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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Settlement patterns are determined by many factors. Geography, land policy, sociological circumstances, economics, ethnicity, even religion, readily come to mind. In all of these areas but religion (Oklahoma is overwhelmingly composed of "Bible Belt" churches), Oklahoma is a border region, neither North nor South, East nor West, neither all humid nor all arid, but rather like an old-fashioned quilt, made of many pieces, some complementary and some contrasting.

Geographically, the state is bisected roughly into east and west halves by the 98th Meridian. The climate varies from the humid southeast coastal plains with its cypress wetlands and southern pines to the semi-aridity of the rolling and High Plains short-grass lands of the northwest. Topography ranges from the Ozark Plateau of the northeast to the gypsum hills and breaks of the Red River and its tributaries in the southwest. Soils vary from the red clay of much of central and western Oklahoma to the dark, rich bottomlands of the Red River Valley. The differences in the length of growing seasons and nighttime temperatures between southern and northern areas create ideal conditions for growing cotton in the south but limiting its expansion into northern Oklahoma. The topography is broken by several mountain ranges, including the Wichitas in the southwest, Arbuckles in the south, Ouachitas in the southeast, and Cookson Hills (the Oklahoma extension of the Ozark Plateau) in the northeast. Various geographic conditions set the stage for different agricultural economies. The types of crops also depended upon different cultural groups. Midwesterners sowed wheat in the north, southerners planted cotton in the south, and plainsmen from Texas and western Kansas raised cattle in the west.

Some ethnic settlement patterns are also found in Oklahoma. In some areas ethnic groups clustered around mineral wealth. The coal fields opened by J. J. McAlester near the city bearing his name attracted European ethnic groups, including the Welsh, Irish, Poles, Russians, Italians, French, and Lithuanians, making McAlester and its environs the most cosmopolitan part of Oklahoma. Later this region would become the state's bastion of organized labor. Other ethnic groups created their own towns and farming communities. German Mennonites from Russia, carrying small sacks of Crimean hard wheat, created farming communities such as Corn, Colony, and Bessie in western Oklahoma. Czechs from the Midwest founded Prague, Yukon, and Mishak. Several solidly African American towns, including Boley, Red Bird, Rentiesville, Taft, and Langston, were created by Freedmen of the southeastern Indian nations or by later arrivals from the South searching for economic opportunities.

The first Oklahomans, the American Indians, were as varied in their culture and economies as the later settlers. Wichitas lived as sedentary farmers and hunter-gatherers in grass houses along the watercourses of the central and southern areas. Comanches and Plains Apaches roamed the west, following the bison herds of the Great Plains. The Quapaws inhabited the northeast as farmers and hunter-gatherers. The later arrivals in the northeast, the Osage, farmed, but their hunting parties made annual bison hunts on the plains to the west. They also conducted raids on Wichita villages.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the Indian policy of the federal government was responsible for uprooting the major American Indian nations of the southeastern United States, many of whom had already adapted much of the Euroamericans' material culture and farming methods, and conducting them through their "Trails of Tears" to present eastern Oklahoma. To accommodate the new arrivals, the Wichita, Osage, and Quapaw were then confined by treaty to smaller reservations. Between 1820 and 1837 the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations arrived with almost nothing except their horses and mules and a scattering of implements, wagons, and household goods. Choctaws and Chickasaws brought their cotton culture and their African American slaves to open up fresh cotton plantations in the bottomlands and uplands of the south. The Cherokees settled in the mountains and valleys of the east, and the Creeks were granted the rolling lands drained by the Canadian River. All of them raised maize, squash, and other vegetables, as well as livestock, while supplementing their diets with venison, fish, wild fowl, and pecans from the numerous groves in the bottomlands. The Chickasaws were already known as exceptional horse breeders. By the outbreak of the Civil War the Five Civilized Tribes, as they came to be called, had created thriving economies, constitutional governments, and a cultured elite, many of whom were educated in academies and colleges in the northeastern United States.

The Civil War brought havoc to the Five Tribes and created an excuse for the federal government to take away much of their lands through treaties for the purpose of moving other Indian peoples in neighboring states to the emerging "Indian Territory." The aftermath of the war also created conditions in which non-Indians would begin their systematic settlement of Oklahoma and the concurrent destruction of the reservations through the privatization of tribal lands.

The Euroamerican settlement of Oklahoma was comparable to earlier westward movement patterns in several ways but was also a unique variation of that movement. As with earlier American frontier history, non-Indian settlers moved onto former Indian lands obtained by the U.S. government from American Indian tribal leaders through the "twin Cs," coercion and cajoling. Living in rude shelters, pioneer farmers and their families braved the vicissitudes of nature and the marketplace to create farms from prairie sod. Towns sprang up along railroad lines, giving rise to small businesses and small-town society. Grassroots local governments and school boards emerged from primitive election processes. As usual, the needs and wishes of Native peoples were ignored. In fact, the settlement of Oklahoma amounted to an invasion of Indian lands. In other words, the movement was a microcosm of the American frontier experience encapsulated into only a few years, little more than a decade.

