Boomers & Sooners, Part One (The Unassigned Lands)

Boomer Sooner Drum MajorIt’s impossible to live in Oklahoma any length of time without being thoroughly marinated in the thundering pulse of the University of Oklahoma’s “Boomer Sooner.” If you’re dyed deep in just the right shade of maroon, you may even know the words:

Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner

Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner…

Careful, now – there’s a switcheroo coming – 

OKU!

Those aren’t ALL of the words, of course – that would be silly. The second verse takes the theme to new depths:

Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Oklahoma

Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Oklahoma, OKU!

Were you ready for the twist at the end that time? I’m so proud.

Most of you are at least generally aware that both ‘Boomer’ and ‘Sooner’ refer to some sort of law-breaking, rule-bending, cheating, stealing, land-grabbing behavior on the part of our state’s earliest settlers. It would be easy to let this bit of our collective history color our perceptions, maybe even taking some of the fun out of those ‘faux land runs’ we stage repeatedly in elementary schools across the state every year on some pretense or another. 

A broader view of history, however, suggests that cheating and stealing land are actually WAY down on the list of atrocities involved in the birthing and developing our dear 46th State. They’re practically MERITS compared to Indian Removal, the Dawes and Curtis Acts, lynching, the Tulsa Race Riots, fracking, and {insert the name of your favorite local political figure here}.

Of course, no state is perfect. It would be unfair to ignore all of the many contributions Oklahoma has made to the nation as a whole over the same time period. Oil comes to mind, of course, along with… um…

Well, oil comes to mind.

In any case, despite popular misconceptions, ‘Boomer’ and ‘Sooner’ are very different terms about very different types of people. Whether praising or condemning them, we should at least get our facts straight. 

Indian Removal

The groups now often referred to as the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ (5CT) – the Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole – were moved to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma, more or less) by force in the 1830s. The atrocities of Indian Removal are well-documented elsewhere, but what’s less-recognized is that for those who survived, life in I.T. was not completely horrible for the next generation.

The land was very different, but they adapted. Governments and schools were rebuilt, newspapers re-established, and life generally settled into a kind of ‘new normal’ - a calm which hadn’t been possible for nearly a century in the Southeastern U.S. from whence they’d come. The 5CT and their slaves (yes, they had slaves – history is rudely complicated that way) were largely left alone, thanks to the high value white

Americans placed on the treaties both sides had signed in good faith.

HA! Just checking to see if you were paying attention! They were left alone because no respectable white guy would have come to Oklahoma by choice during this time. It was completely undesirable land. That's, um... well... that's why we put the Indians here. (You thought we'd give them California?)

Either way, the 5CT were left alone for nearly a quarter of a century, which sounds much longer than simply saying “about 25 years”. Textbooks often call this a ‘Golden Age’ for the tribes, although skeptical readers can’t help but wonder if such rhetoric is chosen in an effort to create a faux ‘balance’ in white treatment of the Amerindian. It ever-so-lightly hints that “hey, everything turned out OK in the end, so let’s just let bygones be bygones but we’re keeping all the land so let-it-go-you-had-a-golden-age.”

Or maybe textbook writers are simply trying to give credit where due to the resilience of the various tribes, and write a balanced account of history. Unlike, say… this one.

The Civil War in I.T. 

Then came the American Civil War – something about slavery, or tariffs, or states’ rights, or whatnot. Initially, most of the Amerindian population in I.T. was content to stay on the sidelines and watch this one play out. “Don’t mind us; you guys go right ahead. We’re completely and totally fine with white people killing each other. Be our guests. In fact, here - borrow my rifle.”

As it turned out, staying out of the conflict wasn’t as easy as they’d hoped. When pushed, many sympathized with the South, especially after Confederates promised them a better deal should they prevail. The ‘Great White Father’, as Jackson and others had been fond of referring to themselves, hadn’t proven particularly reliable, and Washington, D.C., was seen as far more responsible the miseries of removal than, say, Georgia. While some remained 'loyal' to the North, and a few went to great lengths to resist involvement altogether, enough of the 5CT became Confederates to satisfy the needs of historical oversimplification.

But not all of them.  

The unfolding of the Civil War in Indian Territory is a fascinating tale in and of itself, but for now the important thing is that by the end of the war many homes were destroyed, lives were lost, families torn apart… an outcome which should sound vaguely familiar to anyone who passed American History in high school. The impact of the war in I.T. was as severe as anywhere else in the South, and worse than in many places.

Reconstruction Treaties in I.T.

The difference postbellum, though, was that whereas Radical Republicans confronted a defiant, vain, feet-dragging South after the war as they pushed their vision of ‘Reconstruction,’ the Tribes were already subjugated and largely at the mercy of the Federal government. Oh, their representatives fought back with words and legalities to prevent it from being far worse than it could have been, but in the end they were condemned as having fought with the wrong side, and were forced to give up huge chunks of their land in Oklahoma as a result.

That made room for the U.S. to begin packing in other tribes, this time mostly from the Great Plains. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Wichita, Kickapoo, Pawnee, Apache, Comanche… and of course the Lakota Sioux. Remember Dances With Wolves? Yeah, this was THAT time period. Tatanka!

