I discovered Oklahoma–in truth, uncovered Oklahoma–in 1980: It was the summer. June to be precise, and it was hot as blazes.
At the time, I made my home in Miami, Florida. I had been there for a year, working as a magazine journalist and living in a sturdy cottage made of Dade County pine. Outside my door were a pool, tennis courts, and avocado and grapefruit trees. People said my address was in the best of both worlds—between Coconut Grove and Coral Gables. Trouble was, I never felt like I really and truly lived in Miami. Like others there, I looked at myself as a transient with a packed bag waiting in the corner. I was always wondering about life elsewhere, in the places I knew from before, places where it snowed at Christmas and folks didn't pack pistols to go to a PTA meeting at their kids' school.
In Miami, I stayed busy sending in my stories and dispatches from the field to several domestic and foreign magazines. The nation seemed to hunger for news from south Florida—the scene of another exodus of Cuban refugees, as well as a favorite port for Caribbean drug smugglers. Florida appeared to be the "hard news" capital of the country. I told my friends back in the Southwest that I felt like I was living in Casablanca. Every day brought a new adventure as I followed the exploits of "cocaine cowboys" and the crime fighters who pursued them.
When the opportunity came for me to leave Florida for a swing through Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, I almost turned it down. At first I thought that I couldn't abandon my post just because an old pal wanted me to cruise around with him to gather material for travel stories. I had more than enough material for stories within a few miles of my cottage. The threat of riots loomed over the city that summer, while endless streams of immigrants poured into the state. Not to mention the surging crime wave.
Fortunately, I reconsidered. I thought about my friend—Terrence Moore—and his proposal. Not only would I again have the chance to work with this superior photographer, but the notion of a whirlwind trip through four states promised a much-needed break from the rigors of news reporting. The journey might be the ideal tonic. I picked up my packed bag and caught a plane. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Our circuit began in Tucson and took us to points in New Mexico, on to several stops in Oklahoma, then south to Texas, and finally back to Arizona. We had set up a number of appointments for story interviews and photo sessions. This single journey promised to yield a half dozen superb feature stories for as many magazines. We had assignments from editors in hand. Several of the sights and many of the people we encountered along the way were memorable. Much of the time we traveled through country we both knew very well, so we saw old friends and familiar scenery.
But when Terrence's automobile glided across the Texas border and we entered Oklahoma, I was in for a real surprise. I thought I knew what Oklahoma was all about. After all, I had lived in Missouri, Texas, and New Mexico—three of the six states that share a border with Oklahoma. I had driven across the state countless times, usually going somewhere else.
This time it was different. This time I was forced to deal with Oklahoma up close. I absorbed the experience of new towns, cities, and, most important of alll, new people. We covered a lot of real estate on that trip through the Sooner State. We were grateful to have a constant serenade thanks to the songs of the Eagles, Merle Haggard, and one of Oklahoma's truest treasures—Woody Guthrie. We found comfort with occasional pit stops for ice, chilled beer, and Eskimo Pies, but also through conversations with boys pumping gasoline, waitresses, and old cowboys.
We stuck to the back roads, using the busier interstates only when we were forced to make time. We drove through wheat fields, across ranch lands, and along rivers and lakes. We were up and down Oklahoma's favorite highway and America's Main Street—Route 66. We went to Elk City, Weatherford, Clinton, Okemah, Boley, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Muskogee, Bartlesville, Atoka, Durant, and scores of other small towns and cities. We met Socialists, rednecks, rodeo stars, and Native Americans whose quiet eloquence spoke volumes. We saw Art Deco palaces, the best fireworks stand in the world, a landlocked submarine, and tallgrass prairie so beautiful it left us in tears. As I would later write, we came to Oklahoma expecting to find bland hamburger. Instead we discovered a rich chili made of filet mignon and loaded with spice. It was a damn good trip. One of our best.
Within two years I finally managed to marry a woman I should have rnarried years before. We moved to Oklahoma. We are still here. I have written countless stories chronicling this place and published several books about the land and its people.
