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LAND RUN of 1889

Female homesteader, Land Run of 1889

The Land Run of 1889, although not without precedent in the history of the West, began the disposal of the federal public domain in Oklahoma. The legal basis for opening the Oklahoma District, now called the Unassigned Lands, came in 1889, when, in the U.S. Congress, Illinois Rep. William Springer amended the Indian Appropriations Bill to authorize Pres. Benjamin Harrison to proclaim the two-million-acre region open for settlement. Under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862, a legal settler could claim 160 acres of public land, and those who lived on and improved the claim for five years could receive title.

The ink was hardly dry on Harrison's March 23, 1889, proclamation before Oklahoma settlement colonies were being formed in major U.S. cities. A multitude of impoverished farmers were not alone in their zeal to settle the Unassigned Lands, known popularly as the Oklahoma Lands. Tradesmen, professional men, common laborers, capitalists, and politicians alike looked to the cornucopia of opportunity offered by settlement of the long-withheld lands of Indian Territory. Across the nation, prospective settlers began hitching their teams to wagons and loading aboard their families and scant worldly goods. Others saddled their fastest horses or caught trains for what they considered to be the most advantageous point of entry. "It is an astonishing thing," the New York Herald observed on the eve of the opening, "that men will fight harder for $500 worth of land than they will for $10,000 in money."

The Unassigned Lands, left vacant in the post-Civil War effort to create reservations for Plains Indians and other tribes, were considered some of the best unoccupied public land in the nation. The surrounding tribal-owned lands included the Cherokee Outlet on the north, bordering Kansas; the Iowa, Kickapoo, and Pottawatomie reservations on the east; and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation on the west. These, too, would later be opened to settlement. To the south lay the Chickasaw Nation.

In the spring of 1889 the largest accumulations of would-be settlers massed in camps at the Kansas border towns, mainly at the railroad towns of Arkansas City and Caldwell. With people being restrained there by U.S. troops, the boomer camps grew larger and larger. On the south, however, long lines of white-sailed wagons wound their way up from Texas directly to the south line of the Unassigned Lands at Purcell in the Chickasaw Nation. From that point many of the settlers moved northward up the eastern line and along the main (south) branch of the Canadian River, which formed the southern boundary of the target area. On the west, clusters of drought-stricken families from the Texas Panhandle and No Man's Land flooded to the boundary near Fort Reno and west of Kingfisher stage station.

The anxious crowds at Arkansas City and Caldwell demanded and received permission to begin on April 18 their journey across the Cherokee Outlet. Following a nighttime rainstorm, U.S. troops began leading long trains of settler wagons over muddy trails across the Cherokee Outlet toward their "promised land." One memorable event during the Arkansas City exodus occurred when the contingent crossed the flooded Salt Fork of the Arkansas River. They tore boards from a nearby Santa Fe Railway station and planked the railroad bridge that spanned the river. Settlers then unhitched their teams, pulled their wagons, and led their horses across the bridge.

The Caldwell crowd, a harmonious and happy conglomeration of ten thousand farmers, cowboys, and old soldiers in buggies, wagons, and on horseback, helped one another ford the Cimarron River before making final camp at Buffalo Springs north of Kingfisher. There on the day before the opening, Easter Sunday, they played baseball, held foot races, and conducted religious services. The frontier fellowship continued that night when the old army-camp call of "Oh, Joe, here's your mule!" circulated from one bed site to another through the darkness.

Many hopeful land-seekers at Arkansas City intended to ride in on the Santa Fe Railway line that crossed the territory through the very heart of the Oklahoma Lands. Similarly, thousands crowded the station at Purcell, filling a special "boomer train" to overflowing.

Guthrie, a town ten days old

Rail stations at Guthrie, Edmond, Oklahoma (City), Verbeck (Moore), and Norman, created when the line was built in 1886-87, offered high potential for townsites. Kingfisher, not then a rail town but a land office location like Guthrie, was also a site of choice for settlers and townsite companies.

Although the opening was directed principally to agricultural allotments, many who made the run were just as interested in the attendant opportunities that came with the creation of towns and community governance. The Seminole Townsite and Improvement Company was the most prominent of several promotional ventures that had been formed. This entity, founded by officials of the Santa Fe line, enjoyed the privilege of entering the Oklahoma Lands early and surveying the townsite plats at the various stations. Further, their men were aboard the first trains, ready to jump off and begin staking their claims. But there were other groups that would likewise conduct townsite surveys, the result of which would be the selling of conflicting town lots to buyers and creating added havoc in an already chaotic situation. Oklahoma City, Edmond, and Guthrie were all so affected.

