After immigrants flooded into central Oklahoma during the land rush of 1889 and the future capital of Oklahoma City sprang up “within a fortnight,” the city’s residents adopted the slogan “born grown” to describe their new home. But the territory’s creation was never so simple or straightforward. The real story, steeped in the politics of the Gilded Age, unfolds in 1889, Michael J. Hightower’s revealing look at a moment in history that, in all its turmoil and complexity, transcends the myth.
Hightower frames his story within the larger history of Old Oklahoma, beginning in Indian Territory, where displaced tribes and freedmen, wealthy cattlemen, and prospective homesteaders became embroiled in disputes over public land and federal government policies. Against this fraught background, 1889 travels back and forth between Washington, D.C., and the Oklahoma frontier to describe the politics of settlement, public land use, and the first stirrings of urban development. Drawing on eyewitness accounts, Hightower captures the drama of the Boomer incursions and the Run of ’89, as well as the nascent urbanization of the townsite that would become Oklahoma City. All of these events played out in a political vacuum until Congress officially created Oklahoma Territory in the Organic Act of May 1890.
The story of central Oklahoma is profoundly American, showing the region to have been a crucible for melding competing national interests and visions of the future. Boomers, businessmen, cattlemen, soldiers, politicians, pundits, and African and Native Americans squared off—sometimes peacefully, often not—in disagreements over public lands that would resonate in western history long after 1889.
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Every new farm that is snatched from the wilderness adds to the wealth of the nation, while the monopoly of millions of acres which are withheld from cultivation is a positive public curse.
Hon. George W. Julian, March 6, 1868
With the notable exception of trading outposts that served as conduits for manufactured goods and promoted peaceful relations between Anglos and Indians, Indian Territory before the Civil War was populated primarily by tribes whose ancestral homelands stretched from the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast to the Carolinas and Virginia. These tribes included Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, and they are known condescendingly as the "Five Civilized Tribes" (hereafter designated as the "Five Tribes") for their gradual acceptance of European culture. Yet their adoption of foreign customs and integration into an alien economy in the decades following the American War of Independence made little difference to land-hungry farmers and their advocates in the nation's capital. Accustomed to moving when and where they pleased, pioneers settled in tribal territory convinced that the land was theirs by right of conquest and, more to the point, part of God's plan to spread Christian ways clear to the Pacific Ocean.
By the second decade of the nineteenth century, some Indians saw the handwriting on the wall and migrated west, where white interlopers would be less likely to bother them. The end of their trail put them in western Arkansas Territory. Organized on July 4, 1819, Arkansas Territory stretched west from the Mississippi River to the hundredth meridian, the present-day eastern boundary of the Texas Panhandle. To the south were Louisiana and the Red River; to the north were Missouri and the southern boundary of the future state of Kansas. The territory shed its western half in 1824, leaving its westernmost outpost at Fort Smith and present-day Oklahoma effectively beyond the reach of American laws and constitutional protections. The next year, the government created an Indian country, later known as "Indian Territory," whose original boundaries stretched north from the Red River to the Great Bend of the Missouri River and west from Arkansas and Missouri to the hundredth meridian.
Steeped in Enlightenment philosophy, opinion leaders in the early federal period were convinced that Indians could be "civilized" — that is, they could climb the social ladder and, with a little prodding from the dominant civilization, assimilate into mainstream American society. Eventually, tribal governments would be extinguished, and property would be distributed to Indians on an individual basis. But in the meantime, tribes removed to the Indian country could rest assured of two things: they would be undisturbed and free from rival claims of neighboring states; and nothing would be done without their consent.
A trickle of Indian migration became a flood when President Andrew Jackson launched his jeremiad against Indians. History has branded Jackson as a racist and has saddled him with responsibility for the horrors that Native tribes endured during his administration. Yet a close examination of Jackson's Indian policy reveals that the president, although a die-hard Indian fighter, aimed not to destroy Indian culture, but rather to prevent his countrymen from doing so. He believed that removal to the trans-Mississippi West was the Indian's only chance of survival. Congress fell in line with the president's wishes when it passed the Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830, thereby paving the way for the Five Tribes' cross-country migration.