Enclosed within the covers of this book are some of my favorite spoonfuls of Oklahoma. I hope you relish them as much as I savor the time I spent putting them together for you.
lands [of the planet] wait for
Oklahoma is dark rivers snaking through red, furrowed soil; lakes rimmed with stone bluffs. It is the ghosts of proud Native Americans, crusading Socialists, ambitious cattle kings, extravagant oil tycoons, wily bandits. It is impetuous and it is wise. A land of opportunists, resilient pioneers, and vanquished souls, the state is a crazy quilt of contradictions and controversies, travails and triumphs. It has been exploited and abused, cherished and fought over. It is a puzzling place.
Forever, Oklahoma is American through and through.
It is difficult for most folks to comprehend what Oklahoma is all about. Mention the name and all sorts of images, mostly pure cliche, flitter in people's minds. They are hard-pressed to even acknowledge that Oklahoma actually has telephone service and paved streets, let alone traffic lights and flush toilets. These people would be more inclined to believe that on a daily basis Oklahomans are forced to reckon with outlaw ambushes, cantankerous rattlesnakes, and beds of quicksand. Some only need to hear "Oklahoma," and thoughts of cowboys and Indians, oil derricks, evangelists, dusty plains, and overflowing football stadiums come to mind. Just say "Oklahoma" to someone, then step back and wait for the reaction. Most responses are predictable. Many are negative.
Sometimes they picture John Steinbeck's fictional Joad family. They envision paltry Dust Bowl "Okies" dodging windswept tumbleweeds as they flee their parched tenant farm in a rattletrap jalopy crowned with a mattress and crammed with tattered belongings and faded dreams. It's a grim and enduring impression, as haunting as one of Woody Guthrie's ballads, as indelible as a Dorothea Lange or Russell Lee photograph.
Still others confess that Oklahoma causes them to conjure up notions of "good of boys" cruising in their pickup trucks, complete with gun rack, six-pack, and, of course, a National Rifle Association membership decal prominently displayed on the window. Typically, those with this particular image in mind steadfastly believe that Oklahoma's louts behave every bit as sexist, racist, and homophobic as other surviving Neanderthals scattered across the country.
Then there are those individuals who imagine Oklahoma as the primary stomping ground for behemothlike athletes—the kind with thick necks and puny IQs who fuel themselves on whole sides of beef seasoned with liberal doses of steroids. Football, the public has been led to believe, and with ample reason, is much more than a contact sport in Oklahoma. To a whole host of adoring disciples, football is considered an extension of every citizen's God-given rights. Some of them even relate to it as they do to their religion. For that reason, it has been said that the football field is simply another place of worship for considerable numbers of rabid Oklahoma sports fans.
And, while on the subject of religion, there is the classic perception of Oklahoma as a haven for legions of puritanical religious fundamentalists and social conservatives—the types who thrive on intolerance, censorship, and public posturing. The types who enjoy nothing more than a barbecue over a heap of banned books set ablaze. Or, perhaps the name Oklahoma sparks thoughts of those oily televangelists whose main concerns are Bible thumping, preaching in tongues over the diseased, and bilking old ladies with blue-tinted hair out of their pension checks.
Surely, all of these Oklahoma stereotypes possess a grain of truth. An examination of the record quickly proves that.
Tens of thousands of Oklahoma farm families, exactly like the Joads in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, made their sad exit during the terrible 1930s. The Great Depression took its toll just as the rains stopped, causing the earth to dry up and blow away. That is when, it is often said with tongue in cheek, Bakersfield, California, became the third-largest city in Oklahoma after Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Anywhere inside the state's borders it's also relatively easy to locate an exemplary redneck complete with narrow mind, "gimme cap," and a cheek or lip bulging with tobacco. The macho "Old West" man's man—the John Wayne variety—is alive and well in Oklahoma. The state has never experienced a shortage of false patriots and manly men who go through life secretly burdened with every insecurity in the book.
And, as far as ultra-right-wingers go, oftentimes it seems that every religious zealot and political conservative drawing breath resides within the borders of Oklahoma, frequently referred to as the buckle on an ever-expanding Bible Belt. Wearing personal religious beliefs on one's sleeve in public is de rigueur in all quarters of the state, as it is in other parts of the nation. Curiously, many of those obsessed with uttering their prayers at public rallies prior to sports events have already reached a euphoric state by swigging beer. The concoction of religion, politics, patriotism, and football is as unhealthy and dangerous as a combination of alcohol and gunpowder.
