Primary Source: The Rush To Oklahoma (Harper's Weekly - May 18, 1889)
THE RUSH TO OKLAHOMA - William Willard Howard - Harper's Weekly (May 18, 1889). Slightly Edited for Classroom Use.
In some respects the recent settlement of Oklahoma was the most remarkable thing of the present century. Unlike Rome, the city of Guthrie was built in a day. To be strictly accurate in the matter, it might be said that it was built in an afternoon.
At twelve o'clock on Monday, April 22d, the resident population of Guthrie was nothing; before sundown it was at least ten thousand. In that time streets had been laid out, town lots staked off, and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government. At twilight the camp-fires of ten thousand people gleamed on the grassy slopes of the Cimarron Valley, where, the night before, the coyote, the gray wolf, and the deer had roamed undisturbed.
Never before in the history of the West has so large a number of people been concentrated in one place in so short a time. To the conservative Eastern man, who is wont to see cities grow by decades, the settlement of Guthrie was magical beyond belief; to the quick-acting resident of the West, it was merely a particularly lively townsite speculation.
The preparations for the settlement of Oklahoma had been complete, even to the slightest detail, for weeks before the opening day. The Santa Fe Railway, which runs through Oklahoma north and south, was prepared to take any number of people from its handsome station at Arkansas City, Kansas, and to deposit them in almost any part of Oklahoma as soon as the law allowed; thousands of covered wagons were gathered in camps on all sides of the new Territory waiting for the embargo to be lifted.
In its picturesque aspects the rush across the border at noon on the opening day must go down in history as one of the most noteworthy events of Western civilization. At the time fixed, thousands of hungry homeseekers, who had gathered from all parts of the country, and particularly from Kansas and Missouri, were arranged in line along the border, ready to lash their horses into furious speed in the race for fertile spots in the beautiful land before them. The day was one of perfect peace. Overhead the sun shown down from a sky as fair and blue as the cloudless heights of Colorado. The whole expanse of space from zenith to horizon was spotless in its blue purity. The clear spring air, through which the rolling green billows of the Promised Land could be seen with unusual distinctness for many miles, was as sweet and fresh as the balmy atmosphere of June among New Hampshire's hills.
As the expectant home-seekers waited with restless patience, the clear, sweet notes of a cavalry bugle rose and hung a moment upon the startled air. It was noon. The last barrier of savagery in the United States was broken down. Moved by the same impulse, each driver lashed his horses furiously; each rider dug his spurs into his willing steed, and each man on foot caught his breath hard and darted forward. A cloud of dust rose where the home-seekers had stood in line, and when it had drifted away before the gentle breeze, the horses and wagons and men were tearing across the open country like fiends. The horsemen had the best of it from the start. It was a fine race for a few minutes, but soon the riders began to spread out like a fan, and by the time they had reached the horizon they were scattered about as far as eye could see.
Even the fleetest of the horsemen found upon reaching their chosen localities that men in wagons and men on foot were there before them. As it was clearly impossible for a man on foot to outrun a horseman, the inference is plain that Oklahoma had been entered hours before the appointed time. Notwithstanding the assertions of the soldiers that every boomer had been driven out of Oklahoma, the fact remains that the woods along the streams within Oklahoma were literally full of people Sunday night. Nine-tenths of these people made settlement upon the land illegally. The other tenth would have done so had there been any desirable land left to settle upon. This action on the part of the first claimholders will cause a great deal of land litigation in the future, as it is not to be expected that the man who ran his horse at its utmost speed for ten miles only to find a settler with an ox team in quiet possession of his chosen farm will tamely submit to this plain infringement of the law.
Some of the men who started from the line on foot were quite as successful in securing desirable claims as many who rode fleet horses. They had the advantage of knowing just where their land was located. One man left the line with the others, carrying on his back a tent, a blanket, some camp dishes, an axe, and provisions for two days. He ran down the railway track for six miles, and reached his claim in just sixty minutes. Upon arriving on his land he fell down under a tree, unable to speak or see. I am glad to be able to say that his claim is one of the best in Oklahoma.
