Oklahoma: Unassigned Lands
Oklahoma's lands were opened in seven land runs, land lottery, land auction and enlarged by a decision of the Supreme Court. It is somehow appropriate that the first mayor of Oklahoma City was killed in a dispute over land. In some sense he brought it on himself. William L. Couch had been a leader of the Boomer movement, which for years had agitated to open the lands of the Indian Territory to settlement. By the time President Harrison finally approved an opening in 1889, the Boomers' promotions had brought land hunger to a feverish pitch. There were far more claimants than there were good claims to go around, and fights became inevitable. As the fatal bullet crashed through his kneecap, the irony was probably lost on Couch.
The Boomers had actually been a rather peaceable lot. Since 1879, first under David L. Payne and later under Couch, they had pursued a kind of civil disobedience in the Territory. By the dozens and sometimes by the hundreds, they would go where they were forbidden and begin building cabins, clearing trees, and busting sod. Then soldiers of the U.S. Army would appear, round them up, and escort them to the Kansas border. Couch had personally led six of these invasions. The Boomers never expected to stay. Instead, they sought to establish a principle - one that hardly needed to be established, that this was a "white man's country" - and to raise consciousness. They held meetings, published a newspaper, and mailed out flyers, promoting Oklahoma across the nation as a new Promised Land.
A later generation might call what the Boomers did "hype," but their hype worked only too well. On April 22, 1889, as many as 50,000 people crowded up to the borders of the Unassigned Lands, north, south, east, and west. There were approximately four home-seekers for each available plot. It truly was a race for land. Of course, some people hoped to improve on the odds, especially those like Couch and the Boomers who felt some sense of entitlement. Some flagrantly staked their claims well ahead of the big day, while others took jobs with the Santa Fe Railroad in order to be at a convenient location when the starting-guns went off. Still others, depending on their means and connections, also found a way into the territory before noontime. There were reports of some suspiciously well-coiffed "deputy marshals" hovering near town sites. Most "sooners," however, just lay in the weeds, awaiting the signal.
Oklahoma City was not entirely a blank slate when noon struck on its day of destiny, but it was close. Then known as Oklahoma Station, it featured only a railroad depot and a scattering of shacks, tents, and pens. When the great moment came, an eyewitness at the station, perched atop a boxcar, recalled that people seemed to materialize out of nowhere, scurrying in all directions, dragging luggage and tools. Within twenty minutes after twelve o'clock, at least forty new tents had been raised in the immediate vicinity. At about a quarter past one, the first apparently legitimate claim seekers arrived on the scene, looking around agape, their horses puffing.
Couch and various members of his family were among those well-placed employees of the Santa Fe Railroad who strolled from the tracks over to their claims sometime near noon. Couch had previ-ously picked his plot out just west of the depot itself, a full 160-acre homestead soon to become famous. As the day progressed, seven more individuals also claimed the same parcel as a farm homestead, while almost 600 others demanded it be divided into town lots, because of its proximity to the railroad depot. Couch and his rival farm claimants, who had each staked out their own portions of the quarter-section and begun building houses, warned off all such com-ers, declaring that the land was not part of Oklahoma City. But in time the town lot-seekers became insistent enough that for several months army soldiers were stationed on the disputed property to keep the peace. The lot-seekers organized themselves and, Boomer-like, invaded the homestead repeatedly, trying to establish a foothold. Again, the irony of the situation was probably wasted on Couch.
Couch had bigger concerns-namely his immediate neighbors who had carved up the land he had so carefully chosen. Couch had resigned as mayor of Oklahoma City after only six months in order to "prove-up" his residence on the homestead, as required by law. He, his wife, and their five children lived in a small house on the prop-erty and put in a wheat field. They remained at a standoff with most of their fellow claimants, but from the beginning their relations were hostile with a man named John C. Adams. Among other incidents, Adams had chased one of Couch's sons off of his tract with a club, and on another occasion he shot and killed the family dog. Matters reached a crisis on April 4, 1890, when Adams chopped down part of a fence that Couch had constructed to keep Adams' horses out of his wheat. When Couch and one of his sons attempted to repair the fence, Adams came after them with a club, which Couch jerked away from him. Adams pulled out a revolver, but Couch drew his weapon faster, telling Adams to drop it. Couch's son picked up the gun, and he and his father retreated toward their house. Adams, meanwhile, had gone into his own home and emerged with a rifle. Shots were exchanged, and Couch was hit in the left knee.
The wound became infected, and Couch died two weeks later. Adams stood trial for murder and was -sentenced to seven years in prison. There was a final irony that was most certainly lost on Couch: his funeral occurred on the first anniversary of the land run.
