“The order was given, the bugle blew the blast — charge — forward. And that line broke with a hurrah and rush, and impetuous onward movement — the cowboys firing their pistols and yelling, making a scene never before witnessed in this or any other country, settling up a country by the aid of a bugle call…”
– Arkansas City Republican Traveler, April 25 1889
With the crackling sound of that bugle, the Oklahoma Land Rush began at precisely noon on today’s date, April 22 in 1889 (above). This was a truly unique moment, when the U.S. government, having declared nearly two million acres of land to be open for homesteading, simply put it up for grabs, and said “go get it!!” Of course the land had to belong to someone to begin with, and they — the Indigenous Americans were pushed aside once again. And there would indeed be other land grabs until the government ultimately came up with a lottery system of handing out available public land. But for the sheer grandeur of it… for the spectacle of thousands of people lined up at the starting lines and then at the sound of the cannon, or the gun, or whatever, just racing off to grab their own plot of earth… nothing ever has or will equal this remarkable day.
“Indian Territory” Becomes Valuable
This large chunk of land which was being opened up for development was located in what had been called “Indian Territory”. Previously, the area had been considered rather arid
and un- attractive for white people to settle. But it was considered the ideal location to cram all of the Indigenous American tribes who were being thrown off their lands elsewhere in the country. So beginning in 1817, and on through the 1880’s a wide variety of Indigenous tribes, including the Commanche, the Cherokee, the Apache and the Creek just to name a few were forcibly relocated to an area which roughly encompasses today’s state of Oklahoma. But improvements in
irrigation and other farming and ranching techniques had by the late 1880’s made the area desirable for settlement by white men for the first time. This land had all been closed to white settlement, but @ 1.9 million acres had not been assigned to any particular tribe. So President Benjamin Harrison (above) was convinced to open that portion of the land to settlement. Then the Dawes-Severalty Act of 1887 was passed by which the “Indians” were introduced to private ownership of their tribal lands, thus enabling the Federal government to consolidate their holdings and opening up large swaths of land to settlement. Thus, the Indigenous Americans were pushed off of more land.
“Harrison’s Hoss Race”
After the reservations were all divided into allotments, any and all remaining land was declared surplus and opened up for white settlement under the Homestead Act of 1862. This act, which had been signed into law by President Lincoln, held that settlers who stayed on their claims for five years could own the land, free and clear. This was good for up to 160 acres provided the settlers stayed on the claim and made improvements on it. Harrison then announced on March 3 of 1889 that the land would be made available to anyone at all who was capable of getting to and laying physical claim upon it. This bonanza of land free for the taking
attracted land hungry people from all over the country to the boarders of the new Oklahoma Territory in what came to be called “Harrison’s Hoss Race”. Not all of them were entirely scrupulous, of course. The people who assembled at the territorial frontiers were called “boomers”. They were faced with some of the settlers sneaking into the territory early and laying claim to the choicest areas ahead of the official start time. These sneaky-types wound up being called “sooners”. Sorry if that offends all of you O.U. fans out there, but that’s what all of the books say. Some of them were women (above), who were widowed, some with families to support. The sight of all of these people straining at their various lines of departure which encircled all sides of the territory, and then breaking free to stake their claims when the signal was given at 12:00 noon that day was memorable:
From the Caldwell Journal, 5/2/1889:
“What a sight! The horsemen start in a mad race with one another, leaving the wagons behind. For about a mile they keep together and then first one and then another will swing out to the right or to the left to get away from the rush, or to go to some place already chosen for their homestead. The sound from the earth made from this immense caravan sounds like the roaring of thunder.”
From the St. Louis Republic, 4/24/1889:
“It was a thrilling sight. The great prairies, boundless and beautiful, were dotted with covered wagons and they looked for all the world like a fleet of ships upon the undulating sea. The horsemen were soon out of sight, and half an hour after the start the wagons were lost to view.”
These mad charges lead not only to thousands of new farmers, ranchers, and citizens, but also to some towns such as Guthrie. Norman, and Oklahoma City, being set up very nearly overnight. As civilization began to take root, so did the civil population of this burgeoning new territory. Oklahoma became the 46th state to be admitted to the Union on November 16, 1907. And what of the way it had started out? Author Stan Hoig has said:
“At worst the run can be viewed as an act of conglomerated human greed, where citizens dashed frantically about to grab land that had once been faithfully promised to the Indian forever. At best, it can be seen as a fulfillment of God-fearing citizens who wished to build homes for themselves an for future generations. In truth, the Run of 1889 was much of both.”
So now, let the whole story – both the good and the bad – be told.
“The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889” by Stan Hoig, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1984