“The Rush to Oklahoma” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the 1830s, many American Indian tribes from the eastern part of the United States were relocated to the region known as Indian Territory, comprising present-day Oklahoma and Kansas as well as part of Nebraska, under the Indian Removal Act. After the Civil War, the federal government bought some land in the middle of present-day Oklahoma from the Creek, or Muskogee, tribe and the Seminole tribe, which became known as the Unassigned Lands. Early in 1889, Congress authorized opening these lands to settlement, and President Benjamin Harrison set April 22, 1889, as the opening date. Land seekers congregated around the Unassigned Lands, and when the deadline passed, they rushed into the area to stake their claims. Journalist William Willard Howard’s firsthand account of the event, the first of several Oklahoma land runs, was published in the magazine Harper’s Weekly in May of that year.

Summary Overview

In the 1830s, many American Indian tribes from the eastern part of the United States were relocated to the region known as Indian Territory, comprising present-day Oklahoma and Kansas as well as part of Nebraska, under the Indian Removal Act. After the Civil War, the federal government bought some land in the middle of present-day Oklahoma from the Creek, or Muskogee, tribe and the Seminole tribe, which became known as the Unassigned Lands. Early in 1889, Congress authorized opening these lands to settlement, and President Benjamin Harrison set April 22, 1889, as the opening date. Land seekers congregated around the Unassigned Lands, and when the deadline passed, they rushed into the area to stake their claims. Journalist William Willard Howard’s firsthand account of the event, the first of several Oklahoma land runs, was published in the magazine Harper’s Weekly in May of that year.

Defining Moment

In the thirty years after the Civil War, the last great expansion of agricultural settlement in the United States took place, largely in the lands west of the Mississippi River. Westward settlement across the United States initially skipped over the Great Plains region. The open, largely treeless plains, increasingly arid the farther west one went, seemed inhospitable to American farmers, and early settlers moved on to the mountain regions and the Pacific Coast. By the 1880s, however, many would-be settlers believed that the best available lands elsewhere had already been claimed, and they began to reconsider the Great Plains, and particularly the Unassigned Lands in the center of what is now Oklahoma. Prospective settlers called for this land to be opened for homesteading and settlement, as did the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, which had built a line through the area. Business owners and land speculators calling for settlement of these lands were often called “boomers.”

Early in 1889, Representative William Springer of Illinois introduced an amendment to the Indian Appropriations Bill that would allow settlement in the Unassigned Lands. President Harrison signed the legislation, and set the official opening of the lands for noon on April 22, 1889. Immediately before that date, eager land seekers surrounded the Unassigned Lands, ready to rush in as soon as the deadline passed. People were seeking land not only for farms and ranches, but also for town sites and business locations. Howard’s account captures the unbridled frenzy of the run into the land. But despite great enthusiasm among the land-hungry people who made the run, there was an unrealized irony to their eagerness. As farming was already at the dawn of a long-term transition from the small family farm to large-scale farming and agribusiness, the era of the family farmer was beginning to wane, and many of those who took out homesteads would never prosper. Nevertheless, this first land run was a significant step toward the formation of the Oklahoma Territory in May 1890.

Author Biography

William Willard Howard was born in Iowa on November 8, 1859. He had a long career as a popular journalist specializing in firsthand investigative reports, publishing widely in prominent magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s, and the Century. In addition to the Oklahoma land run, he covered the Detroit International Exposition and Fair of 1889 for Harper’s and also made a trip to Colombia to report on platinum mining there. In the 1890s, Howard traveled abroad to distribute relief funds to Armenians and investigate the reports of massacres committed by the Ottoman Empire. He is perhaps best known for his book on the subject, Horrors of Armenia: The Story of an Eyewitness, published in 1896. Howard died in New York on December 6, 1933.

Document Analysis

The April 1889 land run into the Unassigned Lands, which Howard describes in his article for Harper’s Weekly, was the first of several such openings of what had been tribal lands in the Indian Territory. As such, it was an important step in the creation of the Oklahoma Territory, which occurred just one year later. All or parts of what are now Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma, and Payne counties in the state of Oklahoma were opened for settlement and homesteading in this 1889 run.

Howard capably captures the spirit of frenzy, excitement, and optimism exhibited by the people making the run. He was impressed by what he saw, but was not taken in by the overly optimistic attitudes of the boomers and settlers he encountered. He makes note of many of the problems that arose, including the poor quality of some of the land, the scarcity of water in the area, and the fraud by which various marshals and others entered the area and laid out claims before it was legal to do so. He also notes that even during the brief time he was there, some speculative ventures, such as the sale of building lots in the newly settled towns, had already begun to fail.

Howard also describes the suffering that accompanied this opening of settlement. Many men came on their own, but if they brought their families, the children often had too little to eat due to the high price of food. Many people claimed land but had little cash to pay for supplies or to buy food until they could begin to produce their own. This was a common problem during the period of western settlement–even if settlers were given land at no cost, they still had to have some resources to live on while the land was being brought into production. Howard was realistic enough to see that the future potential of the Oklahoma region would depend on the agricultural productivity of the land. If the farms and ranches prospered, the towns and cities would as well. He predicted correctly that once some land in the heart of the Indian Territory had been opened for settlement, the rest of it would inevitably be opened as well.

Essential Themes

As the first of several runs into various parts of what would become the state of Oklahoma, the April 1889 rush into the Unassigned Lands reflects the great desire for land on the part of many would-be settlers and the frenzy with which they sought to stake their claims. This land hunger is one of the central themes of this document. Howard notes the rapidity with which claims were staked and communities were established. He reports that the town of Guthrie grew to a population of ten thousand virtually overnight. One might suspect an element of exaggeration in such a figure, but even discounting the possible overstatement, it is clear that thousands rushed into the region in a very brief period.

Fraud is also a theme illustrated in Howard’s report. While the law barred entry before the official opening of the lands, there were many reports of “sooners,” as they came to be called, who staked out claims earlier than the legally declared time. Howard also reports that some men serving as deputy US marshals had used their positions to stake out claims before ordinary settlers were allowed into the region. In addition, some of the new arrivals in Oklahoma realized that making money by selling supplies and services to the settlers might be a more certain business venture than starting a farm or ranch. At the end of a long supply line, settlers had to pay high and at times unreasonable prices for the supplies they needed.

Above all, Howard’s account of the Oklahoma land run is characterized by the twin themes of hope and disappointment. Settlers rushed into the newly open territory, certain that owning land was an important stepping stone to individual autonomy and eventual prosperity. Some would-be settlers, however, found no land because of the many who had illegally made early claims. Others were disappointed in the quality of the land still available and ultimately returned to their original homes. After the initial excitement of the boom dissipated, those who had selected homesteads and sites for businesses realized that the real work was only just beginning.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gibson, Arrell M. Oklahoma: A History of Five Centuries. 2nd ed. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2010. Print.
  • Hoig, Stan. The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Hist. Soc., 1989. Print.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. 2 vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984. Print.
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