furnished scenes and episodes more or less romantic. One of the most exciting events of modern times was the Oklahoma Boom, when thousands of peaceful men, at the same moment, on a given signal, made a mad rush to take possession of a rich land – a land surveyed and staked out to furnish eleven thousand farms of one hundred and sixty acres each to eleven thousand families, without money and without price!

Ever since the Mayflower cast anchor off the bleak New England coast, the Red Men of the North American continent have been gradually crowded westward, until to-day there is not an entire tribe of Indians remaining east of the Mississippi River. For full two centuries, the story of the Indian was one of continual injustice and bloodshed; but later years have developed much wise and generous legislation in his behalf by the Government of the United States – a generosity not fully appreciated by the Indians themselves.

The Indians will not, like the African negroes, assimilate with white people, who have become the vast majority of the population of the United States. It has seemed impossible to thoroughly tame them; they are true Ishmaels, and where a white man can subsist upon acres, the Indian requires miles. If he cannot hunt and roam about unrestrainedly the Indian cannot be happy or contented. 

Knowing this, the Federal Government some years ago entered into a treaty with the principal “nations” (representing less than a quarter of a million of Red Men), agreeing to set apart for their exclusive use (in addition to several smaller reservations in other parts of the country) a large tract of fertile land, since known as The Indian Territory. The Indians, for their part, agreed to remain within the bounds of this territory and to govern themselves; while the Federal Government promised to keep out, by military force if necessary, all land speculators, cattle raisers, trappers, squatters, and every other person whose presence should prove undesirable to the Indians. 

Indian Territory lies immediately to the south of the great and prosperous State of Kansas, and includes more land than the whole of England and Wales. Yet, with all this rich and broad demesne for a smaller population than is maintained within the rural county of Suffolk, and with much substantial assistance in cash, in building material, and in farming implements, the Indians have failed to improve their grand opportunity. True they have behaved peaceably, and one or two of the “nations” are disposed to look favourably upon schools and other means of civilisation. But, generally, the Indians have not improved the land – or themselves – while their numbers have perceptibly diminished. 

Meanwhile, the population of the United States has increased, until to-day it approaches to sixty millions of people, while the desirable public lands, which were plentiful enough even ten years ago, are now quite scarce. Thus it came to be regarded as a hardship that the white people who are able and willing to till the soil should be forced northward, while the Indians allowed their rich territory to remain a wilderness.

Yet the Indians held their treaty with the Federal Government, and the Government was not disposed to repudiate it. Congress accordingly entered into negotiations with some of the Indian leaders, with a view to purchasing about eight million acres of their territory. Ultimately, these negotiations, if brought to an issue, will include the purchase of what is now known as the “Cherokee Strip” of 6,022,000 acres, as well as the “Oklahoma Country;” at present only Oklahoma has been secured – a tract of rich country comprising 1,800,000 acres in the heart of the Indian Territory.  

The purchase of Oklahoma was ratified by Act of Congress on March 2nd, 1889, and a few days later President Harrison announced that the newly acquired country would not be sold for any price, but would be open for settlement to “actual settlers,” under the “Homestead Laws,” at noon on April 22nd, 1889.

A letter from the Commissioner of the United States General Land Office to the writer of this article will explain in substance the Homestead Laws:

“. . . . . . In reply I have to state that the lands in question are to be disposed of to actual settlers under the Homestead Laws only. A party desiring to become an actual settler under the Homestead Laws may initiate his claim by entry, at the District Land office, after properly examining and selecting the land described, in which case he is allowed six months from the date of entry within which to establish his actual residence on the land; or if he so elect he may initiate his claim by actual settlement on the land, which must consist of some act or acts connecting himself with the particular tract claimed, said act or acts to be equivalent to an announcement of such intention, and from which the public generally may have notice of his claim. Thereafter he is allowed three months within which to make his claim of record by entry in the District Land Office. . . . .”

It has been intimated that Oklahoma had been surveyed and found to contain rather more than 2,800 square miles, or exactly 1,800,000 acres. This was carefully divided into sections of one square mile, and each “actual settler” who was a citizen (or prospective citizen) of the United States was entitled to a quarter section of 160 acres. After setting aside several “town sites” of 320 acres each (on which settlers could claim only town lots, 25 x 160 feet), about 11,000 “homesteads” were available for first comers.