Not a locale much associated with intellectual enlightenment or social and spiritual forbearance, despite much historical evidence to the contrary, Oklahoma seems to be a metaphor for the kind of hypocrisy found in Dallas, Virginia Beach, and other bastions of self-righteousness that thrive in the born-again hamlets and cities of the South and Southwest.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma remains susceptible to a full array of less-than-flattering axioms, derisive snickers, and snide commentary.
But in reality, and in the state's defense, Oklahoma doesn't deserve such a hackneyed image. Much of it is unwarranted. Many of the unfavorable stereotypes are either no longer appropriate or applicable, or else they generally overshadow and cloud a more tenable view of the state. As is often the case, the chief stereotypes are much more complicated than they appear on the surface. Some are nothing but misconceptions and distortions that have never been corrected.
Ironically, a great deal of the adverse image problem Oklahoma suffers from actually begins at home. Oklahomans do not have a proper sense of themselves or their state's history. Critical eras from the past, such as the Dust Bowl years, have been blurred or forgotten or, even worse, shunned because they seem to cast a poor light on the land and its people. There is a wholesale denial of history. At times it seems to be a conspiracy.
That is certainly not the case just south of Oklahoma, across the Red River in that sprawling state of mind named Texas. Lone Star State citizens are confident when it comes to their homeland. Make that smug. They relish their state's colorful past and accept its history, whether bitter or sweet. Walk into either a funky beer joint in Odessa or, at the opposite extreme, a fancy restaurant in Dallas and the folks there without hesitation will boast that they're damn proud to be Texans. No inferiority complexes in Texas.
On a smaller scale in the other states bordering Oklahoma, the same seems to be true. Certainly Arkansas has made positive steps in the right direction, such as launching successful economic development measures and nurturing its natural and historical resources in order to overcome any "poor Arkie" or "Dogpatch" image. For the most part, the residents of Missouri; New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado appear confident in themselves and are cognizant of their heritage.
But for many years there has persisted this kind of second-class-citizen attitude in Oklahoma. It endures. Despite the riches and limelight brought the state by the once-phenomenal oil and gas industry and many other notable achievements, a feeling of being poor country cousins to the rest of the nation, especially the state's regional neighbors, thrives throughout Oklahoma. Money, the old adage goes, cannot buy respectability. State government hasn't been much help. For many years, stamped on motor vehicle license plates was the rather insipid motto, "Oklahoma is OK." Not "Spectacular," not "Diverse," but only "OK." Mediocrity at its best.
This apparent deficiency when it comes to appreciating the true value of the state's rich history is further strengthened because Oklahoma has never really been defined as a place. One journalist described the state as "a large flat piece of ground covered with oil wells, wheat fields, and a crop of rangy individuals." Even the people who live there have never been quite sure what Oklahoma is all about. To say the state suffers from a lack of identity is an understatement. With rare exceptions, the media and political and civic leaders historically have done little or nothing to help shape Oklahoma's image and identity. If Oklahomans have no sense of their state's history or place, how can others?
In the mid-1980s, an Oklahoma City advertising agency commissioned an informal national survey to find out how others perceived the state. Surprisingly, instead of encountering the typical stereotypes, those conducting the survey found few of the respondents connected Oklahoma with oil, cowboys and Indians, or even the Dust Bowl. Many of those polled claimed they had no impression at all of Oklahoma. Not only that, but most of the survey participants had real difficulty in pinpointing the state's location or in indicating any of Oklahoma's preeminent features. Some thought that Oklahoma was "near Texas" or "along Interstate 40," but not one person placed the state in the Southwest or the South—two of the regions that have had a profound impact on the state. Very flat, windy, and dusty were frequently the words used to describe Oklahoma. The survey also showed that few people associated Oklahoma with the Great Plains region.
