In an attempt to modify the wild scrambles and disregard for law and order that characterized earlier land openings, U.S. officials resorted to a more civilized method in 1901.
“The greatest of all the free land openings has been the last one,” declared a writer in the August 10, 1901, issue of Harper’s Weekly. For more than a year people had camped in anticipation at the margins of what was officially called the “Kiowa, Comanche and Apache, and Wichita lands” in southwestern Oklahoma.
Crowds were drawn by turn-of-the-century media hyperbole that referred to “the ‘Promised Land’ of Oklahoma,” “a veritable land of milk and honey,” where deep water wells were “inexhaustible” and “everything, apparently, except polar bears” could be raised. In early 1901, a national magazine reported that “one could stand on a windmill tower in northern Oklahoma last fall and count a hundred wheatstacks; later the smoke of a dozen threshing-engines blotted the horizon.”
However, most Oklahoma land suitable for agriculture was already occupied. For example, of 1,163,000 acres in the Guthrie land district, only 32 acres in Lincoln County were vacant. In the slightly larger Perry district there were only 58 acres available in two tracts.
Congress and Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock wanted to improve upon what Hitchcock called “the old method of wild scramble” in opening the new lands. Hitchcock said “utter disregard of law and order,” “outrages” and contested claims had “characterized the former openings on the ‘sooner’ plan.”
Registration was held in July 1901 at El Reno and Fort Sill for an opening by lottery. The Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf and the Rock Island railroads brought people to El Reno literally by the trainload. More than 16,000 registered on July 24. A total of 135,416 people registered at El Reno, with 29,000 more at Fort Sill.
Thousands gathered in El Reno on the morning of July 29, to see who would have the first chance to claim a quarter-section homestead on the land that today includes five Oklahoma counties and small parts of seven more.
In 1891 the Wichitas had ceded their lands from the Washita River north to the South Canadian, and from the 98th Meridian (a few miles west of present-day U.S. 81) extending west for about 40 miles. A year later, the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache tribes ceded their lands from the 98th Meridian west to the North Fork of the Red River, bounded on the south by the Red River, and on the north by the Washita River and the present-day northern Kiowa County line.
A series of congressional actions was required to ratify these treaties and to provide for surveys and allotments of land to tribal members. A law approved on January 4, 1901, appropriated money for surveys and set August 6, 1901, as the deadline for “opening the land to settlement.”
About 4,000 Indians were each entitled to a 160-acre quarter-section of land, and sections 13, 16, 33 and 36 in each township were “reserved for public school, public building, and other purposes for the future State of Oklahoma,” a January 1901 Congressional report stated. Additional reservations included 480,000 acres of grazing land, 50,000 acres for Fort Sill, 5,000 acres for agency land at Anadarko and 320 acres each for three county seat townsites. The remaining area, roughly 2.1 million acres, would be opened to homesteaders.
In a departure from earlier land openings, town lots were to be sold at auction. The report said that in the past, “the settler who could equip himself as a walking arsenal usually obtained possession of choice lots and was not interfered with.”
Potential homesteaders were impatient, and The Outlook reported in February “men have been camped along the line since the spring of 1900.” Secretary Hitchcock noted that many were not content to remain at the edge of the new lands. He warned that trespassers would gain no advantage, “on the contrary, the preference will be given to those who legally enter upon said reservation after the same shall have been duly opened. And if this admonition and warning be not sufficient to effect the purposes and intentions of the Government as herein declared, the military power of the United States will be invoked…to remove all such intruders from the said lands.”
As anticipation grew, several guidebooks were published to promote the new lands and to describe the land and climate. Some included detailed maps and instructions on how to locate tracts using surveyors’ marks on monuments at the corners of townships and sections.
Representative John H. Stephens of Texas expected 50,000 people to want homesteads, “because this is the last reservation of good lands to be opened in the United States.” With details of the opening to be worked out, Representative John F. Lacey of Iowa said Secretary Hitchcock “could not possibly do worse than to continue the present system of racing for the possession.” He noted that five or six men often claimed the same quarter-section. “Bloodshed often ensues in contests of this kind, and it takes an army to protect the settlers during the race.” Final legislative action was not completed until the closing hours of the 56th Congress, on March 2, 1901, and the particulars were left to a presidential proclamation.
President William McKinley issued a proclamation on July 4, 1901, that stated a drawing “commencing at 9 o’clock a.m., Monday, July 29,” would determine the order in which registrants “will be permitted to make homestead entry.” Registration would be held at El Reno and Fort Sill from 9 a.m., Wednesday, July 10, until 6 p.m., Friday, July 26. Applicants could register at either place, but had to state whether they wanted land in the El Reno (northern) or Lawton (southern) land district. After registration, each applicant received a permit to enter and inspect the lands in order “to understandingly select the lands for which he will make entry.”
William A. Richards, a former surveyor and recent Wyoming governor, was assistant commissioner of the General Land Office, and supervised the registration and drawing. Richards arrived at 2 a.m. on the first day of registration on a Rock Island train, which was “packed to the guards” with at least 1,000 people, the Daily Oklahoman reported.
