Chronicles of Oklahoma

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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 1, No. 3
June, 1923

University of Oklahoma

Page 167

It is an old axiom that the roots of the present lie deep in the past. “Behind institutions,” says Professor J. Turner, “behind constitutional forms and modifications lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet the changing conditions.”1

The Easterner who visits Oklahoma for the first time often expresses surprise at finding conditions here so similar to those of much older settled regions. Remembering that the State of Oklahoma is barely sixteen years old and that the first opening of lands to white settlement came less than thirty-five years ago, the visitor from the North or East hardly expects to see thriving cities with all modern appointments, well tilled farms with attractive buildings, and scores of busy towns and villages, quite as modern as those of similar size in his own State. He sees on every hand evidences of prosperity and progress; there is little or nothing to remind him of those stark pioneer days so recent as to be a vivid memory to many comparatively young men still living in the State. The casual visitor is therefore likely to gain the impression that Oklahoma and Oklahomans are identical with any other fairly new western state and its inhabitants.

However, if he remains long and is a person of cultivation and scholarly instincts he will discover soon that there is a difference. That there are some evident peculiarities here and that the reasons for these peculiarities must be sought in Oklahoma’s strange and varied history. The reasons then for the peculiarities, those vital forces which have helped to shape Oklahoma’s institutions and social conditions and to differentiate them from those of other states are the things treated in this paper with the object of trying to show why Oklahoma society is different from

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that of any other state possessing, as it does, a certain intangible quality which for want of a better term may be called the “Spirit of Sooner Land.”

The most significant thing in all Oklahoma history has been the Indian occupation of this region. It is the fact that for more than half a century Oklahoma was a great Indian territory owned exclusively by many tribes of varying degrees of civilization holding their lands in common and living under some form of tribal government. A recent report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs gives the number of Indians in the United States as about 335,000. Of these 120,000, or considerably more than one-third, live in Oklahoma.2 They include remnants of some sixty-five or seventy tribes but approximately four-fifths belong to the Five Civilized Tribes of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole.

Anglo-Saxon greed and the lust for land drove the red man westward. Then there was some faint stirring of the white man’s conscience and an effort was made to make these people secure in this last home that was left to them with the result that whites were forbidden to enter this region. It was as though a dike or wall had been erected about Oklahoma by governmental decree—a wall impervious to the waves of white settlement that beat and surged against it. Here for fifty years and more lay this great Indian country, a region larger than all New England, an attractive but little inhabited island of wilderness in the midst of swirling currents of civilization.3 Slowly the pioneer settlers crept westward on either side enveloping it but the wall held firm. However, in advance of agricultural settlement on the western plains came the ranchmen with their flocks and herds eager to take possession of the rich pasture lands left vacant by the slaughter of the buffalo. Attracted by the excellent pasturage those ranchmen at last began to trickle through the barrier erected about Oklahoma and to occupy the Indian lands with their herds. An industry more fluid in its nature than agriculture began to penetrate this dike, that had proved impervious to white settlement in the ordinary sense of the term, and to spread itself over the fertile pasture lands within.

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For a brief period the ranchmen held sway, particularly in western Oklahoma, pasturing the land by virtue of agreements made with bands of savage tribesmen or of acts of the legislative bodies of the more civilized tribes, passed in some cases through the influence of the cattlemen.4

Seeking as they did to discourage the opening of those Indian lands to agricultural settlement, the ranchmen by their very presence did much to render such action inevitable. Soon it came. The pressure from without became too strong to be resisted; the barrier gave way and a flood of pioneer settlers came pouring in, peopling Oklahoma with a farming population whose society and methods of agriculture were primitive enough at first but which steadily advanced, making the region one of improved agriculture where in time grew up cities and towns and all the complex organizations of industrial and commercial life. Oklahoma history is therefore but a part of a much larger history, that of the conquest and development of the American Wilderness. This is a movement that has always been characterized by the appearance of successive stages of society, that of the hunter and Indian trader, of the pastoral stage; followed in turn by primitive agriculture, by higher forms of agriculture, by towns and cities, factories and commerce. Most parts of the United States have gone through all these stages of social development. The remarkable thing about Oklahoma is that it has seen them all in the space of little more than a quarter of a century.

Viewed from this standpoint, Oklahoma history is the story of the evolution of civilization, of the development of society, of human progress. This marvelously rapid change, this phenomenal development has been the greatest thing in the State’s history and has given to present conditions in Oklahoma their most distinguishing characteristics.

