The University of Oklahoma: A History: Volume 1

The University of Oklahoma: A History: Volume 1

by David W. Levy

This book, the first in a projected three-volume definitive history, traces the University’s progress from territorial days to 1917. David W. Levy examines the people and events surrounding the school’s formation and development, chronicling the determined ambition of pioneers to transform a seemingly barren landscape into a place where a worthy


This book, the first in a projected three-volume definitive history, traces the University’s progress from territorial days to 1917. David W. Levy examines the people and events surrounding the school’s formation and development, chronicling the determined ambition of pioneers to transform a seemingly barren landscape into a place where a worthy institution of higher education could thrive.

The University of Oklahoma was established by the territorial legislature in 1890. With that act, Norman became the educational center of the future state. Levy captures the many factors—academic, political, financial, religious—that shaped the University. Drawing on a great depth of research in primary documents, he depicts the University’s struggles to meet its goals as it confronted political interference, financial uncertainty, and troubles ranging from disastrous fires to populist witch hunts. Yet he also portrays determined teachers and optimistic students who understood the value of a college education.

Written in an engaging style and enhanced by an array of historical photographs, this volume is a testimony to the citizens who overcame formidable obstacles to build a school that satisfied their ambitions and embodied their hopes for the future.

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The University of Oklahoma A History

Volume 1 1890â"1917

By David W. Levy


Copyright © 2005 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-3976-0


A University Is Located in Norman, Oklahoma

To modern eyes, the most remarkable feature of the earliest photographs of the University of Oklahoma is undoubtedly the stark loneliness, the sheer barren emptiness of the surrounding landscape. The human figures seem dwarfed by the enormous sky stretching toward the horizon, by the flat plain stretching unbroken as far into the distance as the eye can see. The first buildings look as if they had somehow been dropped into position from above and as if they do not quite belong where they had landed. Those old pictures give a sense of the extent to which the institution was imposed upon the land, set down willfully by men and women who were determined to make a school and would not easily be deterred. It is true, of course, that every institution is imposed upon some landscape by willful people. But in this instance the imposition, so striking and obvious in those old pictures, seems somehow more dramatic and decisive than is usually the case. This was because of the suddenness of the intrusion and the primitive conditions under which it occurred. In older, more settled places colleges grew gradually out of the soil. They were physical responses to felt needs, slowly drawn into existence by surrounding communities. Their buildings had originally been constructed for other purposes: former churches, stately homes, or private academies now appropriated to accommodate the needs of higher education. They were, in short, transformed and modified by long experience. The great exception was America's first institution of higher learning, Harvard College. But even the Puritans who settled Boston in 1630 waited six years before starting their college. The eager pioneers who invaded Oklahoma — and who started a university even before the Territory could boast of having produced any high-school graduates — were not so patient.

What follows in these pages is the story of how these pioneers performed the breathtaking feat of building an institution of higher education in that stark and barren wilderness: what moved them to try it, how well in some respects and how poorly in others they succeeded in realizing their hopes and ambitions, and what this product of their willfulness and impatience meant to them and to their children ... and to all of those who were to follow.

* * *

IN THE BEGINNING there was only the open and empty land. The place where the campus now stands occupies a transitional zone between two distinctive kinds of landscape. A few miles to the east lay the infamous Cross Timbers, a north-south strip of thick blackjack and post oaks, growing so close together, with branches so low to the ground and intertwined, that the early travelers found it almost impossible to traverse. "I shall not easily forget the mortal toil, and the vexations of flesh and spirit, that we underwent occasionally, in our wanderings through the Cross Timbers," recalled the famous writer Washington Irving, who toured the area in 1832. "It was like struggling through forests of cast iron." At one point in their journey, Irving and his companions were a few miles east of the future site of the Health Sciences Center in what is today Oklahoma City. He again mentions the Cross Timbers: "[A]nd a cheerless prospect it was; hill beyond hill, forest beyond forest, all of one sad russet hue." But suddenly, "to the left, the eye stretched beyond this rugged wilderness of hills, and ravines, and ragged forests, to a prairie about ten miles off, extending in a clear blue line along the horizon. It was like looking from among rocks and breakers upon a distant tract of tranquil ocean."

A few days later, near what is today east Norman, Irving came upon a more congenial setting:

After proceeding about two hours in a southerly direction, we emerged toward mid-day from the dreary belt of the Cross Timber, and to our infinite delight beheld "the great Prairie" stretching to the right and left before us. We could distinctly trace the meandering course of the main Canadian [River], and various smaller streams, by the strips of green forest that bordered them. The landscape was vast and beautiful. There is always an expansion of feeling in looking upon these boundless and fertile wastes; but I was doubly conscious of it after emerging from our "close dungeon of innumerous boughs."

Stretching westward from the Cross Timbers was the start of the great prairies: endless reaches of land, mostly flat, covered with grama and buffalo grass; here and there a gently rolling hill rose easily off the plain, lending interest to the otherwise level topography. The only trees to be seen were along the river and creek bottoms — cottonwoods and elms, oaks, hackberries, and pecans. The high grass blowing in the wind was so often compared to the gently flowing sea (Irving's phrase "a distant tract of tranquil ocean" was typical) that the sea became the chief metaphor for that landscape. It is not surprising that the big wagons that eventually carried settlers westward were called "schooners."

