Primary Source: The Story of Oklahoma (The Chatauquan - June 1889)

This piece was written by author and journalist John R. Spears and published in a periodical called The Chautauquan in June 1889. It's been slightly edited and formatted for classroom use. 

It's worth considering that not everything Spears claims is necessarily supported by historical evidence. While he was not the only source, for example, to suggest that David L. Payne was working covertly for the railroads, neither is that established orthodoxy. Modern readers should take this for what it is - a contemporaneous source from the year of the first Oklahoma Land Run. 

"The Story of Oklahoma" 

The Oklahoma of the boomers is located in the center of the Indian Territory. It contains 1,887,000 acres of land. Another and greater Oklahoma has been talked about in the newspapers for a year past – the Oklahoma of a bill which passed the lower House of the last Congress, creating a new territory out of the western half of the Indian Territory, together with the public land strip commonly called No Man’s Land. That territory would have included the Oklahoma of the boomers, but must not be confused with it in this history. 

It is likely that the idea of parceling out the Oklahoma of the boomers among white settlers, originated in the mind of some one in the employ of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad, commonly called the Frisco Line, and that its father was a Cherokee Indian, Col. E. C. Boudinot, a talented lawyer and an experienced lobbyist at Washington. It would be difficult to prove this statement in court, for the reason that the company’s charter forbade such doings; but Oklahoma Harry, the guide of the first organized invaders, admitted that he and Payne were both under pay at the time of the first raid. Among other things done to help the railroad in this matter, Col. Boudinot wrote a letter and drew a map to prove that white men could lawfully settle in Oklahoma, and then had the letter and map printed and circulated at the expense of the Government. They appear in Senate Executive Document No. 20, First Session, Forty-Sixth Congress. 

The object which the railroad people had to subserve in opening the territory for white men was two-fold: The Company owned an impaired title to a grant of land from twenty to forty miles wide, right across the Indian Territory; and this title, provided it was not forfeited by failures to carry out the contract, was to be made complete whenever the Indian title to the land was extinguished. Besides this, if the territory was settled by white men, the traffic of the road would be greatly increased.

Oklahoma was a part of the original Louisiana purchase. By the Act of Congress of May 28, 1830, the President was authorized to set apart a certain tract in the Louisiana purchase for the exclusive use of the Indians. By subsequent bargains and treaties, a part of the land so set aside was patented to the Creek Indians, and remained their property until August 7, 1856. On that day the Creeks sold a part of their reservation, including Oklahoma, to the Seminoles, with a proviso in the deed that the Seminoles should not sell it to any one without the consent of the Creeks. 

On March 21, 1866, the Seminoles, “in compliance with a desire of the United States to locate other Indians and freedmen thereon,” as the treaty said, sold for cash their whole domain to the United States, and bought back 200,000 acres. The Creeks consented to these transfers. Since that time the Kickapoos, Pottawattamies, etc., have been located on that part not reserved to the Seminoles, and certain thousand of acres have been set apart for their use. The remaining 1,887,000 acres constitute the Oklahoma of the boomers.

The clause about the desire of the United States to locate Indians and freedmen on the Seminole reservation was a fraud on the Seminoles. The promoters of the scheme in their capacity as agents of Uncle Sam had no such idea. The reservation was in the line of the proposed Atlantic and Pacific Railroad from Springfield, Mo., to the Pacific Ocean, and on July 25 following the purchase, a bill was railroaded through Congress, giving this company every odd numbered section of land for forty miles on each side of its road-bed through Oklahoma. That purchase of the Seminole reservation was a railroad scheme to get a broad belt of fertile land by false pretense. 

In spite of this fact, no less prominent a lawyer than Congressman Scott, of Pennsylvania, has asserted in Congress that the land grant of July 25, 1886, to the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad has never been forfeited. It is certain that the settlers who have taken homesteads on the odd numbered sections within forty miles of the Frisco Railroad will have an expensive law suit on their hands very soon.

Leaving out of consideration this railroad claim, the question as to the right of white men to settle on Oklahoma lands was this: Did the purchase of the Seminole reservation for cash by the United States make that an unreserved part of its public land within the meaning of the Homestead laws which say that settlers may take up claims on any public land not reserved by statute for other purposes? 

The boomers argued that the purchase for cash constituted an unreserved sale, and quoted two cases where United States District Justices had so decided. But when one of the boomers was tried at Fort Smith for unlawfully entering the Indian Territory, Justice Parker held that while the fee of the land was unquestionably vested in the United States, the land could not be pre-empted, because, having been originally reserved for settlement, it could not be opened for settlement without a specific act by the power which had reserved it, so proclaiming it open. 

It took more than ten years of filibustering to get the power to make that proclamation. The fact that President Cleveland negotiated with the Seminoles and Creeks for a quit claim deed of the property tends to prove that the United States did not have a clear title, however.