Viewed from another standpoint, the development of Oklahoma, so far as the mere peopling of the region is concerned, may be divided into two periods: that of settlement by the Indian and that of settlement by the white man. The first began about 1820 and continued with various breaks and intermis-

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sions until about 1880.5 The white settlement of western Oklahoma began with the opening of “Old Oklahoma” to settlement in 1889 and ended, technically speaking, in 1906, with the auction sale of the lands of the Big Pasture.6 Naturally there has been a great influx of people since that time but this was a normal settlement the same as that of nearly every other western state. During the first period, that of Indian settlement, much of Oklahoma was little more, than a wilderness. During the second period, the part occupied by whites was largely speaking in the stage of more or less primitive agriculture, while between the two and well overlapping each of them lay that brief space of time when the power of the ranchman was at its height.

Certain significant features of each of these periods must be noted because of their influence upon present day conditions. The Five Civilized Tribes in their old home in Tennessee and the Gulf States occupied what may be described as a strategic region. Holding as they did the passes through the Southern Appalachians, and also the lower reaches of the Mississippi, as well as the headwaters of many of its tributaries and of the streams that flow into the Gulf, it was inevitable that any people who expected to hold the mouth of the Mississippi or the shores of the Gulf of Mexico must reckon with them. As a result they very early came in contact with the Spanish, the French and the English, each of which intrigued with them constantly and ceaselessly sought to win their favor. These tribes thus became schooled quite early in the arts of diplomacy and political intrigue. The training received in playing off one European nation against the other they later used, and still further developed, in negotiations with the United States relative to their removal to Oklahoma, and even after they had reached the State in the constant struggle they were forced to make in order to, retain their lands and to prevent legislation by Congress unfavorable to what they considered their best interests.7

Just as the pioneer settler among the Indians soon discov-

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ered that he must learn the ways of savage warfare, that he must match skill with skill and cunning with cunning, that he must all too often change from a man of peace to a man of war, so did the Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes eventually discover that they could not stand against the whites in the field of battle and must, if they expected to hold their lands and survive as nations, learn to beat the white man at his own game of diplomacy and intrigue. Like the Jews of medieval Europe, who found that they must develop their commercial ability to the highest point, because safety from persecution lay in the possession of wealth, so did the Indian find that he must advance in political ability in order to gain or hold by negotiation what he had found he could not gain or hold by force of arms. Interest in politics was also greatly fostered by the fact that these tribes were virtually independent nations, small enough for any citizen to aspire to the highest office in the gift of his people, and were in many cases divided into parties and factions that frequently made political contests within the tribe extremely bitter. All these things served in time to make the Five Civilized Tribes nations of diplomats and skilled politicians.

The results are obvious to the student of Oklahoma history. Oklahoma has received the benefit, if it is a benefit, of this heritage of political training coming to the people of eastern Oklahoma through generations, extending back to the time when Spain, France and England struggled together for the possession of this continent, each seeking as allies the Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes.

In the formation of the State government, the control of the Constitutional Convention fell largely into the hands of that group of men from eastern Oklahoma, who had been trained in the hard school of Indian politics. The president of the Constitutional Convention was an intermarried citizen and had been prominent in the public affairs of his wife’s tribe.8 The Sergeant-at-Arms of this body was Indian, while some 20 per cent of its membership were either Indians or intermarried citizens.9

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The first three Governors of the State of Oklahoma came from the region of the Five Civilized Tribes and one of them was an intermarried citizen of the Chickasaw tribe.10 One of our United States senators is Indian and had long years experience with the tribal affairs of his people.11 Among the Oklahoma Representatives in Congress there has always been one Indian and usually two, as at present.12 Every State Legislature has had many prominent members of Indian blood. The Speaker of the lower House twelve years ago was Indian, the Speaker of the present House is Indian.13 A people numbering less than 6 per cent of the total population has given to Oklahoma perhaps 20 to 25 per cent of its most prominent public men.14 It is not claimed that there is any magic in Indian blood to make its possessor a statesman. The conditions here given are due largely to the long experience of these men in tribal affairs and to a certain solidarity, or race consciousness on the part of the Indian peoples that sometimes gives the Indian candidate for office a distinct advantage over his white opponent.

