It used to be called Indian Territory, and then with the rush of white settlers—including the ‘Sooners,’ who illegally staked their claims early—it was divided into two territories. Finally, in November 1907, it became the 46th state in the Union…one unlike any other.
“A new kind of state” is what The Saturday Evening Post called Oklahoma on the eve of statehood 100 years ago. Oklahoma, with its wild and woolly history, was unlike any of the other 45 states. It was a land of equal parts closely held old values and raw energy.
Young in the roster of states, Oklahoma’s history began even before Mayflower made landfall off Plymouth. Down on the Cimarron, where the Santa Fe Trail later crossed, on a massive stone pillar called Castle Rock, is carved, “Coronado, 1541.” From 1820 on, the land was called Indian Territory, home to the people of the Five Civilized Tribes, moved—willingly or otherwise—from their ancestral homes in the Southeast. They made the best of a tragic situation, making new lives, setting up their own governments.
In 1837 Indian Territory was divided roughly equally between the Civilized Tribes. By 1860 tribal boundaries had changed some, notably a large area leased from the Choctaws and Chickasaws by the United States to settle other tribes. Still, all the country remained Indian save what is now the Panhandle, aptly named No Man’s Land, of which more anon. But civil war was coming to the nation—including the Indian Nations—and all of this was about to change.
Increasing numbers of whites also settled in the territory, mostly good people looking for a new start and a place of their own. Some intermarried with the Indians, becoming tribal citizens.
The Five Civilized Tribes’ loyalties were divided during America’s Civil War. Many of the members who joined the South were slaveholders themselves or at least had most of their commercial connections with that part of the country. Others supported the North, and the two sides met in bloody conflict. The anger of the wartime split remained after the South’s surrender at Appomattox and contributed to much feuding. Both sides had long memories. During Reconstruction, the U.S. government cut off enormous tracts in the territory, a penalty for those Indians who had supported the Confederacy.
A deep chasm had already split the Cherokees long before the Civil War. Many passionately hated those “Treaty men” who signed away the old eastern Cherokee lands. The Treaty men replied that the tribe would lose the land anyway, and it was better to leave on their own. With strong, angry men on both sides of the gulf between the Treaty party (the early settlers) and the later arrivals, violence was inevitable. It erupted in 1839, with the coordinated murders of several Treaty leaders. James Starr and Stand Watie escaped, but Starr would later be murdered. Before the intra-tribal conflict ended in an uneasy truce, dozens of men were killed.
Violence begat more violence. Old Tom Starr, son of James, was unforgiving and fearless. The feuding within the Cherokee Nation cost him the lives of his father, his small brother, friends and neighbors. He accounted for all 32 men involved in the murder of his father, except a few, he said, who died of other causes before he could reach them.
This violence was endemic throughout Indian Territory. Much was due to simple outlawry and produced a rich assortment of villains, some of whom became household names, such as the colorful Dalton brothers, the deadly Cherokee Bill and the vile Rufus Buck. People all over the country clamored for statehood as the only way to bring peace to that lawless land.
More white settlers swelled the population, coming by wagon and horseback, and by steamboat up the broad Arkansas. By 1833 the paddle-wheelers regularly reached the confluence of the Grand, the Verdigris and the Arkansas rivers at Fort Gibson, almost two-thirds of the way to the Kansas border.
As Indian Territory grew in commercial potential, the railroads began to push in from all directions. With the iron horse came more settlers and commercial ventures. Traditional Indians opposed the railroads and the flood of white immigration, for they saw the old ways disappearing and the sovereignty of the Indian nations overwhelmed by the inexorable advance of the federal government and the waves of immigrants.
FEDERAL LAW ENFORCERS
The treaty with the tribes reserved criminal jurisdiction over whites to the federal government. The U.S. marshal at Fort Smith, Ark., had some 200 deputies—white, black and red men—at any given time. They had to be tough and courageous, for more than 60 of them were killed in the line of duty out west of the broad Arkansas.
