The History of Oklahoma refers to the history of the state of Oklahoma and the land that the state now occupies. Areas of Oklahoma east of its panhandle were acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, while the Panhandle was not acquired until the U.S. land acquisitions following the Mexican-American War.
The Indian Relocation
Prior to becoming a state in 1907, Oklahoma was designated the home for the Choctaw Nation. Later the area would be called Indian Territory by the U.S. government. This was done in order to provide a place for the Native Americans to relocate to as the United States expanded westward towards the Mississippi River in the 1800s.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was signed by President Andrew Jackson within a year of taking office. This act gave the President the power to negotiate treaties for removal with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi River. The treaty called for the Indians to give up their eastern land for land in the west. Those who wished to stay behind were allowed to stay and become citizens in their state. For the tribes that agreed to Jackson’s terms, the removal was peaceful; however, those who resisted were eventually forced to leave.
The Choctaw would become the first of the “Five Civilized Tribes” to be removed from the southeastern United States. The phrase “Trail of Tears” originated from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831. In September of 1830, they agreed to terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was one of the largest land transfers ever signed between the United States Government and American Indians in time of peace. The treaty signed away the remaining traditional homeland of the Choctaw to the United States. Article 14 of that treaty allowed for some Choctaws to remain in the state of Mississippi:
“ART. XIV. Each Choctaw head of a family being desirous to remain and become a citizen of the States, shall be permitted to do so, by signifying his intention to the Agent within six months from the ratification of this Treaty, and he or she shall thereupon be entitled to a reservation of one section of six hundred and forty acres of land, to be bounded by sectional lines of survey; in like manner shall be entitled to one half that quantity for each unmarried child which is living with him over ten years of age; and a quarter section to such child as may be under 10 years of age, to adjoin the location of the parent. If they reside upon said lands intending to become citizens of the States for five years after the ratification of this Treaty, in that case a grant in fee simple shall issue; said reservation shall include the present improvement of the head of the family, or a portion of it. Persons who claim under this article shall not lose the privilege of a Choctaw citizen, but if they ever remove are not to be entitled to any portion of the Choctaw annuity.”
Between 5,000–6,000 Choctaws remained in Mississippi in 1831 after the initial removal efforts. For the next ten years they were objects of increasing legal conflict, harassment, and intimidation. The Choctaws describe their situation in 1849, “we have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.”
When the first wagons reached Little Rock, a famous term that would eventually burn itself into history was born. In an interview with an Arkansas Gazette reporter, one of the Choctaw Chiefs (thought to be either Thomas Harkins or Nitikechi) was quoted as saying that the removal to that point had been a “trail of tears and death.” The “trail of tears” quotation was picked up by the eastern press and widely quoted. It soon become a term analogous with the removal of any Indian tribe and was later burned into the American language by the brutal removal of the Cherokees in 1838.
—-Len Green, Choctaw Removal was really a “Trail of Tears” .
The Creek also refused to relocate and signed a treaty in March 1832 to open up a large portion of their land in exchange for protection of ownership of their remaining lands. The United States failed to protect the Creeks, and in 1837, they were militarily removed without ever signing a treaty.
The Chickasaw saw the relocation as inevitable and signed a treaty in 1832 which included protection until their move. The Chickasaws were forced to move early as a result of white settlers and the War Department’s refusal to protect the Indian’s lands.
In 1833, a small group of Seminoles signed a relocation treaty. However, the treaty was declared illegitimate by a majority of the tribe. The result was the Second and Third Seminole Wars. Those that survived the wars eventually were paid to move west.
The Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota of 1833. The Cherokee were given two years to move west or else be forced to move. At the end of the two years only 2,000 Cherokees had migrated westward and 16,000 remained on their lands. The U.S. sent 7,000 soldiers to force the Cherokee to move without the time to gather their belongings. This march westward is known as the Trail of Tears in which 4,000 Cherokee died.
Post-Civil War Period
After the American Civil War, in 1866 the federal government forced the tribes into new treaties. Most of the land in central and western Indian Territory was ceded to the government. Some of the land was given to other tribes, but the central part, the so-called Unassigned Lands, remained with the government. Another concession allowed railroads to cross Indian lands. In 1862 Stand Watie was elected principal Chief of the “Southern Cherokee Nation”. Furthermore the practice of slavery was outlawed. Some nations were integrated racially and otherwise with their slaves, but other nations were extremely hostile to the former slaves and wanted them exiled from their territory.