Important as has been the influence of the Indian upon Oklahoma politics, his influence upon the economic and social conditions of the State have been hardly less striking. Contrary to popular opinion the Indian is not dying out. The number of full bloods is decreasing very rapidly but the number of mixed bloods ie increasing with proportional rapidity. Except in the case of a very few individuals there is no prejudice in Oklahoma against Indian blood. It is recognized as very good blood and a cause for pride.

The Indian is advancing rapidly educationally and this naturally draws the races closer together and serves to obliterate differences. There are nearly two hundred students of Indian blood enrolled in the University of Oklahoma, while the Cherokee actually have a larger percentage of their children attend-

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ing school than have the whites of Oklahoma.15 Intermarriage is absorbing the Indian very rapidly into the white. The physical characteristics of the race are fading out. Yet there will never be less Indian blood in Oklahoma than at present. It will merely be more widely diffused.

Into the fabric of Oklahoma’s citizenship then there is being steadily woven this red thread of the Indian. Steadily the Indian blood is becoming more thoroughly distributed, the Indian characteristics of patience, of perseverance, of steadfast loyalty to a friend and stern hatred for a foe are becoming more and more widely disseminated. People of Indian blood are to be found in every business and profession giving a flavor to Oklahoma society, adding their bit to the Spirit of Soonerland. Perhaps the time may come when the Indian, recognizable as such, may have almost ceased to exist in Oklahoma, but may this not be a case of he who loses his life shall find it, to the end that the influence of Indian blood in Oklahoma shall be infinitely greater in the future than it has ever been in the past?

Important as has been this period of Indian occupation, the coming of the white settlers has not been without its significance also. Migration westward in the United States has usually been more or less along parallel lines but Oklahoma settlement was a gathering in of people from all points of the compass. The method of settlement was peculiar. The peopling of most western states has been by a slow, steady infiltration, that of much of Oklahoma was by a series of sudden rushes, a throwing down of barriers all at once which allowed large areas to be occupied in a single day. The settling of most states has been like the slow leaking of water into the hold of an old type ship; that of Oklahoma was like the sudden bursting of water into a modern vessel divided into many water tight compartments. The first rush filled one compartment, then the others were filled, one by one, until at last the interior walls gave way and the entire vessel was full. The West has always attracted the strong, active and adventurous, but this was particularly true of Oklahoma because of this method of settlement. The people who came to win a home in this region must of necessity be strong, virile, aggressive. The race was to the swift, the battle of the strong.

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As a writer of that time put it, Oklahoma made an addition to the old saying: “Autocracy, to every man according to his breed; plutocracy, to every man according to his greed; democracy, to every man according to his deed.” To this Oklahoma added, in the days of the runs, “Mobocracy, to every man according to his speed.”

This meant young people and Oklahoma became a real kingdom of youth. This is a characteristic that has persisted down to the present time. Oklahomans who visit New England for the first time are struck with surprise at the number of old people they see everywhere. New Englanders visiting Oklahoma for the first time almost invariably speak of the youth of the people.

But free farms have not been the only thing to attract young, vigorous, aggressive people to Oklahoma. Curiously enough, about the time free land of western Oklahoma was all gone came the beginning of that marvelous oil development operating in a fashion not unlike that of the former land runs.

The discovery of each new oil field brought results something like those of the former opening of Indian reservations to settlement, causing a new run of hardy, adventurous young people, a run partaking somewhat of the nature of the former ones for claims. Thus Oklahoma became filled with young people, of this active, virile type, eager to improve their worldly condition, willing to take a chance, counting the amount of material gain the true standard of success. Under their compelling hands, towns and cities arose like magic, wealth came to thousands within a brief space of time, and Oklahoma began to come into her own.

The results of this history so hastily sketched are not far to seek. Politically they may be seen in the State government regarded as quite radical fifteen years ago and still considered somewhat so by the inhabitants of the older and more conservative states of the East. Any radicalism or peculiar features in

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the State government is largely due to the fact that the people of Oklahoma came from virtually every state in the Union, each settler bringing with him ideas formed because of conditions in his own particular commonwealth, ideas which he was eager to see put into, operation in this new State.16 Oklahoma with a population coming from every state in the Union early put into its fundamental law and statutes. provisions borrowed from virtually every other commonwealth, as well as certain original things which it was difficult for older and more conservative states to try out.