Fort Smith was also home to a Federal District Court, presided over by Judge Isaac Parker, known to Western fable as the Hanging Judge. Early on it had jurisdiction over all the vast territory. In fact, the judge was actually a kind and religious family man, but during his time on the bench, his court docket listed more than 10,000 felonies, including murder and rape. Considering this plague of major offenses, his 100 or so death sentences seem a paltry number, and not all were actually executed on the formidable six-rope gallows at Fort Smith.
Still, the court did much to bring real order to Indian Territory, and the mass of white immigration continued. As it did, agitation mounted for more land, and the government response was to gradually open more areas to white settlement. Groups of would-be settlers hovered outside areas still reserved to the tribes, and sometimes pushed in without permission. These people were dubbed “Boomers,” and federal authorities regularly evicted them, but the omens were clear for the future of Indian Territory.
For example, in April 1880 a company of Boomers headed by David Payne pushed into Indian Territory, into what was then called the Unassigned Lands, camping on the North Canadian River near the site of today’s Oklahoma City. U.S. troops promptly arrested some and herded them back into Kansas, whence they came. By July they were back at their earlier campsite on the North Canadian. This time the patient cavalry took the Boomers all the way to Fort Smith.
Perhaps inspired by widespread congratulation in Kansas and Missouri, another Boomer band headed for Oklahoma. This incursion fell apart before it entered Indian Territory, and Payne was fined $1,000 for leading it. He professed to be impoverished and could not pay the fine…but at least one tale relates that he had collected some $100,000 from ambitious Boomers.
Beginning with the April 22, 1889, opening of the Unassigned Lands, a succession of land runs occurred, supervised as far as was possible by federal troops and deputy marshals. Their best efforts could not stop all incursions into the territory by settlers literally jumping the gun—hence the word “Sooners,” today the honorable nickname of the University of Oklahoma and its formidable athletic teams.
A fortunate few managed to settle land ahead of opening. In 1889 two rushers were astonished to find a quarter-section occupied by an elderly man who had already plowed his ground; his onions were 3 or 4 inches tall. He denied he was a Sooner. It was just that his ox team was the fastest in the world, and in the rich soil his onions grew that high in 15 minutes. It’s hard to argue with gall like that.
Some areas were opened by lottery, but in others, people competed head to head, racing into the new land. Signaled by cavalry bugles and soldiers’ pistol shots, the would-be land owners poured in torrents across the start line by train, by wagon, by buggy, by swift horses, and even by foot. Anybody over 21 could stake a quarter-section claim or reserve a town lot. Towns sprang up overnight, comprising tents, crude shanties and wagons turned into living quarters.
A Santa Fe depot called Guthrie got a post office on April 4, 1889, and during the run 18 days later some 15,000 home seekers swarmed to the area (see related feature, P. 44). Guthrie would become the capital of newly formed Oklahoma Territory (the western part of old Indian Territory). Likewise, Oklahoma City only had a few buildings prior to the first land opening. Its quickly erected courthouse was a shanty with a canvas roof and board sides, sitting squalidly in a monstrous mud puddle. The rest of the town matched.
Oklahoma City grew to become both the state’s largest city and its capital, replacing Guthrie in 1910. Whether a new town survived and grew depended in part on the advancing railroads. If a rail line touched a town, commerce prospered and the town’s future was probably assured. If the rails bypassed a settlement, however, it often blew away with the wind, the buildings sometimes cannibalized and moved elsewhere to become part of more successful communities.
THE GREAT RUN OF 1889
The land openings were stupendous events, unlike anything anybody had ever seen. The great 1889 run settled the area between the present towns of Purcell and Arkansas City, about 30 miles by 50 miles. Thousands of people poured in on April 22. They were of both genders—including determined single women—black and white, native and immigrant, young and old.
For some, it seemed the last chance to claim a place of their own. One lady, alone, met a widower with three children and struck a bargain: She would mind the kids while he rushed. If he was successful, he would return and they would be married. He was, and he did, and they did, and began their married life in a covered wagon.
