On May 2, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Oklahoma Organic Act, creating the Oklahoma Territory and paving the way for statehood.
The Oklahoma Organic Act, or “an act to provide a temporary government for the Territory of Oklahoma, to enlarge the jurisdiction of the United States Court in the Indian Territory, and for other purposes,” was one of several acts whose intent was to assimilate tribes in both the Oklahoma and Indian Territories by eliminating reservations and severing tribes’ communal ownership of property. The act followed Harrison’s declaration in March 1889—less than three weeks after he took office—to open certain lands in Indian Territory to white settlers.
In his March 23, 1889 proclamation, Harrison opened lands ceded by the Seminole and Creek Indians to “actual settlers under the homestead laws only” at “the hour of 12 o’clock noon on the 22d day of April next, and not before.” One year later, the Oklahoma Organic Act organized the “unassigned” lands into six counties, with the present-day Oklahoma Panhandle (then called No Man’s Land) into a seventh county and renamed the area the Territory of Oklahoma.
The act also established the framework for a territorial government. Harrison appointed a governor, secretary, three federal judges and a marshal. Voters then elected members of a territorial house of representatives and a council—as well as a delegate to the U.S. Congress.
Because lawmakers anticipated additional “surplus” lands would become available as tribes accepted allotments, the act also laid out how these lands would be managed.
“Whenever any of the other lands within the Territory of Oklahoma, now occupied by any Indian tribe, shall by operation of law or proclamation of the President of the United States, be open to settlement, they shall be disposed of to actual settlers,” the Oklahoma Organic Act states. Settlers were required to pay a sum per acre equal to what the U.S. paid “to obtain a relinquishment of the Indian title or interest therein,” at not less than $1.25 per acre.
The Oklahoma Organic Act, part of a broader plan to break up reservations and acquire land for white settlement, formalized a process that began in 1866, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. The Reconstruction Treaties of 1866 called for the cession of land from each of the Five Civilized Tribes, which ultimately cost the tribes the western half of present-day Oklahoma.
“By 1866, Congress had come to a point when it wanted the tribes to transition from communal land to individually owned land,” Blackburn said. “The goal was to work toward statehood.”
By the early 1870s, Congress decided it would no longer deal with tribes through treaties, Blackburn said. And through the General Allotment Act of 1887 and the Curtis Act of 1898, Congress declared its formal policy of forcing tribes to accept allotments.
“They didn’t have to allot the central part of Indian Territory because it was never assigned to a tribe,” he said. “That was opened in the land run, when it was converted from public land to private.”
The next step was to establish territorial status through the Oklahoma Organic Act, Blackburn said. As the federal government forced allotments on other tribes, opening more surplus lands to settlement, the Oklahoma Territory would grow.
“Once the land went to private ownership, it was added to the territory,” he said. “The act also allowed for the creation of counties, for land set aside for schools, for a community of people to work together with the government to provide for their needs: roads, school, universities; all these things were authorized by the Organic Act. All of this was to prepare for statehood.”
Oklahoma was admitted as the 46th state in November 1907.