Most Indians had learned enough of Anglo ways to realize that resistance was futile. Over the course of two years, an estimated sixty thousand people made the harrowing trek westward. Along the way, one in ten died from disease and exposure. At trail's end, survivors joined early immigrants and rebuilt their lives as best they could in a region deemed to be of no use to people of European descent. In vernacular aimed at assuring skeptical Indians that the Great Father in Washington, D.C., had their best interests at heart, they were promised independent governance and territorial integrity for as long as the grasses grew and the waters ran.
The U.S. government was bound by its treaties to supply the Five Tribes with meat, corn, and other staples to ease their transition to the trans-Mississippi West. What the transplanted Indians got was disappointment. In September 1841, the War Department assigned Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock to investigate fraud and corruption on the part of contractors who were supposed to provide the Five Tribes with the wherewithal to survive, and what he saw did not augur well for Anglo-Indian relations. Nor did his report bolster confidence in the U.S. government's ever-evolving vision for Indian Territory: the development of tribal governments into a grand council that would enlist all the tribes in maintaining law and order; a permanent peace among all removed Indians; the eventual appointment of a territorial governor and secretary; the creation of an Indian confederacy that would function under Congress's watchful eye; and, perhaps most important, widespread emulation of the Five Tribes' "civilized" ways to the point that farming and raising stock would sweep nomadic ways into the dustbin of history.
Hitchcock's report signaled a paradigm shift in the federal government's stewardship of Indian country. Acting on the assumption that Indian wars were essentially over, Congress in 1849 voted to move the Office of Indian Affairs (later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs) from the War Department to the newly created Department of the Interior. As Senator Jefferson Davis (D-Miss.; 1847–51, 1857–61) remarked when the proposed change arrived on the Senate floor for debate, wars and rumors of war characterized the Republic's early days, not its modernizing present.
Just as the Five Tribes had once occupied distinct regions of the southeastern United States, so, too, did they occupy separate regions of what came to be known as Indian Territory: Cherokees in the northeast; Choctaws in the southeast; Creeks and Seminoles just west of the Cherokee Nation; and Chickasaws in the southwest. Known colloquially as "the Nations," these tribal enclaves stretched from the Red River in the south to Kansas (incorporated as a territory on May 30, 1854) in the north. Their western boundary was less certain, and it lay in the largely unexplored country that sloped gently toward the pre-1848 border with Mexico just east of the Rocky Mountains. Soldiers and overland freighters whose wagon trains snaked along the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri river towns and the Spanish settlements in New Mexico were among the only non-Indian visitors to that vast and uninviting terrain.
* * *
Two of the Five Tribes were especially important to Oklahoma Proper's history: Creeks and Seminoles. In the eighteenth century, the Seminoles were affiliated with the Creeks, a loose confederation of ethnic groups and tribes in southern Georgia, northern Florida, and Alabama. During the late eighteenth century, a few villages on the middle Chattahoochee River cut their social and political ties with their neighbors and moved to northern Florida. The tribe's name, "Seminole," translates as "wild" or "those who camp at a distance," and it is equivalent to the white American's "frontiersman." Even so, their designation as Seminoles might have come from cimarrón, the Spanish term for runaways. Whatever their name, the Seminoles posed enough of a threat, real or imagined, to the slaveholding culture of the South to be swept up in Jackson's policy of pacification and forced removal to the trans- Mississippi West. Although they were never defeated in the so-called Seminole Wars (1817–18, 1835–42, and 1855–58), the Seminoles probably suffered more than any of the Five Tribes in their rough treatment at the hands of the U.S. Army. They might have taken grim consolation to know that the Seminole Wars cost the United States more in lives and money than any Indian war in its history. Thousands recognized the futility of their cause and moved west on their own. By 1839, most Seminoles had made it to Indian Territory. Three years later, their population stood at 3,612.