The place where the town of Norman would someday be built, therefore, lay a little to the west of the boundary between the tortuous woodlands and the vast prairie grasslands. Numerous creeks and springs provided a goodly supply of water that the first government surveyor described in his report of 1873 as being "clean and pure." Attracted by the abundant prairie grass, antelope, wild horses, prairie dogs, and deer abounded. Raccoons, quail, ducks, and prairie chickens also occupied the grasslands, and wild turkeys could be found nearer the wooded areas to the east. But it was the buffalo that dominated for most of the nineteenth century. Irving gave a vivid description of a buffalo hunt near what is today the town of Moore. Two years later, north of the present town of Purcell, General Henry Leavenworth's expedition reported seeing "an abundance of buffalo" with "immense herds in every direction"; and the celebrated artist George Catlin, a member of that expedition, recorded with his artist's eye that the plains were "literally speckled with buffalo." By the mid-1870s, however, the wanton slaughter of these animals had decimated the herds and practically removed them from the area. The early travelers mention wolves and cougars that preyed upon the grass-eaters. They also mention the blowflies, ticks, and fierce mosquitoes that preyed upon them.

The buffalo herds and other game also sustained tribes of American Indians. Although they probably never occupied the area around Norman for long periods at a time, bands of Osages and Comanches, of Kiowas and Pawnees, regularly crisscrossed the region, hunting and raiding and skirmishing among themselves. The lands they roamed became part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and the future state of Oklahoma became the place to which land-hungry eastern whites, aided by their government in Washington, exiled the Five Civilized Tribes before the Civil War. In exchange for their lands in the Southeast, they were awarded tribal holdings in what became known as the "Indian Territory." The land where the University of Oklahoma now stands was originally assigned to the Creeks by treaties of 1832 and 1833. The Seminoles were soon united to the Creeks in a joint-ownership arrangement that lasted until an agreement of August 1856 separated the two tribes and gave the land in question to the Seminoles. Pressured by the federal government, which unfairly accused the tribes of fighting for the Confederacy, the Seminoles and other tribes ceded territory to the United States in 1866. In the case of the Seminole lands, including the future site of the University, the tribe received fifteen cents per acre. In addition to the requirements for abolishing slavery in Indian Territory, the treaties of 1866 contained two provisions heavy with implications for the future: first, carved out of the cessions was a large area of "unassigned lands" near the center of the present state of Oklahoma (close to 2 million acres); and second, the tribes were pressured into permitting the eventual construction of railroads through their lands.

From time to time before the 1880s white Americans had evinced an interest in the area. During the 1830s and 1840s, a series of exploratory expeditions passed through what would someday be Cleveland County. Beginning with Major Stephen H. Long, in 1820, famous explorers and military men arrived in the neighborhood and registered their impressions in official reports, private diaries, or reminiscences. After the visit of Irving and his entourage in 1832 came the Leavenworth expedition of 1834, which included (in addition to the artist Catlin) illustrious members such as Stephen Kearney, Jefferson Davis, and a scout named Jesse Chisholm. In May 1839 a party led by Josiah Gregg, the great pioneer of the Santa Fe trail, passed through the future townsite of Norman. Four years later, in July 1843, Daniel Boone's youngest son, Nathan (who had been with Leavenworth and Catlin in 1834), spent one night near what is today Rock Creek Road and 48th Street N.E. and another on the spot now occupied by the Odd Fellows cemetery.

Eventually two trails came through the area. One of them ran east-west and crossed the present county three miles north of the site of the future town of Lexington; it was used by travelers leaving Fort Smith, Arkansas, to head for California. The other was a cattle trail running north-south. The ranching industry grew rapidly in the Chickasaw Nation (just across the Canadian River to the south) and even farther south, in Texas. The cattle had to be driven north through Indian Territory in order to reach the railhead in Kansas. Most came up along the Chisholm trail, about thirty-five miles to the west, but the Arbuckle trail, a feeder into the Chisholm, passed just east of the future site of the University, crossing what would be Lindsey Street between 12th and 24th Avenue S.E.

There were those in the federal government who harbored a hope that the unassigned lands, which were originally intended to serve as a place to relocate other Indian tribes, might instead be given to whites. Toward this end, a federal survey of the empty land, dividing it into townships and sections, was undertaken in the early 1870s. The head of the surveying project hired a twenty-three-year-old Kentucky surveyor to superintend part of the larger enterprise. The young surveyor's name was Abner Ernest Norman. One of Norman's crews — probably operating without Norman himself — pitched its camp about half a mile south of the present corner of Classen and Lindsey Streets, and the men, perhaps jokingly, carved a sign on an elm tree saying "Norman's Camp" in honor of their absent boss. Once the surveying was completed in late 1873, Norman returned to Kentucky, got married, farmed for a while, and then went into the lumber business in Louisville. He died in March 1922, never having visited the town that was eventually to bear his name.