Unlike other “free” lands, Oklahoma was not on the frontier of civilisation. Well-settled territory existed to the north and to the south as well as to the east, beside which the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad already had a line passing right through Oklahoma, while the Rock Island and Pacific has another line under construction. Consequently, the products of the new country can be easily conveyed to profitable markets, which fact made very inch of Oklahoma worth, at the smallest calculation, five dollars per acre. Thus the United States Government offered to any who would and could secure it a good farm, worth at least 800 dollars, and in some instances (where adjacent to the railroad and the proposed capital) as much as 3,000 dollars,  600 sterling.

The excitement among thrifty farm labourers and the poorer farmers in the older States was intense when the President’s proclamation was made public. All eyes were turned upon the new country; merchants, lawyers, doctors, editors, bankers, and even ministers, seeing in a community which would people 11,000 farms, scope for profitable action.

But the proclamation named the time at which homeseekers might enter the “Promised Land” as 12 o’clock noon on the 22nd day of April, 1889, and added the following notice:

“Warning is hereby again expressly given, that no person entering upon or occupying said lands before said hour of 12 o’clock noon, on the 22nd day of April, 1889, hereinbefore fixed, will ever be permitted to enter any of said lands, or to acquire any rights.”

For weeks before the 22nd of April thousands of men, with many women and children, were on the march for Oklahoma – generally with huge canvas-topped waggons, which held all their earthly possessions. But they were not only kept out of Oklahoma, the law of the land prevented them from camping upon the Indian territory. So the military (two regiments of United States cavalry) held back the would-be settlers, on the north at the Kansas State line, and on the south at the southern bank of the Canadian River. 

By the courtesy of an army officer the writer was permitted free access to Oklahoma several days before its invasion by “boomers” and others. It was the 12th day of April (ten days prior to the “opening”), and that large tract of nearly two million acres was well nigh as deserted as the desert of Sahara. The Indians had all vacated Oklahoma, but the white men had yet to come – the only persons within the charmed circle (a cordon of cavalrymen) being the Government land agents and surveyors. Trains on the Santa Fe Railroad of course passed through the country, but no passengers were allowed to leave the trains, each station being carefully guarded by soldiers. These railroad stations consisted of nothing but telegraph cabins, although respectable buildings were then being erected at Oklahoma City and Guthrie, in anticipation of future towns. On the west side of Oklahoma, Kingfisher seemed to be the prospective town. It is thirty miles from Guthrie on the Santa Fe road, but will soon be on the new Rock Island Railway. In the meantime the railway company have made it a stage station, running concord coaches from Kingfisher (now called Lisbon) to the existing terminus of their road at Pond Creek, also thirty miles away. 

The country seemed to be for the most part level, of a rich reddish loam, and well watered by numerous streams and two or three considerable rivers. Small skirts of timber abound along the edges of the streams. The climate is exceedingly mild the year round, being warm in winter and cool in summer. Game, such as deer and turkey, is plentiful, and the streams are well stocked with fish. 

It looked as though there would be many claimants for each quarter section, for, ten days ahead of time, three thousand people were waiting on the Kansas line, while four or five thousand camp fires were burning along the south fork of the Canadian River. Every available pony was being bought up at prices ranging from twenty to fifty dollars (about double the ordinary price), and the swifter the animal the better price it fetched. The commanding officer had announced that on the northern border the lines would be permitted to advance on the 20th across the “Cherokee Strip” to the Oklahoma frontier, so as to give all an equal chance with those on the south line. 

As the time drew near the excitement on the border country increased, and the camps assumed prodigious proportions. At Shaunee-town, in the south-east, 4,000 men from Texas were camped. At Caldwell, Kansas, there were 5,000 members of a “soldiers’ colony,” while a party of settlers from as far east as Maryland reached the frontier in 218 covered waggons. The old soldiers’ camp “on the march” was a truly imposing sight, for it consisted of 750 huge canvas-topped emigrant waggons, each horsed by from one “span” to three “span” of horses, mules, or oxen. The largest gatherings were at Arkansas City on the north, and at Purcell on the south, where the mobs were so large as to be almost beyond estimate. On April 17th there was an unbroken string of waggons filing slowly through Arkansas City on the way to the riverside camps; and for fifty miles to the north two roads were dotted with the picturesque waggons. Some days before an entrance could be made more than 30,000 men were awaiting the word to advance. But the utmost good order and good-humour prevailed, and not a single mishap of a serious nature was reported. 

