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Tenant Farming in Oklahoma

Early Farmer Advocacy

The Grange

Farming is a difficult profession, both physically and financially. Though their labor is essential to nourish, clothe, and support the nation, farmers have historically received little thanks or support and often struggle to make ends meet.  This was certainly true for the farmers of the late 19th and early 20th century, who struggled to afford the seed, machinery, and land necessary for farming with the meager profits they were able to make on their crops. This was due to a variety of different factors, from low prices and high railroad rates to poor crop yields brought on by drought or soil depletion. To make a profit, farmers had to produce as much as possible, leading to an excess of crops on the market, causing prices to drop even further.

Because there were so many factors, it was difficult for farmers to organize and fight against any particular issue. Education was sparse, so few understood the concept of supply and demand or best practices when it came to crop planting and soil management. Still, some groups did form to encourage farmers to organize and advocate for common goals.

The Grange first emerged in the 1860s as a social and educational group, providing farmers a sense of community and a space to air their complaints. Through these discussions, farmers found that their neighbors struggled with many of the same issues. One major challenge was the expense of getting one’s crop to market, as railroad companies charged high rates to transport goods. Farmers depended on the railroads, as, even with high rates, it was much more profitable to sell their crops across the country than in their local farming communities, which already had an excess.

A farmer with a horse-drawn plow in a field.

Oklahoma tenant farmer tilling the soil using a horse-drawn plow (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

 One print is entitled, 'Gift for the Grangers: Faith, Hope, Charity, Fidelity' and shows a variety of scenes of daily life on the outside of a larger image of a farmer in a field. The other print has a large title, ' I feed you all' under a picture of a farmer, plow, and two horses. Along the outside of this larger image is images of different occupations such as a lawyer, sailor, and preacher with captions describing what they do.

Promotional prints for the Grange movement depicting farm life, group events, and political slogans (images courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Frustrated with this unfair situation and inspired by a new sense of unity, members of the Grange began lobbying the government to limit railroad companies and make them decrease rates. Politicians on both the state and national level passed “Granger Laws,” regulating fare prices and combatting price-setting between different railroad companies.

Another focus of the Grange was the establishment of communal (shared) grain elevators, which were essential to the storage of farmer’s crops but were often owned and operated by businessmen who charged extremely high rates. If all the members of the local Grange chapter contributed some money, they could purchase their own grain elevator, allowing them to avoid paying high rates of those that were privately owned. This is an early example of a cooperative farming enterprise, which proved essential to later farmers’ unions in Oklahoma and beyond.

Chickasha Star clipping that includes the subheading: 'designated official organ of the Farmer's Grange.'

The Grange was a popular organization in Oklahoma, and The Chickasha Star was its official paper.

The Grange achieved moderate success, helping to bring about railroad reform and easing the burden on struggling farmers through the use of communal resources such as grain elevators. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment was the 1876 US Supreme Court case Munn v. Illinois, which concerned state regulation of a privately owned grain elevator. The lower court concluded that this was allowed, and decided that states could regulate private property “when such regulation becomes necessary for the public good.” This decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court, but it served as a testament to the Grange movement and its impact on the national political stage. It also set the precedent for later government regulation of commerce and industry because the court’s decision did not object to government regulation; they simply said it was the federal government’s job instead of the states. The Grange served as an early example of farmer-led advocacy, inspiring many other similar movements and organizations.

Large, cyndrilical grain elevators behind a tractor. The grain elevator in the foreground reads, 'Co-Op.'

A 1930s-era grain elevator in Idaho (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Farmers’ Alliance

The Farmers’ Alliance was one such movement, with its northern organization developing in the 1870s directly from the Grange. A southern counterpart would emerge in Texas and spread to surrounding states, and this organization’s refusal to admit non-white farmers would lead to the formation of yet another Farmers’ Alliance, this one for African American farmers. These three organizations mostly operated separately but were united by a common interest in helping poor farmers, establishing cooperatives, and increasing government regulation of business.

A flag with black borders on the sides and a black x in the center on a white field. It reads, 'The most good for the most people; wisdom, justice, and moderation; free trade; Alliance no. 1; Texas 1978.' There is a white star in the black border on the right.

Early banner of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance displaying core beliefs of the organization (image courtesy of Wikimedia).

Building upon the legacy of the Grange, local Farmers’ Alliance chapters established numerous communal grain elevators, as well as cooperative stores. These stores provided an alternative to the exploitative crop-lien system where farmers promised a merchant a share of their crops in exchange for farming supplies, as well as household goods and living necessities. If they were unable to pay their share at the end of the year, the debt rolled over. Then, the farmer was not allowed to shop anywhere else until the debt was paid. This trapped many poor farmers in an unending cycle of borrowing. Cooperative stores were significantly cheaper and run by the farmers themselves, providing customers an escape from the exploitative alternative.