The rush from the line was so impetuous that by the time the first railway train arrived from the north at twenty-five minutes past twelve o'clock, only a few of the hundreds of boomers were anywhere to be seen. The journey of this first train was well-nigh as interesting as the rush of the men in wagons. The train left Arkansas City at 8:45 o'clock in the forenoon. It consisted of an empty baggage car, which was set apart for the use of newspaper correspondents, eight passenger coaches, and the caboose of a freight train. The coaches were so densely packed with men that not another human being could get on board. So uncomfortably crowded were they that some of the younger boomers climbed to the roofs of the cars and clung perilously to the ventilators. An adventurous person secured at great risk a seat on the forward truck of the baggage car.
In this way the train was loaded to its utmost capacity. That no one was killed or injured was due as much to the careful management of the train as to the ability of the passengers to take care of themselves. Like their friends in the wagons, the boomers on the cars were exultant with joy at the thought of at last entering into possession of the Promised Land. At first appearances of the land through which the train ran seemed to justify all the virtues that had been claimed for it. The rolling, grassy uplands, and the wooded river-bottoms, the trees in which were just bursting into the most beautiful foliage of early spring, seemed to give a close reality of the distant charm of green and purple forest growths, which rose from the trough of some long swell and went having away to meet the brighter hues in the far-off sky. Throughout all the landscape were clumps of trees suggesting apple orchards set in fertile meadows, and here and there were dim patches of gray and white sand that might in a less barbarous region be mistaken for farm-houses surrounded by hedges and green fields. Truly the Indians have well-named Oklahoma the "beautiful land."
The landless and home-hungry people on the train might be pardoned their mental exhilaration, when the effect of this wonderfully beautiful country upon the most prosaic mind is considered. It was an eager and an exuberantly joyful crowd that rode slowly into Guthrie at twenty minutes past one o'clock on that perfect April afternoon. Men who had expected to lay out the town site were grievously disappointed at the first glimpse of their proposed scene of operations. The slope east of the railway at Guthrie station was dotted white with tents and sprinkled thick with men running about in all directions.
"We're done for," said a town-site speculator, in dismay. "Someone has gone in ahead of us and laid out the town."
"Never mind that," shouted another town-site speculator, "but make a rush and get what you can."
Hardly had the train slackened its speed when the impatient boomers began to leap from the cars and run up the slope. Men jumped from the roofs of the moving cars at the risk of their lives. Some were so stunned by the fall that they could not get up for some minutes. The coaches were so crowded that many men were compelled to squeeze through the windows in order to get a fair start at the head of the crowd. Almost before the train had come to a standstill the cars were emptied. In their haste and eagerness, men fell over each other in heaps, others stumbled and fell headlong, while many ran forward so blindly and impetuously that it was not until they had passed the best of the town lots that they came to a realization of their actions.
I ran with the first of the crowd to get a good point of view from which to see the rush. When I had time to look about me I found that I was standing beside a tent, near which a man was leisurely chopping holes in the sod with a new axe.
"Where did you come from, that you have already pitched your tent?" I asked.
"Oh, I was here," said he.
"How was that?"
"Why, I was a deputy United States marshal."
"Did you resign?"
"No; I'm a deputy still."
"But it is not legal for a deputy United States marshal, or any one in the employ of the government, to take up a town lot in this manner."
"That may all be, stranger; but I've got two lots here, just the same; and about fifty other deputies have got lots in the same way. In fact, the deputy-marshals laid out the town."
At intervals of fifteen minutes, other trains came from the north loaded down with home-seekers and town-site speculators. As each succeeding crowd rushed up the slope and found that government officers had taken possession of the best part of the town, indignation became hot and outspoken; yet the marshals held to their lots and refused to move. Bloodshed was prevented only by the belief of the home-seekers that the government would set the matter right.
This course of the deputy United States marshals was one of the most outrageous pieces of imposition upon honest home-seekers ever practiced in the settlement of a new country. That fifty men could, through influence, get themselves appointed as deputy United States marshals for the sole purpose of taking advantage of their positions in this way is creditable neither to them nor to the man who made their appointment possible. This illegal seizure thus became the first matter of public discussion in the city of Guthrie.
