Boomers & Sooners, Part One ~ Last Call Land-Lovers
If you’re from Oklahoma, or if you follow college football, or if you’ve ever been to OU, or if you have a pulse, you’ve probably more than once been subjected to the Hyper-Sousa-ish throb of the University of Oklahoma’s “Boomer Sooner.” If you’re truly 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 real switcheroo coming –
O K U !
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, O K U!
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. But before you get too high and mighty about it, let me just step forward and say proudly that cheating and stealing land are WAY down on the list of atrocities involved in the birthing and subsequent… ‘development’ of our 46th State.
Do you think we’d sing of such things so proudly if they were anywhere NEAR the WORST of it? Hell, these are practically MERITS compared to the Tulsa Race Riots, policies towards the Native populations, lynching, fracking, and Jim Inhofe.
In any case, despite popular misconceptions, ‘Boomer’ and ‘Sooner’ are very different terms about very different types of people. I’m happy to help set your fur’ners straight.
Background to the Boomers
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 1830’s. 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 – a complex subject for another time) were largely left alone, thanks to the high value white Americans placed on the treaties both sides had signed in good faith.
HA! Just kidding – they were left alone because no respectable white guy would have come to Oklahoma by choice. 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”. Oklahoma History textbooks often call this a ‘Golden Age’ for the tribes, although that strikes me as a bit on the look-we-actually-did-you-a-favor side. But it didn’t suck, and many things are quite tolerable if it means not having to deal with white people.
Then came the American Civil War – something about slavery, or tariffs, or states’ rights, or whatnot. Hey, no problem here! We’re completely and totally fine with white people killing each other off. Be our guests . Here, borrow my rifle.
Only 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. Some remained 'loyal' to the North, and a few went to great lengths to resist involvement altogether. Eventually, however, a majority of the 5CT were Confederates, including the colorful Stand Watie – the last Confederate General to officially surrender at the end of the war.
The unfolding of the Civil War in Indian Territory is a tale worth exploring, but for now the important thing is that by the end of the war many homes were destroyed, lives were lost, families torn apart… you see a familiar tale here, yes? The impact of the war in I.T. was as severe as most anywhere else in the South.
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.
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.
When Destiny Closes A Manifest Door...
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.
By 1889, the Great American West Bar & Grill was closing. The more inviting among the soiled women who loitered thereabouts had left with smarter, older, or quicker-thinking men. Time to throw back a couple of shots on top of that last beer and find someone who might not be the prettiest or the smartest, but who was available and not overly picky themselves.
Gentlemen, meet Oklahoma – or, part of her, anyway. That ‘unassigned’ section there in the middle. I like this one allot (see what I did there?) but you don’t wanna end up holding her panhandle, I assure you.
These homesteaders – our “Last Call Land-Lovers” – were the first ‘Boomers’ – folks who'd missed their chance to grab something prettier or smarter. Oklahoma flashed them a knowing grin and a settle-hither stare. “Hey baby, come check out my rich red clay. You want lakes? We can build them together. Bring your honey lamb and watch some bored birds – it will be grand! Aye-yip aye-oh aye-ayy."
Keeping these acres 'unassigned' was like trying to keep your post-teen sister a virgin despite her not being engaged - at least not to anyone nearby. Sure, technically she’s not ‘available’, but she doesn’t look all that 'taken,' either. It's just a matter of time until some boy tries to settle on her and dares you to do something about it.
The land-lusting was just big talk for a spell, until an editorial and a Carpenter set the stage for our protagonist and anti-hero, David L. Payne.
He’s going to become our daddy.
RELATED POST: Boomers & Sooners, Part Two ~ An Editorial & A Carpenter