Unlike the first ‘Indian Removal’ to Oklahoma, this one faced regular and often violent resistance from those being so tenderly indoctrinated and relocated. Between the Civil War and 1890 came a series of conflicts often packaged together as the ‘Postbellum Indian Wars’ – primarily taking place in the middle third of the nation, from Texas up to Montana and the Dakotas. 

The 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana Territory – aka “Custer’s Last Stand” – is probably the best-remembered by the casual historian. It made a martyr out of Custer and effectively sealed the fate of any remaining ‘red men’ resisting the reservation lifestyle of handouts and degradation, spoiled food and rotting lives.  

South Dakota’s Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890, effectively ended resistance on the Great Plains and marked the end of both overt and cultural warfare between Anglos and Amerindians. Not until the 1970s would the American Indian return to public consciousness as anything other than myths or tragic caricatures. 

A Vanishing Frontier 

When this second wave of Indian Removal was complete, some of the lands remained ‘unassigned.’ These were cleverly labeled as the ‘Unassigned Lands’ – nearly 2 million acres across what we now know as Norman, Oklahoma City, Guthrie, Stillwater, etc.

According to the Homestead Act of 1862, there was a pretty straightforward procedure for homesteaders wishing to settle on available land in the west. Except... this land wasn’t technically "available." It was still Indian Territory, even if this particular section didn't end up "allotted" to any Indians. 

But as the new century loomed, the Great American Frontier was vanishing – at least according to the 1890 Census, which proclaimed the frontier ‘closed’ - with no new lands left to settle or civilize. This was the statistic which prompted Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous “Frontier Thesis,” presented in Chicago in 1893 as part of the World's Columbian Exposition celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' voyage of discovery.

Every student of American History has a vague recollection of Frederick Jackson Turner and his “Thesis,” in which he must have said something important because you’re pretty sure it’s going to be on the test. 

Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development…

The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people - to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life…

Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character…

Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893)

Turner’s basic message was that with the frontier effectively closed – as in, it’s all been settled and civilized – Americans will lose that magic something that comes from perpetually wrestling with destiny and the wilderness and the like. He envisioned citizens of the once great United States becoming spoiled, apathetic, and lazy, by virtue of having no real obstacles to overcome, presumably requiring constant drama and distraction merely to fill the void. Had he been chronologically able to incorporate hover chairs and giant Slurpees, he no doubt would have done so. 

In any case, historians have long-since discredited such silliness on the part of Turner. It’s all but impossible to even imagine such a society today. Hey, you wanna order another pizza while we Netflix binge some Breaking Bad?

A Time of Need

So the frontier was ‘closing’ at the same time Indian Territory seemed to be about as full as it was ever likely to be again under that name – and there was a tiny bit ‘left over.’ The population of the United States showed no sign of its growth slowing, however, and all those people were going to have to live somewhere. 

More significantly, the American Dream relied on readily available land and the potential of white homesteading. Democracy itself was built on the presumption that the most humble citizen would have some opportunity to prove himself worthy via 160 acres and some grit. If there’s no more land, it’s not just the remaining homesteaders or those yet to come who are in trouble – it’s an entire national concept. An ideal. Government of the - by the - for the.

Is it not equally true, that Men in general in every Society, who are wholly destitute of Property, are also too little acquainted with public Affairs to form a Right Judgment, and too dependent upon other Men to have a Will of their own?  …

Power always follows Property… The only possible Way then of preserving the Ballance of Power on the side of equal Liberty and public Virtue, is to make the Acquisition of Land easy to every Member of Society to make a Division of the Land into Small Quantities, So that the Multitude may be possessed of landed Estates… 

John Adams, letter to James Sullivan, May 26, 1776

I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison, 1787

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS… {argued that} … Children do not vote. Why? Because they want prudence; because they have no will of their own. The ignorant and the dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest… As to merchants &c., if they have wealth, and value the right, they can acquire {land}. If not, they don't deserve it…

From James Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Constitutional Convention, August 7, 1787

If that government fails, then American fails. Democracy fails. And if democracy fails here, it fails everywhere. Mankind is plunged backwards into darkness and tyranny, savagery and despair. Monsters rule the earth. 

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but not so far from the very real passions and fears of the times. Not every hungry homesteader was so historically-minded, of course. Many simply wanted their shot at what they perceived to be their birthright – the chance to work hard, take risks, and provide for themselves and their loved ones. But the systemic support necessary to make this possible for one last generation – or some portion thereof, at least - that required an idealistic framework. 

The need to justify our worst behavior is hardly unique to Oklahomans or Americans. We are perhaps, however, more adept at doing so over the course of the past two centuries because of our success in so many national realms. The rationalization process is simple: (1) Act on emotion or use your position of power to take or do what you want. (2) Caricaturize those collaterally damaged along the way so they seem to have kinda deserved it – bonus points if you can persuasively claim you tried so very hard to help them but they just wouldn’t listen. (3) Distance yourself from your own behavior by blaming it on God or the Universe. You were just there. In a way, you’re just as much of a victim as the people you gave the smallpox blankets to. 

But I digress. 

Onto the historical stage, thus set, walk Elias C. Boudinot, Charles C. Carpenter, and David L. Payne.  

Elias C. Boudinot is an advocate and editorialist. Carpenter is a promoter – possibly a bit of a charlatan. David L. Payne – well, Payne we should really try to remember. He’s going to become our daddy.

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