The dispute over the homestead next turned to legal channels. Of the seven rivals, the claims of the late Couch and several others were disallowed by the General Land Office because they were shown to be "sooners." The battle now boiled down to two individuals, John Dawson and Robert Higgins, a doctor from Kansas. Dawson strove to show that Higgins was also guilty of "soonerism," because he had crossed the starting line on April 22, 1889, to water his horses. Hig-gins contended that he had done so, but that he had witnesses to show that he had returned to his place and run the race legitimately. The case took five years to settle and went all the way up to the U.S. secretary of the interior, who decided in Dr. Higgins' favor.
Higgins gave the widow Couch twenty-one lots from the land her husband had once claimed. Most of the thousands of legal disputes that erupted out of the 1889 Land Run did not end so magnanimously. The opening of the lands had been symbolic of the frontier myth that Americans so fervently believed in, and when the Promised Land failed to be delivered to them, they did something that was also quintessentially American-they called on their lawyers.
Land run (sometimes "land rush") usually refers to an historical event in which previously restricted land of the United States was opened for homesteading on a first arrival basis. The settlers, no matter how they acquired occupancy, purchased the land from the United States Land Office. For former Indian lands, the Land Office distributed the sales funds to the various tribal entities, according to previously negotiated terms. The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 was the most prominent of the land runs.
Due to an error by the surveyor of the region, and a mistake in identifying the main channel of the Red River, the southwest corner of Oklahoma, the area between the Red River, the North Fork of the Red River, and the 100th Meridian was claimed by Texas and designated as Greer County in 1860, named for John A. Greer, a Texas lieutenant governor. Greer County, Texas, organized by ranchers in 1886, included all of the current Greer, Jackson, and Harmon Counties and that part of Beckham County south of the North Fork River. The Supreme Court declared in United States vs. Texas, 162 U.S. 1 (1896 March 16) Greer County to be a part of Oklahoma Territory. The land office at the county seat of Mangum opened for business by July 2, 1897. Prior settlers of Greer County were permitted to file on the quarter sections they lived on and an adjoining quarter sections where they already had improvements. Within a week 100 homestead entries had been filed, 33 applicants filing for their additional quarter. At the Constitutional Convention 1907, the area was divided among Beckham County, Jackson County, and Greer County. After statehood 1909, Harmon County was created out of the southwestern portion of Greer County.
On 1901 August 1, the lands of the Wichita-Caddo and Comanche, Kiowa and Apache lands were to be decided by a "land lottery" instead of a race for claims as other openings had. The Fort Sill Military Reservation and the Wichita Mountain Forest Reserve were withdrawn from settlement. There were 13,000 quarter sections available. The people had to register at either El Reno or Lawton. The homesteaders were then determined by drawing an envelope which contained a persons name and address. These envelopes were numbered as they were drawn by the land officials. Each person had the opportunity to "stake his claim in turn", according to the number on the envelope. Over 160,000 people registered and obtained their land at El Reno. This was the last large land opening in the present state of Oklahoma.
The Indians at last were allotted a homestead for each member of the respective tribes. In addition, a pasture of half a million acres was reserved for them, which afterward became known as the Big Pasture lands. The Government, also, enlarge the Fort Sill military reservation to eight thousand acres in the Wichita Mountains, neither of these government reservations being open to homesteads. Sites for towns were reserved at all the opening.
On August 6, 1901, the surplus of the Kiowa and Comanche country, amounting to three and one-half million acres, was opened to settlers. This was the last great land opening in OK. Instead of making the race for claims, persons wishing to stake a homestead at the last opening had to register at the Government land offices in El Reno or Lawton. The homesteads were given out by a drawing, called the "land lottery." Each person was assigned a card upon which was his name and address. The card was placed in an envelope and sealed. The land offices received these envelopes for fifteen days. At the end of that time the envelopes were placed in a large box and shuffled. They were then drawn out by the land officials and numbered in order. Each settler staked his claim in turn according to the number on his envelope and card. In this way, there was no trouble with "sooners". Over 160,000 persons registered for homesteads in the opening of the Kiowa and Comanche country. The amount of land for this drawing totaled to three and one-half million acres.
In 1904 Ponca, Otoe-Missouri and Kaw (Kansas) reservations finished allotment. Indian Territory was originally founded on the principle that the land would be owned collectively by all tribal members. As the white settlers pushed for even more land the government began to make treaties with the Indians that began a process of allotment whereby each individual member of a tribe would be given their own lot of land. What was left would be sold to white settlers. Once the Natives had their own land they could do with it as they pleased. The Natives in Indian Territory attempted to resist allotment but in 1897 the Seminoles agreed to the Dawes Allotment Act in order to keep at least some of their land from being taken from them. The other Nations of the Five Civilized tribes soon followed suit. Osage land, however, was not allotted until 1906. All the Osage land was divided equally among the tribal members.
In December 1906, Big Pasture lands were opened by bids. Drawing for the Big Pasture lands containing a half million acres, were sold in 160 acre tracts to the highest bidders. On November 16, 1907, Oklahoma became forty-sixth state to enter the Union.
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