The results of the survey informed state leaders that in some respects not much had changed, although in recent years many of the traditional stereotypes about Oklahoma seem to have re-emerged. Apparently people either have some vague notion of the state based on one of those conventional opinions or else, and perhaps worse, they don't have an inkling about Oklahoma. Ask any reasonably intelligent-looking person on the street in Buffalo, Seattle, or Tampa to provide the location of Oklahoma and, likely as not, after one or more of the cliches about the place registers in their mind, they are hard-pressed to give a precise answer. It's really not that difficult.
To find Oklahoma, simply start by looking toward the mid-section of the nation. Oklahoma lies slightly south of the geographic center of the United States. A huge plateau, the state tilts down generally from northwest to southeast, ranging from about 5,000 feet above sea level at Black Mesa in the far northwestern corner of the Panhandle to the less-than-325-feet level in the southeastern corner on the Red River.
Oklahoma has common boundaries with six states—Colorado and Kansas on the north, Missouri and Arkansas on the east, Texas on the south, and Texas and New Mexico on the west. It is part of what is known as the Great Plains region. The state is shaped roughly like a meat cleaver or a saucepan, with the pan's bottom formed by the winding Red River and the conspicuous Panhandle—a treeless region, once known as "'No Man's Land," that is only thirty-four miles wide and juts out to the west for 166 miles in length.
Surely geography is a major contributor to Oklahoma's identity problem. It is a state without any strong sense of place in national thinking. Perhaps that is the reason Rand McNally—the venerable geographer—even forgot to include Oklahoma in one edition of a U.S. atlas. Too many times, Oklahoma is simply described as being west of Arkansas, south of Kansas, and north of Texas. Because of Oklahoma's geographic location and patterns of development, some people identify it as a southern state while others assign a western-state status. Lots of other folks, including natives, ask if the state is midwestern or southwestern. What is it? Oklahoma, they finally decide, is just out there somewhere.
The fact remains, the total area of 69,919 square miles, or roughly 45 million acres, makes Oklahoma the eighteenth-largest state in geographical size in the United States. It is bigger than any state to the east aside from Minnesota and, with the exceptions of Hawaii and Washington, smaller than any of the states to the south, north, or west. Oklahoma is one-eighth the size of Alaska, and more than twice as big as all of New England.
Situated between 94 degrees 29 feet and 103 degrees west longitude and 33 degrees 41 feet and 37 degrees north latitude, Oklahoma's latitudinal location, coupled with its great size, had a noticeable influence on the cultural activities of its citizens. So did the land itself.
Contrary to popular belief, Oklahoma is far from treeless. A fourth of the state is covered with forest, representing 133 varieties of native trees. In central and eastern Oklahoma, blackjack and post oak are prevalent. These trees grow so closely together that the first travelers through the region found the going difficult. Later, during the heyday of the Chisholm, Shawnee, and Texas trails, it was a chore to drive herds of cattle through the cross timbers.
The terrain of Oklahoma is like its fabled weather. It changes completely as it crosses the state. It varies from the Great Salt Plains to verdant forests and unceasing seas of wheat. Oklahoma ranges from cypress bayous, pine forests, and woodlands filled with hardwoods—oak, honey locust, hickory, pecan, and sycamore—to the high plains and semiarid desert sprouting cactus, mesquite, sage, buffalo grass, salt cedar, and willow. Principal streams include the Arkansas, Cimarron, North Canadian, Canadian, Washita, Illinois, Verdigris, Grand, and Red rivers. There is also an abundance of lakes. Eastern Oklahoma has an even higher ratio of square miles to water surface than Minnesota, the state known for its many lakes. Oklahoma's not all flat, either. There are also plenty of mountains and hills—the Arbuckles, the Wichitas, the Kiamichis, the Winding Stairs, the Ouachitas, the Jackforks, the Cooksons.
The state is in the transition zone between the humid Midwest and the drier Southwest, between the grasslands of the West and the forests of the East, between the low elevations of the coastal plains and the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountain foothills, and between the long growing season of the South and the shorter growing season of the North. It is in limbo. Some say the whole state, and not just the Panhandle, should be called No Man's Land.
