In 1890 the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed. Yet on Tuesday, April 19, 1892, twenty-five thousand people flocked to western Oklahoma for "free land" in 160-acre plots. Seven days earlier, Pres. Benjamin Harrison had issued a proclamation opening 3.5 million acres of the former Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation, which had become a part of the federal public domain after allotments of 160-acres to individual Indians.
On April 19 boomers lined up awaiting the noon signal that would initiate this little-publicized opening of the Cheyenne and Arapaho country. Looking over this mass of humanity, Kiowa chief Big Tree proclaimed that there were "as many [people] as the blades of grass on the Washita in the spring." People arrived in every conceivable conveyance—wagons and buckboards, large, horse-drawn buses loaded with settlers, small houses on wheels being pulled by six-horse teams. A Kentucky Thoroughbred with jockey awaited. A hot air balloon was being readied. At 11:50 a.m. tension mounted. Boomers tightened girths and straps. When a horse whinnied or dog barked, the line surged forward, forcing Fort Reno soldiers to push it back. Suddenly, a cannon boomed, and carbines and pistols fired all along the line. The race for homesteads began.
Six horses strained against their collars, inching a frame house across the line to a claim. Some settlers on foot ran a few steps and quickly planted their stakes, while others ran over a mile. Fast horsemen rushed toward lakes but found only desert mirages. Most boomers were Kansans, Texans, Missourians, and Oklahomans; however, there were also African Americans, Swedes, Bohemians, Germans, and Russians. About fifty Salvation Army soldiers marched into the promised land singing hymns of praise, confident the Lord would lead them to the land of milk and honey. The Kentucky Thoroughbred became so agitated that he turned and stampeded the wrong direction. One girl fell and broke her leg. No one stopped, but everyone conceded her the claim on which she lay incapacitated. Some had trouble stopping their frightened horses to stake claims. The El Reno Democrat said, "All at once the wild unsettled region of four million acres had been transfured [sic] from the land of the aborigines and was claimed by the progressive Aryan who centurys [sic] ago set the star of Empire to the west and following up every advantage now claimed the larger part of the civilized world." That day, 3.5 million acres were thrown open, but when it was done, over 2.8 million acres lay unclaimed, about four-fifths of the land offered.
Because sooners shunned this land run, boomers had time to deliberate and to evaluate various claims. Relinquishments later sold for a horse, a buggy, or as little as five dollars. While the eastern part contained much unclaimed land, the western part was practically uninhabited. As of June 30, 1892, Territorial Governor Abraham J. Seay estimated that only 7,600 settlers lived on the land. Even in 1899, historian Edward Everett Dale said that one could ride west the whole day without seeing a homestead.
The opening allowed the expansion of Oklahoma Territory to include six new counties. Each was deficient of settlers and claimed land. Later, County C was named Blaine for Sen. James G. Blaine; County D was named for Adm. George Dewey, with his permission; County E was named Day for Charles Day, who built the first courthouse at Ioland; County F chose the name Roger Mills after a prominent congressman from Texas; County G was named Custer County after the ill-fated commander; and County H was named Washita after the river.
Why did settlers decline to take part? First, most people considered the region so barren that "about the only sure crop was the rattlesnake." Most people thought the land good for grazing but not for farming. In their self-interest, cattlemen had for years distributed propaganda saying so. Oklahoma territorial newspapers, usually land boosters, were unusually pessimistic and even discouraged settlement. Even Governor Seay stated that the country was too far west to receive adequate rainfall for crops. Found in this pessimism was a grain of truth. From 1885 to 1896, the southern Great Plains struggled in the grip of a horrible drought. The federal Indian agent stated that in 1890 no rain had fallen during the usual wet months, resulting in total crop failures. Later that year, George W. Steele, then governor of the territory, had petitioned President Harrison for drought relief.
While drought retarded settlement, so did the absence of a railroad. In the great land run of 1889, rail access had been important. In the Cheyenne-Arapaho region, however, the closest railway points were as far east as Hennessey, Kingfisher, El Reno, and Dover. In the south, the closest point was Minco in the Chickasaw Nation. The situation caused a problem with transporting incoming families and products, left farmers without access to markets, and retarded business development. To get to markets, farmers had to drive wagons over the roadless prairie, ford dangerous rivers, and be prepared to lose property and animals to heat exhaustion, quicksand, and starvation.
Housing also left much to be desired. In County E (around Taloga), 90 percent of settlers lived in dugouts, rooms dug into a hill, with a door frame and a sloped roof covered with brush, grass, dirt, wild flowers, and weeds. Sod houses were common. One woman lined her dirt walls with newspapers. When she heard a scratching noise behind the paper, she used her hairpin to kill centipedes she knew were there. Rats burrowed through walls, and mothers often had to shake the quilts to scare rodents from the children. A settler and family coming home from a day's fieldwork had to clear the dugout of rattlesnakes and other varmints before entering. Andy Logsdon's family got so used to snakes crawling across their beds at night that they would "just give a kick and they [snakes] would hurry on somewhere else."
Not even food and water were certain. Much of the water was hard and "gypy." Most settlers hauled their water in barrels for miles. Hunger was ever present, and families often scoured the prairie for bleached buffalo bones to sell for food. Neighbors helped each other, but many still starved out.
This land opening disastrously attracted scores of non-farmers. Not only were many unfamiliar with farming, they did not know where to get agricultural advice. April 19 was too late for planting. Nevertheless, settlers planted nearly everything, including corn, broom corn, oats, alfalfa, millet, cowpeas, and cotton. They ignored Indian Agent C. F. Ashley's advice to plant wheat. Unprepared for the hardships of farming, many worked from sunup to after sundown and were always prey to a merciless nature.
Fear of Indians discouraged many. Settlers viewed the Cheyenne and Arapaho as "war-like savages." Newspapers warned of possible clashes with them during the run. Reinforcing these beliefs were reservation skirmishes during the late 1800s. An Indian religious cult with secret ghost dances arose in 1890. Afraid that the Cheyenne would rise up and massacre them, many settlers left after they had established homes. In County F a rumor circulated that two Cheyenne chiefs told settlers to leave within three "sleeps." Many were frightened enough to do so. From the beginning, tensions existed between Indians and non-Indians, especially because reservation Indians had received their allotments before the run and had claimed the best land.
The Cheyenne-Arapaho region became cattle country, not only due to climate, but because cattlemen made it so. They were known to destroy farmers' fences or burn them out. They often got a farmer arrested on some trumped-up charge such as timber cutting. During the run cattlemen lined up on the Texas border and rushed into Oklahoma, claiming 160 acres on rivers, creeks, and water holes, checkerboarding the area so as to control water rights. Hired cowhands would file on 160-acre plots and pass the claims on to their bosses.
In addition, there were political reasons for the lack of settlement. Government officials wanted to avoid the disorder that had characterized previous land runs. Therefore, the proclamation announcing the run was not issued thirty days ahead, but only one week ahead of opening day. This limited participation by those farther away than adjoining states or Oklahoma Territory. Because of the disappointing results of the Cheyenne and Arapaho opening the government ultimately found other methods to distribute public lands.
Despite sparse population and challenging environment, the western part of Oklahoma continued to develop. Within a decade it was populated with farm families. The third of Oklahoma's great land runs was ultimately successful.
G. A. Root Collection, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.
Michael H. Reggio, "Troubled Times: Homesteading in Short-Grass Country, 1892–1900," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 52 (Summer 1979).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Michael H. Reggio, “Cheyenne-Arapaho Opening,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CH031.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.