Having determined to settle the lands, if possible, the railroad people looked about for a man to lead the settlers. This was in 1878. Captain David L. Payne was chosen. Payne was forty-two years old, a resident of Sedgwick, Kansas, and unmarried. He had been a buffalo skin hunter, a soldier and a politician of sufficient influence to get an appointment as an assistant door-keeper of the House of Representatives, a post which he occupied in 1876. He was the sort of orator to fire the frontiersman’s heart.

The exact date of the first public meeting to collect settlers to make a raid on Oklahoma has been forgotten, but it was held in Wichita, Kansas, on the south-east corner of Douglas Avenue and Main Street, in October, 1878. Payne was the principal speaker. He described the promised land in glowing terms, explained the legal questions as to its title, and invited everybody to subscribe for a lot in the town site, and to become a member of the colony of emigrants, but more especially to subscribe for a town lot. 

Here came in the deluding and petty swindling of the people. Payne posed as a man who was homeless and, in the vernacular of the country, “had gone broke.” He said he and the rest of the homeless people there could go unmolested into Oklahoma and take up claims. This was the delusion. Every colony of boomers that started into the country had a town site company composed of the leaders of the colony. Business men in every Kansas border village were engaged in these town site schemes. The mass of the colony could buy claims to lots at from $2 to $25 a claim, according to whether booming was dull or brisk. It never cost less than a dollar to join a colony only, without a town lot claim. Agencies for the sale of these claims were established all over the south-west. Thousands of dollars were taken in; no one knows how many thousands, for there was never an accounting. One old boomer estimated that Payne alone took in from $40,000 to $50,000 before his death. That was the swindle.

The talk of an invasion was spread over the frontier by the local papers and a few of the strollers in the south-west headed their horses toward the promised land. The first actual invasion recorded took place on the 28th of April, 1879, when four or five wagon loads of people passed the Sac and Fox agency, destined to form a settlement on the head of Deep Fork.

The first organized raid where a colony, with a town site company included, started in to settle the country, left Arkansas City, Kansas, on the night of April 13, 1880. Capt. Payne was the president of the colony, and Oklahoma Harry (his real name is Harry L. Hill, and he is a wealthy Wichitan) was the guide. He led the way, making the trail with old buffalo skulls which he placed on prominent points along the route, so that the rest could follow. That trail is now known as the Hog’s Back trail. He kept in advance so as to look out for soldiers. 

There were twenty-five men in the party, but two of them weakened and returned. It was not a large company considering that a year of talk had passed. On April 22 they selected their town site. It was a beautiful knoll, covered with jack oaks. It appears as Ewing on the maps of the territory.

For nearly a month the boomers were in high feather, but on May 12 Lieutenant Pardee with twelve soldiers came marching through the jack oaks and corralled the outfit. The boomers were held as prisoners, without trial until June 3, and then conveyed over the Kansas line and warned not to return. The boomers made much of the injustice of holding them prisoners without trial, and gathered a force for another raid. 

Early in July, Payne and twenty-two men were again captured. They were held prisoners until Aug. 7 and then taken to Fort Smith where they were discharged in spite of loud demands for a trial. The next colony had two hundred members and it was backed by Dr. Robert Wilson, a Texas millionaire, who furnished them a lot of repeating rifles to shoot soldiers with, but no shooting of that sort was ever done.

The greatest of the many raids thereafter made, was that which effected a settlement six hundred strong at Rock Falls, some distance north of Oklahoma. Payne had meantime got a sort of trial. He was sued for a penalty of one thousand dollars in May, 1881, for invading the territory, and Justice Parker decided against him, on the ground as already stated, that Oklahoma had to be formally proclaimed open for settlement before it could be settled. 

The Rock Falls settlement lasted for months. It had its stores and its newspaper, and was quite a little town. But on August 7, 1884, came four companies of cavalry and one cowboy, and having burned the improvements, they drove the colonists into Kansas.

When then troops arrived they found an American flag floating from a staff in front of George Brown’s tent. The commander of the troops ordered the flag lowered, and a soldier began pulling down on the halyards while the boomers groaned aloud in real anguish. At this moment the cowboy with a whoop, threw his lasso over the flag and then rode around before the agitated boomers with the flag trailing in the dust. In the presence of the troops not a man dared move, but little Miss Lou Brown, a charming lass of thirteen years, snatched her father’s revolver from its belt that hung in the tent door, and leveled it at the cowboy. Profane boomers never curse so heartily as when they tell how the nerveless father saved the cowboy’s life by ordering Miss Lou not to shoot, and she obeyed with tears. The cowboy turned pale, and disengaging the flag sneaked away.

The boomers say that cowboys were often present as agents of the cattle men to see that the settlers were expelled. Oklahoma was then and has been ever since in the possession of cattle men, and anyone who takes the trouble to investigate the matter will conclude that but for this fact Oklahoma would have been settled in 1880. 

Of other invasions but little can be said. It is worthy of note, however, that Payne died on November 28, 1884, at the hotel Barnard in Wellington, Kansas, immediately after drinking a glass of milk, although before that he had been in good health, save for occasional attacks of rheumatism. Some of the boomers believe he was poisoned, and that cattle men had it done.

