all or part of the present Oklahoma counties of
Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma, and Payne.
During the 1800s, the U.S. government forcibly relocated Indian tribes from all over the country into the area known as Oklahoma Territory. The Indians' desire to keep the Territory for their exclusive use and occupation was complicated by the rapid growth of white population on its northern, eastern, and southern borders; and when the first railroad crossed it (1870-72), any effort to find an answer became hopeless. As other railroads built into, and across, the Territory, white men came in to lay out towns and open farms, some as employees or tenants of the Indians, others as plain intruders. In 1890, when the first Federal census was made of the Five Civilized Tribes, there was a population of 109,393 whites and 18,636 Negroes, as compared with a total of 50,055 Indians.
These noncitizens, outside the authority of the Indian governments, were without civil law, and in criminal matters they were under the long distance jurisdiction of the Federal court at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Their towns were built upon lands to which they could obtain no title, and their children were denied access to tribal schools; as a result, they were eager for the extinguishment of the Indian land tenure and the creation of a government in which they could participate.
White cattlemen, too, coveted the lush ranges of the Indians. After the Civil War, cowboys began their history on the Texas plains. Texas ranchers found they had large supplies of beef with no place to sell it. The East Coast needed beef. To meet that demand, Texas ranchers had to move their cattle to the closest railroads, which were in Kansas. While travelling through Oklahoma, the ranchers realized the territory was not only closer to the railroads, but a good location for raising cattle as well.
Between five and six million longhorns were driven along such trails as the Western, the Chisholm, the East Shawnee, and the West Shawnee. Recognizing the lush grasslands could serve them well, Texas cattle-owners sought to secure grazing rights, either leasing great areas from tribal authorities or arranging sham "sales" to citizens of the Territory, then hiring themselves and their cowboys to the Indian "owners" to care for and market the cattle. By the 1870s, white men began to demand a place in Oklahoma for their own settlement.
Looking over the border at this cattleman's "fair and happy land," white farmers of Kansas, Missouri, and sections even more remote began the long-continued agitation for throwing open for settlement of the fertile acres which were not used and occupied by their Indian owners. Bills were repeatedly introduced in Congress for the liquidation of tribal governments, allotment of reservation land held in common, and making the surplus land available for homesteading.
Beginning in 1879, extensive publicity was given to the fact that no Indian tribes had ever been settled on a tract in the heart of the Indian Territory ceded by the Creeks and Seminoles at the close of the Civil War, and newspapers throughout the West contended that these "Unassigned Lands" -- soon to be popularly designated as "Oklahoma Lands" -- were subject to homestead entry.
Homeseekers known as "Boomers" gathered at the Kansas border and made repeated and systematic attempts to colonize this tract, but the Federal government, holding that the land had been ceded only for Indian occupation, removed the invaders. In 1879 and 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes forbade white settlement in the territory. They returned in increasing numbers. Cattlemen came in without legal sanction, divided the range, built fences and corrals, and grazed their cattle over its rich prairies. In 1886-87, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was built across the region, and stations were established along its right of way.
There were still large amounts of unused land available, on which white men wanted to settle, and people urged the government to open the lands. In 1885, Congress gave the President permission to begin dealing with the Creek and Seminole tribes to open the vacant land to white people.
Finally the United States purchased title to the land, and on March 2, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation that opened up the "Unassigned Lands" -- embracing almost 3,000,000 acres lying in the heart of the territory -- from the Creeks and Seminoles. The tract was laid out in 160-acre homesteads, and on April 22, 1889, it was opened to white settlement in the "Run" for farms and town lots, which has become one of the most dramatized episodes in western history.
As the hour for the opening approached, great crowds waited on the border, while mounted soldiers stood on guard to turn back intruders. At noon bugles sounded, then guns were fired as a signal that the land was open. Men raced in on horseback, on foot, in covered wagons, hanging to every available hold on the slowly moving trains, all trying to outstrip their fellow "Boomers" in the scramble for "claims." When a homeseeker found a tract of land to his liking, he drove a stake as evidence of possession and held it as best he could against other claimants. On the same day lots were staked in the townsites, and men engaged in feverish promotion.
Tents appeared everywhere. By the end of the day, Oklahoma City was a city of about 10,000 tent and wagon dwellers, and other cities had sprouted on the prairie: Kingfisher, El Reno, Norman, Guthrie, and Stillwater. Many of the streets were marked. Within hours, the new town had a mayor and city council, elected before The Run, in many cases. Flickering camp fires dotted the prairie as far as one could see, in all directions. Also, hundreds of broken rigs littered the plains that night. Many an 89er did not live to see the end of the day he had been so anxious to begin.
Some children set up their own business outside the land office: selling creek water for 5 cents a cup to homesteaders who were waiting to file. Other children gathered buffalo chips to provide fuel for their mothers' cooking fires.
Dentists, doctors, and lawyers immediately hung their shingles on their wagon or tent. Merchants brought merchandise in their wagons to start a store in a new town. Stores opened in the backs of wagons, then moved to a tent after a day or two, until a building was ready. Building material came in the wagons, too, or shipped by train. Complete buildings were unloaded, with the lumber cut, notched, and ready to be nailed.
Schools opened in tents the following week. Most were taught by volunteers who were paid by the pupils' parents until the cities and counties could establish regular school districts. Part of the land in each township had been reserved by law for school use.
The weeks following that first Run of homesteaders were busy ones on this newest of American frontiers. Within a month, Oklahoma City had five banks and six newspapers. Hotels were opened, and by summer, greengrocers were doing a thriving business. In Oklahoma City, fresh tomatoes sold for 15 cents a bushel, eggs at 3 cents a dozen, and home-churned butter for 6 cents a pound. Some of the most substantial business firms in Oklahoma point to this time as the date of their founding.
For thirteen months, the settlers were without any organized government, yet good order prevailed. Frontier living conditions were too rigorous -- and money was too scarce -- to attract outlaws. The only government during this period was that created and maintained by common consent. In May, 1890, Congress passed the Organic Act, providing for a territorial government, with executive and judicial officers appointed by the President, and a legislature to be elected by the people. The active new town of Guthrie was designated as the capital, and in spite of the bitter rivalry of its ambitious neighbor, Oklahoma City, it remained the seat of government throughout the territorial period.
Hello, my name is LaRae Halsey Brooks, and as you can see, I have a particular interest in collecting and preserving personal accounts of life in the Oklahoma Territory.
All four of my grandparents spent some of their growing-up years in the central counties of pre-statehood Oklahoma, and I was fortunate to grow up hearing their tales of pioneer life on the prairies.
If your family lived in the six counties of the Unassigned Lands prior to or immediately following April 22, 1889, and you have stories, letters, photographs, or other information pertaining to their experiences, please consider sharing them with others interested in preserving these personal histories. Use the Share Your Family Stories section to enter your posts.
Please be sure to include your relationship to the persons mentioned, as well as known names, dates, and locations.
To post your Queries, Biographies, Bible Records, Deeds, Obituaries, Pensions, and Wills, please visit the new Rootsweb message board for the Unassigned Lands.
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page was last updated
1998-2017 by the Unassigned
Lands Special Project Manager
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