The peculiar history of Oklahoma has produced even more striking economic and social results than it has political. It has given the State a population thoroughly imbued with that somewhat intangible thing which the students of the University of Oklahoma call “Sooner Spirit.” Briefly stated, it is merely a spirit of youth, of daring, of optimism, of belief in one’s self, and in the future. It manifests itself in an eagerness for action, a desire for adventure, a willingness to take a chance. It is a pioneering spirit. Half a dozen years ago, when the possibilities of oil in north Texas were under consideration, it was Oklahoma capitalists who rushed in where the Eastern financiers dared not tread, venturing their money in the opening up of the magnificent Burkburnett and Ranger fields. In every economic and social activity this splendid spirit of youth, of energy, of optimism, of eager willingness to dare and do, has manifested itself. Born of our remarkable history, it has builded cities, and opened up farms and wrung the rich mineral treasures from the heart of the earth. It has erected home and schools and churches and colleges. It points with pride to what has been accomplished and holds out brilliant promises for the future.

Admirable in many respects as is a society with such an inheritance and thoroughly permeated with such a spirit, it is not

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without its weaknesses and its dangers. In the midst of our activity, we have come to over-emphasize the importance of the man of action as compared with the man of thought. In our buoyant youth we have the faults of youth. They manifest themselves in our speech, our work, our dress, our amusements. There is too little regard for the wisdom that comes with age and experience and training. In the evolution of society, to which reference has been made, we have seen such vast changes and always for the better, that there is danger we may come to regard mere change as progress and so not allow sufficient time really to test anything before we wish to go on to something new. In the abundance of our natural resources we forget that these should be conserved and become wasteful and inefficient in their use.

Very seriously should we in Oklahoma consider whether in our pride at what we have already done we may not be wasting too much time to shouting it from the house tops and calling all the world to come and see, heedless of the fact that there is yet much to do in the accomplishment of which this time might be better spent. Most important of all, in the midst of our building of homes and churches and cities it is possible that we may come to regard fine buildings and furniture and equipment as ends in themselves rather than as means to the end.

The writer has tried to show that these defects and dangers in common with our virtues and strength, are the natural and even inevitable results of our curious history. Oklahoma could not at present, be other than it is, but the future will doubtless tell a far different story.

The old time Oklahoma pioneer had his vision, as Professor Becker in his brilliant essay on “Kansas” so well puts it, “he had seen, like Augustine, his city of God,” and this sight sustained him through all the trials and hardships of the early days.17 Like Christian he saw afar off the Celestial City. It was a city of

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golden streets and magnificent mansions; in short, of wonderful physical greatness. He saw his rude sod shanty transformed into a comfortable farmhouse, the nearby village of two stores and a blacksmith shop into a thriving town with paved streets, water works, and brick business blocks. He saw good roads, rural mail delivery, telephones, electric lights and all the comforts of civilization. That dream has now come true.

But in his eager seeking after things of the flesh it was perhaps inevitable that the Oklahoma pioneer should neglect the things of the spirit. The report of the recent educational survey made of Oklahoma by the Federal government presents a far from flattering picture.18 Physically speaking, materially considered, frontier conditions in Oklahoma have gone forever. But culturally we are yet pioneers living upon our intellectual frontier. The material wilderness has been conquered, it yet remains to complete the conquest of the cultural and intellectual wilderness. Perhaps it will be more difficult process for a society such as ours but there are in Oklahoma many old time pioneers who have caught a vision of this new Celestial City and are bending every effort to the task of making their dreams come true.

That we shall succeed no one can seriously doubt. We are succeeding. The annual enrollment of students in the University of Oklahoma has risen from seven hundred in 1907 to more than five thousand in 1922.19 The little red school house is fast giving place to the consolidated school with its modern brick building, well-trained teachers and full four-year high school course of study. At least one county has merged all of its rural districts into twenty-three such units, while the total number of consolidated schools has risen from none in 1907 to 378 in 1920.20 The total expenditure for public schools in the State has in-

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creased from eight and one-half million dollars in 1910 to more than twenty-eight million dollars in 1921.21 In every line of intellectual activity our people are showing increasing interest and making steady progress. Oklahoma has not yet arrived, perhaps, but it is on the road and traveling fast. Frankly admitting that much yet remains to be done, the writer feels nevertheless that Sooner Spirit which has done so much in a physical way the past quarter of a century, will in time triumph over every difficulty and eventually place Oklahoma upon an intellectual and cultural basis commensurate with its position, materially.

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