Oklahoma Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Oklahoma is almost square except for its northwestern extreme, called the Panhandle, a strip about forty miles wide and one hundred twenty miles long that reaches to Colorado, which, with Kansas, forms the state’s northern border.

History of Oklahoma

Oklahoma is almost square except for its northwestern extreme, called the Panhandle, a strip about forty miles wide and one hundred twenty miles long that reaches to Colorado, which, with Kansas, forms the state’s northern border. To the west lie New Mexico and Texas, which also forms its southern boundary. On the east are Missouri and Arkansas. Although some geographers consider Oklahoma a southwestern state, along with New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, others call it a south central state.

Early History

The first humans probably settled in the Oklahoma region more than twenty thousand years ago, living in caves, where their drawings have been discovered on cave walls near Kenton. These early dwellers lived on roots and berries as well as the meat they obtained from the animals they hunted.

When Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado first came to the area in 1541, he found a place in which few people lived, although a few Native American tribes, notably the Plains Indians, eked out an existence there. Chief among these were the Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa, although the area also had some village-dwelling Indians, notably the Caddo, Pawnee, and Wichita, who had inhabited the area prior to 1500. These Native American groups were joined between 1815 and 1840 by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians, known as the Five Civilized Tribes. The federal government had driven them from their homes and forcibly relocated them in large enclaves in Oklahoma and other nearby areas, called Indian Territory.

The Earliest Explorers

It has been speculated that Vikings from Greenland reached Oklahoma as early as 1012. The evidence for this, however, a huge stone found at Heavener in eastern Oklahoma with the date carved into it in the kind of runic letters used by the Vikings, has not been authenticated. It is known that Spanish explorers crossed the Oklahoma Panhandle in 1541, coming from Mexico in search of gold. In the same year, Hernando de Soto, also seeking gold, came into the area from the east, traveling along the Arkansas River. All explorers claimed the area for Spain.

In 1682 René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, explored the Mississippi River, claiming for France all the lands drained by the Mississippi and naming it Louisiana in honor of his king, Louis XIV. The vast area he claimed included most of present-day Oklahoma. The early explorers traded trinkets with the native dwellers for furs.

The Louisiana Territory changed hands several times. In 1762 Spain took it from France. In 1800, Spain returned it to France, and in 1803, the United States, in the Louisiana Purchase, bought it from France for fifteen million dollars. It must be remembered that at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, fewer than five hundred Europeans lived in the entire area called Louisiana, which included parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri.

The first non-Indian settlement in Oklahoma, near present-day Salina, was established in 1823 by Auguste Pierre Chouteau, whose trading post served the area’s fur traders. In 1830 the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, under which the government was permitted to relocate Indians from the East Coast of the United States. Between 1830 and 1842, around seventy-five thousand Native Americans were deployed to the area, many dying en route. Those who survived lived much as white people in the east did, creating villages, building schools and churches, farming, and raising cattle and poultry. Some became so affluent that they owned slaves.

The government promised the relocated Indians that the land they were given in the eastern and southern parts of the area, known as the Indian Territory, would always be theirs. The various tribes set up their own governments and functioned as separate nations.

The Civil War

Because the Indian Territory had not achieved statehood, it could not secede from the Union during the Civil War. Many of the Native Americans who dwelled there owned slaves, and about six thousand of the Indians fought for the Confederacy during the war, although some joined the Union forces. Most of these people held a grudge against the federal government for having taken them from their native lands and relocated them. This caused many who were not slave owners to side with the South.

After the war, in 1866, representatives of the Indian Territory were forced to sign the Reconstruction Treaty. The government retaliated against the Native Americans for their support of the Confederacy by taking back much of their land and by forcing them to permit railroads to cross their property.

Land Disputes

In the 1870’s, Texan cattle men drove their herds to Kansas railroad towns from which livestock could be shipped to market, crossing Oklahoma. Irritated, Kansans tried to pressure the government into opening more land in the area to white settlement. The Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad crossed eastern Oklahoma by 1872 and brought many people into the region.