When the passengers from the first train reached the spot where the deputy-marshals had ceased laying out lots, they seized the line of the embryo street and ran it eastward as far as their numbers would permit. The second train load of people took it where the first left off, and ran it entirely out of sight behind a swell of ground at least two miles from the station. The following car of home-seekers went north and south, so that by the time that all were in for the day a city large enough in area to hold 100,000 inhabitants had been staked off, with more or less geometrical accuracy.
A few women and children were in the rush, but they had to take their chances with the rest. Disputes over the ownership of lots grew incessant, for the reason that when a man went to the river for a drink of water, or tried to get his baggage at the railway station, another man would take possession of his lot, notwithstanding the obvious presence of the first man's stakes and sometimes part of his wearing apparel.
Owing to the uncertainty concerning the lines of the streets, two and sometimes more lots were staked out on the same ground, each claimant hoping that the official survey would give him the preference. Contrary to all expectations, there was no bloodshed over the disputed lots. This may be accounted for by the fact that no intoxicating liquors of any kind were allowed to be sold in Oklahoma. It is a matter of common comment among the people that the peaceful way in which Oklahoma was settled was due entirely to its compulsory prohibition. Had whiskey been plentiful in Guthrie the disputed lots might have been watered in blood, for every man went armed with some sort of deadly weapon. If there could be a more striking temperance lesson than this, I certainly should like to see it.
When Congress gives Oklahoma some sort of government the prohibition of the sale of intoxicating liquor should be the first and foremost of her laws.
It is estimated that between six and seven thousand persons reached Guthrie by train from the north that first afternoon, and that fully three thousand came in by wagon from the north and east, and by train from Purcell on the south, thus making a total population for the first day of about ten thousand. By taking thought in the matter, three-fourths of these people had provided themselves with tents and blankets, so that even on the first night they had ample shelter from the weather. The rest of them slept the first night as best they could, with only the red earth for a pillow and the starry arch of heaven for a blanket.
At dawn of Tuesday the unrefreshed home-seekers and town-site speculators arose, and began anew the location of disputed claims. The tents multiplied like mushrooms in a rain that day, and by night the building of frame houses had been begun in earnest in the new streets. The buildings were by no means elaborate, yet they were as good as the average frontier structure, and they served their purpose, which was all that was required.
On that day the trains going north were filled with returning boomers, disgusted beyond expression with the dismal outlook of the new country. Their places were taken by others who came in to see the fun, and perhaps to pick up a bargain in the way of town lots of commercial speculation.
By Wednesday the retreat from Guthrie was at its height. Two persons went home to each one that came in, yet the town seemed to be as lively and as populous as ever. The north-bound boomers asserted that there was nothing in or about Guthrie to support a city; that only a limited number of quarter sections of land on the river bottom were worth settling upon, and that the upland country was nothing but worthless red sand coated over with a film of green grass. To bear out their assertions, these disgusted men pointed to the city of Guthrie, where the red dust was ankle-deep in the main street.
The red dust was an argument that could not be contradicted. It rose in clouds and hovered above the feverish city until the air was like fog at sunrise; it sifted through the provision boxes in the tents, it crept into blankets and clothing, and it stuck like wax to the faces and beards of the unhappy citizens. The heat and the dust and the phenomenal lack of food during the first three days created a burning thirst, which seemingly could not be quenched. This thirst was intensified tenfold by the knowledge that water was scarce, hard to get, and sometimes unfit to drink. The yellow Cimarron and the lukewarm Cottonwood were the only streams where water could be obtained, and on the third day he was very thirsty indeed who would drink from either.
Boomers who were not engaged in holding down town lots peddled water in pails to their thirsty neighbors at five and ten cents a cupful. Once, when compelled to moisten my parched throat from one of these pails, I noticed that the water was unusually yellow and thick.
"See here," said I to the Frenchman who held the pail; "you have washed your face in this water."
"No, monsieur," he said, with grotesque earnestness; "I do not wash my face for four days!"
I did not doubt it. His face had become so thickly encrusted with red dust and perspiration that he would not have recognized himself had he chanced to look in a mirror. In this respect he was not worse off than his neighbors, most of whom had not thought of washing their faces since entering Oklahoma. This was not due to any personal negligence, but entirely to the scarcity of water. When men spent their whole time, night and day, in the work of keeping possession of town lots, they could not be expected to go half a mile or a mile for such a trifling diversion as washing their faces.
