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The Opening of Oklahoma

Perspectives: Women in the Land Run

Many women, both white and African American, participated in the Land Run of 1889. They were lured by promises of inexpensive land and further opportunities. Married women followed their husbands, sometimes unhappily, to what was considered the uncivilized frontier. Single and widowed women also made the race themselves for the same reasons. The Homestead Act stated, in regards to gender, that women must be single or widowed, at least twenty-one years of age, and the head of household to claim a homestead. Upon arriving and staking a claim, women worked alongside men to build their homes and begin their farms. Along with taking care of any children, they also labored to take care of a household, often within a primal sod home and without the same conveniences of their former lives in the east. The women were forced to be versatile, using what they could find to keep their homes. For example, they gathered cow chips to burn for cooking; chased out intruding mice, snakes, and bugs; and cooked while sometimes having to shield falling dirt and mud from the food. They also served as mediators, politicians, leaders, and teachers until towns could be established.

A woman holding down a claim on a town lot in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, following the Land Run of 1889 (15727, D. S. Mitchell Collection, OHS).

Two women and one man on horseback in front of the Southwestern Lumber Company just before the run (19412.7, William F. Harn Collection, OHS).

Perspectives: African Americans

Both individuals and groups of African Americans pursued success in the land openings. Lizzie Robinson’s parents traveled with a “whole train load”of African American families to participate in the 1889 run. She reported that all found claims in Blaine, Canadian, and Kingfisher Counties. De’Leslaine Davis and his brother settled there as well. A. M. Capers settled in the Cherokee Outlet in 1893. He reported a high degree of cooperation between African American and white residents, including sharing an integrated school until they managed to build two separate buildings. He served as justice of the peace for forty years in his integrated community. Mattie Carroll, her sister, and mother found a homestead during the Cheyenne and Arapaho opening. Later, she and her husband successfully placed a bid for land the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache opening. Significant populations of African Americans already lived in eastern Oklahoma and this increased the attraction for later arrivals to move to Oklahoma. Several All-Black towns have their roots in the land openings, especially the ones located in western Oklahoma. In 1900, the African American population in the Oklahoma and Indian territories numbered over twenty thousand.

Mansion in Oklahoma (4574.17, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS).

Perspectives: Settlers

Not all who made the Land Run of 1889 got a claim. Thanks to the diary he left behind, generations of Oklahomans can learn the story of Lew F. Carroll and his family, who ran but did not obtain a claim in 1889.

The Carroll family left their home near Chetopa, Kansas, on April 11, 1889, to trek to the opening of the Unassigned Lands in Oklahoma Territory. They loaded their wagon with a tent and camping supplies, food for themselves and their team of horses, a compass, an ax, a single-barrel shotgun, a revolver, and a map of Indian Territory. In preparation for finding a new farm, Lew Carroll tied his sod plow to the side of his wagon. On the way, the Carrolls encountered other settlers traveling to the starting line and American Indians from the area who were, in Lew Carroll’s words, “none too friendly, thinking that their country might soon be taken from them.”

The Carrolls joined the frenzy at the starting line at noon on April 22, 1889, for “Harrison’s Horse Race.” At twelve o’clock sharp, the settlers dashed off to claim their land. Lew Carroll and his family searched all day but found nothing available that suited them. They continued their search the next day, but by April 24 they decided to make their way home to Kansas. On May 2, 1889, Lew Carroll reached his home near Chetopa feeling “a little out of sorts, but will be all right soon.”

Lew Carroll did not give up on obtaining land in Oklahoma Territory. In the spring of 1890 he and his family moved to the Oklahoma state line near Arkansas City, Kansas, in anticipation of the opening of the Cherokee Outlet. Lew Carroll staked his claim in the land opening in 1893.

Lew F. Carroll hunting a claim in the Land Run of 1889 (15728, D. S. Mitchell Collection, OHS).

Perspectives: Land Speculation During Allotment

When it became clear that the country’s leadership would adopt a policy of allotment for Indian land, wealthy individuals and groups perceived that large profits might be had. The process of enrolling tribal members, surveying land, and allotment included a spectrum of opportunities to acquire land. Some individuals faked membership and bribed tribal leaders to confirm their status. Speculators paid clerks in the Dawes Commission office for access or copies to the official surveying maps and allotment data. This provided the investor the name of the Indian who acquired specific pieces of desirable land before the information became widely known. This type of investigation became a thriving industry, especially after the Glenn Pool oil reserve. The clerks in the office and their supervisors believed they were being honest and ethical because they only did the research for these outside clients during their unpaid time. Congressional testimony describes how investors approached Indians with a nominal offer for a long-term lease and then reaped profits.

Legislation in place to protect Indians from becoming landless was removed rapidly in the early 1900s. Laws placed the allotted land in trust with the government, and the individual tribal member did not own the land outright until the end of a twenty-five-year period. Subsequent laws chipped away at this protection. The first change allowed the permanent sale of inherited allotments. The 1906 Burke Act allowed the secretary of the interior to change an individual’s status to “competent.” This would allow the government to assess taxes on the property, and the land could be sold. This provision was frequently manipulated by individuals attempting to acquire land for resale or development. This period of American history resulted in the transfer of more than 90 million acres (about two-thirds of Indian-held land) to non-Indian ownership.

Allotment of the Cherokee Nation (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Advertisement for Indian Land (image courtesy of Library of Congress).