Indian territory – sooners, boomers and land sharks
In January of 1893, a Chicago, Rock Island and Pacfic train commissioned by the Kansas City Times headed out of Union Station carrying a group of prominent Kansas City leaders on an inspection tour of the two southern “territories.” “Indian Territory” was occupied and administered by the so-called “five civilized tribes” – Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw – that had been forcibly removed from their lands in the eastern seaboard to make way for white settlement. “Oklahoma Territory” was a mix of white and native communities.
Part of Oklahoma Territory had been assigned after the Civil War to tribes from the plains and southwest, also forcibly dispossessed: Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapaho among others. Other parts had been “opened” to white settlement during land rushes in 1889 and 1891 from which emerged a cluster of nine white-administered counties. They were separated from Kansas by the “Cherokee Outlet,”[i] a section two hundred miles long and sixty miles wide assigned by treaty to the Cherokee for use in reaching western hunting grounds. Much of it was leased to ranchers by the Cherokee.
It was this area that was of greatest interest to the pro-Democratic Times, whose previous editor, Morrison Munford, had been an enthusiastic proponent of opening Oklahoma Territory to white settlement. Munford and other prominent Kansas City citizens had played a significant role in pressuring the federal government into the previous openings. Now they were lobbying the Cleveland administration to authorize a new rush in the Outlet that would create a corridor of white settlement between the nine counties and the Kansas border, potentially boosting Kansas City’s southern trade.
The hundred or so men on the train included some of the city’s most prominent political and business leaders: former Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden, banker Joseph Chick, meatpacking magnate Kirkland Armour, railroad executive W.H. Holmes, and Witten McDonald of the Times among them. The paper sold the outing as both a business opportunity and a mission to prepare for the time when “the shackles of ancient barbarism are broken by a white American civilization,” namely, when the territories became a state.
Stories on Indian Territory in Kansas City papers routinely portrayed it as lawless and anarchic. A January article by Nat D. Hentoff, Times correspondent in the Territories – and not coincidentally one of the passengers on the southbound Rock Island train – described the legal system in Indian Territory as so labyrinthine it contributed to “lawlessness which curses the five nations.” Each nation had its own court system while three federal courts had jurisdiction over Indians and whites.
The federal courts were often at odds with each other, as the “beer decision” of 1891 illustrated: one federal judge ruled that beer was not spirituous liquor and could therefore be freely brought into Indian Territory: “the territory was swimming in bad beer within a week,” writes Hentoff. “It was sent in by the carload. In the towns they just went wild,” until Judge Isaac Parker, the famous “Hanging Judge” of Fort Smith, Arkansas, stepped in. He ruled that beer was spirituous liquor and sentenced “introducers” to jail as fast as they could be brought into his court, said Hentoff.
Hentoff followed this story with another on civil administration in Indian Territory, under the headline “They know no law.” Except for the Cherokee, Hentoff wrote, none of the five nations had municipal laws for the towns springing up. The towns “have churches and schools. Their people are well educated, orderly and progressive […] But they have to wabble along without local law.” Hentoff described muddy streets without sidewalks, crowded with roaming cows, hogs and dogs, although similar scenes were not uncommon in many cities, including Kansas City. Because whites in towns like Ardmore and Purcell could not acquire title to property in Indian Territory, they built shanties “of frame and iron stovepipes sticking from their roof in lieu of chimneys,” Hentoff reports, “since no householder knew when he might be called upon to hitch a team to the house and haul it out of the way.” Nonetheless, there was money to be made despite the lack of incorporation laws. Hentoff ends with the real point of his piece: “Prosperity in the Indian territory awaits upon one thing – statehood.”
The Republican-oriented Journal agreed that Indian Territory must soon become a state: “The Indians know this,” said the paper, “and while they regret that statehood is looking them in the face, they accept the inevitable with that same proud feeling that has characterized their race since their removal from the old nation, the states of the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.” No Native Americans were invited to comment on this view, nor do their opinions appear in any of the many articles in Kansas City papers in 1893 “booming” white settlement and calling for Oklahoma statehood and an end to Indian administration.