Whereas, the  general condition of our country imperatively demands unity of action on the part of the laboring classes and the dissemination of principles best calculated to encourage and foster agricultural and mechanical pursuits in order that they may derive a just remuneration for their labor and to secure for the laboring and agricultural classes the greatest amounty of good, hold to the principle that all somopolies are dangerous to the best interestes of the country abd if fostered will eventually enslave a free people and subvert and finally overthrow the great principles bought and paid for by the blood and treasure of our fore-fathers. We therefore, adopt the following as our declaration of principles;
1. That believing in the doctrince of equal rights to all and special privileges to none, we demand that the legislation of the Cherokee Nation shall be so framed in the future as not to build up one industry at the expense and injury of others, and we are opposed to the monopoly of land, water and all other gifts of nature;
2. That we believe that the money of the country should be retained in the hands of its people therefore we demand that all national revenues shall be limited to the necessary expenses of the nation, economically administered, and that we are unalterably opposed to a nation interest-paying debt; 5. That the revenue for the support of government should be equally upon those that receive its benefits, and realizing the the present made of raising revenues in the Cherokee Nation is unequal and unjust. That we are in favor of a direct tax on property and incomes and withdrawing all funds belonging to the Cherokee Nation, paying it our per capita—and except an ample and sufficient fund for educational purposes, and for the supposrt of our orphans and their education;

Excerpts from a Cherokee chapter of the Farmers’ Alliance, established in 1891. Published in the Indian Chieftain newspaper. (1981.105, Federal Writers' Project Collection, OHS).

Along with these forms of local action, a major policy focus of the Farmers’ Alliance was the reform of US currency. Farmers and other poorer Americans advocated for the purposeful inflation of the US economy, most often in the form of unlimited silver coinage. They believed this would increase the general money supply and make it easier for them to pay back their debts. These calls directly led to the growing Populist movement, which would come to be a dominant political force of the 1890s. Over time, the Farmers’ Alliance was overshadowed and absorbed into the Populist Party but proved fundamental in the initial shaping of the movement.

Storefront reading 'Farmers Union Grocery'

This cooperative store was founded by a later group, the Farmers’ Union, in Kansas. The sign on door says “use co-op products” (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Book with 'Farmer's Songs; dedicated to the use of the Farmers' Alliance, agricultural school associations, and all similar organizations. By the author, C. Morgan, Jr. Hornby, Erie County Penn'a. List of songs include: Farmer's Sweet Bya and Bye, Farmer's Yankee Doodgle, The Farmer on Top of Change in Places, The Farmer's Appeal to the Ladies, The Farmer Outside the Alliance; The Farmer Inside the Alliance, The Farmer, Farmer's Welcome to Allies and Friends; The Farmer's Badge the Red, White, and Blue; The Farmer's Burden.
Entered according to Act of Congress in the 1891, by C. Morgan, Jr. in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.

This 1891 book of farmer songs is dedicated to the Farmers’ Alliance (image courtesy Library of Congress).


Populism was a political ideology that emerged in the 1890s, largely in response to the tide of modernization that had just swept America and the many resulting social and political issues that emerged in its wake. The People’s Party, as the movement’s political arm was known, railed against unchecked industry, corrupt politicians, and abuses of the common working man. Some of their primary demands included free and unlimited coinage of silver, regulation of railroads, and the creation of federal warehouses. Many of these populist demands come directly from the ideas and policies of the Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance.

Though the Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance sometimes involved themselves in politics, they were primarily focused on the life and finances of the farmer. The People’s Party was a full-fledged political party with a unified platform and aspirations toward all levels of the federal and national government. It also welcomed a more diverse group of constituents, from silver miners to urban industrial laborers, along with farmers. These different groups were united by a common desire for change and advancement, and by working together, they were able to make great strides towards these goals.

The populists saw moderate success at a local and state level but were unable to secure the presidency in the noteworthy election of 1896. This led to the collapse of the party, though many of its ideas influenced the Progressive movement of the 1910s and, later, New Deal policies implemented to aid farmers and poorer Americans during the Great Depression. The Populist movement represents a coming-together of Americans from different backgrounds for their common good, also indicating a growing desire for power to be in the hands of people.

Political cartoon of Uncle Sam looking at a tree. The trunk is labelled, 'Peoples Party.' The roots are labelled, 'Democratic Party and Republican Party.' The saplings next to the tree are labelled, 'Silver Party, Gold Republicans, Prohibition, Gold Democrats.' The branches are labelled, 'government ownership of telegraph, anti land monopoly, temperance, $50 per capita, government ownership of mines, government ownership of railroads.

In this People’s Party cartoon from an 1895 issue of The Populist, a Stillwater newspaper, the branches on the tree read, “Government ownership of telegraph, anti-land monopoly, temperance, $50 per capita, government ownership of mines, government ownership of mines.”