Primary Source: The Story of Oklahoma (The Nation - April 4, 1889)
"The Story of Oklahoma" - The Nation (April 4, 1889). Slightly Edited for Classroom Use.
Who are the Oklahoma boomers, and why are they so eager to get into Oklahoma? These are questions which many newspaper readers are asking, and the facts necessary for intelligent answers to these questions make an interesting story.
Oklahoma, in the language of the Chickasaw Indians, signifies “beautiful land.” It was the name given by the Indians to a tract of country containing almost two million acres and situated nearly in the centre of the Indian Territory. Some of the land is poor, but the larger part of it is the richest and most productive known in the world. It is also believed to contain valuable mineral deposits. It was originally a part of the Louisiana purchase, and was included in the tract assigned by Congress in 1830 to be divided up among various Indian tribes, to be theirs for ever. Oklahoma under this act of Congress became the property of the Creek tribe, and remained in their undisputed possession till 1856. In that year they made a treaty with the Seminoles by which the two tribes held the country jointly until 1866, when the two consented to a sale of it to the United States for about fifteen cents an acre.
A few months after this sale was completed, a bill was rushed through Congress granting to the Atlantic and Pacific Railway a right of way through the territory thus purchased, together with a grant of alternate sections of land for forty miles on each side of the railway. It was then generally believed that the purchase of Oklahoma had been advocated and accomplished with a view to giving the railway company this valuable grant. The company made a survey for the proposed line, but never built it. It was decided by the courts that the land was not yet open to settlement, and would not be so thrown open except by proclamation from the President of the United States. It was expressly provided in the railway charter that it should be forfeited if the officials of the company in any way aided or abetted any movement for the opening of the Indian Territory for settlement. If they build the road without settlers, it would be a losing venture; if they attempted to get settlers along its line, they would lose their charter. What should be done under the conditions?
Here we get a glimpse of what is generally believed to be the first cause of the boomers. They were men hired secretly by the railway company to break into Oklahoma, in defiance of the United States government, and found settlements. This is denied by the railway authorities, and can, of course, never be proved. There were undoubtedly other causes, the chief of which was the richness of the coveted lands, and the desire of men of roving and adventurous spirit to get possession of them.
The first band of boomers stared under the leadership of an Indiana adventurer named Payne, who, having served through the war and got into politics, first heard of the Oklahoma country while serving as assistant doorkeeper in the House of Representatives at Washington. He went to Kansas in the fall of 1878, and began to harangue the people on the subject of invasion and possession. In company with other men of similar characteristics, he organized a land company with an alleged capital of $2,000,000, called the “Oklahoma Town Company,” and sold shares at five dollars each. They also organized the “Southwest Colony Company,” with a capital of $1,000,000, and sold shares in that at two dollars each. After vigorous agitating they succeeded in getting together, in the spring of 1880, about twenty-five men who were willing to begin the invasion.
After dodging the United States troops for several days, they at last reached a suitable point in Oklahoma, and chose a site for their town. They called it “Ewing,” after Gen. Thomas Ewing of Ohio, gave it an area of six square miles, built a log-house, and began to cut down trees and lay out town lots. They got on famously for about three weeks, when a squad of United States troops, consisting of twelve men and accompanied by twelve Indian scouts, appeared and took away the entire population to prison.
After two weeks’ imprisonment, Payne and his companions were discharged. They found themselves heroes, for the West looked upon them as sufferers from the despotic power of the Government. Payne soon discovered that he could not obtain all the followers he desired, and in the fall of 1880 he had a new expedition of 200 men in camp on the Kansas border, eager for a fresh invasion. The troops were watching them, however, and there were thus organized two hostile camps near the border, which were the beginnings of the remarkable boomer settlements which exist there to-day.
From the autumn of 1880 till that of 1884 there were invasions at pretty regular intervals. Squads of boomers would slip by the troops, invade Oklahoma, locate lands, be discovered by the troops and ejected, only to start again. The largest expedition ever organized by Payne was in May, 1884, when he got into Oklahoma with a colony of 600 men, women, and children, and founded the town of Rock Falls. He opened a “drug store,” with a license to sell liquor, had a provision store, a school-house, a printing-office, and a newspaper, and established regular religious services, there being a parson among the colonists.
This colony was so large that it required time to get together a sufficient expelling force, and it was not till August following that Payne was again arrested and his town broken up. He was kept in prison only a short time, and was busily organizing a fresh expedition when death overtook him. Other leaders followed him, however, and the business of invading Oklahoma has gone on, with constantly increasing force, until the present time, where there is upon the border line a series of towns, containing at least 10,000 “boomers,” all waiting for the time to come when they can rush in and take possession of the coveted land.
They can take possession legally on the 22d of the present month, when, under the recent proclamation of the President, the new Territory of Oklahoma will be thrown open for settlement. This is in accordance with an act of Congress creating the new territory out of certain lands which the Government has acquired by purchase from the Indians. The Territory thus formed contains much more than the original tract of Oklahoma, which embraced less than 2,000,000 acres. It extends from the Canadian River to the Kansas border, and northwesterly as far as No Man’s Land; and its total area is estimated at some 23,000,000 acres.
There is probably nowhere else in the world such a curious collection of settlements as are now stretched along the border lines of the new Territory waiting for the 22d of April to arrive. They have regular names, like Beaver City and Purcell, with hotels and stores. Some of them have a population of 1,500, and at one store the gross receipts are said to have reached $500. Yet there is scarcely a permanent building in any of them. One town is famous for having a plastered house in which the railway agent lives. For the most part the boomers are living in dog-outs, or sod houses, with some rough wooden shanties and many tents. Yet business is carried on regularly, and there is a scale of rentals ranging from $5 to $25 a year.
Clothing is the most difficult thing to obtain, and the 10,000 boomers who are thus waiting on the threshold of the promised land are clad more like Indians than civilized people. In addition to these 10,000, there are said to be many thousands more in the regular towns and settlements near the border, and it is estimated that the new Territory may have a population of 100,000 a few months after it is thrown open for settlement. The rush is ominous for the remainder of Indian Territory, for the same greedy eyes are upon that as have been fastened so eagerly upon the portion about to be gained.