Boomers & Sooners, Part Five ~ Cheater Cheater Red Dirt Eater
I confess I’ve always had a disproportionate revulsion and hostility towards people who cut in line, take up multiple parking places, or otherwise demonstrate an utter lack of interest in the possibility there are other people in the world but themselves.
My home was robbed when I was a kid. More upsetting than the stuff I lost was the inexpressible sense of violation, and marginalization. How could one person do that to another, consciously and willingly?
Lie to the IRS, abuse your meds, cheat on your man-toys if you must - but to take from another human being who’s no better off than yourself and to be OK with that…? I couldn’t get it.
Sooners weren’t stealing from the Amerindians – not by this point. They weren’t simply fooling the government, or the soldiers stationed there. They were decreeing through their actions that the wants and needs of those lined up for one last chance at the American Dream weren’t nearly as important as their avarice. Their presumption.
To hell with those families, those hopes – those rule-abiding suckers.
Perhaps we can excuse, if not entirely justify, the actions of desperate individuals willing to take big chances – to hide in the bushes or sneak past armed defenders. But what we so often gloss over in Oklahoma History is how many Sooners didn’t have to sneak in at all. They were there with permission. By orders, actually.
They were there being paid with the tax dollars of the fools waiting patiently for the starting gun.
From the New York Times, only a few days after the first Oklahoma Land Run:
Six or seven thousand people are huddled together in tents or shanties… enduring privations which assuredly had no part in the programme mapped out previous to the invasion. Today not fewer than one thousand men departed with disgust plainly stamped on their faces…
The cause of this revulsion of feeling on the part of men who a few weeks ago were singing the praises of the projected town, is the action of the United States Marshals in appointing as Deputies many real estate sharks and others who went to Guthrie solely to secure town lots in advance of the great body detained on the border by order of the Government. These so-called deputies appeared in Guthrie and Oklahoma City Saturday, and had the former site surveyed and selected before 10 o’clock Monday morning…
When the hour of 12 arrived Monday the deputies go in their work so effectually that when the trainload of boomers came in from the north some time later, all the best lots had been claimed…
Soldiers, land-surveyors, law enforcement – anyone with the right connections to get themselves into the territory ahead of time and scope out the best land. Often they’d announce their resignations minutes before noon, presumably in anticipation of future accusations they’d violated the terms of their employment.
Others didn’t bother. From Harper's Weekly, May 18, 1889:
It was an eager and an exuberantly joyful crowd that rode slowly into Guthrie at twenty minutes past one o'clock on that perfect April afternoon. Men who had expected to lay out the town site were grievously disappointed at the first glimpse of their proposed scene of operations. The slope east of the railway at Guthrie station was dotted white with tents and sprinkled thick with men running about in all directions.
"We're done for," said a town-site speculator, in dismay. "Someone has gone in ahead of us and laid out the town."
"Never mind that," shouted another town-site speculator, "but make a rush and get what you can."
Hardly had the train slackened its speed when the impatient boomers began to leap from the cars and run up the slope. Men jumped from the roofs of the moving cars at the risk of their lives. Some were so stunned by the fall that they could not get up for some minutes. The coaches were so crowded that many men were compelled to squeeze through the windows in order to get a fair start at the head of the crowd...
I ran with the first of the crowd to get a good point of view from which to see the rush. When I had time to look about me I found that I was standing beside a tent, near which a man was leisurely chopping holes in the sod with a new axe.
"Where did you come from, that you have already pitched your tent?" I asked.
"Oh, I was here," said he.
"How was that?"
"Why, I was a deputy United States marshal."
"Did you resign?"
"No; I'm a deputy still."
"But it is not legal for a deputy United States marshal, or any one in the employ of the government, to take up a town lot in this manner."
"That may all be, stranger; but I've got two lots here, just the same; and about fifty other deputies have got lots in the same way. In fact, the deputy-marshals laid out the town."
Legal recourse was widely sought, of course, but those with the resources to pursue extended legal actions weren't usually hanging out in the middle of nowhere running for land. Most Sooners kept their plots – especially those who’d acted collectively. How do you kick out an entire town, community leaders and all? And guess what...
That sort of advantage is self-perpetuating.
Sooners were far more likely to farm successfully, having started with better farms. They were generally more prosperous as merchants or other businessmen, having established ideal locations and opened for business while others were still gathering basic supplies. They’d produce the healthiest children who’d receive the best educations and have the best opportunities due to family connections and social savvy.
Some of this could simply reflect ‘grit’ – whatever else Sooners were, they weren’t lazy. Maybe the same drive that led them to cheat helped in legitimate endeavors as well. It would be silly to reduce the next century of development to who started where.
But it doesn’t take long before yesterday’s plunder is today’s hard-won prize. How many days passed before Sooner families began to credit themselves with the pluck and determination to make the run successfully? To disparage those less successful, who had THE SAME CHANCE and couldn’t cut it – slinking away in frustration and failure?
I mean, hey we were all part of the same run! Everyone had their shot. Are you saying I didn't work for what I have?
I’m not interested in going back and wringing our lil’ hands and hearts over the sins of our forebearers. Land was a big deal, and people did worse for it than the things described here. Move on, people.
But that doesn’t mean we have to glorify it, or reframe it as something of which we should be particularly proud. I don’t see many states excited about labeling themselves the ‘Overseers’, the ‘Soiled Doves’, or the ‘Unrepentant Confederates’.
Actually, I take back that last one. They actually kinda do. But you get my point.
We may express periodic ambivalence towards Pretty Boy Floyd or the Daltons, but they at least robbed and killed those representing the system – the powerful – ‘the man’. Sooners robbed the commonest of common men, and did so just as he was risking everything to improve his condition and claim his small slice of the American Dream.
It’s not a bad reflection of larger issues in our national past and the much more significant advantages gained by some as a result. As with the Sooners, we would do well to periodically reconsider who and what we glorify in our own past – not to deny it or rewrite it, but to help us maintain clarity and honesty about ourselves.
I'll pass on the perpetual lamenting and retroactive accusations. It's not always helpful, and so easily turns sour. A little perspective and confession, however…
Well, they wouldn’t hurt.
RELATED POST: Boomers & Sooners, Part One ~ Last Call Land-Lovers