Primary Source: "Oklahoma Claims" (Lippencott's Monthly Magazine - July 1898)

“Oklahoma Claims” (Helen C. Candee) - Lippencott’s Monthly Magazine (July 1898)

Ollin and “our girl,” as he called his buxom niece, halted their ponies before my gate one April morning.

“Good mawnin’; awful pretty day. I got a call to go out to my claim, an’ though maybe you’d like to go ‘long with us.”

Of course I wanted to go, and in five minutes was in conventional riding-dress, a costume that never failed to provoke criticism and ridicule in a country where a mother-hubbard and a sun-bonnet are considered appropriate on a horse, and where the highest flight of sartorial fancy is a block cotton skirt gathered full all around and worn over the usual dress. As we rode along over the red rutted roads that cross the prairies, Ollin remarked,—

“My woman won’t go to the claim, for she says if I ever get her there she’ll have to stay an’ hol’ it down. But that ain’t so, for we’ve lived there long enough every year to satisfy the law, an’ I’m just about ready to prove up and sell it.”

“That isn’t what ‘Uncle Sam’ gave it to you for, is it? Weren’t the claims given away so that each man could have a chance to provide a settled home for his family, and land enough to support them if well cultivated?”

Ollin’s leathery face wrinkled into a smile; his small blue eyes lost their habitual look of searching, which had been gained through years of prairie work with Indians, outlaws, and herds. 

“Uncle Sam is an awful nice man,” he drawled, “but he’s got to sit up all night to be up early enough for Oklahoma folks. There’s slick ways of holdin’ down claims you’d never dream of. There’s our girl, now,” and he glanced at the bovine maiden, who had, however, a shrewd look in her eyes and a general air of self-possession. “She’s got a claim up in the Strip, but she lives with my woman an’ me. Every two weeks she takes some one with her an’ goes to spend a Sunday. That’s an awful nice way to earn a hundred an’ sixty, ain’t it?”

“But I thought that the government demanded that a homesteader should improve the land,” I suggested. 

“That’s right. Our girl’s nobody’s fool. She’s let her claim to a family who farms it an’ goes half on the profits,” he responded, with an admiring glance at the clumsy monument of shrewdness, whose ample form and voluminous drapery hid all of her wiry pony save hoofs, head, and tail. 

“You should have seen the day the Cherokee Strip was opened. She rode right in with the best of them, lickity-split through bush an’ timber an’ draws till she left most of ‘em behind, an’ then out she whipped her gun an’ a hatchet an’ began to chop the sprouts off a black-jack. ‘Whatcher doin’, Leora?’ I hollers as I was a scootin’ past. ‘Improvin’ my lan’!’ she yells back; an’ I’m blessed if that very thing didn’t save her when some feller tried to driver her off—that an’ her gun.”

“Did you run for a claim in the Strip when you had one here in the original territory of Oklahoma?” I asked the question as a reproach, for I did not like to discovery chicanery in a son of the prairies. 

“Yes, I run for one,” returned Ollin, with a sheepish laugh. “First, off I started in to help our girl, but when I saw her get so quick suited I looked out for number one. I got a mighty nice place, too, an’ set there four hours happy as a horned toad. Then four fellers come along an’ pointed their guns at me an’ tol’ me that was their claim and I’d better get off. So I got off. But it was a blamed shame. I had no more right to it ‘n you have, but they might ‘a’ let me alone till some feller come along I could sell it to. That was all I wanted.”

Now, Olin was an honest man, but who could resist the temptation to grab when a free grab-bag is opened by the government? Besides, the man who has once led a life of adventure can rarely settle down permanently to conventional regularity. 

As every one knows, Oklahoma was surveyed, plaided with roads, and divided into sections a mile square, which were subdivided into quarter-sections of a hundred and sixty acres each. Then the country was cleared of every inhabitant, the militia were put in possession to secure fair play, and on a certain day the waiting hordes of settlers and adventurers were allowed to run over the border and take possession. First come were first served, and from the start every man was his neighbor’s enemy. If the devil did not take the hindmost, at least the law did, for disputes arose as to who came first, and lawyers were called in to settle the matter. The processes of law are notoriously slow, and many contests of claims have been dragging from the opening, in 1889, to the present day. 

Where the land is broad and the view as extended as it is on Oklahoma’s prairie farms, one might fancy a wide liberality of thought; but life on a claim is narrower than life in a city tenement. Fancy two rivals living on the same quarter-section, hating each other as bitterly as ever did contestants for a throne. For these the whole world is narrowed down to one hundred and sixty acres, and all evil is concentrated in the person of the other claimant. Remember that both men have regarded his venture in a new country as the last throw of the dice, and to lose now means a living death. Brooding over the threatened loss, feeling that earthly happiness can be secured only by the removal of the obnoxious one, it is small wonder if some day one of the men is found murdered. His rival has done it, without doubt, in a frenzy of despair. He has found the processes of the law too slow, and has exhausted his funds in lawyers’ fees. If neither the law nor the Lord would give relief, he must seek it with his own hands; he has a wife and children dependent on him; he is sure of the priority of his arrival on the claim; and so, persuaded by reason and crazed by apprehension, he kills his adversary. 

The Cimarron River lay before us in the distance. On the map it is an important stream, rising in the Rockies and wandering through New Mexico and Oklahoma until it joins its twin, the Arkansas; but on the landscape it is an elaborate humbug, with scarce enough water to fill a mountain brook, and even this is brackish from a salt lick. I had asked of Ollin how far it was to the river, and his reply had puzzled me. “One mile to the bank and two miles to the river,” was what he said, and now his remark was elucidated. The road, wondering through the prairie uplands, suddenly drops for fifty feet to the wide, level bottomland, and, after wandering through this, reaches a stretch of sand like that left by the falling tide of the ocean. Through this wide desert of sand thread streams gently meander, and these are the Cimarron. 