Captain Haynes, in command of the cavalry on the northern line, gave the “boomers” permission to advance across the “Cherokee Strip” on the 19th.

The first waggon to go over the line from the Arkansas City camps was owned by one John Dowling, from Kansas. He was an old man, and when he and his little company had successfully forded the river he stood upon the seat of his waggon, waved his hat, and gave such a whoop as must have astonished such accomplished “whoopers” as the Indians themselves. As waggon after waggon rolled out on to the broad unfenced prairie, single file was discarded, and the prairie navigators steered themselves over the entire surface for miles. In two hours about 400 waggons had passed the point of entrance, and with their many horses and mules it was not long before the prairie as far as the eye could reach was a mass of moving waggons and animal life. At noon Captain Hayes and his cavalry company broke camp and began their service as an escort to the pilgrims. With their blue uniforms, bright accoutrements, and well-groomed horses, the soldiers contributed much colour to the picturesque procession. 

By the night of Saturday, April 20th, all the Oklahoma boomers were camped on the north and south lines of the “Promised Land,” where they rested over Sunday, and impatiently awaited the arrival of noon on Monday.

Precisely at noon on the 22nd the buglers sounded the welcome “advance” all along the waiting lines, and the great race began. The scene from the first of the lengthy trains on the Santa Fe Railroad almost beggars description. This train left the line at 12:20, and reached Guthrie Station just before one o’clock.

First came into view the white-topped waggons gathered together in groups in the level prairie or in the little valleys which diversify the face of the country. It was at once noticeable that the teams were not to be seen in these camps, and it was plain that they had been taken out of the harness to be ridden across the border by the hard riders who were to locate claims. A little farther on and this conclusion was proven to be the correct one, for the entire face of the country was overrun with horsemen galloping to the southward. Their fleetest horses had been selected for the work, and the steeds were carrying their riders rapidly to the longed-for goal. Sheridan’s ride and the ride of Paul Revere or John Gilpin all dwindle into obscurity beside the feats of horsemanship performed in Oklahoma on April 22nd. Rides of fifteen and twenty miles were made in incredibly short time by old “boomers” familiar with the country, and who knew just where desirable lands were located.

Those who travelled on horseback and by waggon were chiefly men who were after quarter sections and who proposed to live by tilling the soil. The men who crowded to suffocation the seventy-five coaches hauled over the Santa Fe Railroad were prospective citizens of the embryo cities of Guthrie and Oklahoma. 

Guthrie became a city like magic. No city, even in America, ever grew with the rapidity of Guthrie, Oklahoma! At twelve o’clock noon Oklahoma was uninhabited; at four o’clock Guthrie, its future capital and metropolis, was a live and bustling town, and at its first municipal election held that same afternoon ten thousand votes were polled!

The Bank of Oklahoma was opened for business four hours after noon, and every conceivable trade and profession was represented at Guthrie before the sun went down. When the sun rose the next morning, he looked down upon a new and apparently prosperous country of 40,000 people, with one city at least containing 15,000 souls – where twenty-four hours before had been a wild unpeopled waste.

In the belief that all these people had gone to Oklahoma to stay, the United States postal authorities at once took action. Assistant-Post-master-General Clarkson arranged for their accommodation by arranging as speedily as possible for the establishment of post-offices. For the purpose of locating these offices in the interior and along the railroads, he sent a special post-office inspector. Mr. Clarkson says that within three months there will be 100 post-offices established. In this official’s opinion, in less than six months there will be 100,000 residents in Oklahoma, and he pronounces it, after thorough travel from one end to the other, the “garden spot of the West.”1

1. We give this paper as it reaches us from an eye-witness of the scenes described. Later accounts have reported the temporary withdrawal of many of these people, and their subsequent return.

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