Chronicles of Oklahoma

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Chronicles Homepage
Search all Volumes
Copyright 2001
Purchase an Issue

Table of Contents Index Volume List Search All Volumes Home

Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 16, No. 3
September, 1938
Homesteading in Northwestern Oklahoma Territory1

By
Roscoe E. Harper

Page 326

At statehood2 Harper County was formed out of the northwestern portion of territorial Woodward County. Woodward County, then 60 miles square, was the westernmost county of the Cherokee outlet and adjoined Texas and the Oklahoma Panhandle on the west and Kansas on the north.

The United States originally granted to the Cherokees those lands in the northeastern part of Oklahoma included in what was known in territorial days as the Cherokee Nation. The southwest corner of this nation is at the southeast corner of Osage County, on the northwestern boundary line of the City of Tulsa. There was also granted to the Cherokees certain land lying west of the Cherokee Nation known as the Cherokee outlet.

This outlet was bounded on the east by the 96th meridian, which is the eastern boundary line of Osage County; on the north by the State of Kansas; on the west by the 100th meridian, which is the western boundary line of Oklahoma except the panhandle; and on the south by the north boundary lines of the Creek Nation, of the original Oklahoma territory, and of the Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation. The south boundary line of the Cherokee outlet is 60 miles south of and runs parallel to the Kansas boundary line. It commences at the southeast corner of Osage County adjacent to the City of Tulsa, and extends westward to the Texas line. Situated within the Cherokee outlet are the present counties of Osage, Paw-





Page 327

nee, Kay, Noble, Grant, Garfield, Alfalfa, Major, Woods, Woodward, and Harper and portions of Ellis and Payne counties.

Thus the Cherokee outlet was in the form of a rectangular strip lying south of and along the Kansas border, approximately 225 miles east and west, and 60 miles north and south. From its shape it became known as the Cherokee strip or as "The Strip."

After the Civil War the cattle industry developed in the southwest and especially in Texas. The cattle were driven from Texas across Oklahoma to Abilene, Kansas, as soon as the railroad reached that point, for shipment to the eastern markets. Later a railroad was extended to Wichita and for a time it became the main shipping point. As the railroads extended further westward in Kansas other shipping points became more accessible. Finally the railroad reached Dodge City situated on the 100th meridian about 60 or 70 miles from Oklahoma, and this became perhaps the most notorious shipping point of them all. Cattle driven from Texas to Dodge City passed through that part of the Cherokee outlet where I later lived.

At first the cattlemen grazed their cattle in the Cherokee outlet only while driving them across. No doubt cattle were allowed to feed in the outlet for rather long periods during these drives because of the abundance of good water and grass. Soon the cattlemen deliberately grazed their cattle in the unoccupied Cherokee strip. At first they did so without authority. About 1879 the cattlemen made arrangements with the Cherokee Indians for the pasturing of their cattle in the outlet at 25 cents per head, later increased to 45 cents. In 1883 a cattlemen's association with governmental approval leased the Cherokee outlet from the Cherokees for five years at a rental of $100,000.00 a year; and in 1888 a second lease for five years at $200,000.00 per year was obtained. This last lease expired in 1893.

There had been considerable agitation for the opening of the Cherokee outlet to settlement. The United States negotiated with the Cherokee Nation for the purchase of the outlet in order to open it for settlement. Theretofore the government had purchased

Page 328

from the Cherokees the eastern part of the strip as a reservation for the Osage tribe which became Osage County. Also the government had purchased from the Cherokees other eastern portions of the Cherokee outlet as reservations for the Pawnees, the Kaws, and some other tribes located near Ponca City. With the exception of the land granted to these tribes of Indians in the eastern part, the strip remained unoccupied until 1893 except by the cattlemen under the five year leases.

In 1893, the United States purchased from the Cherokees the outlet then remaining, consisting of about eight million acres, at about $1.25 per acre. This purchase was made with some difficulty because of an offer of the cattlemen, who appreciated the value of the strip for grazing purposes, to purchase the land from the Indians at $3.00 per acre. Naturally, the Indians wanted to accept the larger offer. It was not until the Indians saw that the United States was about to take the land from them and open it for settlement that the Cherokees assented to the government's offer. President Cleveland in August, 1893, made a proclamation, pursuant to an Act of Congress, that the Cherokee outlet would be opened for settlement at high noon on September 16, 1893. The anniversary of this opening is still celebrated in the strip.