Bridges are rare, but inviting fords are indicated by wagon-tracks crossing the sand-bars and disappearing at each little stream. The wind blew fresh from the south. I gave rein to the pony, and flew down the dry water-course on a mad run. Ollin was shouting behind me. In the soft sand the hoof-beats of his pony made no noise. It is a race, I thought, giving the pony a whip. Ollin had the better mount, and in another minute had seized my pony’s bridle. His face was anxious and determined; as he pulled both horses down, I began to notice their feet sinking deep in the sand, and at each step deeper. Ollin had come just in time to save me from the quicksand. 

We took the road which wound between the river and the sand-hills, which were sparsely covered with prairie grass recently burned. Trees near the burned district were filled with numerous black birds,—predatory hawks whose instinct sent them there to watch for helpless game robbed of its usual cover. If a rabbit ventured too far from its hole, before it could run across the open a hawk was on its back. On the bank beside me a long black-snake undulated to the top and slipped away. In another moment my horse shied violently and stopped. A beautiful snake of emerald green flecked with black and white was coiled for a spring. A shot from “our girl’s” pistol angered and disconcerted him, and he coiled again, but this time Ollin put a bullet in his head. A little farther on was a cliff of red rocks, on the face of which some lonely soldier had thirty years ago carved a record which was perhaps the last trace ever found of him. The American flag, his name, and that of his regiment were all. Possibly the Indians came before he had finished, for life here was uncertain in those days. 

Ollin’s claims were no different from thousands of others. It was fenced with barbed wire, that inexorable thread of civilization which drives away deer and coyote, and leaves only the timorous, curious rabbit. The house was a small shack of two rooms, and the out-buildings embraced a windmill and a sizable barn. A few acres were disturbed by a few desultory rows of cotton and stacks of Kaffir corn, but the largest interest of the farm, as might be expected of Ollin, was horses. 

“It don’t pay me to put much money in the claim,” said Ollin, “for I’m goin’ to sell it. Me an’ my woman likes to live where it’s lively.”

That seems to be the universal sentiment, and people huddle together in the unbeautiful town for the sake of  its meagre distractions, living in the contracted quarters of a city lot instead of having intimate association with the beauties of prairie and timber-land. Ollin sometimes longed for better things, as he showed by a remark as we turned our faces homeward. “I didn’t really have no call to go to the farm,” he explained, with the uncouth sheepishness with which he always dressed confession, “but I wanted to get out with you-all and the ponies.”

We met a vigorous old man on the road, who saluted us all with the engaging courtesy of remote districts, which demands that human beings shall acknowledge one another’s presence on the highway without the guarantee of previous acquaintance. After he had passed beyond earshot, Ollin told his story. It was the old tale of contest based on a dispute over the first arrival on the land. The two claimants erected homes, and settled down to the hatred of civil warfare. The younger members of the family grew impatient of delays, and could scarcely be restrained from doing violence to each other. One of the contestants died, and his son attempted the murder of the old man we had met upon the road. The shot, instead of killing him, killed his son, and the murderer was arrested, tried, and convicted, but made his escape into a distant state, where he remains a fugitive from justice. The mother and two other sons continue the feud, and only wait the opportunity to slay him whom they consider an usurper. The claim is several miles from the nearest town, and these bitter enemies are isolated from all save one another. Each family is sure of ultimate victory, and thus they waste years and destroy all happiness of life in this unfortunate warfare. 

We passed another claim: the house was deserted, but flowers still blossomed in the door-yard, and a cat still lingered about the steps, showing the place to have been recently vacated. Here had lived an old couple who had come to this far country to begin life again as young people, because fate had denied them the rest and peace appropriate to their years. A man with more cunning than they, arriving late, denounced them as “sooners,” and forthwith filed affidavit of contest. There was nothing to do but to expend their little hoard of money on lawyers’ fees, to endeavor to hold what was rightfully theirs. The law demanded a certain amount of improvement on the farm, but its cultivation was discouraging work, for eagerness was changed to reluctance by the blighting thought that the land was being cultivated for the benefit of their bitterest enemy. For several years the old people stayed there, gently uncomplaining, hoping against hope; but at last the Secretary of the Interior at Washington rendered the decision from which there is no appeal, and the old people were turned beggared upon the world, with neither hope nor strength to try a new venture. The victorious claimant gathered his friends about him, and made merry over his victory in the fine new house which he built on the claim, unconscious that the little shack in the far corner was a monument to the memory of the brave struggle of down-trodden truth.

Another case came up in Ollin’s memory as our tired horses walked leisurely through the town. A military man, who was among those who were guarding the country immediately before its opening, thought it permissible to stake a claim for himself adjoining a town site of Guthrie. The number of persons who appeared in the town the first day was twenty thousand, and as these could not be accommodated within the section originally set apart for the town, districts were added and divided into city lots and taken possession of by the settlers. In this process the military gentleman’s claim was entirely absorbed. Notwithstanding his protests, the settlers took possession, planned streets, and built houses, until this claim became an important resident district of the new city. An account of the litigation that followed would fill volumes. It seemed just to the man who originally staked the claim to give it to him, but, on the other hand, it was almost like a crime to rob dozens of families of homes which they had built there in good faith, when by so doing they had enormously increased the value of the disputed territory. No contest in the Territory has excited greater interest than this, the sympathy being equally divided. A short time ago the Interior Department at Washington made the decision that military men within the Territory previous to its opening had no right to use their advantage in securing claims, and thus this case and many similar ones were ended.

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