Many white farmers rented the land they tilled from the Native Americans. In time the federal government bought five thousand square miles of the Indian Territory and, in 1889, opened it to settlers on a first come, first served basis. Each family could claim 160 acres merely by placing themselves upon it. About fifty thousand land-hungry people arrived. At noon on April 22, the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 began, marking an important phase in Oklahoma’s development. A tent city in Guthrie housed fifteen thousand people temporarily. On that single day, the settlements of Kingfisher, Norman, Oklahoma City, and Stillwater were started.

After development started there, the U.S. Congress established the Oklahoma Territory, which lay west of the Indian Territory. The two areas were called the Twin Territories. The federal purchase of more Indian land was followed by more land runs, so that by the early 1900’s, the area had a substantial white population. The Native Americans wanted to establish their own state, but their desires were overlooked. In 1907 the Twin Territories were admitted to the Union as the state of Oklahoma, the forty-sixth of the United States, with Guthrie as its capital. Three years later, the capital was moved to Oklahoma City.

The Discovery of Oil

In 1901, Oklahoma began its journey toward affluence. Oil was discovered near Tulsa. An oil rush began, with many petroleum companies establishing offices in Tulsa. As oil was discovered in other parts of the state, many boomtowns grew, and the entire state experienced an economic upsurge.

The decade following World War I was a time of considerable prosperity for the state. Oil fueled the economy, but agriculture was also important. The state’s prosperity, based on these two enterprises, was not to last, however.

Dust Bowls and the Great Depression

The economic chaos following the collapse of the stock market in 1929 affected the entire United States. Oklahoma, however, suffered more than most other states because, combined with a national economic downturn that devastated the oil industry, a continued drought resulted in huge dust storms and reduced agriculture production to below the subsistence level.

The Great Depression was so devastating to Oklahoma that more than sixty thousand of its citizens, labeled “Okies,” left the state, many of them heading for the West Coast, particularly to California.

World War II and After

World War II brought renewed prosperity to Oklahoma. The weather improved to the point that agriculture again contributed significantly to the economy. War industries came into the state, notably aeronautical and munitions factories. The state’s oil wells produced much-needed petroleum products for the war effort. Some 200,000 Oklahomans served in the nation’s armed forces.

Shortly after the war, in 1947, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation Project was begun. When it was completed in 1970, the Arkansas River had been made navigable by widening and deepening. The system of dams and locks on the river made it possible for large ships to navigate it. Muskogee and Tulsa became important port cities once the waterway was opened.

Other dams were built on rivers throughout Oklahoma as a means of flood control and irrigation. The lakes these dams formed offer visitors extensive recreational facilities and attract many tourists. The hydroelectric power the dams generate stimulated industrial growth.

This industrial growth, mainly in companies that make airplanes, rockets, automobile parts, and computers, brought an influx of new people into the state, which, from 1970 to 1980, attracted 466,000 new residents. During the 1970’s, three groups of Oklahoma Indians, the Cherokee, the Choctaw, and the Chickasaw, regained ninety-six miles of the Arkansas River, increasing their prosperity.

In 1971 the voters of Oklahoma City elected Patience Latting mayor, making her the first female mayor of a major metropolis. Three years later, the state selected thirty-three-year-old David Boren as governor, making him the youngest governor in the United States.

The Federal Building Bombing

The 1990’s were marked by tragedy in Oklahoma. In a horrible act of domestic terrorism, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh loaded a rental truck with explosives, parked it outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, retreated a safe distance, and detonated the explosives.

The Murrah Building collapsed, killing 168 people and seriously injuring scores of others, among them many young children in a day care center housed in the building. The city and state were devastated by this crime and erected a memorial on the site of the demolished building. McVeigh, granted a change of venue for his court case, was tried in Denver, Colorado. He was convicted of first-degree murder, for which he received the death sentence. The Oklahoma City National Memorial now stands at the former site of the Murrah Building.

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