The Seminoles arrived in Indian Territory with minority status in land controlled by their former neighbors, the Creeks. The U.S. government granted the Seminoles the right to self-government, but only if they adhered to Creek laws. Chafing under Creek dominance, some Seminoles lit out for Mexico in 1849. The ones who stayed were led by Chief John Jumper, who in 1856 signed a treaty with federal and Creek officials to establish the Seminole Nation. Then came the Civil War, and, like the rest of the Five Tribes, most Creeks and Seminoles cast their lot with the Confederate States of America.
The Civil War ended for the Five Tribes some five months after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse when federal officials summoned tribal representatives to Fort Smith to announce what the triumphant Union had in store for Indian tribes. Indian Affairs commissioner Dennis N. Cooley presided over the council at Fort Smith, and he came with assurances that the president was "willing to hear his erring children in extenuation of their great crime" and make new treaties with them. Cooley's main message was less reassuring: although Indians who had remained loyal to the Union would be protected in their just claims, the nations as a whole had forfeited their rights to annuities and land. On the second day of the council, commissioners presented specific policies that they aimed to incorporate in future treaties: (1) signatories would agree to permanent peace among tribal members and with other tribes as well as with the U.S. government; (2) tribes living in Indian country would aid federal authorities in convincing Plains tribes to keep the peace; (3) slavery would be abolished, and former slaves would be granted the rights and responsibilities of tribal citizenship; (4) the U.S. government would purchase sections of Indian Territory and reserve them for settling other tribes; (5) all tribes in the region would eventually be consolidated under a single Indian government; and (6) no people of European ancestry, with the exception of federal employees and contractors who worked on internal improvements, would be allowed to settle in Indian Territory unless they were connected to one of the established nations. In later years, railroad companies would cite references to internal improvement companies as evidence of their privileged status in Indian Territory.
Promises and assurances notwithstanding, Indians who had fought on both sides of the Civil War were stunned. Some Indian delegates thought they had come to Fort Smith to make peace, only to discover that the federal government's real motive was to reduce their landholdings, realign their relationships with other tribes, and undermine their sovereignty, all in utter disregard of their wartime allegiances. Elias C. Boudinot, a Cherokee railroad attorney who was thoroughly socialized in white culture, was one of the few Native Americans who agreed with the policy overhaul, particularly with regard to consolidation of tribes in a territorial government. The Fort Smith negotiators adjourned with an agreement to meet in Washington, D.C., the following spring to hammer out agreements in what came to be known collectively as the "Reconstruction Treaties of 1866."
Many of those same representatives, including Boudinot, journeyed to Washington to participate in the realignment of Anglo-Indian relations. Not surprisingly, a main topic of discussion was land cessions. Although representatives from the Five Tribes knew what to expect from negotiators who routinely broke their own treaties, none who gathered in the nation's capital to define Reconstruction in Indian Territory suspected that they were sowing the seeds of controversy destined to frame the final stage of America's westward expansion.
* * *
Large-scale settlement in the Great Plains was several decades in the future when lawmakers tried to figure out what to do with the continent's vast and uncharted territory. In the early years of the Republic, the U.S. government forbade settlements in the public domain and, in 1807, began to remove settlers who ventured there without legal sanction. By the time people began seriously to consider settling west of Missouri and Arkansas, Congress was loosening such restrictions and devising ways to facilitate the transfer of land from the public domain to private ownership. Congress's motivations were twofold: in terms of bedrock ideology, lawmakers wanted to spread America's bounty to ordinary citizens; and in terms of fiscal responsibility, they perceived the nation's resources as an unlimited source of revenue to fund the federal government. Their deliberations resulted in two land laws that, in a later generation, fueled demands to open Indian Territory to homesteading.