Newspapers frequently ran stories depicting Indian Territory as a refuge for outlaws like the Starr gang, led by half-Cherokee Henry Starr. The robbery of a Missouri, Kansas and Texas train at Pryor Creek in Indian Territory in May, attributed to the Starr gang, attracted more than usual attention because the train was carrying Eastern stockholders of the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf railway who suddenly found themselves in a scene out of the old west. As the Kansas City Star described it, the robbers went through the cars demanding passengers’ “watches, money, jewelry and any other valuables they could get. They felt the people’s hands and some of those who had hardened hands, indicating severe toil, were not robbed.”
A month later the same gang robbed a bank in Bentonville, Arkansas, of $10,000 in gold and silver. They were later seen in Indian Territory spending their money freely and, in the absence of spirituous beverages, drinking patent medicines. At about the same time the last of three brothers that made up the core of the Luttrell gang of horse thieves was being hunted down by a “crowd of angry farmers, renters and vigilant deputy marshals of the Chickasaw nation,” according to the Times.
Oklahoma Territory had its share of outlaw gangs as well. In September, the Journal described a “terrible fight” between remnants of the Dalton gang – most of them having perished in a failed bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892 – and a posse of deputy U.S. marshals outside a saloon in the little town of Ingalls, leaving three deputy marshals and two residents dead and one gang member captured.
In late August, President Cleveland issued a proclamation that the Cherokee Outlet would open to settlement on September 16, setting the stage for the last great American land rush, the Cherokee having under pressure reluctantly “relinquished and surrendered” title to the Outlet in exchange for a payment from the U.S. government that, in the Cherokee view, significantly undervalued the land. Almost seventy years passed until the justice of the Cherokee claim was recognized.
The government’s plans for the rush were immediately attacked from all sides. Some strongly opposed the idea of a headlong race for land: “if your race horse, break-neck, fighting plan is carried out,” one aspirant wrote to the Journal, “none but the rich, the sooner, the cowboy who knows every corner and has moved the corner stone to fool the poor, honest settler” will be successful. The Journal editors agreed: Cleveland’s policy, they claimed, allowed speculators who could hire cowboys with fast horses to stake claims to land for profit and speculation while families in buggies needing land for homes trailed behind: “The whole scheme is one of calculated plunder, assisted in every direction by the regulations of the [Interior] department.”
New regulations requiring prospective landowners to register at various sites on the territorial borders before the rush attracted the strongest criticism. The crowd will be so great, the Journal predicted, that people would have to stand in line for days at great personal expense, while “sooners” could register early and then hide out near a claim before the opening. Speculators could buy and sell certificates from impoverished “boomers” standing repeatedly in line.
A week before the opening, thousands were arriving at each of the several entrance points along the Outlet. The Journal described roads “lined with prairie schooners” and railcars arriving packed with families huddling in the cars with horses, cattle and merchandise: “Lunch rooms, barber shops, feed stores, etc. are springing up, and give the place the appearance of a new mining camp.” Fifty wagon loads of “sooners” were rounded up by cavalry squads and placed under guard, but many more escaped attention and secreted themselves near townsites.
Two bicyclists rode in from Colorado, a distance of 700 miles. They had rigged flanges to their wheels to allow them to get to their destination on the tracks of the Rock Island railroad. Boomers were arriving from the east coast convinced they were entering the Wild West. They came “loaded down with useless shooters and […] constantly on the lookout to be killed in cold blood,” reported the Times. A number of horses had been poisoned, probably “by boomers who have poor horses and want the fast animals out of the way.” Swift horses were also at risk of being stolen by horse-thieves.
The Sunday before registration booths were to open, 20,000 people were lining up at entrance points near Guthrie to get registered. The lines at two places were half a mile long; at another, 400 men had been waiting in line for two days and a night with more arriving every hour. The Republican Journal blamed the president for causing unnecessary “suffering and distress” as hundreds were “carried fainting from the positions where they had hoped to obtain the certificate that would entitle them to entry. […] The egotism that induced Cleveland to send Blount to Hawaii,” said the editors, gratuitously tying the certificate issue in to partisan debates over Hawaii annexation, “is the same that induced him to throw obstacles in the way of the homeseekers on the border.”
The Journal reported that boomers had shown their displeasure by burning Secretary of the Interior Hoke Smith in effigy. Some demanded more booth capacity, others wanted abolition of the certificates. Smith agreed to increase the number of booths, although this would, of course, only increase the number of eligible “boomers,” when it was apparent that there were already far too many of them for the available land. The Journal estimated that there were no more than 20,000 tracts of arable land available, and even with the addition of town sites, at least half of aspiring boomers were not going to get what they were after.