To be sure, Oklahoma is a land of contrasts—social as well as natural. Within the state one can find cowboys and Native Americans, wild mustangs and thoroughbreds, dogtrot cabins and Art Deco palaces, rodeo and ballet, opera and country-western music, tuxedos and blue jeans, pickups and polo ponies, beer joints and country clubs, street preachers and pagans.
Oklahoma is the nation's great mixing bowl. It is a little bit of all six states that surround it plus much more. There are parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia in Oklahoma. Great swarms of white immigrants and countless numbers of Native Americans came to what became Oklahoma from those and other southern states. Early oil barons and petroleum executives moved into Oklahoma from New York and Pennsylvania and points east. Perhaps that is why the upper-crust neighborhoods of Tulsa, with their manicured lawns and gardens and elegant residences, greatly resemble some of the exclusive enclaves in the eastern portion of the country.
Oklahoma is a microcosm of the nation. Yet it remains a land that has misplaced its sense of rhythm. It needs to be rediscovered. As the venerable Dame Edith Sitwell put it: "Rhythm is one of the principal translators between dream and reality. Rhythm might be described as, to the world of sound, what light is to the world of sight. It shapes and gives new meaning."
Without any rhythm, there can be no balance. The invigorating rhythm of the land and its occupants needs only to be found and memorized again. Part of the rhythm comes from the cadence of oil-pump jacks, Native American drums, and jazz horns, as well as from the music, poetry, and language of history. Part of that distinctive Oklahoma rhythm is the voice of Will Rogers, the songs of Woody Guthrie, the words of Angie Debo, the fiddle of Bob Wills. Oklahoma's dubious yet stirring past is replete with lessons that apply today, lessons that not only help shatter some of the stereotypes about Oklahoma but help others from outside the state to take a closer look at their own locales and personal history.
Angie Debo, the beloved Oklahoma historian, stated it well in the very first paragraph in the preface of Oklahoma, Foot-loose and Fancy-free, her candid history of the state first published in 1949. Debo wrote: "Any state of the American Union deserves to be known and understood. But Oklahoma is more than just another state. It is a lens in which the long rays of time are focused into the brightest of light. In its magnifying clarity, dim facets of the American character stand more clearly revealed. For in Oklahoma all the experiences that went into the making of the nation have been speeded up. Here all the American traits have been intensified. The one who can interpret Oklahoma can grasp the meaning of America in the modern world."
In 1930, Edna Ferber even felt compelled to issue a warning to the readers of Cimarron, her epic novel about Oklahoma. Ferber wrote: "In many cases material entirely true was discarded as unfit for use because it was so melodramatic, so absurd as to be too strange for the realm of fiction. Anything can have happened in Oklahoma. Practically everything has."
To understand this inscrutable place, it is necessary to learn about the human side of Oklahoma's history. That means starting with the people who lived on the North American continent prior to the encroachment of any Europeans.
Long before the arrival of the explorers and trappers, the cowboys and farmers, or the merchants and oil barons, distinct and important groups of indigenous people populated present-day Oklahoma. The earliest known inhabitants roamed the Panhandle twelve thousand years ago. Cave dwellers and mound builders later lived in many parts of the state, but disappeared in the mists of time and history.
Tribes of people, now Native Americans, were the first residents. For that reason, the state name is fitting since the word Oklahoma comes from the old Choctaw phrase meaning "red people."
Some of the early tribes include the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Wichita, Lipan Apache, and Caddo. Many of them were wanderers who built their camps and fires wherever the buffalo were most numerous. Later, other tribes were driven into Oklahoma from their ancestral homes and hunting grounds in northern and central states. All of them—including the Osage, Quapaw, Catawba, Cayuga, Huron, Modoc, Mohawk, Oneida, Otoe, Pawnee, Ponca, Seneca, Yuchi, and many more—possessed their own complex lifestyles and distinct heritages. These original Oklahomans—fifty-two tribal groups—are as dissimilar from each other as Europeans differ from Asians or Africans. More languages are spoken in Oklahoma today than on the entire European continent.