The opening of the Cherokee outlet was the largest as well as the last major run for land. More than 100,000 people ran for claims at the opening. The eastern part of the strip was almost completely settled at this opening. In the western part only a few of the more desirable claims were then taken. Those who did settle selected as claims those places where there was an abundant water supply for stock. There were only a few settlers in what is now Harper County at the beginning of 1900. Beginning in that year there was a great influx of homesteaders. It was not until about statehood that the county became fully settled. Until about 1903, cattlemen pastured large herds of cattle on the open range. But in that year the settlers attempted to run out the cattle in a big drive, and then the cattle were taken off of the open range. Prior to that, everyone turned his cattle loose on the open range. If one had a field, he must fence it to keep out the stock. There were no

Page 329

crops except an occasional patch of cane or kaffir corn at the infrequent ranch houses or settler's shanties.

In 1899 my father and uncle selected claims on Buffalo Creek about four miles west of the present town of Buffalo. My father died not long thereafter, and I then lived with my uncle. At that time there were only about four neighbors living within a radius of five miles of my uncle's claim. Each of these neighbors had small herds of cattle, except one that had only recently arrived. We were within a large ranch known as the "Chain C" ranch, which was about 25 miles across.

Our nearest post office, store and railroad point was Ashland, Kansas, about 30 or 35 miles to the north. Our county seat was Woodward, about 45 miles southeast. It usually took two days to go to Ashland and return and three days to go to Woodward and return.

My uncle's house was 14 feet by 28 feet divided into two rooms of equal size. It was situated on a knoll and was sunk about three feet into the ground. Level passageways were dug out from the two doors of the house to the slope of the knoll so that one could go out of the house to the level without having to go up steps. Along the passage leading from the south door were a cellar and a large half dugout in which provisions and supplies were stored. The lumber, of course, was hauled from Ashland, Kansas. The house was constructed out of boards one inch thick and ten inches wide placed upright in stockade fashion with strips of wood nailed over the cracks. The roof was likewise constructed, except that tar paper was laid over the roof under the strips. The inside of the house was papered with newspapers.

The south room served as the kitchen, living room and post office. The north room was the bedroom and parlor and was also used as the school room for the first school that was established in the community until a school house was built.

As it was about 35 miles to the nearest post office, the early settlers desired a local post office of their own. My uncle was then

Page 330

appointed postmaster of the newly created post office of Brule located in our kitchen. Later this post office was moved to a newly established store about three miles away situated near what later became the town of Buffalo. By Statehood Brule had become an active village. When the county seat was established at Buffalo on Henry Miller's farm, Brule was moved to the newly created townsite about one-half a mile away. The name of the post office was then changed from Brule to Buffalo.

At first there was no regular mail carrier. Anyone within miles around who was going to Ashland would come by and take the mailbag and the letters to the post office at Ashland, and on return would bring such mail as had accumulated for the little post office of Brule. After a time a regular star route was established. The mailman would drive up to Ashland one day and would return the second day so that we had mail three times a week. Finally, not long before statehood, there were two mailmen placed on the route so that we had daily mail.

The weekly Kansas City Star and the local newspapers kept us informed as to what was going on. In proving up claims it was necessary to publish notices in some newspaper. This gave a great impetus to the newspaper business and every little town, village, and cross-road place had from one to three newspapers.

Each of the settlers had a few cows. But they were privileged to drive up and milk any of the cows running on the open range. We usually milked five or six head of cattle but some of these were cattle that we took from the range, although we had a rather large herd of our own. In the spring, when the cattlemen branded the calves, the cowboys would come to our barn and brand the calves of their cows we milked. The cattlemen did not object to the settlers milking the cows because the settlers took good care of the calves and cows being milked.

The sand plum was the only native fruit. They grew on bushes about waist high usually in sandy soil along the streams. They became quite red when ripe, were quite sour, except when dead ripe. They made excellent pies and jellies, and were of great

Page 331

value to the settlers. When there were not enough jars for canning, the plums were cooked into a batter, which was spread on cloths made from flour sacks, and dried until it had the appearance and toughness of leather. These sheets of dried plums were removed from the cloths, rolled up and put away for use in winter.

At first there were deer and antelope, and, although it was against the law to kill them, some of the settlers had deer and antelope meat. They disappeared as the country became more settled. There were large coveys of prairie chickens.

The coyotes were quite numerous. Nearly every night one would hear coyotes howl, and in the early morning one could see them within a few hundred yards of the house. They killed the chickens and turkeys.