The pro-Cleveland Times was likewise critical of inadequate registration facilities: “the mutterings against the whole scheme of registration which began last Monday are growing louder and uglier,” it noted. The paper estimated that 9,000 people were lined up at Arkansas City on a steaming hot day, with wagon and train loads still arriving; it seemed certain that only a minority would get certificates before the opening. Rumors circulated that clerks were registering some people out of regular hours, in return for sizable bribes, and that a syndicate of sooners had organized to take possession of the Perry townsite by concealing themselves nearby before the rush officially began. At Arkansas City, waiting homesteaders were reported to be dying “like sheep” from heat and thirst.
Reporting from Arkansas City the day before the race, the Journal tried to discredit its Democratic rival by denying the truth of alarmist stories, some of which it had itself promulgated: “All the stories about men and women dying in line and daily killings and murders are made out of whole cloth, with never a thing as foundation.” Specifically, people had not been dying “like sheep,” or dying at all, apparently. There had been no trouble in Arkansas City and troops were in full control: harrowing tales had been sent out because “correspondents evidently supposed it needed a sensation to make their stories good.”
Additional registration booths had been set up and lines shortened, so it seemed everyone who wanted one would get a certificate, although it was thought that many would enter without one. The real problem was that there were too many people chasing too little farmland or too few town lots: boomer estimates ranged from 100,000 to, in the case of the always sensationalist Times, 300,000. The paper reported that at least 20,000 were in Arkansas City, Kansas, preparing to dash south to Perry to claim one of the fewer than 3,000 city lots available. 110 railway coaches were being readied, capable of carrying 22,000 people, some from as far away as California and West Virginia. Some with thoroughbred race horses built sheds to protect their mounts from the heat and ensure they’d be ready for the next day.
The “greatest race ever seen in the world,” as the Journal described it, began at noon on Saturday, September 16 with federal troops firing rifles at starting points for a hundred miles along the border. “It was a wonderful race and words cannot give more than an idea of it,” wrote the Journal correspondent:
For a mile in the rear the line presented the appearance of a fine hedge fence extending as far as the eye could reach along the prairie in both directions, but as the observer approached the fence changed into a living wall. Men and horses seemed in almost inextricable confusion until the line itself was reached and then it was seen that every man, woman and horse had its allotted place and was kept in it by a law that is stronger than those on the statute books. That was the law of free American will power exercised by a mass of humans who were determined to have things go just and right.
As the paper describes it, women were treated with courtesy up to the moment the race began, but after that were on their own. Only one woman reached her goal ahead of competitors: Mabel Gentry of Neosho County, Kansas, who rode sidesaddle “a fiery little black pony at the full jump for the seven miles from the line to the townsite of Kildare, reaching the point in seventeen minutes. It was a terrible drive from start to finish, but the girl and her horse reached the town first in the race.” Mabel, armed with pistol and picnic basket, took possession of a plot but demurred when the correspondent asked to sketch her picture, saying “she was looking a fright.” When she finally consented, she insisted her pony be included. Another notable rider was one Buffalo Jones, formerly a member of the Kansas Legislature, who rode two horses, changing from one to the other at full gallop. Jones arrived in time to stake out a prime claim.
The Journal recounted other incidents of the rush: a soldier shooting down an elderly man from New Jersey named John Hill after the man’s fractious horse carried him over the line early; a gambler who surrendered his city lot to an elderly widow who was without a claim; cheating sooners killed by furious boomers; two claimants in a dispute that left both dead, with a third man staking a claim to the disputed ground; prairie fires raging; two towns named Enid; trains headed north filled with disappointed boomers.
The Times told of infantry regiments ferreting out concealed sooners, one of them having dug a trench the size of his body and covered himself with leaves, leaving only his nose showing. One of the sooners, “the notorious Mrs. Silver, whose name, fame and face have been heard and seen in every Wild West center of action for more than a score of years,” was captured while trying to get a jump on land she could use to open a dance house and restaurant.
The center of activity for many boomers was Perry, county seat of the future Noble county, where hundreds of ramshackle business houses, saloons, groceries, and restaurants were being thrown up: “restaurants were all running in tents, but none of them were dust proof, and table, plates and food were black with dirt.” In the town center, every lot had from multiple claimants, promising future litigation. The Times described one dispute in which a woman armed with a hatchet took possession of a corner lot, vowing to tomahawk any man who challenged her; the previous claimant quietly departed.