Legend has it that the Vikings were the first Caucasians to visit the area that ultimately became Oklahoma. These dauntless Norsemen supposedly preceded other white intruders by more than one thousand years. First mention of the future Oklahoma appears in the journals of Spanish explorers who traversed the vast North American plains with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Juan de Onate, and Hernando de Soto in the mid-1500s. Early dispatches from these great military expeditions include descriptions of wild fruit, broad rivers, luxuriant grasslands, and nomadic tribes. In 1541, the Coronado band, searching for gold and riches, even left some graffiti behind. While camped at Castle Rock, alongside the Cimarron, on a trail much used from earlier times, one member of the conquistador's party carved his leader's name in a rock inside a small cave. Three centuries after Coronado and his ironclad men passed by, that same route became the Cimarron cutoff of the fabled Santa Fe Trail.
French explorers followed the Spaniards. In 1682, La Salle floated down the Mississippi and pushed overland to the West. He claimed for France all the land drained by the mighty river. A few of his followers ventured up the Red River into Oklahoma and named the Poteau and Verdigris rivers. Other French explorers and traders in search of pelts soon entered the Oklahoma country by way of the Red and Arkansas rivers, and Jean Pierre Choteau established Salina, the first permanent white settlement in 1796.
France ruled Oklahoma, except the territory that became the Panhandle, as a part of the Louisiana Province from 1682 until 1762. Then that portion of the Louisiana Province was given back to Spain. The Spaniards had little luck in making the area pay off for them, so in 1800 the real estate passed back into French hands. Only three years later, Napoleon was more than ready to abandon his country's expensive North American empire. Louisiana was bought by the United States, and Oklahoma was made part of the Territory of Indiana, governed from Vincennes. By 1812 the Oklahoma region became part of the Territory of Missouri, and in 1819 it was transferred to the Territory of Arkansas.
From about the late 1820s until the early 1840s, sad processions of displaced Native Americans streamed westward from the Deep South. They surrendered their homes and farms to the whites and were forcibly uprooted as part of the federal government's oppressive "Indian Removal" process. The Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw were designated as the "Five Civilized Tribes"—a detestable and pejorative expression still in common use. As a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, many other eastern tribes besides the Five Tribes lost their land and were removed to a huge parcel of land in the West.
The routes followed by the Five Tribes in their treks—down a path filled with death and suffering from tuberculosis, pneumonia, and even starvation—came to be known as the Trail of Tears. This infamous journey of sorrow and pain terminated in a wild land where the white government decided to dump all the relocated tribes. It was dubbed Indian Territory, most of present-day Oklahoma.
Under the terms of yet another treaty drafted by the federal government, the relocated Native Americans were to have this new homeland for "as long as grass shall grow and rivers run." More hollow words and empty promises.
In Indian Territory the tribes formed their own "nation," which was a protectorate of the United States. The Indian Nations had their own capitals, set of laws, legislatures, and courts. Schools and churches were built and farms were created. The Native Americans residing in Indian Territory were to be forever protected by laws that prevented whites from stealing their land. And so the Indian Nations prospered by themselves as the flood of the westward-expansion movement passed them by.
All of that changed with the advent of the Civil War. Many members of the Five Tribes were significant slave owners and most of the tribal members sided with the Confederacy. Some Indians wished to stay neutral during the conflict while still others fought with the Union. Bitter quarrels and bloodshed occurred among the tribes. After the war, the victorious Union punished the residents of Indian Territory. The government ruled that the Indians had lost all rights to their land because they fought with the South. Half of their assigned lands were taken and a large number of displaced northern Plains tribes, including the Caddoes, Comanches, Cheyennes, and Kiowas, were moved into the western half of Indian Territory. To maintain control, the federal government also erected a string of Army posts in the west, such as Fort Sill, built near Lawton in 1868.
A postwar cattle boom drew huge herds of Texas long-horns into "the Nations," where they fed on the rich blue-stem grass while making their way up trails like the Chisholm to the new Kansas rail centers. A few whites were allowed to live in the Indian Nations, as long as they did not attempt to own the land or violate the codes established by the native peoples. But not all the whites were desirable. Hordes of poachers, bootleggers, prostitutes, and renegades also crept into Indian Territory. As unruly cow towns, such as Dodge City up in Kansas, ended their wild ways, Indian Territory became a haven for cattle rustlers, horse thieves, bank robbers, and common criminals, mainly because the legal system kept Native Americans from prosecuting whites in courts of law. As a result, Indian Territory was considered to be the most lawless area in the United States.
