Boomers & Sooners, Part Four ~ Dirty Stinkin' No Good Sons Of...

You may remember the movie Far & Away - if for nothing else than Tom Cruise's wonderful Irish brogue ("I'll Get My Land! Pink Hearts! Yellow Moons! Green Clovers!" It also has a wonderful Oklahoma Land Run as part of the finale, including this moment:

Sooners at Second Land Run

We’re rooting for the Christies the whole movie, of course. Wealthy landowners from Ireland, they are nevertheless stuck in a rut personally and socially, and after their home is destroyed by Irish tenant farmers (“Captain Moonlight!”) they come to the U.S. in pursuit of their daughter, and end up as Sooners in one of the major Oklahoma Land Runs. Adorable.

SneakingNot all Sooners were such loveable characters, however. From the New York Times, April 25th, 1889:

The stories told of the opening-day exploits are as varied as they are entertaining. The impression seems to be general that at noon of that day there were enough men in the Territory to take up every available homestead.

”The fact is,” said and intelligent boomer from Marshall County, Kan., “the soldiers were not half so anxious to keep people out of the territory as they were said to be. I know perfectly well that the train on which I journeyed from Arkansas City… left several hundred men inside the proscribed territory. They dropped off at every station and hid in freight cars, or crossed the prairie to the nearest brush and secreted themselves. 

Monday’s event showed that at the hour of noon men appeared as if by magic around the stations of Oklahoma City, Norman, and Walker, and of course the same scenes were witnessed at Guthrie… What possible show did an outsider have against these men?”

All of this was possible because the Boomers had finally ‘won’ – at least in terms of the public debate. In March of 1889, Congress passed an amendment to the Indian Appropriations Act (1871) opening the Unassigned Lands in Indian Territory to settlement under the same terms as the Homestead Act (1862).

I realize that sounds a bit dry, which is why I usually just go with ‘the Boomers had finally won’.

Land RunIt was later announced that these lands would be opened up through a ‘Land Run’ – an approach which certainly reduced paperwork and eliminated the traditional 5-year waiting period before taking title to a section of this last remnant of American frontier, now being referred to more and more often as "Oklahoma." It was a weird system even for the times – times far more interesting than usually credited.

A little over a year after that first Land Run in 1889, the U.S. Census Bureau would proclaim the frontier ‘closed’ - vanished, actually - 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.

The 1890’s was a big decade for the ‘common man’. The Wounded Knee Massacre effectively ended Amerindian resistance on the Great Plains (or anywhere else, for that matter), the American Frontier was decreed to have officially passed away, the Second Industrial Revolution was beginning in the northeast, and thanks to that first big land run, the Organic Act begins nudging Oklahoma towards statehood. Populism becomes a thing, returning in various forms as Progressivism, the New Deal, the Great Society, and eventually Obamacare and Teen Mom 3.

NewsiesPeople were reading Kate Chopin, H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde, while Arthur Conan Doyle introduced a new character named “Sherlock Holmes.” Those kids from Newsies, led by a young Bruce Wayne, were doing that thing they wanted the world to know, although it’s unclear whether they used the same choreography as in the movie. L. Frank Baum was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz so that schoolchildren a century later could discuss bimetallism without losing consciousness, and those guys who kinda invented flying machines just prior to the Wright Brothers were crashing them in various interesting ways as part of their efforts to claim the skies.


There was a depression in 1893, but other than that things were good until Mark Twain labeled it ‘The Gilded Age’ – a term suggesting it was all a thinly veiled illusion masking sickness and corruption, and now a common chapter title in any American History textbook discussing the advent of the 20th century. 

Twain was SUCH a downer.

1890 Census MapThe census was a year away, but the sense that the nation was ‘filling up’ and land was ‘running out’ was hardly news to Boomers and others looking for those last few opportunities in the west. The future state of Oklahoma, once so disparaged that the Natives were placed there by force so white guys could have the GOOD land, was looking better and better as other options fell away. Necessity, it seems, was the mother of invasion.

So President Benjamin Harrison, as one of his first acts in office, officially set April 22, 1889, exactly at noon, as the starting time for this madness. Three or four times the number of settlers as there were plots, competing under limited supervision for land they no doubt considered essential to their very survival. Social Darwinism, thy name is Oklahoma.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that so many cheated. Sometimes it wasn’t even a question of WHETHER you’d cheated, but whether you’d cheated ENOUGH:

{Two Sooners, Grant and Crossman,} had taken advantage of the temporary absence of the troops from one of the fording places and crossed in advance of the main column, so that when the signal was given they were probably a mile beyond the river. They rode at a gallop the entire distance and came upon the desired ground just as a man broke from the timber with a hatchet in his hand and planted a stake in one of the claims. The man then quietly mounted his horse and waited for the friends to approach.

Throwing Hatchet“Rather got ahead of ye, didn’t I, boys?” he asked, when they came up.

The tone and the accompanying leer excited Crossman beyond measure, and he drew his revolver and fired at the stranger. The bullet went wide, and the man, without an instant’s hesitation, hurled his hatchet at Crossman. The blade struck him full in the forehead, and he fell dead in his tracks… 

Hiding In The GrassStill, even this we might sweep aside as typical of the times. We must not judge the past by the standards of our far-more-convenient present. Perhaps hatchet lad, and Grant – who went on to shoot the bastard – may be excused for their Lord of the Flies behavior.

But they were only one kind of Sooner. The far more loathsome sort remind me of too many people today. 

Maybe that’s why I’m bitter.   

RELATED POST: Boomers & Sooners, Part One ~ Last Call Land-Lovers

RELATED POST: Boomers & Sooners, Part Two ~ An Editorial and a Carpenter

RELATED POST: Boomers & Sooners, Part Three ~ Who's Your Daddy? Why, It's David L. Payne!

RELATED POST: Boomers & Sooners, Part Five ~ Cheater Cheater Red Dirt Eater

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