Helen Churchill Candee & Oklahoma Boosterism (Part One)

Helen C. CandeeHelen Churchill Candee came to Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory (O.T.) in the mid-1890s, primarily drawn by its lax divorce laws. She brought her two children, Edith and Harold, and ended up staying for several years. I carried on at some length ]]last time about how fascinating I’ve come to find this enigmatic chronicler – particularly in terms of her empathetic pith and generous promotion of early Oklahoma.  

It’s really quite unhealthy on my part, I’m sure. 

Candee was already a freelance writer when she arrived in O.T.  Before arriving in Guthrie, she’d mostly done pieces on lifestyle tips, social etiquette, or other types of “women’s writing.” 

(In digging around for these earliest bits, I’ve ended up spending way too much time absorbed in old issues of Ladies’ Home Journal and whatnot. It starts innocently enough, hunting down H.C.C. columns and capturing them before noticing surrounding articles and ads. A fortnight later, I stumble into the living room unshaven and half-starved, wondering what day it is and whether or not I’m fired. I’m either a very deep researcher or a tragic example of what happens when you don’t get out more.)

Eventually Candee would be recognized as an authority on a number of historical and cultural topics, but it was during her time in Oklahoma that three important things happened to make the rest possible. First, she got her divorce and escaped an abusive relationship with an angry, insecure man. Second, in January 1900, she published her first book, How Women May Earn a Living, which was commercially successful as well as critically well-received.

Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, she became one of the most influential voices in promoting Oklahoma Territory as a valuable – if misunderstood – part of the nation. Her boosterism, though at times a bit ambitious, seems sincere. She stood out from fellow Okla-dvocates with her colorful ‘voice’ and her penetrating perspective – seeming to ‘zoom’ in and out smoothly, briefly capturing individuals while summarizing decades. 

She brought a moral clarity and insight expected of a woman with the confident authority and knowledgeable tone presumed from a man.

The earliest Pro-klahoma piece of Candee’s (of which I’m aware) was for The Forum, an ambitious periodical known for its “symposium” features, in which prominent thinkers or authors would debate various sides of contemporaneous social and political issues. The magazine had already featured several essays by future President Theodore Roosevelt, and over the years managed consistent respectability with bursts of greatness, publishing notables-to-be and tackling complex issues via diverse voices. 

In short, it was fairly legit. 

Candee opens “Social Conditions In Our Newest Territory” (June 1898) with what I suspect is a nod to The Forum’s reputation for dialectic: 

“No matter what people tell you to the contrary, there is not a man in this town who would stay if he could get out.” This was the pessimistic remark of a prominent Oklahoman to a stranger, made in a weary time of waiting for a Government appointment; but, fortunately for the growth of the Territory, there are those within its bounds who do not feel that way. They see in the new country a chance to make a fresh start, unhampered by the competition of crowded districts, and relieved of the over-stimulation of haste.

The piece goes on to backstory the territory’s openings, its developmental hiccups, and its reputation for lawlessness. While her tone suggests a certain resignation towards the bureaucratic foibles of Washington, D.C., she somehow covers the corruption inherent to Oklahoma’s birth without actually condemning the Territory or anyone in it. Even her recap of trouble with “sooners” – arguably the most foul creatures to ever soil our past – has an almost “boys will be boys” spirit:

For several weeks before the opening, the country, then being ready for the reception of homesteaders, was cleared of all individuals except the soldiers stationed there to prevent the arrival of “sooners.” The latter, however, ingeniously effaced themselves for the time only; for, when the signal gun was fired, they seemed to rise from the ground, as though Cadmus had been on earth again sowing the fabled dragon’s teeth. 

They “ingeniously effaced themselves”? She means they hid – those same soldiers being paid by taxpayer dollars to keep out cheaters – and subsequently robbed those foolish enough to follow the rules and trust the system. Candee doesn’t condone the behavior exactly, but she tells it like a preacher recounting the time they snuck beer into the dorms rather than condemning the individuals involved. 