Some who made the run sought to beat others to choice homesteads by entering early and hiding out until the legal time of entry. These people came to be known as "sooners." The hundreds of legal contests that arose from this practice would be decided first at local land offices, then by the Department of the Interior. Argument would arise over what constituted the "legal time of entry" sun time at high noon, or meridian time.

In theory, the rush for land would be monitored by U.S. troops. By fact, however, the thinly manned armed force maintained surveillance over only a small portion of the extensive perimeter of the Oklahoma Lands. The troops that escorted the Caldwell and Arkansas City overland caravans monitored the line on the north. Troops were likewise stationed west of Kingfisher and on the line at Fort Reno. A cavalry troop from Fort Sill arrived at Purcell on the day before the run, far too late to contain the settler mass from spreading out to unmonitored points, like 7-C Flats, along the eastern and southern boundaries.

The largest accumulations of contestants were at the line north of Mulhall and Guthrie, north of Kingfisher, and at Purcell. But thousands of others surrounded the Oklahoma Lands at other sites independently and in small conclaves. Not a few entered the run area ahead of time, joining the railroad men, carpenters, teamsters, woodcutters, soldiers, and federal officials. Many of the latter were considered to be "legal sooners" by virtue of their working in some capacity for the government. Among the most notorious to take advantage of their authority were U.S. marshals and their deputies.

April 22, 1889, dawned bright and clear upon the hordes, an estimated fifty thousand strong, that surrounded the Unassigned Lands. As noon approached, horsemen and wagons crowded forth to positions on the line, among them a few hardy women. Because of the social restraints of the day, few African Americans were at the front, though many came in immediately behind the initial rush and were rightfully "Eighty-niners."

The great dramatic moment came when at the stroke of noon starting signals were given at the many points of entry. In some instances it was given by a blue-clad military officer firing his pistol or by his trumpeter, at times by a citizen firing his rifle in the air, or, as at Fort Reno, by the boom of a cannon. All produced the same results a tumultuous avalanche of wagons and horsemen surging forward all in one breathtaking instant.

Families that remained behind at the line cheered as a husband or father made his wild dash to choose his 160 acres. He would then determine its range and township from the surveyors' cornerstone markers and plant a stake bearing notice of his name and location. Some would immediately begin making token improvements such as digging a well or arranging logs for a potential home. Others would hurry to the land office to register their claim.

The first of eight land-rush trains from Arkansas City, each loaded to the ceiling inside and atop with anxious contestants, reached the north line behind the opening charge. The train arrived in Guthrie at 1:25 p.m. to find the newly born town already brimming with people. "Looking like a giant centipede with hundreds of arms and legs and heads sticking out everywhere," the double-engine boomer train from Purcell arrived at Oklahoma Station at 2:10 p.m.

April 22, 1889, was a day of chaos, excitement, and utter confusion. Men and women rushed to claim homesteads or to purchase lots in one of the many new towns that sprang into existence overnight. An estimated eleven thousand agricultural homesteads were claimed. There would be many hardships ahead, and many would be forced to contest others who claimed the same farm or lot. A few sooner contests made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. One precedent-setting case was Smith v. Townsend (1892), claimants at Edmond Station, in which it was determined that Alexander Smith, a Santa Fe worker, had acted illegally in making his run from the railroad right-of-way. The high court's ruling in this matter eventually caused many old boomers, such as William Couch and his family, to lose valuable claims in Oklahoma City and elsewhere. But April 22, 1889, was nonetheless a significant day in national history, one that gave birth to new hope for thousands of Americans and became an iconic image in the history of the West.

By setting the stage for non-Indian settlement of other sections of Indian Territory, the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 quickly led to the creation of Oklahoma Territory under the Organic Act of 1890 and ultimately to formation of the forty-sixth state of the Union, Oklahoma, in 1907.

SEE ALSO: BOOMER MOVEMENT, LAND RUNS WOMEN IN, LAND OPENINGS, SETTLEMENT PATTERNS, TERRITORIAL ERA.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Brad Agnew, "Voices from the Land Run of 1889," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 67 (Spring 1989). Kathlyn Baldwin, The 89ers: Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 (Oklahoma City: Western Heritage Books, 1981). Stan Hoig, The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1984). Gordon Moore, "Registers, Receivers, and Entrymen: U.S. Land Office Administration in Oklahoma Territory, 1889-1907," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 67 (Spring 1989). Oklahoma, the Beautiful Land (Oklahoma City: 89er Society, 1990). Sidney Theil, comp., The Oklahoma Land Rush (reprint ed., New York: Grossman, 1973).

Stan Hoig

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