But the settlement of Oklahoma was also a singular historical experience. Before the first land opening, which came in 1889, the common pattern in westward expansion was for Congress to create first a relatively large territory by legislative act and to cut it into smaller segments as settlement progressed toward the west. When the large territory was created, the first settlers were already living in a sparsely inhabited area on its eastern fringe. As the population grew and spread still farther westward, new territories were cut from the original. With the passage of time, the original territory was finally reduced to several territories that, in turn, entered the Union as states. Thus the Northwest Territory, created in 1787, was cut into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and the Southwest Territory became Kentucky and Tennessee. Utah Territory became Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. The Dakotas were cut from Nebraska Territory. New Mexico Territory was split into Arizona and New Mexico.

By contrast, Oklahoma began small and expanded into the present state. Oklahoma Territory was originally known as the Unassigned Lands, and at the time of the Land Run of 1889 it was officially titled the Oklahoma District and popularly called the "Oklahoma Lands," an area of about two million acres. It consisted of the six counties of present central Oklahoma: Oklahoma, Logan, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Canadian, and Payne. Over the following eighteen years Oklahoma added parcel after parcel of land to finally emerge in 1907 as a state. When Oklahoma Territory was created by the Oklahoma Organic Act of May 2, 1890, the Public Land Strip, or No Man's Land (the Panhandle), was tacked on to become Beaver County (later divided into three counties). That act also carried a provision that assured the periodic expansion pattern. Adjoining Indian reservation lands were to be added to the territory if and when the reservations were dissolved through the process of allotting the lands to individual tribal members under the provisions of the General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887.

In 1891 the small Indian reservations on the eastern border, the Sac and Fox, Potawatomi, Iowa, and Shawnee, were broken up through allotment. Each man, woman, and child of the tribe received 160 acres of land. Any so-called "surplus" land remaining was purchased from those tribes and put on the block for sale to settlers who, as in the first opening, became involved in a horse race for land. Unlike the first race, they were required to buy the land at $1.25 per acre after filing on it. Two more counties, Lincoln and Pottawatomie, were added, and portions of three of the original counties, Logan, Cleveland, and Payne, expanded their borders toward the east.

The pattern of allotment and annexation of surplus lands and disposal by land runs continued through 1895. The sparsely populated Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation on the western border followed suit in 1892 with some 3.5 million acres opened. The Cherokee Outlet, owned by the Cherokee Nation and containing reservations of the Tonkawa and Pawnee along its eastern edge, was opened in 1893 by the largest and the most publicized of all land runs. Six million acres, or forty thousand claims, were opened to the estimated one hundred thousand who made the run. The small Tonkawa and Pawnee reservations lying within the boundaries of the Cherokee Outlet had already been broken up by allotment without surplus lands in 1891 and 1892, respectively. Like the Outlet, they were also tacked onto the expanding territory. The Kickapoo lands in 1895 were the last to be opened by run.

The Kiowa-Comanche-Apache and Wichita-Caddo reservations were allotted in 1901 and the surplus disposed of by lottery, the last "surplus" to be available to non-Indian settlers. When the Comanche Nation sold the Big Pasture in 1906, it was by auction. After the Otoe, Ponca, Missouri, and Kaw (Kansa) reservations were dissolved in 1905, the lands were added to the territory. Although the Osage Reservation had been tacked onto the territory in 1893 for jurisdictional purposes, the Osage Nation retained its reservation status until allotment in 1906. Even then, that nation wisely decided to reserve its mineral rights, all of present Osage County, for the benefit of the tribe as a whole.

One part of the territory, "Old Greer County," was added by judicial decree. The area bounded by the North Fork of the Red River, the Red River, and the 100th Meridian had long been claimed by Texas, which alleged that the North Fork, not the Prairie Dog Town Fork, was the true source of the Red River. In the case of United States v. Texas (1896) the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the former rather than the latter was the true source and attached what would become Greer County to Oklahoma.

This piecemeal, crazy-quilt method of evolving a territory initially through horse races created some problems that took years to solve. First, there was the problem of conflicting claims over land. The only topographically flat part of Oklahoma is the High Plains of the Panhandle. Most of the western half of the state consists of a rolling plains with timbered bottomlands. Some participants staked their claims only to discover another claimant on the same 160-acre claim but on the other side of a hill or across the creek beyond woods that served as a blind between the settlers. Other contests resulted from the claims of "sooners," those who entered the lands illegally prior to the official openings. Government officials after the run of 1889 tried to prevent this practice in the Cherokee Outlet Opening by requiring participants to register at booths along the boundary only a few days prior to the legal opening. Some contests led to violence while quarreling after staking the claim, or later. William L. Couch, a leader of the Boomer Movement, died of a gunshot wound inflicted by a rival contestant. Ira N. Terrill, a member of the first territorial legislature, shot and killed George M. Embrey over a land contest in Stillwater. The problem finally goaded the Department of the Interior into appointing William F. Harn and John W. Scothorn in 1891 as special agents to investigate and indict sooners for the crime of perjury.