By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the regions surrounding Oklahoma's borders filled with fidgety white settlers casting increasingly covetous eyes on the broad ranges and open spaces of Indian Territory. A systematic movement, or "booming," started for the opening of certain parts of Oklahoma to white settlement. Kaman David L. Payne and other nervy trespassers known as "Boomers" began their invasion. Troops were used to force the squatters to leave. But each time the soldiers escorted the tenacious nesters back across the Kansas line, more of them slipped over the border. The Five Tribes protested, but little was done to discourage the violators.
Finally the federal government succumbed to the Boomers' demands and purchased an absolute title to nearly two million acres of land belonging to the Indians in the central portion of the territory. By this time Congress had already passed the Dawes Severalty Act, providing that all the Indians except members of the Fire Tribes should be made to accept individual "allotments" of land and that the rest of the reservations should be opened to white homesteaders as soon as possible. President Benjamin Harrison, during his third week in office, issued a proclamation regarding the settlement of the so-called Unassigned Lands.
The stage was set for April 22, 1889, when the curtain went up. It was on that auspicious, some would argue infamous, date when more than fifty thousand men, women, and children gathered on the borders of the Unassigned Lands of Indian Territory. Government survey teams divided the two million acres into quarter sections for homesteads and set aside larger tracts for potential town sites. Federal land offices were quickly built so that homesteaders could file their entry claims. Troops tried to hold back the masses of anxious settlers eagerly poised on the starting line. Gangs of dishonest would-be settlers could not wait and sneaked into the area to grab up the choicest land. Most of them were later evicted because they could not prove that they were on the starting line at high noon, as required by law. These rogues would become known as "Sooners," a term that Oklahomans still prefer as a nickname for themselves and the University of Oklahoma’s sports teams.
The starting signal of waving flags, bugle calls, and cavalry gunfire finally came, triggering one of the wildest land grabs, or as it is often put, "runs" in the annals of American history. Some came up from Texas, but most of the newcomers hailed from Kansas. Others poured in from Missouri and Arkansas. Wherever their origin, the majority crossed the ranches of the Cherokee Outlet or else followed the Chisholm Trail and then spread out along the northern and western boundaries of the Unassigned Lands.
They came on swift cow ponies and ponderous plow horses, in wagons and buggies overflowing with belongings, aboard crowded trains, and even riding oxen or furiously pedaling bicycles through the clouds of dust. Years later, many who were there that sunny day recalled seeing four circus midgets astride a single horse. Whoever came and whatever their means of transportation, it was a mad dash to hammer into the prairie earth sharp-pointed sticks with their initials whittled on the sides in order to stake precious claims. Tent towns sprang up within a few hours. By sunset of that first day, Oklahoma City had a population of ten thousand and Guthrie boasted fifteen thousand residents. Yancey Cravat, the main character in Ferber's Cimarron, was on target and spoke for many when he declared: "Creation! Hell! That took six days. This was done in one. It was history made in an hour—and I helped make it."
Soon additional lands were opened for settlement. Within the next few years there were four more runs as more tribal land was taken by white immigrants. Most of these newcomers were dirt poor. They had lost their land in Texas or Kansas. Some were out-of-work laborers or blacklisted miners. Though tough as cowhide and resilient as coyotes, few of them were the prim and righteous pioneer types pictured and mythologized in the school history texts.
In 1890, Congress passed an organic act creating Oklahoma Territory in what is now westem Oklahoma and providing for some self-government. The legislation made official the Choctaw name Oklahoma. Guthrie was proclaimed as the capital, and a gent from Indiana was appointed as the first territorial governor. Over in neighboring Indian Territory, the Dawes Commission, created by the federal government in 1893, negotiated with the Five Tribes for the division of all of their lands into individual allotments and the release of surplus lands for further white settlement. The Dawes Commission's work lasted a dozen years. By the time it finished, any and all plans for a Native American commonwealth were gone.