The Journal found people in Perry from every state in the Union, and two Turks, all smothered in thick dust. Four days after the rush, five banks were running, and “ten times as many saloons and gambling houses. A circus has already struck the town and a grand public ball was given to-night.” Another Journal article described fraud in Perry perpetrated by sooners: the town lay ten miles from the Outlet boundary, yet at just eight minutes past noon a group of men were staking out lots with the connivance of a government surveyor and assorted soldiers and deputy marshals.
The Times commented on the crushed hopes of many, calling the Cherokee Outlet “a land of disappointment and despair to hundreds of people who rushed into it yesterday full of hope and confidence.” Many had failed to stake a claim, and even some successful ones, said the Journal, had abandoned claims to return to their old homes, “thoroughly disgusted with country which they had led to believe was flowing with milk and honey. Life on the broad houseless prairies was almost unbearable to-day and every tented city, from the north to the south line, was teeming with dust begrimed thousands whose principal occupation seemed to be to escape the effects of the dust ladened winds.”
Those able to hang on to their claim still had to pay for filing, titling, acreage and loan interest, amounting to $516, according to one estimate -- equivalent to $14,000 in current dollars -- in addition to expenses for housing, fencing, a well, livestock, and farm implements. The Times kept sensationalism alive by predicting a hard time for successful boomers in a land of scarce water and fuel, where the campfires of new arrivals were likely to set off wildfires: “Without water and the air filled with smoke and fire, homesteaders will have a hand-to-hand battle for their lives […]. Many of those inexperienced in life on the plains must lose their lives.”
The best land and town plots had been taken by sooners, or so many of those leaving the territory with nothing to show for their efforts believed, though perhaps none of the failed boomers had a story as sad as that of an Iowa man who’d sold his prosperous farm, deposited the proceeds in a bank, and moved with his wife and eight children to Kansas City to join the race for a new home in Oklahoma. He failed to get it and found on his return that the bank had failed and his money was gone. Later in the year, three of his children died during a measles epidemic; a fourth was critically ill.
Back in Washington, Congress was investigating the death of John Hill; the Missouri inspector general said that the sergeant responsible had been “zealous” in his duty at a trying time for the troops. Secretary of the Interior Hoke Smith in his annual report blamed boomers’ hardships on the weather and insisted that the administration’s plan was successful and prevented, “to a large extent, the wrongful occupation of land by people who were not entitled to settle thereon, which marked the first opening of Oklahoma.” Impoverished boomers struggling out of Oklahoma with nothing to show for their efforts would surely have disagreed.
Grover Cleveland received a letter from Arkansas Governor Fishback of Arkansas, prompted by a bloody train robbery engineered by a gang based in Indian Territory. Referring to Indian Territory as an “asylum of criminals” and “a school of crime,” Fishback said that the gangs were “stirring up the young Indians to deeds of blood and theft. Young Henry Starr, for example, although less than 20 years of age and of fine capacity, has been charged with almost every crime in the catalogue […].”
Indian Territory, the governor wrote, had once been safer than in the states, wrote the governor, but recently the number of murders had reached 200 a year. The time had arrived for the federal government to “assert its right of eminent domain over this part of the national domain and to change its political relations with the United States. I can think of no valid reason upon which to base the opinion that our Indians’ rights, either of person or of property, are any more sacred than those of the white man […].”
In Oklahoma, however, neither native American nor poor white boomer could expect a square deal from speculators or politicians. In 1898, Congress abolished tribal jurisdiction over all of Indian Territory, in what historian Angie Debot has called “the second stage of dispossession of the Indians […] the age of economic absorption, when the long rifle of the frontiersman was replaced by legislative enactment and court decrees of the legal exploiter, and the lease, mortgage and deed of the land shark.” They were the same exploiters and land sharks who’d pulled a fast one and grabbed many of the best claims from boomers five years before.
September 9, 2015
[i] The Outlet is often wrongly identified as or conflated with the “Cherokee Strip.” The Cherokee Strip was a band of land two and one-half miles wide, mistakenly assigned to the Cherokee as a result of a surveying error. It is now part of Kansas. The 1893 land rush occurred in the Cherokee Outlet. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherokee_Strip_(Kansas)]