During the first three days food was nearly as hard to get as water. Dusty ham sandwiches sold on the streets as high as twenty-five cents each, while in the restaurants a plate of pork and beans was valued at seventy-five cents. Few men were well enough provided with funds to buy themselves a hearty meal. One disgusted home-seeker estimated that if he ate as much as he was accustomed to eat back in Missouri his board would cost him $7.75 per day. Not being able to spend that amount of money every day, he contented himself with such stray sandwiches as were within his means. In this manner he contrived to subsist until Wednesday afternoon, when he was forced to return to civilization in southern Kansas in order to keep from starving to death.
A newspaper correspondent from Wichita, Kansas, who had never before known the feeling of hunger, was so far gone in the first stages of starvation that upon his return home on Friday he was hardly able to assimilate food. In appearance he was a walking spectre of famine. The only men in Guthrie who made money during the first week were the restaurant-keepers and the water-peddlers.
After the first rush had subsided, however, there was no lack of food, and by the sinking of a number of wells there was a plentiful supply of water, so that the city of Guthrie in the matter of food and drink was no worse off than the ordinary frontier town. When the first well was dug, the home-seekers had an excellent opportunity of learning the exact character of the soil. The well-digger went through several feet of red sand after the sod had been cut through, and then found layers of gray and white sand so loose that the spade would sink into it upon very slight downward pressure.
Believing that all of the Oklahoma country consisted of this red, gray, and white sand, thousands of home-seekers took the earliest trains back into Kansas, more than ever contented with the fertile soil of the homes that they had left in the first rush to Oklahoma. By the end of the week the crowd of returning home-seekers had lessened, so that Guthrie had what might be called a permanent population with which to being the serious business of life.
Just how long this population will remain, or what size Guthrie will be in another year, is a matter of some uncertainty, for the reason that nothing definite can be decided upon until a thorough test has been made of the farming country round about. Aside from its temporary importance as a land-office centre, the size of Guthrie will be determined, not by the speculative value of town lots, but by the agricultural capacity of the surrounding country.
The city has already begun business upon a larger scale than the extent and fertility of the tributary country seems to justify. It has allowed itself the luxury of two mayors and two sets of municipal officers, one set being accredited to Guthrie proper and the other to the outlying district known as East Guthrie. I fancy that when business cools down to a substantial basis it will be found that one set of municipal officers will be enough for both towns.
The first Sunday in Guthrie showed that the new citizens had determined to begin life in the right way. Instead of spending the Sabbath in gambling, drinking, and other riotous ways of living, they held religious services in different parts of the town. If the present spirit of law and order and respectable conduct is continued, as it doubtless will be, the people of Guthrie need never be ashamed of the reputation of their town.
The rush of home-seekers into Oklahoma from the southern border was more picturesque than that from the north, although in numbers it was by no means as great. The intending settlers had been gathered at Purcell, in the Chickasaw Nation, for several months, waiting for the signal to cross the Canadian River and take possession of the coveted land. As the opening day drew near, many of the boomers provided themselves with fleet saddle-horses, and made careful observations of the half-dozen fords leading across the river, their intention being to dash into the river at noon on April 22d, and ride rapidly to their chosen claims. For this purpose the very best of horses were brought into use.
Just before noon on the appointed day, hundreds of the horsemen gathered at the entrance to the fords waiting for the signal. Lieutenant Adair, of Troop "L," fifth Cavalry, was stationed on the sands on the opposite side of the river. He had arranged that at noon he should order his bugler to blow the recall, while riding a white horse around in a circle. By this means those who were too far away to hear the bugle could get the signal from the circling of the white horse. The lieutenant had caused all the boomers' watches to be set by his own, in order that there might be no false start. Just as the second hand of his watch touched the hour of twelve he gave the signal, and before the stirring notes of the bugle had found an echo against the walls of Purcell, the foremost horsemen had dashed into the fords. Spurred on by yelling and wildly excited riders, the horses made a furious dash through the water, throwing sand and spray on all sides like a sudden gust of rain and hail.
