Home |  PublicationsEncyclopedia |  Unassigned Lands

The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


The term "Unassigned Lands" was commonly used in the 1880s when people referred to the last parcel of land in the Indian Territory not "assigned" to one of the many Indian tribes that had been removed to the future state of Oklahoma. Another common, though equally unofficial, name used interchangeably was "the Oklahoma country."

The first popular usage of the term "Unassigned Lands" started in 1879 when mixed-blood Cherokee Elias C. Boudinot published an article in the Chicago Times describing lands in the central part of the Indian Territory that could, and in his opinion, should be settled by white people. The boundaries of his so-called "Unassigned Lands" had been established externally through a series of treaties with Indian tribes. The border on the north was the Cherokee Outlet, created by treaty in 1828. To the south was the Chickasaw Nation, established in 1837. To the west was the Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation, established in 1867. To the east were the reservations of the Potawatomi (1867), Shawnee (1867), Sac and Fox (1867), Pawnee (1881), and Iowa (1883). Altogether, the Unassigned Lands covered 1,887,796.47 acres, or approximately 2,950 square miles.

Geographically, the Unassigned Lands were crossed by five rivers: the Canadian, the North Canadian, the Cimarron, the Deep Fork, and the Little. Each river valley provided rich bottomland, and the uplands between each river basin offered thinner topsoil good for grazing. Timber was plentiful along the watercourses, but on the uplands it varied from the nearly impenetrable undergrowth of the rolling Cross Timbers on the east to the flat plains and grasslands on the west. It was this transition zone from timber to prairie that attracted the engineers of the Santa Fe Railway Company when they laid their north-south tracks through the Unassigned Lands in 1886.

From 1879 to 1888 a series of highly publicized boomer raids led by adventurers such as David L. Payne and William Couch broke the quiet of the Unassigned Lands. Typically, the boomers eluded cavalry units and staked their claims to land at sites such as the future towns of Oklahoma City and Stillwater, but each time, they were arrested and escorted out of the territory. In large part due to that constant promotion, compounded by the lobbying power of the Santa Fe Railway Company, Congress opened the Unassigned Lands to non-Indian settlement on April 22, 1889. A little more than one year later, on May 2, 1890, Congress created Oklahoma Territory, which concluded the life of the area briefly and unofficially known as the Unassigned Lands.

Bob L. Blackburn


John W. Morris, ed., Boundaries of Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1980).

John W. Morris and Edwin C. McReynolds, Historical Atlas of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976).

Browse By Topic

Settlement Patterns


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Bob L. Blackburn, “Unassigned Lands,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=UN001.

Copyright and Terms of Use

No part of this site may be construed as in the public domain.

Copyright to all articles and other content in the online and print versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History is held by the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS). This includes individual articles (copyright to OHS by author assignment) and corporately (as a complete body of work), including web design, graphics, searching functions, and listing/browsing methods. Copyright to all of these materials is protected under United States and International law.

Users agree not to download, copy, modify, sell, lease, rent, reprint, or otherwise distribute these materials, or to link to these materials on another web site, without authorization of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Individual users must determine if their use of the Materials falls under United States copyright law's "Fair Use" guidelines and does not infringe on the proprietary rights of the Oklahoma Historical Society as the legal copyright holder of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and part or in whole.