The first of those laws was the Preemption Act of 1841. According to the rights of preemption, settlers could choose to establish homes on both surveyed and unsurveyed land. Small landowners of not more than 320 acres in any state or territory were entitled to purchase a quarter section (160 acres) for as little as $1.25 per acre. But there was a catch: to stymie speculators, buyers were required to use and improve the land rather than resell it. The next landmark law was the Homestead Act of 1862. Unlike the Preemption Act, the Homestead Act restricted settlement to surveyed land, and it required homesteaders to live on their claims for five years and make improvements before they could receive their titles. Settlers who wanted to improve their land immediately and avoid the five-year residence requirement had the option of paying $1.25 per acre to the federal treasury. As the law drew no distinction between genders, more women had an opportunity to acquire property in their own names in the West than in other parts of the country. The law further required claimants to be at least twenty-one years old unless they were heads of families, meaning that enterprising women could gain value by enabling underage husbands to acquire homesteads through marriage.
The Great Plains had yet to entice very many settlers when Congress passed the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866, and those laws came at a pivotal moment in American history. Now that the Confederacy was vanquished, soldiers were deployed to pacify the frontier and protect westbound caravans. Meanwhile, former combatants could resume what had always been the nation's favorite pastime: business. In the North and South and increasingly in the West, empires of steel and petroleum and manufactured goods of all descriptions were transforming communities into outposts of consumerism. Business titans with names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Gould, and Fisk were combining human capital and natural resources to propel Western civilization into the age of industry. Railroads were pushing into remote hamlets to bring consumer goods to the frontier and nature's bounty to centers of money and power, where factories received raw materials and converted them into consumer goods that generated demand for more of the same. Great fortunes were rising overnight, and they coexisted all too easily with pestilential poverty to brand the era between 1865 and 1900 as the Gilded Age — an age when tycoons gained status by flaunting their wealth; when corporations succeeded by buying their competitors or driving them into bankruptcy, and sometimes both; and when politics and business blended to create an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor. The battle lines were drawn as capital and labor settled in for decades of contention and, all too often, violent confrontations.
As homesteaders and entrepreneurs were rethinking their aversion to the Great Plains, lawmakers were putting the finishing touches on the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866. Those agreements included treaties with the Creek and Seminole Nations, and they effectively upended a half century of treaty making that began in 1803 when the U.S. government acquired title to Louisiana. When the Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the president to set aside certain areas for the Five Tribes' resettlement, the federal government began a decades-long process of relinquishing its exclusive title. Over the next few years, the original act was supplemented by various bargains and treaties that further defined Indian landownership and relations between the Five Tribes and Washington.
The process accelerated with a treaty signed on February 14, 1833, in which the United States conveyed to the Creek Nation an area of Indian Territory that included Oklahoma Proper. Not only did the 1833 treaty patent the land to the Creek Nation; it expressly provided that the land would be forever free from state or territorial laws. More than two decades later, a treaty of August 7, 1856, required the Creek Nation to convey Oklahoma Proper to the Seminoles. The treaty stipulated that the land could not be sold or otherwise disposed of without the consent of both Indian nations. During a decade in which America was nearly rent asunder in the Civil War, Oklahoma Proper was held in partnership by Creeks and Seminoles. Their agreement remained undisputed until the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "1889 The Boomer Movement, The Land Run, And Early Oklahoma City"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Part I. Indian Territory to 1885,
CHAPTER ONE. Antecedents,
CHAPTER TWO. Wars and Reservations,
CHAPTER THREE. On to Oklahoma!,
CHAPTER FOUR. Cattle Kings,
CHAPTER FIVE. Boomers,
CHAPTER SIX. Our Sorrow,
Part II. The Run,
CHAPTER SEVEN. A Big Boom,
CHAPTER EIGHT. Endgame,
CHAPTER NINE. Everybody at Sea,
Part III. City Building,
CHAPTER TEN. Born Grown,
CHAPTER ELEVEN. Status Quo,
CHAPTER TWELVE. 1890,