Similarly, El Reno resident A.G. Burger remembered his arrival in El Reno on a train with no standing room in the aisles—or even on the roof of the train. Food and places to sleep were in short supply. Burger found work as a baker, but the bakery could not keep up with demand. Fifteen hundred loaves ordered from Kansas City were thought to be inedible when they arrived, but sold out immediately, down to the last loaf, which Burger said had been mashed to only an inch or two in thickness.
Burger recalled that the post office never closed during this busy period. Weary people would tire of standing in the long lines to check their mail and sometimes fall asleep while sitting on the curb. One woman said there were so many men sitting on the courthouse lawn that you couldn’t see the ground.
J.J. Bradney, an early-day Oklahoman, remembered, “One day I was laying in my hammock on the porch and a man came along and wanted to rent the hammock to sleep in.” Bradney told him he could sleep in it for free. Others appeared and offered “to pay to get to sleep on the porch. I never did turn anyone away, but I didn’t charge them for it.”
One party had an unexpectedly tiring journey before joining the hordes at El Reno. An 82-year-old man, his 69-year-old wife and their two daughters left Meade County, Kan., in a wagon. Their team died the second day out, and they walked for a month to beat the registration deadline.
Mary Forgay, a homesteader’s 22-year-old daughter, arrived in El Reno after a comparatively swift one-week trip from Kansas in a covered wagon. She said, “All the vacant lots and alleys were filled with thousands and thousands of people of all classes representing most every state in the Union.” Her party camped on a hillside for two days. “The first night there a thief jerked Father’s pants out from under his head which had $50 in the pockets,” she said. “There were so many people camped near we did not know who to accuse.”
The Daily Oklahoman said the amiable crowd had been “jammed, buncoed, and held up, but it has not ‘kicked,’ just went along, grinned and registered.” “Coney Island and Atlantic City in their palmiest days are dim lights to the glories to be seen on El Reno’s streets,” it continued. “Every imaginable fake, amusement and game is there, and all seem to be flourishing.”
Richards reported that several thousand people were in line, some for more than 24 hours, when the six registration booths opened on July 10. By the end of the day, 4,018 people had registered in El Reno.
Pumps at El Reno’s waterworks failed on July 13. High temperatures had been between 100 and 106 on nine of the previous 11 days, and Richards said, “There were not less than 15,000 transient people in the city, making the situation one of great seriousness.” The Daily Oklahoman reported that “the crowd was too hot, dusty and weary to be other than orderly.” Casks containing well water and cakes of ice were placed on the streets to provide relief, and with the continued heat, remained even after pump repairs were made.
Richards kept in touch with the railroads and attempted to staff registration booths to handle incoming trainloads of applicants. Between 8 a.m. and noon on July 24, 11,556 people registered in El Reno.
Fewer people signed up at Fort Sill, possibly because the railroad to Fort Sill was still under construction, and during registration the nearest station was 30 miles to the east at Rush Springs. Nevertheless, a young man recalled that there was an “immense crowd” at Fort Sill. Prospective registrants organized themselves into companies of 100, and each company elected a captain, who would meet daily with officials to exchange information. “If fifteen companies were being registered each day, and [he] belonged to company number sixty, while twenty-five was just being registered, he would know they could not get to his company for a couple of days at least, and so could go back to camp and rest in peace.”
Wagonloads of people arrived through the night. “In every direction we could see hundreds of campfires twinkling like giant fire-flies,” the young man at Fort Sill said. “There was but little shooting and comparatively little noise or disorder of any sort.” The young man’s party was awakened “by three young men on foot who aroused us to ask if we had seen anything of two men in a covered wagon drawn by a pair of brown mules. As there were at least five or six thousand covered wagons within a mile of us with mules of all colors of the rainbow, we ruled the question out of order.”
At the close of registration at 6 p.m., July 26, the clerks at Fort Sill departed for El Reno, and reported to Commissioner Richards the next day at 5 a.m. Clerks separated applications by Lawton or El Reno district, checked paperwork for errors and alphabetized applications and identification cards in order to detect persons who registered more than once. Finally, they placed identification cards in envelopes marked either “El Reno” or “Lawton.”
The drawing itself was conducted on a 32-foot-square platform with a canvas roof, built in the street in front of El Reno’s high school. Two boxes, one for the El Reno district and one for Lawton, were made to hold the envelopes. The boxes, 21⁄2 feet by 21⁄2 feet by 10 feet long, were dubbed “wheels” in the press. They had three large openings on one side so that envelopes could be scattered throughout the wheel, and smaller openings numbered one through five on another side to allow individual envelopes to be withdrawn during the proceedings. An iron rod ran the length of each wheel to allow it to revolve and mix the envelopes within.
Richards estimated that at least 30,000 people were present to watch the event at 9 a.m., Monday, July 29. The wheels were carried to the platform, followed by more than 400 numbered pasteboard boxes each containing 400 envelopes. A portion of the envelopes in each box, in order selected by lot, was scattered into each of the three large holes in the appropriate wheel. It took several hours to load 164,000 envelopes into the two wheels.