Some 15 Santa Fe trains carried pilgrims south on opening day, with more entering from the south across the South Canadian River. The Santa Fe collected every piece of rolling stock it could spare, even flat cars and cattle cars. The trains traveled slowly so that ambitious settlers could get off wherever the country looked likely. Thousands more came by every other kind of transportation, including wagons so feeble that their teams “hung their heads in shame.” Some walked or ran into the opening, and a couple of hardy souls rode teetering, high-wheel bicycles. By sundown, most of the desirable land was snapped up, and new towns appeared along the lines of the tracks like mushrooms after rain.
The quarter-sections had been traced out with stone markers, but that did not stop claim jumping. The Ten Commandments had less force in the new land than a ready rifle or shotgun, and ruthless competitors murdered a few claimants. A young settler faced a rival claimant who demanded the youngster share the claim. The young man caressed his Winchester and said matter-of-factly: “A hundred and sixty acres or six feet, and I don’t give a damn which it is….” He kept his claim. That scene was repeated again and again, as hardy rushers defended their newfound kingdoms.
Commerce blossomed overnight. One enterprising entrepreneur took over the Santa Fe water tank in Guthrie and charged anybody who wanted a drink. The cavalry put an end to his business forthwith, but other enterprises sprouted—grocers, blacksmiths and other common trades and professions. By midJune 1889, Oklahoma City boasted “53 physicians, 97 lawyers, 47 barbers, 28 surveyors, 29 real estate agents, 11 dentists, two lightning rod men….”
The tribes were paid for their land, sometimes partly in cash, the rest paternally invested for them at interest. But separate and distinct Indian government was doomed, and in May 1890 Congress passed the Organic Act, establishing Oklahoma Territory, rather more than half of old Indian Territory. Tribal government ceased altogether with statehood in 1907.
Oklahoma Territory, which had its own bicameral legislature and Supreme Court, used Nebraska law until the new legislature could pass its own legal code. Most important, the Organic Act provided that all Indian reservations in western Indian Territory would automatically become part of Oklahoma Territory once opened to white settlement.
The Organic Act also corrected a curious anomaly, the narrow strip of land now called the Panhandle. Before becoming Beaver County in 1890, it was accurately called No Man’s Land, an orphan stuck between Texas and Kansas. It was entirely without any kind of formal law. Its honest settlers perforce made up their own law as the occasion demanded, and it was not overemphatic about due process. As one resident put it: “There were no court expenses, no long drawn-out trials; no delays; no appeals; no dockets; no paroles; no pardons.”
The system worked perfectly with a gang of violent claimjumpers, or “road-trotters,” who plagued the town of Beaver in 1887. Winchesters settled the crisis summarily, and the matter was then closed by a makeshift coroner’s inquest: “We the jury appointed to view the remains…find that they came to their death from gunshot wounds received at the hands of many law-abiding citizens, there inflicting, as nearly as possible, the extreme penalty of the law as it should be in such cases…their untimely end is but the result of their many wrongs.”
CATTLE HERDS AND RAILROADS
Reconstruction in Indian Territory involved closer federal control than existed prior to the war. The Civilized Tribes were overseen out of the Union Agency at Muskogee, and seven more agencies supervised the multitude of other tribes the government settled in Indian Territory.
The demand for land by whites increased, not only by farmers looking for a place of their own. As the buffalo were hunted to near extinction, they were replaced by thousands of range cattle. Texas had about 2 percent of the nation’s people in the decade just after the Civil War, but Texas range cattle made up some 13 percent of the bovine population of America.
Now stockmen were moving great Longhorn herds north, some all the way to the Kansas railheads to satisfy the East’s insatiable demand for beef. Others were trailed even farther, to constitute the immense herds of Montana, Wyoming and Dakota territories. The numbers of “pilgrim cattle” moved north from Texas were estimated at more than 6 million between 1866 and 1895.
