The rest of the story
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, September 02, 2012
9/02/12 at 3:18 AM
Most of us with Oklahoma roots feel the same way about our forebears as Gov. Mary Fallin, who delivered a passionate speech Tuesday before the Republican National Convention about Oklahoma's can-do, pioneer heritage.
But proud though we are, some of us also have to quibble with her conclusion that our predecessors did all that they did without any federal help. In fact, many of our forebears likely wouldn't have even come here were it not for the federal government's offer of free land, and those other federal actions that helped spur development. In some ways, federal involvement literally opened Oklahoma for business.
Has Oklahoma's enmity of the federal government become so extreme that we're willing to write its role out of our own history?
Fallin related to the RNC audience some Oklahoma's history most had probably never heard. But she left out a few key points.
"During the great Land Run of 1889, thousands of families rushed to put a stake down on empty plots of land. They built tent cities overnight, they farmed the land and they worked hard. And in 1897, eight years after the Land Run, a handful of adventurous pioneers risked their own money - NOT, the federal government's - to drill Oklahoma's first oil well ... "
Oklahoma's "early-day pioneers changed the future and the fortune of Oklahoma forever, and today Oklahoma is one of the nation's key energy producers and job creators," she declared.
Then, a predictable attack: "President Obama wants us to believe that Oklahomans owe that success to the federal government. ...
"He'll tell you that 'If you've got a business 'you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.' " Well, Mr. President ... like who? The IRS? The EPA? Or the federal government?"
Um, well, actually, Gov. Fallin, the federal government kind of did help build Oklahoma. Those thousands of families who "rushed to put a stake down on empty plots of land": Do you really think they'd have come here in droves if it weren't for the prospect of free public land? And the other help that only the federal government could have offered in those wild and chaotic territories, such as planning, organizing and executing land runs, providing law enforcement, sorting out conflicts and consummating land transactions?
The federal role
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society: "The Land Run of 1889 ... began the disposal of the federal public domain in Oklahoma." Up first for settlement were the two million acres known as the Unassigned Lands, which until then had been set aside for future Indian settlements.
Under the Homestead Act of 1862, a legal settler over the age of 21 "and head of a family could claim up to 160 acres of surveyed, unclaimed public domain. Title to the land could be established after the homesteader resided on the land for five years, made certain improvements, and paid claim registration fees."
The Homestead Act and later provisions governed the transfer of millions of acres of federal land west of the Mississippi River. More than 1.6 million homestead claims were filed, and "much of the public domain was granted to railroads or purchased for speculative purposes." The railroads, thanks to these gifts, also were instrumental in developing many areas of the nation, including Oklahoma.
When word spread that the Unassigned Lands would be opened up for settlement, "a multitude of impoverished farmers" as well as "tradesmen, professional men, common laborers, capitalists, and politicians alike looked to the cornucopia of opportunity" offered by the land run. The Unassigned Lands "were considered some of the best unoccupied public land in the nation," according to the historical society.
As the hordes of would-be settlers gathered for the April 1889 land run, U.S. troops restrained the crowds along the entry points, and later led them "over muddy trails ... toward their 'promised land.'" While the law enforcement they provided was sometimes scant, the U.S. presence was the only law there was.
Speculators, including the railroad companies, also were among the hopeful. "(M)any who made the run were just as interested in the attendant opportunities that came with the creation of towns and community governance."
One such promotional venture, founded by officials of the Santa Fe line, "enjoyed the privilege of entering the Oklahoma Lands early and surveying the townsite plats at the various stations. Further, their men were aboard the first trains, ready to jump off and begin staking their claims."
Others also got a head start thanks to federal connections. "Not a few (contestants) entered the run area ahead of time, joining the railroad men, carpenters, teamsters, woodcutters, soldiers, and federal officials. Many of the latter were considered to be 'legal sooners' by virtue of their working in some capacity for the government. Among the most notorious to take advantage of their authority were U.S. marshals and their deputies."
An estimated 50,000 hopeful settlers participated in the run on April 22, 1889, and an estimated 11,000 agricultural homesteads were staked in the communities that sprang up literally overnight.
While the Homestead Act guided development in the Unassigned Lands, other federal initiatives spurred new development in other areas of the territories. Millions of acres that had been under Indian control were removed from tribal jurisdiction and placed in the public domain. Additional land runs occurred in the western part of present-day Oklahoma through 1895. Other land transfers took place through lotteries, auctions, legislation, allotment and court order. "By 1905 all surplus Indian holdings in present Oklahoma had been placed in the public domain and opened to settlement."
Like it or not, the federal government played a huge role in how Oklahoma developed. Modern-day Oklahoma is to this day still influenced by the federal activities of that territorial era. It's fine to want to change the future, but let's at least be honest about the past.
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328