In the Compromise of 1850 the state of Texas ceded to the U.S. government a vast region claimed by Texas since its days as a republic. The cession was apportioned by 1854 among the new territories of New Mexico, Kansas, and Nebraska. An early proposal for Kansas Territory's southern boundary was to have it run along the northernmost Texas state line, continuing eastward along the same line of latitude (36° 30' N) to join the Arkansas-Missouri boundary (the 1820 Missouri Compromise Line). Under objections that much Cherokee land would thus be swallowed, the Kansas boundary instead was moved northward in 1854 to 37° N. This left, between 36° 30' N and 37° N, a rectangle of federal public land west of the Cherokee Outlet, north of the Texas Panhandle, east of New Mexico Territory, and south of Kansas and (after 1861) Colorado territories.
This 34 ½-mile-by-167-mile rectangle (between 36° 30' N and 37° N and between 100° W and 103° W) was unattached to any state or territorial government from 1850 to 1890. It was identified on most government maps as "Public Land" or "Public Land Strip." Today, it is the Oklahoma Panhandle, but during the late 1880s it was popularly known as "No Man's Land." The Public Land Strip, seasonal home to nomadic American Indians of the High Plains, was controlled by Comanche bands and allied groups from 1850 to 1875. Still, the Strip's west end experienced much traffic along the Santa Fe Trail's Cimarron Cut-Off and some military excursions. Originally within the Spanish colonial Province of New Mexico, it also saw at its western end some 1860s rancheria settlement by New Mexican sheep herders, and it hosted ciboleros (New Mexican buffalo hunters) into the 1880s. Some Panhandle geographical features still carry their old Spanish colonial names or anglicized variants.
Large numbers of Anglo buffalo hunters crossed the "dead line" south of Dodge City in 1874, introducing wholesale hide hunting and precipitating the 1874 Red River War. A year later the last free-roaming American Indian nomads of the southern High Plains were reservation-bound, and the southern buffalo herd was but a phantom of its past magnificence.
With the Comanche barrier and the buffalo removed, Texas cattlemen moved into the extensive state-owned public lands of Texas's Panhandle, appropriating grass and water holdings without buying or leasing the state's land. The eastern Texas Panhandle filled northward with these informal open-range ranches, until cattlemen encountered the Public Land Strip. Although it was federal public land, "the Strip" (as its residents called it) was given as little administrative attention as Texas gave its High Plains public lands, and cattlemen continued their unregulated and untaxed appropriation of land on into the Strip.
Free-range ranches began appearing in the Public Land Strip by 1878. Boundaries between ranches were established by consensus and usually were the divides between water sources. For most of the year, cattle roamed freely across the boundaries. If possible, ranch buildings were located in spots sheltered from winds and blizzards, often below a bluff and near surface water.
Three supply centers served these ranches: the Texas Panhandle towns of Mobeetie and Tascosa arose in 1875-76, connected by trails through the Public Land Strip to Dodge City, Kansas. Road ranches (offering lodging, corrals, and provisions), general stores, and then hamlets blossomed near water sources along the trails in the Strip after 1879. Some of these grew into "squatter towns." Like the cattlemen who led the way into the Strip, the townspeople could not hold title to the land upon which they laid out streets and lots, then built homes, stores, saloons, newspaper offices, churches, and schools. The establishment of an official post office, usually at least a year after the first house's construction, was a critical step in transforming a road ranch into a town.
A third supply center, the road ranch owned by the Tarbox family, was the first of these Strip settlements to receive a post office. The U.S. Post Office Department, permitted to place post offices only in states, territories, or protectorates, found that the Tarbox ranch was in none of those, as the Public Land Strip had never been assigned to any such category. To resolve the dilemma, the Post Office Department simply pretended that the Tarbox ranch sat in Texas. Thus, the first post office within the Oklahoma Panhandle was established in 1880 at Tarbox, Texas. When Beaver City got the second Strip post office in 1883, the ruse was discontinued.
Some maps portrayed the Public Land Strip as part of Indian Territory, and some Strip ranchers had paid fees to Cherokees for use of the land. On such grounds, the Post Office Department assigned by fiat the name "Neutral Strip of Indian Territory" to the Public Land Strip. From the establishment of Beaver City's post office until 1890, the Strip's post offices were assigned to the Neutral Strip of Indian Territory (postmarked N. S. I. T.). Thereby the Post Office Department reinforced the erroneous view that the Public Land Strip was part of Indian Territory.
Because potential settlers believed the Neutral Strip was Indian Territory, cattlemen operated there without much competition for land until 1885. Responding to an inquiry in that year from a Strip resident, the U.S. Land Office affirmed that the Public Land Strip was not a part of Indian Territory but belonged instead to the federal public lands subject to squatters' rights. News of this opinion reached Kansas newspapers, and soon a steady flood of land-hungry farmers trekked into the Public Land Strip.
They found no land office and no government surveys to facilitate homesteading or squatting. Undeterred, they surveyed the land into quarter-sections themselves, referring to zinc pot markers left by surveyors at two-mile intervals along six-mile-square congressional townships surveyed in 1881 across the Strip. They then squatted on their claims, hoping to acquire legal title in time. These claims tended to fan out from the trails and trail towns, staying near creeks and streams.