The railroad drove on west through Kansas, terminating at various times at towns like Coffeyville, Baxter Springs, Wichita, Dodge City and Caldwell. The famous cattle trails made travel easier, and more settlers and ranchers followed the herds north. The East and West Shawnee trails, the Chisholm Trail and the Great Western Trail serviced the Kansas stockyards and the grazing lands farther north. The endless grasslands of northern Indian Territory also supported vast herds. Just one association of stockmen leased 3,000,000 acres from the Arapahos and Cheyennes.
And the railroads pushed their steel ribbon into the twin territories—among them the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, the Katy and the Kansas & Arkansas Valley. By 1873 the Katy had driven its rails all the way from Kansas across the Red River into Texas. Where the railroads went, settlers followed. The trains brought plows and axes and other durable goods, clothing, ammunition and even a luxury or two, and these same trains carried wheat and other crops to market.
That population was tough and inventive. Breaking prairie sod for planting was miserably hard work, and drought plagued the small farmer. In areas without much timber, such as No Man’s Land, the citizens used cow chips for fuel and supplemented their meager farming income selling the buffalo and cattle bones that littered the landscape to fertilizer plants.
Still towns sprang up, especially along the railroads. Some gambled that a railroad would build past them. If none did, promising towns like Ingalls—hangout haven for the Doolin Gang—flourished and then withered away (see “Ghost Towns” in this issue) as the railroad took some other route and left them stranded.
Mills appeared to handle the burgeoning wheat crop, and tobacco and cotton were raised extensively. Manufacturing followed, and within a decade of the opening of Oklahoma Territory, the state boasted almost 500 manufacturing plants, large and small. Large deposits of coal were mined in lands leased from the tribes; in the Choctaw Nation, for example, two companies paid the tribe more than $2 million in mining royalties in just 15 years.
And then there was oil. The first producing well appeared way back in 1859, and by the 1880s the tribes had leased drilling rights over a large expanse of Indian land. The first really fine commercial well came in 1897, and by the first years of the 20th century, the boom was on. By 1907, the new state was producing more than 43 million barrels a year.
With the burgeoning white population and the arrival of the iron horse, the land opening of 1889 was followed by other openings through the 1890s and into the first decade of the 20th century. Each influx of settlers ate away more of the country, all but some areas reserved by federal law for the Indian population.
THE DAWES COMMISSION
In 1893 a U.S. negotiation team, the Dawes Commission, opened talks with the Civilized Tribes, offering to divide remaining tribal land into parcels to be held individually by members of the tribes. Tribal leaders at first refused to negotiate away the old ways of holding land in common, but finally the measure was put in place, bypassing their resolute opposition. Now each individual held an “allotment” of up to 160 acres. Abolition of the tribal judicial system followed in 1898, giving jurisdiction to the federal courts, and three years later Congress made all Indians American citizens. Tribal government closed down—at least officially—in 1906, the year prior to Oklahoma statehood.
Crime remained a major problem, as it had been from the beginning. While the saying “No God west of Fort Smith” was far from true, deputy U.S. marshals worked hard to establish some sort of peace in the wild country beyond the Arkansas. In 1890 Congress approved no fewer than three district courts within the new land.
Ordinary citizens often demonstrated a pronounced intolerance of outlaws, especially the most violent of them. It was easy to raise a posse to chase the worst offenders, as happened with the pursuit of the vicious Buck Gang, killers and rapists of the worst kind (see “Roundup” for a list of the worst badmen in old Oklahoma). Posses totaling as many as 100 men, white and Indian, scoured Indian Territory, led by federal officers and officers of the Creek Lighthorse police. They usually got their men, who were hanged as a group on the efficient Fort Smith gallows— six ropes, no waiting.