Traveling across the open country was fascinating. There were scattered herds of cattle grazing on the prairie or in the canyons, or watering at the creeks or waterholes. There would be a succession of prairies carpeted with buffalo grass, high hills, deep canyons, red banks, shallow streams, patches of sage brush and soap weed, sand hills covered with bunch grass and plum bushes, glistening sand dunes, white gypsum and salt deposits, patches of salt grass, scattered cottonwood trees along the streams, here and there a ranch house or settler's shanty with a patch of trees, a windmill and a cane patch, and occasional barbed wire fences enclosing a large ranch or pasture. In the summer the distant sand hills and dunes covered by sand plum bushes had the appearance, through the glimmering heat and light of hills covered with heavy forests, similar to the mirages that one sees in the deserts.

Cowboys from the large ranches went fully armed as did nearly everyone else. Feuds were rather common. A number of people were killed. I remember once when a meeting of the community debating society at the school house was broken up by gun play.

Shortly after 1900 settlers began moving in from the east and this continued until practically all the claims were taken. Each new settler would come as a caravan with a covered wagon and their

Page 332

horses and cattle herded along behind. As the land around us became settled, these travelers would pass on through to the lands farther west. Frequently such a caravan would camp at night near our house. It was the custom of the country to entertain without charge at night anyone who might be passing. It not only afforded shelter to the traveler but it also gave contact with the outside world to the settler.

In the winter there frequently was a prairie fire burning somewhere in the distance.

There ran from Dodge City to Ashland, Kansas, and from Ashland on south across the Cimarron River an old trail about 75 feet wide. It was made up of a large number of deep rutted parallel paths. In my time these paths were covered with grass. Its ridges could be seen for miles across the plains. No doubt these were the trails along which the cattlemen had driven their cattle up from Texas, and also along which the soldiers and wagon trains crossed the country. Not far south of the Cimarron River, near the Oklahoma line, the trail forked, one branch going to Ft. Supply and Woodward, and the other striking out southwest toward Amarillo, Texas. On the south side of the Cimarron where the trail crossed was an old redoubt which may have served as shelter or as a fort. These trails have long since been plowed up or obliterated except possibly in a few places.

Ft. Supply was an established fort where troops were garrisoned, long before statehood. It had been abandoned before we came, but the barracks, barns, and other buildings still remained. A state hospital for the insane was later established at this old fort.

At first there were no roads. If we wanted to go to Ashland or to Woodward we struck out across the prairie in that direction. As there were hills and canyons to cross, it was necessary for us to pick our way carefully so as to cross the deeper canyons and to pass between the larger hills without too much loss of distance and time. In time the courses followed by my uncle and other settlers became trails and these trails in turn became roads.

From Ashland to my uncle's claim one saw, when we first settled there, only two or three houses throughout the entire distance

Page 333

of more than 30 miles. From my uncle's to Woodward there were likewise only a few houses to be seen. By the time of statehood there was a house on every good quarter section, and on some not so good. In going to Ashland or Woodward one took his food and water, and usually camped out on the trip. The rivers might became impassable and require a stay of several days at the river bank until the flood should abate. Once when fourteen years old I was stopped on a trip to Ashland, with a load of broom corn, by a snow storm, and a few days later when I resumed the journey I became stuck in the middle of the Cimarron River from which I was pulled out a few hours later by passing freighters.

In the late spring there were the roundups. The cattle would be driven into a large round herd, and then the cowboys would cut out of the herd the unbranded calves. These calves would be branded with the same brand as the calf's mother. One of my earliest jobs was driving a chuck wagon for a roundup when I was only nine years old. Drinking water was obtained from holes dug in the sand along streams.

The first schools ran for only three months of twenty days each, there being only sixty school days in a year. The teacher was paid about $25.00 a month. One teacher was given a cow by my uncle as a consideration for teaching a fourth month. There were no uniform school books; each child brought from home the school books which his parents had brought from the east. The teacher would examine and count the available school books and would use the book of which there was the largest number on hand. Spelling, ciphering and geography matches with an occasional "speaking" relieved the monotony of the regular school life.

We had no church buildings and no churches. Itinerant preachers passing through the country would hold meetings and revivals at the school houses. Everyone went to these meetings as they were the outstanding events, regardless of the denomination of the preacher. We had what was called free or shouting Methodists, regular Methodists, Baptists, and Christian preachers, who received little pay and stayed with the neighbors. My uncle entertained the preachers of all denominations.

Page 334

As late as 1900 or even later buffalo roamed and grazed over that territory. Evidences of the previous presence of buffalo were to be seen everywhere. One could pick up buffalo horns on the prairies. There were buffalo wallows where the buffalo had wallowed in the mud. There were buffalo bones scattered about as well as bones from the cattle then on the range. In fact one of the industries of the country was the gathering up of bones into bone yards at the railroad points for shipment to eastern factories.