After the horsemen came the wagons, as thick as they could crowd together. The Canadian River is so treacherous, even at the fords, that horses and wagons must be kept moving or run a great risk of being lost in the quicksands. The fear of the quicksands, added to the desire to reach the chosen lands, made the crossing on that quiet noonday particularly lively and stirring. The leaders ran a gallant race, but one by one they fell into deep holes in the river-bed, and for a time floundered about at imminent risk of drowning.
A young woman, who pluckily held her place in the lead half-way across the river, went into a pool with a mighty splash. Even in the midst of his excitement the nearest boomer, who was racing with her, checked his horse and assisted her out to dry land, thus losing his place among the leaders. A big bay horse held the lead three-quarters of the way across the river, each furious jump giving him more and more of a lead over the others. In an unlucky moment he went into a deep pool head-first, and threw his rider half stunned upon the yellow sand. While the rider was gathering himself together in a half-dazed condition, the bit horse stood and looked at him a moment, and then started on again. He soon took his place at the lead of the race, and kept it there until the whole cavalcade had passed out of sight. Lieutenant Adair, who had watched this episode with quickening pulse, galloped up to the wet and discomfited rider.
"See here," said he, "I haven't much money about me, but if you'll take $250 for that horse, here's your money."
"No, lieutenant," said the man, with a weary smile; "you needn't make me an offer, because you haven't got money enough to buy him."
Most of the boomers who crossed the river at Purcell took up quarter sections of land that they had selected many weeks before; a few tried to organize a town on the flats opposite Purcell, while the others went on to Oklahoma City and Guthrie. Hundreds of boomers came into the southern part of Oklahoma from the Pottawotamie Indian country on the east and from the lands of the wild tribes on the west. As these portions of the border are not protected by soldiers, most of the boomers crossed the line long before the appointed time, and hid in the woods until Monday forenoon, when they emerged from their hiding-places and boldly took up their claims.
The best lots in Oklahoma City, like the valuable locations in Guthrie, were seized by the deputy United States marshals. The actual home-seekers were compelled to take what was left. In their haste to secure desirable lots, the town-site settlers failed to pay as much attention to the geometrical lines of the streets as they should have done, with the result that two, and in some cases three, different streets and blocks were laid out on the same ground. During the first week the discomforts of hunger and thirst were well-nigh forgotten in the anxiety of the people to get their town site properly laid out.
The excitement was not at any time as great as that at Guthrie, for the reason that the population was not more than two thousand even at its highest point on Monday afternoon. Nearly the same state of affairs existed at Oklahoma City as at Guthrie, with the exception that the red dust was not so deep and water not as scarce. The new citizens, however, seem to have as much faith in the future of their town as their neighbors at Guthrie.
This is probably due to the fact that Oklahoma City has the most desirable town site in Oklahoma, and also to the fact that the land round about is considered to be better than the land in the northern part of the district. The comparative wealth of the two parts will not be definitely known until a practical test of the soil is made next year.
Good judges of bad land declare that the country tributary to Oklahoma City will raise no better crops than the soil surrounding Guthrie. If this be true, the outlook for Oklahoma City is certainly not brilliant. A man who hid out in the brush all day Sunday and Sunday night, in order that he might be first on his claim Monday morning despite the disfranchising conditions in the opening proclamation, declared to me that after a search of three days he found no land in the southern part of Oklahoma that he would care to file a claim upon. The upland he found to be worthless red sand, and the river-bottoms to be composed of buffalo wallows and a short wiry grass, which indicated to him the presence of land similar to some of the worthless lands of Kansas. He returned to his farm in Kansas without attempting to make a new settlement.
In this part of the country the poverty and wretched condition of some of the older boomers who have been waiting for years for the opening of Oklahoma were painfully apparent. Men with large families settled upon land with less than a dollar in money to keep them from starvation. How they expected to live until they could get a crop from their lands was a mystery which even they could not pretend to explain. Like unreasoning children, they thought that could they but once reach the beautiful green slopes of the Promised Land, their poverty and trouble would be at an end. They are now awakening to the bitter realization that their real hardships have just begun.
