This Date in Native History: A cannon sounded at high noon on April 22, 1889, signaling the beginning of a frantic land rush into newly opened Indian lands in Oklahoma Territory.
As many as 50,000 white settlers participated, dashing into the nearly 2 million acres of “unassigned land” and staking out parcels for ranching, agriculture or homesteading. The event, which came two years after the Dawes Act of 1887, attracted settlers from all over the country and beyond, said Brian Basore, library technician at the Oklahoma Historical Society.
“This rest of the country was waiting for this to happen,” Basore said. “The Indian Territory was the last big city in the continental U.S. When they finally got cleared on it, it wasn’t just a national big deal. It was international.”
The Dawes Severalty Act introduced private land ownership to Natives, allowed the government to consolidate them on smaller tracts of land and slashed millions of acres from tribal land. After reservations were divided into allotments, any remaining land was declared surplus and opened up for white settlement. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, settlers who stayed on their claims for five years could own the land, free and clear.
Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, a catch-all for scores of displaced tribes, was one of the last places closed to white settlement, Basore said. As many as 40 tribes, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Cheyenne, Comanche and Apache, had relocated from their traditional lands.
On March 23, 1889, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation opening the Indian Territory to settlement. One month later, would-be settlers lined up and waited for the sound of the cannon. They rushed onto the land by horseback, wagons and even on foot.
By dusk, tens of thousands of people had staked claims, and towns like Norman, Oklahoma City and Guthrie sprang up almost overnight, states a May 1889 article printed in Harper’s Weekly.
“In some respects the recent settlement of Oklahoma was the most remarkable thing of the present century,” the article states.
“At twelve o’clock on Monday, April 22, the resident population of Guthrie was nothing; before sundown it was at least ten thousand. In that time streets had been laid out, town lots staked off and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government. At twilight, the campfires of 10,000 people gleamed on the grassy slopes of the Cimarron Valley where, the night before, the coyote, the gray wolf and the deer had roamed undisturbed.”
While settlers celebrated newly available land, Natives found themselves further marginalized, said Daniel Swan, an anthropology professor at the University of Oklahoma. Already confined like prisoners on reservations, Natives viewed the land rush as a “desperate, dark day.”
“The land rush symbolizes the climax of the various experiences and mechanisms that were utilized to divorce the Native people from the continent,” Swan said. “This was the end.”
The new settlements lacked law enforcement, however, and Natives often were targeted by theft or other crime, Swan said. Settlers stole cattle and farm implements—and even the wood from the Natives’ homes.
“They’d come back and half of their cabins would be gone, torn down,” he said. “Nothing good came out of this for the Natives.”
The land rush had devastating, long-lasting effects for tribes, said Joshua Nelson, Cherokee, and an assistant English professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“Ownership of land was such a powerful resource, and when that was lost, there were deprivations that followed,” he said. Settlers, often with next to nothing to their names, wanted the land and the prosperity it promised. Indians, the rightful owners of the land, “went from Rockefellers to paupers.”
“It took a lot of recovery to get past that, and a lot of people didn’t get past it,” he said. “There was a splintering of tribal centers. People really got fragmented. Our ideas of ourselves got fragmented.”
Oklahoma cities still celebrate the land rush, Swan said. People line up with their covered wagons and reenact the event.
“People see it as a positive experience,” he said. “People still think this is an incredible accomplishment. They celebrate that folks came out and suffered to settle this savage land.”
What they fail to understand, Swan said, is that the land rush continues to affect Oklahoma’s first residents, and that Natives still live on society’s margins. He called the 1889 land rush and the annual reenactments “absolute spectacles.”
“These spectacles are used as a part of the building and maintenance of the American myth,” he said. “This is sanctioned theft turned into a festival. This was one more piece in the construction of the myth that made people feel good about moving forward and prospering on the backs of Native people.”
This story was originally published April 22, 2014.