Cadmus ended sparking a new community by following a cow, conquering some water issues, then farming – albeit with teeth. The allusion may simply be a nice turn of phrase, but it certainly lends some mythical mojo to what were otherwise dirty land swindlers – also known as the first generation of successful Oklahomans. 

I’m just saying. 

Men who had herded cattle, and those who had traded with the Indians for years, were not to be outdone by the vigilance of soldiers ignorant of sheltering “draws,” hidden “dug-outs,” and obscuring fastnesses of scrub-oak and blue-stem. “A feller had to keep mighty quiet until the marshal’s gun fired,” said a successful “sooner”; “every draw kept fillin’ with men all night long; an’ it was hard to keep from seein’ and bein’ seen.”

It’s a great story, even today. Of course, it’s been 125 years or so and every last hiding cheating sooner is long dead (may their souls burn forever). As of Candee’s writing, many of those cases were still in court, or resolved at gunpoint, or had simply led to the law-abiding sucker leaving empty-handed, having sacrificed everything for that one last chance. 

She does not so much condone as capture these men and their motivations – not via explanation or argument, but with poignant snapshots of words and moments. It is, after all, difficult to truly revile or condemn anyone we begin to understand. That is arguably Candee’s greatest strength, at least when writing about Oklahoma; she refuse to give up on the individual, even when decrying the system or the crowd.

It was a crowd of determined, almost desperate, men and women, many of whom, having failed in the fight for prosperity, had gathered here for a fresh trial. 

You can’t frame a government-sponsored ‘Hunger Games’ much more nobly than that. And she’s not wrong – at their most ideal, that’s exactly what the Oklahoma land openings were. 

Every man’s hand was against his fellow. His neighbor on the right, placed there by accident, might be the one who would beat him in the race… and, when finally the signal was given, a mad race began, the results of which make interesting history. All men started as enemies. The reward was to the selfish and to the bully; and greed and strength were the winners. 

She discusses the many disputes over lots, leading to prolonged legal action in the best cases, and bloodshed in the worst. Note, however, the tone – a sort of heartfelt hurting on behalf of those involved. The villain seems to be cruel universe or a distant bureaucracy; never the hard-working individuals. 

So much litigation is an expense which all cannot bear; and many a rightful contestant loses his claim for want of money to defend it. This condition of injustice and criminality is passing away as the time allotted by the Government for “proving up” approaches expiration; but the hatred engendered in each man’s breast was an unhappy handicap in the settlement of a new country. 

Besides this, the uncertainty, whether a man is or is not the permanent possessor of the land, robs him of ambition to improve it; for he may be working for the good of one whom he would rather kill than benefit. 

A little plug for clear property rights and an efficient legal system there. 

As I have said, the men who rushed into the Territory, and located themselves on claims, were actuated by an impelling necessity, the instinct of self-preservation, excepting always a few adventurers, who ultimately passed to more attractive fields. 

“Actuated by an impelling necessity.” If I could *phew!*-whistle in print while raising my eyebrows, here’s where I’d do it. 

Candee’s affection for her adopted state arguably rose-colors her rhetoric, but she stops short of denying all of Oklahoma’s flaws or justifying its sins. She instead chronicles the essentials while persistently searching past them for humanity and meaning. I’ve opted not to rehash her accounting of crop development, the placement of townships, or the other logistics she conveys so efficiently. Those things are of interest historically, but not germane to her voice, her writing’s “soul,” if you’ll indulge me. 

Candee is reporting, and documenting, and – let’s be honest – entertaining, but in the end, more than anything, she’s advocating. She’s making a case for a slighted Territory to be better understood and appreciated by its very distant cousins back home.

A thorn in the side of the Oklahoman is the indifference with which the Territory is treated in the East. He and his fellow feel themselves to be more loyal Americans than are New-Yorkers, and to be doing more than they to increase the spirit of patriotism… 

It is here that pure patriotism and Americanism are found. Idlers here have time to loaf; thinkers have time to deduce; and the man of ability and ambition outstrips his fellows. In this far district is again illustrated the truism, that when all men start life equal, in a few years each will find his natural level.

I don't think that’s always true, but I love that she did – and that maybe, for a moment, it was a little.



Add new comment