The largest of all the land runs came on September 16, 1893, when the government opened up more than six million acres of deluxe grazing land created decades before to provide the Cherokee tribe with an outlet to hunting grounds in the West following their removal to Indian territory. This land was called the Cherokee Outlet, but was popularly known as the Cherokee Strip. Estimates of those making this fabled run range from 100,000 to 150,000. Like the Run of '89, it, too, was a spectacle to be remembered. It was now certain that the: land of the "red people" definitely belonged to the white man.
Even though the largest percentage of settlers in the Twin Territories hailed from Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas, practically every region of the nation was represented. So were diverse nationalities. The land runs brought vast groups of foreign immigrants—German, Czech, Mexican, Russian, Italian, African, Jewish, and Greek settlers. All of them left their distinctive marks on the land.
Talk of the territories entering the Union was immediate and constant. But even back in 1891, before the Cherokee Strip opened up and the very first statehood convention was convened, opinion was split. A sizable coalition wanted two separate states, one for Oklahoma Territory and one for Indian Territory, while another faction advocated admission as a single state. It would take sixteen years before achievement of statehood.
The citizens of the Five Tribes and other residents from the eastern territory favored establishment of an independent state to be named for Sequoyah, the man who many decades before had developed an eighty-four-character Cherokee syllabary enabling his tribe to be the first to have a written language of its own. In 1905, a convention was held at Muskogee to consider a constitution for a "State of Sequoyah, " but this effort was discounted by Congress, just as was Oklahoma Territory's campaign to set up a sovereign state.
At long last an Enabling Act was passed. This provided for the two territories to form the state of Oklahoma. Fifty-five delegates from each territory plus a pair from the Osage Nation, which was still in the process of allotment, were elected to draft a state Constitution. Of the 112 delegates, 99 were Democrats, 12 were Republicans, and one called himself an Independent. Most were young farmers and several were mixed-blood Native Americans.
William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray was picked as president of the constitutional convention. Murray, married to a refined Chickasaw woman, was a former schoolteacher from Texas who moved to Indian Territory to practice law. When he arrived in Tishomingo, capital of the Chickasaw Nation, he carried a carpetbag containing a well-worn copy of the U.S. Constitution. As was the situation with three of the other delegates, "Alfalfa Bill" (a nickname he earned from his experiments at growing alfalfa) one day would become the governor of the state he helped to create. He would also be remembered as one of the most colorful characters in Oklahoma history.
During the winter of 1906, the convention delegates wrote a reform constitution. The final draft contained many new ideas intended to return democracy to the citizens, such as initiative and referendum. By initiative, Oklahomans could propose laws. By referendum, they could vote on laws submitted to them by the state legislature, thus giving the people a direct voice in the government. There were also social reforms and a Prohibition clause that banned the sale of alcoholic beverages. The constitution was ratified by an overwhelming majority on September 17, 1907.
Then on November 16, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring Oklahoma as the forty-sixth state of the Union. As soon as Roosevelt scrawled his signature on the document, officials in Washington telegraphed the news to Guthrie, where a crowd waited to celebrate and dine on succulent barbecue.
"We spoiled the best Territory in the world to make a state," cracked Will Rogers.
Many years later, Oklahoma historian Edward Everett Dale told the story of a Cherokee woman whose white husband asked her to go with him to the statehood festivities. She declined and he went alone. When the man came home, he gently reminded his wife that they no longer lived in the Cherokee Nation. "All of us are now citizens of the State of Oklahoma," he told her. The woman's eyes brimmed with tears. "It broke my heart," she said. "I went to bed and cried all night long. It seemed more than I could bear that the Cherokee Nation, my country and my people's country, was no more."
On that day tears flowed throughout all the old Indian Nations. Lots of tears. Silent weeping of vanquished people drowned out in the din of celebration. The deed was done. "The Nations" were in the past. It was time to get on with the business at hand. The new state, like a precocious child, was impatient to step forward.
Oklahoma's long search for identity had begun. It continues to this day.