Little serious farming was attempted. Few squatters could afford seed and equipment, and grain markets were too far away for meaningful profits. Most of the Strip's squatters practiced subsistence farming. Men often took jobs in towns far back east, and their families stayed to hold onto the claim. Some derived extra income by collecting buffalo bones for fertilizer. These were very hard years, marked by blizzards and drought, and most squatters would abandon their claims forever to join the 1889 Land Run.
Communities emerged rapidly after 1885, and thirty post offices were established within the Public Land Strip before 1890. All but three were in the eastern half of the Strip, near the trails connecting Dodge City to Tascosa and Mobeetie. Given no territorial or state government, each squatter community improvised its own local agencies, such as land claims boards, courts, and schools. Vigilante committees enforced order, and some communities hired men to operate as town sheriffs. The Strip had its claim jumpers, horse thieves, and other bad elements, but the "old settlers" often emphasized in later years that the Strip had relatively few outlaws compared to other regions, due as much to the uniformly shared poverty as to vigilante severity.
Local committees resolved disputes over squatters' land claims. Claim jumpers were banished or, if they persisted, could be shot or hanged. Some communities maintained documentary records of land claims, and some even formed townsite companies and promoted and sold town lots with quit-claim deeds. The people of the Strip governed themselves and maintained civil order for more than five years without a central government. For this latter accomplishment the old settlers of the Strip often felt unappreciated in later years.
Between 1885 and 1890 Strip residents actively sought rights to homestead their claims. The most ambitious effort was the attempt to gain territorial status under the name of Cimarron Territory. Although failing Congressional approval, the Cimarron Territory Provisional Government met from late 1886 into early 1889. Strip residents also sent letters and petitions to federal offices, but these likewise failed to secure a land office and homestead rights.
Around 1885 or 1886 the term "No Man's Land" became widely applied to the Public Land Strip. True to the plain language of the old West, the nickname referred simply to the fact that no man could legally own land in the Strip. It had no intended connotations regarding lawlessness or dangerous conditions, as later writers would imply, to the chagrin of the Strip's old settlers. To make this clear, residents of the Strip frequently used the epithet "No Man's Land, but God's Land."
The 1890 Organic Act made the Strip part of Oklahoma Territory and brought it homestead rights. The entire Strip was designated the Seventh County, soon renamed Beaver County, and a land office was placed at Beaver City, county seat for the entire Panhandle. During 1890 and 1891 government surveyors partitioned the land into sections, and the squatters' self-surveyed quarter-section lines were corrected. The old-settler squatters who could verify their claims received up to three years' credit toward the homestead requirement of five years' residency.
Most importantly, legalization of land ownership meant that land could be mortgaged for capital to purchase farm equipment, seed, and building materials. Mortgage capital and new settlers came gradually into the region, presaging a new stage of economic development that blossomed when the first railroad, a Rock Island line through Liberal, Kansas, and Dalhart, Texas, obliquely transected the center of the Oklahoma Panhandle in 1901. This and later railroads reoriented settlements away from the old trails of No Man's Land. Many of the old communities died as towns, farms, and ranches relocated to be near train stations and loading areas.
Entrepreneurial land developers, both urban and rural, now promoted the area with the active assistance of railroad corporations. The railroads also actively promoted profitable crops. Much land was still available for homesteading, and more settlers poured in. As the number of farms mushroomed, new roads were laid out to provide access to the railroads. By statehood in 1907, when the old territorial Beaver County was divided into three new counties (Cimarron, Texas, and Beaver), the Oklahoma Panhandle held the highest population ever recorded in any census. Those old settlers who had squatted and stayed on uncertain land some twenty years before finally enjoyed vindication of their faith in themselves and the land. There were dust clouds on the horizon, but the first two decades of the twentieth century were generally good years for the people of No Man's Land.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Elmer E. Brown, "No Man's Land," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 4 (March 1926). Harry F. Chrisman, Lost Trails of the Cimarron (2nd ed.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998). Donald E. Green, Panhandle Pioneer: Henry C. Hitch, His Ranch, and His Family (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979). C. Robert Haywood, Trails South: The Wagon-Road Economy in the Dodge City-Panhandle Region (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986). V. Pauline Hodges, ed., Recollections of No Man's Land: Memoirs Fred Carter Tracy (Goodwell, Okla.: No Man's Land Historical Society, 1998). Oscar A. Kinchen, "The Abortive Territory of Cimarron," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 23 (Autumn 1945). Oscar A. Kinchen, "The Squatters in No Man's Land," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 26 (Winter 1948-49). George Rainey, No Man's Land (Enid, Okla.: Privately printed, 1937). Carl Coke Rister, No Man's Land (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948). Joy Schnabel, "Cimarron Territory," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 73 (Spring 1995). Morris L. Wardell, "The History of No-Man's-Land, or Old Beaver County," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 35 (Spring 1957). Muriel H. Wright, "The Seal of Cimarron Territory," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 35 (Spring 1957).
Kenneth R. Turner
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