Oklahoma’s Rich History Full of Sooners and Such

It’s OK to commemorate our great 46th state

For many unenlightened years, all I knew firsthand about Oklahoma was the snooze-inducing stretch of Interstate 40 between Texola and Oklahoma City and the toll-taking turnpikes between Oklahoma City and the Missouri border. I also knew that the supposedly humorous cowboy Will Rogers was a native son (on account of one of the turnpikes was named for him) and so were two of my favorite athletes—baseball player Mickey “The Commerce Comet” Mantle and athlete of the century (the 20th century, I believe) Jim Thorpe. Of course it was also easy for me and everyone else outside of Guthrie to remember the name of the state capital. Finally, I knew that Sooner football players often butted heads in big games against Longhorns and Cornhuskers—not that I had any notion of what a Sooner might be. And that was about it. Heck, I had never even seen the Rodgers and Hammerstein Western musical Oklahoma!

Everything’s changed today, of course, except that I still haven’t watched an entire production of Oklahoma! in one sitting. To know the Wild West, you must know Oklahoma history. I’m not sure if Will Rogers ever said that, but I just did. Neighboring Texas is rightly proud of its unique heritage, but the story of Oklahoma is as fascinating as it gets—what with all those Indians and cowboys, marshals and outlaws, Boomers and Sooners, freedmen and oilmen, Wild West showmen and rodeo performers, prohibitionists and bootleggers, not to mention colorful justice seekers from lawyer Moman Pruiett to law professor Robert Barr Smith.

The latter Oklahoman has been writing for Wild West Magazine since its premier issue in June 1988 and in the current issue provides a short but entertaining history of Oklahoma’s frontier days (P. 28) to help us commemorate the statehood centennial. The wild scrambles known as land runs, the first occurring in 1889, were naturally packed with action—as demonstrated by novelist Edna Ferber in Cimarron and by the 1931 Academy Award–winning motion picture based on her book. Both Oklahoma City and Guthrie (the first capital) sprouted faster than a stand of alfalfa. Pioneer newspaperwoman Nannita Daisey experienced more than one exhilarating run (P. 22). Much less well known was a 1901 attempt to “civilize” the land grabbing by means of a lottery (P. 38). How the state of Oklahoma was shaped by various tribes, civilized or not, and groups of white men, civilized or not, is rather complex (hopefully, the maps on P. 36 will help). We even worked into this issue a mention of the great Jim Thorpe, whose athletic prowess came to light at the Carlisle Indian School (P. 24).

Oklahoma has of course progressed since it was granted statehood on November 16, 1907, but in some ways it hasn’t changed all that drastically. As in territorial days, federal lawmen still have to deal with outlaws at times (most regrettably in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City). The whiskey runners of territorial days were replaced by bootleggers (statewide prohibition of liquor didn’t end until 1959). Oil production became enormous in 20th-century Tulsa and elsewhere, but Oklahoma’s first commercial oil well actually dates back to 1897 Indian Territory. There are still a whole lot of Indians in this neck of the nation, and white and black settlers, too—though the 1930s Dust Bowl was like a land run in reverse, with 15 percent of the population leaving the Sooner State for the Golden State. “When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California,” said Will Rogers, “they raised the average IQ in both states.” Hey, that cowboy really could be humorous.

Gregory Lalire