The history of Oklahoma is replete with instances of ordinary citizens rising up to defend their towns—a measure of the tough, self-reliant people who settled there. Back in 1895, for example, a band of law-abiding residents extinguished a veteran badman called the Verdigris Kid in tiny Braggs, and the ire of the citizenry toward the lawless persisted even into the 1930s, the heyday of bank robbery. For example, in 1932 three hoodlums, including George Birdwell, right-hand man to Pretty Boy Floyd, drove into the all-black town of Boley to rob the bank. Met with a hail of bullets, none of them drove out again. The Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman spoke for the whole state: “It is evident now to everybody that Boley was the wrong location for a successful bank robbery….”
As more and more people settled the two territories, organized law followed in the form of lawyers, judges and courthouses. The members of the bar were a colorful lot by any standard. There was Temple Houston, son of the founder of Texas, flamboyant, caustic and able, seldom without a revolver (see his story in the February 1997 Wild West). Houston’s 1895 encounter with two Jennings brothers, also lawyers, illustrates the eventful nature of practicing law in early Oklahoma. The affair started in court. Harsh words were exchanged between Houston and the Jennings boys. Cooler heads prevailed, but after court adjourned the lawyers adjourned also, to a nearby saloon. There the dispute reconvened, and when the smoke cleared, one Jennings was dead, the other badly wounded. Houston was untouched. The Jennings’ lawyer brother Al swore bloody vengeance, but somehow always missed crossing paths with Houston, who wasn’t hard to find. Instead, Al used the shooting as an excuse to turn outlaw, bungling his way to a record as Oklahoma’s most inept lawbreaker.
Then there was defense counsel extraordinaire Moman Pruiett (1872-1945), who loved to tell a story about a client who wired for defense in a murder case: “Have $5000, will you defend me?” Pruiett wired back: “Am leaving on next train with three eye witnesses.” A good many lawyers thought the story pretty well described Pruiett’s character. But you didn’t talk too loudly about Pruiett, for he had served a couple of stretches in prison, and was good with a gun. Along the way Pruiett shot at least three men, but his clients loved him. He is said to have defended in 343 murder trials and won 303 acquittals, an astonishing record. (For more on Pruiett, see the October 2006 Wild West.)
The early bar also included “Alfalfa Bill” Murray (1869-1956), later governor of Oklahoma. Murray was good with juries, and is famous for a most succinct closing argument, representing a plaintiff whom the defendants had called a “woolly headed son of a bitch.” Demolishing the defendants’ argument that the statement was really only made in fun, Murray delivered himself of this argument: “Gentlemen of the jury, it is all right for any friend who has another who don’t object, to call him a son-of-a-bitch. It is all right for a son-of-a-bitch like that and that and that [pointing to the accused] to call themselves and their families and one another a son-of-a-bitch, but when four sons-of-bitches like these call a Christian gentleman in the presence of his wife and daughter a son-of-a-bitch, I insist that the sons-of-bitches ought to have the limit of the law.” The jury agreed. Still, law in Oklahoma had come a long way from the April 1872 shootout in the Going Snake District out in Cherokee country. That was when a trial turned into a major battle and left dead men strewn inside the courtroom and across the clearing outside (see story in the June 2004 Wild West).
For all the tribes’ nostalgic longing for the old days, statehood was inevitable. For a while, it appeared that only Oklahoma Territory might become a state, but agitation continued for statehood for both territories as a single entity, until the new state was recognized on November 16, 1907. By then, Oklahoma Territory’s population had risen to almost a million and a half, and Indian Territory was home to about three-quarters of a million. Oil, mining and farming were still booming, and the future was assured. It had been a difficult birth, but the new land had a bright future…thanks to its people.
Robert Barr Smith, who teaches law at the University of Oklahoma, has contributed articles to Wild West Magazine since 1988. His latest book is Tough Towns: True Tales from the Gritty Streets of the Old West, and he edited 100 Oklahoma Outlaws, Gangsters and Lawmen, 1839-1939. Also suggested for further reading: The Oklahoma Story, by David Baird and Danney Goble; West of Hell’s Fringe: Crime, Criminals and the Federal Peace Officer in Oklahoma Territory, 1889-1907, by Glenn Shirley; and The Five Civilized Tribes, by Grant Foreman.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.