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SMITH v. TOWNSEND (1893)

After the Land Run of April 22, 1889, into the Oklahoma District (Unassigned Lands), many land claims were challenged. By 1892, according to the register of the Oklahoma Land Office, an estimated five thousand land entries were being contested. Most of these were "sooner cases" involving persons who had entered the Oklahoma lands between March 2, 1889, and high noon of April 22, 1889.

The case of Smith v. Townsend involved conflicting claims to part of the present city of Edmond. The contested tract was the Northeast Quarter of Section 34, Township 14 North, Range 3 West. In January 1889 Alexander B. Smith, a Santa Fe railroad worker, had pitched a tent at Edmond Station in the railroad right-of-way, lived there, and worked on the tracks until April 22. At the time appointed for the run, he had moved his tent out of the railroad right-of-way and claimed the entire quarter section. Around high noon on April 22, Eddie B. Townsend, who ranched on the Iowa reservation east of the Oklahoma District, joined the run. He arrived at Edmond Station at approximately 1:20 p.m. and entered a claim to the quarter-section claimed by Smith.

Asserting that Smith was an illegal homesteader, a "sooner," Townsend asked the land register at Guthrie to cancel Smith's entry because he had illegally occupied the land between March 2 and April 22, the period during which entry and occupation of the Oklahoma District had been prohibited. The local office upheld Smith's claim. Townsend appealed the decision to the commissioner of the U.S. General Land Office, who overturned the local decision. Townsend's claim was also upheld by the secretary of the interior in March 1891.

In a suit filed in Oklahoma County District Court, Smith asked the court to name Townsend a mere "trustee" for the land and to order the title conveyed to Smith. After appeals, in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Smith. The decision stated that the federal government had not intended for railroad employees present in the Oklahoma District before the opening to have an advantage over persons who waited "on the line" outside the district. The decision noted that by legislative act and presidential proclamation Congress had thrown a wall around Oklahoma, and that "when the hour [noon on April 22, 1889] came, the wall was thrown down, and it was a race between all outside for the various tracts they might desire. . . ." Therefore, because he had not gone outside to wait on the line, but had stayed in the district, Smith had not been qualified to compete for a homestead.

Strictly interpreted, the decision could mean that any unauthorized person temporarily in the Unassigned Lands between March 2 and April 22 was disqualified. However, the courts generally applied the ruling only to disqualify those who had remained within the boundaries and by so doing had gained advantage in making a homestead or townsite entry. This set a precedent to be used in hundreds of townsite cases to come.

SEE ALSO: KINGFISHER v. WOOD AND FOSSETT, LAND OPENINGS, LAND RUN OF 1889, SETTLEMENT PATTERNS, TERRITORIAL ERA, TOWNSITE CASES, UNASSIGNED LANDS.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Berlin B. Chapman, "The Legal Sooners of 1889 in Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 35 (Winter 1957-58). Stan Hoig, The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1984).

Dianna Everett

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