The cowboys usually wore leather chaps. These afforded a protection to their legs in going through brush. Nearly all cowboys were armed both with pistols and with rifles. They usually wore large hats and handkerchiefs about their necks. The handkerchiefs were used as a hood when one was bothered with buffalo gnats and flying ants. I remember the thrill I had when I first wore a pair of leather chaps.

On Sundays the boys entertained themselves by riding and breaking wild horses. At first there probably were wild horses in western Oklahoma but in my time the wild horses were shipped in from ranches farther west for use by the settlers. When a carload of wild horses would be brought in, it was quite an event. I once had a noticeable limp from one of these affairs. Another form of entertainment was the roping of calves and cattle.

About the only community activity except the attending of church when held by an itinerant preacher was attendance upon debating societies organized in the various school districts. Everyone in the community usually attended, unless a feud was on in which event only one faction went, and the more intelligent took part and debated such subjects as whether England was right in the Boer War or whether a sheep was more useful than a billy goat or a dishrag than a broom.

Even at that time when practically none of the land had been plowed there were rather severe dust storms which at times almost shut out the sun. There were also times of severe drought. The altitude was from about 1800 feet to 2000 feet; and there was an average annual rainfall of only about 18 inches.

Page 335

There were a great many rattle snakes. Like many other settlers, I had two or three narrow escapes from being bit.

Some houses were made from buffalo grass sod. The walls were about two feet thick and the houses were quite cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The roofs sometimes would also be covered with sod. A few houses were simply cellars or dugouts dug into a bank or into the ground. Other houses were part in the ground like my uncle's and were built up either with sod or with boards. There usually were only about two rooms.

There were very few trees. Along the streams there would be a few cottonwoods and in the canyons there would be a few elms and cedars. It was a penitentiary offense to cut a tree, but nevertheless trees disappeared and were used as posts, in the building of barns and houses, and for fuel. Sometimes seed, such as broom corn seed, would be used as fuel. Coal was very expensive and had to be hauled a long way. Practically all of the settlers used cow chips as fuel at least part of the time in the early days.

Very few of the settlers had any money. They bartered butter and eggs for sugar, salt, and coffee. A cow or calf would be sold and flour bought. It was not until about 1905 that broom corn was raised, and not until about 1907 that it was discovered wheat could be raised. These were the first money crops.

In the spring the prairies blossomed as a garden. There were all kinds of beautiful wild flowers. In the fall the prairies were completely burnt up and were white everywhere. A match or cigarette would start a prairie fire anywhere.

There would always be a three day picnic on the 16th of September in celebration of the opening of the strip. There might be a picnic on the 4th, but this date was not quite so important as September 16. At Christmas time programs were held at the school houses.

There was no telephone or telegraph. At first there was no store nearer than Ashland. The nearest doctor was at Ashland. Later a doctor settled about ten miles away, who later became a chiropractor. He once set my brother's broken shoulder bone on my brother's being taken horseback to him. There was never a doctor in our house.

Page 336

The nearest lawyer was at Woodward, where Temple Houston was then practicing. A physical encounter between two men living about ten miles away resulted in a suit before a justice of the peace. Both combatants asked my uncle to represent them, and he represented the one that first asked, and, though not a lawyer, won the case.

Music was limited to songs accompanied by the guitar, or to the singing of hymns at meetings. My uncle with whom I lived purchased a clarinet from Sears and Roebuck and taught himself to play it. He later organized and directed the first band at Buffalo. He taught in some of the first schools organized. He served as minute clerk of the constitutional convention. When the new county was formed, it was named after him.

Life on a claim or at a ranch was lonesome. One time I spent nearly two weeks at a ranch without seeing anyone. The times were hard, the trials were many, some of the settlers were at times in real want of food and clothing, but through it all I never heard complaining such as I have heard through the depression.

At times, when the settlers were gathered together, among the songs that were sung and played on the guitar by the more musical ones was:

                           "The Little Old Sod Shanty."

           "I am looking rather seedy now
     while holding down my claim,
And my victuals are not always of
     The best
And the mice play shyly round me
     As I settle down to rest
In my little old sod shanty on the claim.

Refrain:

           The hinges are of leather and the windows have no glass,
While the board roof lets the howling blizzards in,
And I hear the hungry Kiyote as he slinks up through the grass
Round my little old sod shanty on the claim."3



Return to top


Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site