After Payne’s death Capt. W. L. Couch succeeded him, and made several uneventful raids. After President Cleveland was inaugurated, Couch went to Secretary Lamar about the injustice of allowing cattle men to pasture cattle in Oklahoma, while home seekers were excluded. Lamar said the cattle men should go. A proclamation was issued to that effect March 13, 1885. 

In December, Couch asked Lamar why the cattle had not been removed. Lamar replied on December 9, that all the cattle save five thousand head had been removed. On December 10, W. B. Grimes, a Kansas City cattle man, called on Lamar and protested against the order of removing the cattle, which the soldiers had at least begun to carry out, on the ground that so many cattle had been and still were held in Oklahoma that they had been crowded for range, and were too poor to stand the journey!

“By what rule of logic can it be made to appear right for the cattle man to pasture his herds there without money or price, while home seekers, who want to buy the land from the Government are forcibly ejected?” asked the boomers. General Hatch, commanding the troops, with a keen appreciation of the facts, once asked the Department of the Interior to send an agent to point out the white men who were to be ejected, because soldiers could not tell which white men were lawfully in the territory and which were intruders. Not every cattle man enjoyed his immunity, however.

Colonel E. C. Cole, of Wichita, Kansas, tells a story of life on the cattle ranch. There was a huge two-story log-house with a grand hall below, and handsomely furnished bedrooms above. At the June round-up came the cattle man and his friends. They drove across the territory in handsome carriages. Charming, elegantly dressed young ladies drove with the gentlemen and were treated with marked affection. Deer, antelope, wild turkeys, and prairie hens, slaughtered for the banquet, hung about the ranch as the party drove up. In a dugout hard by, were great stores of civilized products, including baskets of wine.

As the night wore away the sound of revelry made the welkin ring. Just over the divide a solitary home seeker crouched in a rude shelter and ate cold bacon and corn bread because he feared a fire would betray him to the cowboys, and then lay down and prayed God that the honest wife by his side might not break down under the hardships she was compelled to endure.

During all the time of the agitation, the Santa Fe Railroad Company had been trying to get a right-of-way across the territory. They succeeded in 1885, and thereupon Couch ceased booming Oklahoma, to take contracts for grading on the new route. There is a suspicion in the South-west that Santa Fe officials had also been backing the boomers.

Although a few people went into Oklahoma every year from 1885 to 1889, only two raids worth mentioning were made. The stories of these raids will illustrate the hardships of boomer life. 

On August 12, 1883, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Tyrrel, with Edward Fredericks camped on the Cimmaron River. Mrs. Tyrrel was ill. On the 15th came a squad of soldiers. Mr. Tyrrel begged that he might await the arrival of a spring wagon for his sick wife. He got excited over their refusal and spoke harshly. A soldier choked him half to death and then knocked him down with a revolver. Then he was tied to the axle of an army wagon. The invalid and Mr. Fredericks were thrown into the wagon, the camp was destroyed, and the party started for Fort Reno, dragging Tyrrel behind the wagon. In the middle of the river the wagon stopped in the quicksand and remained there under the blazing sun for three hours. Mrs. Tyrrel was so injured by exposure that in eleven days she died. A pathetic letter from her husband to the commanding officer of the fort, begging for mercy for the sick wife, and asking that surgeon be sent to her is now preserved by Mr. Fredericks. The letter was returned without an answer. The soldiers were usually kind, however.

Late in February, 1888, Albert Quinn, John Antwerp, and Thomas George left claims in No Man’s Land intending to camp on the line of the territory and await the opening of Oklahoma. They happened to get a quarter of a mile over the line. George H. Delaney had cattle on the range there. He ordered the boomers to “pull their freight” – go away. The boomers refused. On March first came Delaney with a dozen cowboys. The boomers still refused to go, and the cowboys opened fire on them. The three men and Mrs. Antwerp were shot dead. One cowboy was killed. The other women and five children were allowed to go away. The dead bodies were burned with the camp outfit. No one has been punished for this crime.

Oklahoma is well-named. The word in both the Choctaw and the Chickasaw language means beautiful land. The climate in winter is like a June day in the Adirondacks. In summer the settlers will shake with the ague. The soil is fertile, save only in one or two rows of townships on the east side. Coal, lead, and zinc may be found.

For a good many years the appellation of Oklahoma boomer has been, especially in the East, a term of opprobrium. The cattle men by posing as the friends of the Indians, managed to make people believe that the boomers were robbers, trying to steal Indian lands. While the cheek may well glow with indignation at the thought of the railroad men and town site schemers who for private gain led these boomers into all sorts of hardships, yet for the men who, from eight to ten years ago, selected claims on public lands to which they honestly believed themselves entitled, and who have ever since remained in camp on the borders of the land, waiting for the day sure to come, when they should be allowed to enter in, one can express only admiration. They were models of patient endurance and tireless pluck. Statues, carved from the granite to be found in the mountains of the greater Oklahoma soon to be a great state, will sometime be erected to them, and not without reason.

Add new comment