Oklahoma Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the nineteenth century, the availability of free public land in Oklahoma played a major role in attracting immigrants to the United States from Europe. The building of railroads and the development of coal mines and oil fields brought additional waves of immigrants.

During the nineteenth century, poverty, harsh living conditions, and religious persecution caused vast numbers of Europeans to immigrate to the United States. Many settled in the major cities of the East and Midwest and in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Others went to the agricultural areas of the Midwest and Great Plains where they successfully established farms. By the late nineteenth century, European immigrants, seeking to improve their lives, were still coming to the United States; however, they found a lack of both jobs and land in the east and the Midwest. The best land in the Great Plains had also been claimed. In April of 1889, Oklahoma, which at that time was administratively an Indian territory of the United States, was opened for white settlement, and the first great “land run” took place that same year. A large majority of the new immigrants sought land and a new life in the territory.OklahomaOklahoma[cat]STATES;Oklahoma[03970]

Farmers and Merchants

Many of Oklahoma’s first foreign immigrants were German immigrants;OklahomaGermans from Europe’s German states and from the Russian Empire. Many of them also shared a common religion, as members of either the Mennonites;OklahomaMennonite Church or the Lutheran Church. They settled in areas of north central, northwestern, and southwestern Oklahoma. Those who had come from the Russian steppes and the eastern part of Germany were able to tolerate the dry, windy climate of Oklahoma and prospered as farmers. They tended to keep to themselves, establish their own churches, and maintain both their language and their customs. During World War I[World War 01];and German immigrants[German immigrants]World War I, they faced severe discrimination and personal danger as the anti-German sentiment intensified in Oklahoma. The teaching of German in school was forbidden, and German newspapers were burned. Even making German sauerkraut was condemned as subversive. In an attempt to prove their allegiance to the United States, members of the German community that had founded the town of Kiel in 1894 renamed it Loyal.

Around the same time the first German immigrants were arriving, many Jewish immigrants;OklahomaJewish merchants from Bavaria and Austria were coming into Oklahoma to supply the crews building railroads. After the main railroad lines were completed, many of these merchants stayed and opened shops in the newly formed towns. In 1899, the first Jewish temple was established at Ardmore. More Jewish merchants as well as Syrian immigrants;OklahomaSyrian peddlers came after oil was discovered and boomtowns began arising after 1900.

During the early years of the twentieth century, peasant farmers from Czech immigrants;OklahomaBohemia arrived. Many of them were from the region known as Czechoslovakia after 1918. Most engaged in farming, but others established flour mills or became merchants selling agricultural equipment. The Bohemians generally clustered together in and around Oklahoma City and maintained the traditions of their homeland.

Coal Mining

Land Coal industry;Oklahomawas not the only attraction that drew immigrants to Oklahoma. Coal mining began in the territory in 1872, and the first commercial coal mining was started in 1873. Most of the coal was mined in eastern Oklahoma, in districts belonging to Native American tribes. However, enterprising entrepreneurs, such as McAlester, JamesJames McAlester, married into the tribes or paid special taxes that permitted them to use non-Indian labor to work the coal mines. Consequently, many immigrants who had hoped to find work in the mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia instead went to Oklahoma. Many of these people had immigrated from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Others came from Poland, Lithuanian immigrants;OklahomaLithuania, Hungarian immigrants;OklahomaHungary, Russia, Germany, England, and Italy. Although mining wages were relatively high in Oklahoma, the work was difficult and dangerous. The miners typically worked in inadequately ventilated shafts so cramped they were unable to stand erect.

Among Italian immigrants;Oklahomaimmigrant coal miners, Italians were most numerous. In 1910, they constituted the largest group of foreign-born residents in the three major coal-producing counties of Pittsburg, Coal, and Latimer. After 1920, the state’s coal mining industry steadily declined, reducing its need for labor. Many of the immigrant coal miners from Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine sought new jobs in the slaughterhouses and on the farms in the Oklahoma City area. Many Italian coal miners bought farms and businesses and stayed in the mining region.

Mexican and Asian Immigrants

Mexican Mexican immigrants;Oklahomaimmigration into Oklahoma began around the turn of the twentieth century, but many of these early immigrants came only as seasonal agricultural workers and returned home. The railroad crews of that time were predominantly Mexican, and Mexican immigrants also worked in a wide variety of other jobs, from picking cotton to mining coal to working on oilfields. Eventually, some of these workers brought their families with them and established homes in Oklahoma. By 1930, approximately 7,500 Mexicans were permanent residents of Oklahoma.

After World War II, the numbers of Mexicans immigrating to Oklahoma increased, but the first truly large wave of Mexican immigration did not occur until the last two decades of the twentieth century. Mexicans spread throughout the state, working primarily as laborers on farms, in factories, in construction, and as restaurant employees. By the early twenty-first century, Mexican culture and the Spanish language played very visible and important roles in Oklahoma.

The first substantial number of Asians to enter Oklahoma were Vietnamese immigrants;OklahomaVietnamese, who began coming in 1975, after the Vietnam War ended. They readily adapted and opened various businesses, particularly restaurants and grocery stores. During the 1980’s, considerable numbers of other Asian immigrants moved to Oklahoma. These included Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Asian Indians. The Asian immigrants, while maintaining their own culture, have been successful in adapting to life in Oklahoma.Oklahoma

Further Reading
  • Bicha, Karel D. The Czechs in Oklahoma. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Excellent and thorough coverage, discussing where Czechs have settled, their culture, and their role in the state’s agriculture.
  • Franks, Kenny Arthur, and Paul F. Lambert. Oklahoma: The Land and Its People. Morris Plains, N.J.: Unicorn Publishing, 1994. Good discussion of where immigrant groups have settled in Oklahoma and what their lives in the state have been like.
  • Luebke, Frederick C. Germans in the New World: Essays in the History of Immigration. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Particularly good for language issues and prejudices faced by Germans in Oklahoma.
  • Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén G. Rumbaut. Immigrant America: A Portrait. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Good presentation of the life of immigrants in different social and economic situations. Also treats assimilation.
  • Zolberg, Aristide. A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. Excellent for its objective presentation of U.S. immigration policy and its changes. Good for Mexican immigration.

Coal industry

Czech and Slovakian immigrants

German immigrants

Homestead Act of 1862

Irish immigrants

Italian immigrants

Jewish immigrants


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