The original boomers who caused Oklahoma to be opened for settlement have much to be responsible for, not the last of which are the tears and cries of hungry children, who look about for bread and see only the red sand shimmering in the heated air. Could the disgusted home-seekers have laid hands upon the late Captain David L. Payne, the original Oklahoma boomer, the blood-thirsty dispatches from Oklahoma in some of the daily newspapers would have had foundation in one instance at least. If the projected monument to Captain Payne is ever built, the expense of it will not be borne by the men who went into Oklahoma on the twenty-second day of April.
The settlement of Kingfisher, in the western part of Oklahoma, differed little from the rush to Guthrie and Oklahoma City, except that the town was laid out about fifty-seven miles from the most available railroad. At the time of the opening of Oklahoma the Rock Island Railroad had reached Pond Creek, in the Cherokee Outlet, on its way through the Indian Territory and Texas. The Kingfisher people reached their new home from Pond Creek in wagons and stages. They were held at the Oklahoma line until noon on Monday, when they were allowed to go into the Promised Land as they pleased. When they arrived at Kingfisher they found that the town had already been laid out by a number of men who had ridden in on horseback from the west border of Oklahoma, only a mile and a half distant. As at Guthrie, two town sites were located. The actual town of Kingfisher will not have a permanent location until the Rock Island road has designated the place for its station.
Meanwhile the people are living in tents and in wagons, waiting for the time when they shall build what they expect to be the capital of the new Territory of Oklahoma. They may not get the new territory this year or next year; yet it is safe to say that they will get in some time, for now that the heart of the Indian country has been opened to settlement, the rest of it must follow as a matter of necessity.
Already the Cherokee Outlet has been invaded by boomers who failed to find desirable claims in Oklahoma, and although the soldiers in the Indian Territory have been instructed to drive them out, yet it is quite likely that they will remain on their new claims unmolested. With these people as a nucleus, the white population of the Cherokee Outlet will grow steadily, and in time it will compel the Indians to sell out their interest in the lands and go elsewhere.
Various small towns have been laid out in different parts of Oklahoma. In these places the speculative idea is of course uppermost, despite the fact that town-site speculation has already been overdone in Guthrie, Oklahoma City, and Kingfisher. It is said that lots in these three towns have been sold for large sums; yet I think that the reports lack confirmation. From personal observation I know that lots in Guthrie have been offered for sale as low as fifty cents each. In one case a disheartened Wisconsin boomer sold two Guthrie lots, a twelve-dollar tent, six dollars' worth of blankets, and a week's provisions for four dollars. In Oklahoma City lots have probably not yet fallen that low in value, for the reason that fewer of them have been staked off, and also because the reaction there was not as great as at Guthrie.
If Oklahoma is to be made a land of farms, it will need plenty of money and earnest determination. Many of the boomers who have not found a lodgement there will be compelled to relinquish their claims and go to older settled parts of the country, where money is more plentiful and where their labor is in demand. It is folly to expect that a man with a wife, six children, and forty cents in money will be able to do anything toward the development of the new region; and yet men of such circumstances came under my observation during a ride near Oklahoma City.
In a few months, and perhaps in a few weeks, the relinquishments to very many claims in Oklahoma can be purchased for a purely nominal sum, and in some cases for nothing at all. A crop cannot be raised on the new land this year. The ultimate success of Oklahoma as an agricultural region depends as much upon the rainfall as upon the fertility of the soil; and those who plough the land in hope will have to wait in faith for the rains to come.
The development of Oklahoma will in this respect resemble the settlement of Kansas, where it was found that the real settlers were in many instances men with some means, who came to take up the claims of those whom drought and mortgages and hard times had driven to the wall. Hundreds of people who were starved out of Kansas were among the first to enter Oklahoma with the intention of retrieving their scattered fortunes; yet as they went into Oklahoma with no more resources they had carried into central and western Kansas, it is not unlikely that the ultimate result will be the same.
Men who have gone into Oklahoma and obtained quarter sections of land on the fertile parts of the river-bottoms, with the intention of pasturing stock on the sandy uplands, which are adapted for nothing better than grazing, stand a fair chance of keeping the mortgage company from the door, as, from present indications, it is not probable that the uplands will be disturbed for many years to come.