At each of the five small holes in the two wheels stood a young man, too young to have registered for land, to withdraw the envelopes. The boys drew lots to determine who would draw the first envelope from each wheel. Ben Heyler, at the third hole in the El Reno wheel, withdrew the first envelope, and drawing committee member David P. Dyer of Missouri moved to the front of the platform.
Dyer, said the Daily Oklahoman, “raised his hand for order, and in a loud tone exclaimed, ‘Stephen A. Holcomb, Pauls Valley, I.T. [Indian Territory], draws the first number.’ The crowd yelled for three minutes, apparently as much delighted as if every man had drawn a prize.”
After 25 envelopes had been drawn from the El Reno wheel, the first envelope was removed through the fourth hole in the Lawton wheel. The first name drawn could choose land adjacent to the Lawton town site, which was expected to be worth from $20,000 to $40,000. The winner was James R. Wood of Weatherford, Oklahoma Territory. Dyer announced the second name from the Lawton wheel, “I have the pleasure to announce the name of the first woman to draw a prize, Mattie H. Beal of Wichita, Kansas.” Dyer read from her identification card that Beal was 23 years old and 5 foot 3 inches tall. “Just the height of Wood,” the Daily Oklahoman reported. “Instantly the crowd caught the humor of the situation and thousands of throats sent up the shout, ‘They must get married.’”
Newspaper reporters on the platform received lists of the winners, which appeared in Oklahoma newspapers and in many Kansas, Missouri and Texas papers. During the drawing, clerks prepared postcard notices that were mailed to those whose names had been drawn.
The first day’s drawing stopped after 500 names had been pulled from each wheel. Most winners were from Oklahoma Territory, but the neighboring states of Kansas and Texas were represented, along with a few residents of Indian Territory, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska.
The wheels were sealed and guarded by U.S. marshals until the process recommenced the following morning. During the next three days, 2,000 names were drawn from each box. After the first 6,500 had been selected, the process moved from the platform to a building where drawing continued until the afternoon of August 6, when all the envelopes had been drawn and numbered.
Newly built land offices in El Reno and Lawton opened that morning to record homestead entries at the rate of 125 per day, as detailed in the presidential proclamation.
One observer recalled that the “entrymen” were admitted to the land office in groups of 10, with five in the last group of the day. Entrymen could bring an attorney or “locator” to ensure that the description on the paperwork matched the desired tract of land. “A large map of the district hung on the wall, and as fast as entries were made a land office clerk would mark a large ‘X’ across the tract entered,” he said. “This map was in plain view from the window, and a crowd of prospective entrymen was always assembled about this seeking, sometimes by means of opera glasses, to discover whether or not their own particular ‘selections’ were waiting for them.”
The crowds in El Reno soon dissipated. In late August, a postal inspector estimated there were 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of unclaimed mail. “There are five salt barrels full of letters beginning with the letter ‘S’,” a newspaper reported.
Richards concluded his report to Secretary Hitchcock by saying, “Without strife or contention, but in a quiet, peaceful, and orderly manner these lands have passed from the condition of an Indian reservation to that of a populous, thrifty, peaceable agricultural community.” Hitchcock thanked Richards and his assistants and said “the spectacle of 151,000 disappointed applicants quietly retiring in favor of the 13,000 successful ones is a characteristic demonstration of the willingness of the American people to respect and obey the law” when it provides “an absolute equality of opportunity to all.”
A year after the lottery, Territorial Governor Thompson B. Ferguson reported that the three new counties contained more than 70,000 people, “cosmopolitan in character, every State in the Union and some foreign countries being represented.”
Mary Forgay’s recollections provide a more down-to-earth perspective on the new homesteader’s life. Her father drew land about 16 miles from El Reno where he dug a well and built a dugout. He went back to Kansas to move his family, and upon their return found a claim jumper. They had to go to court to have the man removed. “We were all so happy, especially Father.” Forgay said. “With grim determination to succeed he started to work, grubbing and burning. He broke out and planted 20 acres the first year. Mother and we children had a wonderful garden. We planted, grew, dried, and canned enough to last us until next gardening time.”
Charles Harger wrote in The Outlook about the struggle and hardship of farm life soon after the lottery, and called the newly settled lands merely a “temporary Mecca.” “To the man in the prairie schooner it is no new thing. It has come to him in Kansas and Nebraska and in old Oklahoma. Always and forever the prairie schooners are drifting here and there on the prairie. In them families live from one year to the next. They are never at rest and always seeking a home.”
Native Oklahoman Kevin L. Cook spent 14 years as a librarian who worked with government publications and helped others find information. Suggested for further reading: A History of Oklahoma, by Grant Foreman; The Formation of the State of Oklahoma, 1803-1906, by Roy Gittinger; and Readings in Oklahoma History, by Edward Everett Dale and Jesse Lee Rader.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.