In early August 1886, thirteen years after the government survey, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad began work on a rail line that was to stretch southward from Arkansas City, Kansas, down the center of the unassigned lands and into Texas. By the end of September the construction teams had completed a bridge over the Arkansas River, and more than 5,000 workers joined in pushing the enterprise into the present state of Oklahoma. Through the empty land the railroad came, with track being laid at a rate of more than two miles a day. By the end of 1886 there were stations at Willow Springs and Ponca City, and the rails extended more than forty miles down from Arkansas City. By mid-March 1887 more than a hundred miles of track were open, past Perry and Guthrie and almost to the present site of Edmond; a few weeks later the road had reached what was called Oklahoma Station; and on April 15 it passed within two blocks of old Norman's Camp. Eleven days later it stopped at what is now Purcell, where it joined with a line that had been building northward from Gainesville, Texas. The headline in the Arkansas City Weekly Republican-Traveler proclaimed: "United! Kansas and Texas. By the Strong Bands of Steel ... Arkansas City and Galveston Shake Hands across the Great Indian Territory." On June 13, shortly after noon, the first passenger train passed Norman's Camp, heading north to Kansas. From the start, the implications of this development were crystal clear — even in the East. As soon as permission to build the road was given, the Boston Transcript predicted (correctly) that "this will inevitably open up the long coveted Oklahoma land to settlement by whites."

* * *

THE BOSTON NEWSPAPER was quite right to call the unassigned lands of Oklahoma "long coveted." Almost since the day the lands had been designated as unassigned in 1866, ambitious whites had hungered for the chance to occupy them. Employing both legal and illegal means, these land-seeking white agrarians schemed and clamored for two decades to invade the territory that had been set aside for American Indians. Despite the opposition of the Indians and their philanthropic friends in the East, opposition from ranchers who wanted cheap grazing land, and objections from some within the federal government itself, the insistent pioneers were not to be denied. In March 1889 President Benjamin Harrison acceded to the relentless pressure. He proclaimed that on April 22 the unassigned lands, already known as Oklahoma Territory, would be thrown open for settlement by whites. Thousands of hopeful men and women began to gather on the Territory's northern and southern boundaries, where they waited impatiently for the great race to begin.

The land run of April 22, 1889 — depicted so often and so graphically by reporters, historians, novelists, painters, and film makers — was one of those symbolic and defining moments in the chronicle of America's westward expansion. Few episodes displayed as dramatically those features of the pioneering spirit that were admirable alongside those that were unworthy and reprehensible. On the one side, there was the bold individualism and sturdy independence, the daring courage and determined ambition to improve one's prospects, that explained so much about the development of the American character. On the other side, the men and women who lined up in April 1889 to make the run into Oklahoma were driven by a frantic desire for land that, in many cases, blinded them to the needs and rights of others — whether Native Americans or steely-eyed competitors who were lining up beside them waiting for the gun to go off. Their individualism could easily slip into a grasping and grotesque materialism and an indifference to the requirements of the communities they were about to form. They could be callous to the weak and brutal toward those who were different; some of them, no doubt, were impatient of rules and prone to violence. If they were wonderfully democratic and stunningly practical and refreshingly informal, they could also be uncultured, narrow-minded, heedless of social responsibilities, wasteful of resources such as the land, and ready to move on once the resources were gone. They tended to be more interested in immediate exploitation than in long-term investment. It should go without saying that both the admirable and the less admirable aspects of the pioneering spirit would make themselves felt when the time came to build a university.

In any case, between 50,000 and 60,000 Americans waited nervously for the signal and cursed the unscrupulous "Sooners" who, despite the efforts of the army and the marshals to keep them out, had sneaked across the lines early in order to scout out the choicest claims. The more law-abiding (or timid) who entered Oklahoma Territory from the south collected at Purcell, directly across the South Canadian River in the Chickasaw Nation. Purcell had been a quiet town of around three hundred, founded two years earlier as a division point on the Santa Fe; four days before the run, however, a New York Times reporter observed that there were "at least five persons to every bed in town and more arriving every hour." Those waiting to invade from the north gathered in the towns of southern Kansas, especially in Arkansas City, whose railroad connection provided the best route into the heart of the still vacant land. On April 19 they were permitted to cross the boundary into Indian Territory, pass through the sixty-mile-wide Cherokee Outlet, and line up on the northern border of Oklahoma Territory. When the signal finally came at noon on April 22, the throng of humanity charged across the lines to stake their claims. On horseback, by wagon, on special Santa Fe trains that chugged southward and northward into the unassigned lands, the eager competitors scrambled for their town lots and their 160-acre farms.


Excerpted from The University of Oklahoma A History by David W. Levy. Copyright © 2005 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David W. Levy is retired as the Irene and Julian J. Rothbaum Professor of Modern American History and David Ross Boyd Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Herbert Croly of the New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive and Mark Twain: The Divided Mind of America’s Best-Loved Writer and coeditor of seven volumes of the letters of Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis.

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