A second problem was that no townsites were laid out before the Land Run of 1889. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway had erected a depot at each ten-mile interval when constructing tracks across the Unassigned Lands, but no legal townsites designations accompanied the depots. The most valuable commercial depot sites were those at Guthrie and Oklahoma City. Guthrie was the presumed but yet-to-be-named capital, and Oklahoma City lay astride a natural route for a future east-west railroad line. The run of 1889 was the scene not only of a horse race for farms; it was also the setting for foot races for commercial and residential "lots," which did not yet exist. At the start of the run at noon, Santa Fe trains, loaded to excess, with participants even sitting on top of the cars, began moving from the north and south boundaries at about ten miles per hour, the assumed speed of an average horse. The trains from the south stopped at the Oklahoma City station, and their counterparts halted at Guthrie. In both cases, passengers began jumping from the cars even before a full stop. In a wild melee they ran across the countryside, found a desirable piece of land, and stabbed the earth with a claim-marking wooden spike. When surveys were then conducted by townsite companies or newly formed town governments, lot contests became the coin of the realm. In some cases, the choicest lots were tied up in administrative and judiciary cases for several years before a clear title emerged. Winfield Scott did not get title to the prize corner of Oklahoma Avenue and Second Street until 1892. When his building was completed in 1893, he named it the Victor Block because, he said, "to the victor belong the spoils." In the future, however, the county seats would be laid out by government surveyors prior to the openings.

Settlement patterns also demarcated political divisions. Midwestern Republicans flocked to northern Oklahoma. Texans and other Southern Democrats took up the cotton lands of the bottomlands and uplands north of the Red River. Midwesterners brought Republican "bloody shirt" politics as far south as Guthrie. Southerners carried Democratic "yellow-dog" propensities into the territory as far north as Oklahoma City. The southeastern area of Oklahoma became known as "Little Dixie."

On the eve of statehood the Oklahoma Territory occupied the western part of present Oklahoma, and the older Indian Territory occupied the eastern area. Just prior to 1907 statehood the Indian Territory nations, one by one, were pressured into accepting severalty agreements to create allotments and to destroy their reservations.

In 1907, at the time Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state, it could have been described as a patchwork quilt of destroyed Indian reservations. Its citizenry consisted of southern cotton farmers, midwestern wheat farmers, and western cattlemen, with minorities of American Indians, African Americans, and ethnic Europeans. The twentieth century brought new urban "settlers" from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, making Oklahoma a state of many and varied cultural traditions.

Donald E. Green

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Brad Agnew, "Voices from the Land Run of 1889," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 67 (Spring 1989).

Gene Aldrich, Black Heritage of Oklahoma (Edmond, Okla.: Thompson Book and Supply Co., 1973).

W. David Baird and Danney Goble, The Story of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).

Karel E. Bicha, The Czechs in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).

Berlin B. Chapman, Oklahoma City, from Public Land to Private Property (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1960).

Berlin B. Chapman, The Founding of Stillwater: A Case Study in Oklahoma History (Oklahoma City: Times Journal Publishing Co., 1948).

Arrell M. Gibson, Oklahoma: A History of Five Centuries (2d ed.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).

Arrell M. Gibson, "The Centennial Legacy of the General Allotment Act," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 65 (Fall 1987).

Roy Gittinger, The Formation of the State of Oklahoma, 1803–1906 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939).

Donald E. Green, "The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889: A Centennial Re-Interpretation," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 67 (Summer 1989).

Donald E. Green, "To the Victor Go the Spoils," Guthrie Illustrated 1 (Fall 1983).

Donald E. Green, "Winfield S. Smith and the Urban Land Run of 1889," Persimmon Hill (Spring 1989).

Marvin E. Kroeker,"'Die Stillen im Lande': Mennonites in the 'Oklahoma Land Rushes," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 67 (Spring 1989).

Howard R. Lamar, "The Creation of Oklahoma: New Meanings for the Oklahoma Land Run," in The Culture of Oklahoma, ed. Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

Gary L. Thompson, "Green on Red: Oklahoma Landscapes," in The Culture of Oklahoma, ed. Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

Alvin O. Turner, "Order and Disorder: The Opening of the Cherokee Outlet," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 71 (Summer 1993).

Jerald C. Walker, "The Difficulty of Celebrating an Invasion," in "An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before": Alternative Views of Oklahoma History, ed. Davis C. Joyce (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Donald E. Green, “Settlement Patterns,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=SE024.

Published January 15, 2010

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