In the 1870s, a movement began by people wanting to settle the government lands in the Indian Territory under the Homestead Act of 1862. They referred to the Unassigned Lands as Oklahoma and to themselves as Boomers. After Watie’s death in 1871 the Southern Cherokee Nation was moved to Kentucky. In the 1880s, early settlers of the state’s very sparsely populated Panhandle region tried to form the Cimarron Territory but lost a lawsuit against the federal government. This prompted a judge in Paris, Texas, to unintentionally create a moniker for the area. “That is land that can be owned by no man,” the judge said, and after that the panhandle was referred to as No Man’s Land until statehood arrived decades later.
In 1884, in United States v. Payne, the United States District Court in Topeka, Kansas, ruled that settling on the lands ceded to the government by the Indians under the 1866 treaties was not a crime. The government at first resisted, but Congress soon enacted laws authorizing settlement.
Congress passed the Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act, in 1887 requiring the government to negotiate agreements with the tribes to divide Indian lands into individual holdings. Under the allotment system, tribal lands left over would be surveyed for settlement by non-Indians. Following settlement, many whites accused Republican officials of giving preferential treatment to ex-slaves in land disputes.
Oklahoma and Indian Territories
The United States entered into two new treaties with the Creeks and the Seminoles. Under these treaties, tribes would sell at least part of their land in Oklahoma to the U.S. to settle other Indian tribes and freemen. This land would be widely called the Unassigned Lands or Oklahoma Country in the 1880s due to it remaining uninhabited for over a decade.
In 1879, part-Cherokee Elias C. Boudinot argued that these Unassigned Lands be open for settlement because the title to these lands belonged to the United States and “whatever may have been the desire or intention of the United States Government in 1866 to locate Indians and negroes upon these lands, it is certain that no such desire or intention exists in 1879. The Negro since that date, has become a citizen of the United States, and Congress has recently enacted laws which practically forbid the removal of any more Indians into the Territory”.
On March 23, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation which opened up the two million acres (8,000 km²) of the Unassigned Lands for settlement on April 22, 1889. It was to be the first of many land runs, but later land openings were conducted by means of a lottery because of widespread cheating—some of the settlers were called Sooners because they had already staked their land claims before the land was officially opened for settlement.
The Organic Act of 1890 created the Oklahoma Territory out of the Unassigned Lands and the area known as No Man’s Land.
In 1893, the government purchased the rights to settle the Cherokee Outlet, or Cherokee Strip, from the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Outlet was part of the lands ceded to the government in the 1866 treaty, but the Cherokees retained access to the area and had leased it to several Chicago meat-packing plants for huge cattle ranches. The Cherokee Strip was opened to settlement by land run in 1894. Also, in 1893, Congress set up the Dawes Commission to negotiate agreements with each of the Five Civilized Tribes for the allotment of tribal lands to individual Indians. Finally, the Curtis Act of 1898 abolished tribal jurisdiction over all of Indian Territory.
Angie Debo’s landmark work, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (1940), detailed how the allotment policy of the Dawes Commission and the Curtis Act of 1898 was systematically manipulated to deprive the Native Americans of their lands and resources. In the words of historian Ellen Fitzpatrick, Debo’s book “advanced a crushing analysis of the corruption, moral depravity, and criminal activity that underlay white administration and execution of the allotment policy.”
In 1902, the leaders of Indian Territory sought to become their own state, to be named Sequoyah. They held a convention in Eufaula, consisting of representatives from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole tribes, known as the Five Civilized Tribes. They met again next year to establish a constitutional convention.
The Sequoyah Constitutional Convention and Statehood Attempt
The Sequoyah Constitutional Convention met in Muskogee, on August 21, 1905. General Pleasant Porter, Principal Chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation, was selected as president of the convention. The elected delegates decided that the executive officers of the Five Civilized Tribes would also be appointed as vice-presidents: William Charles Rogers, Principal Chief of the Cherokees; William H. Murray, appointed by Chickasaw Governor Douglas H. Johnston to represent the Chickasaws; Chief Green McCurtain of the Choctaws; Chief John Brown of the Seminoles; and Charles N. Haskell, selected to represent the Creeks (as General Porter had been elected President).
The convention drafted the constitution, established an organizational plan for a government, outlined proposed county designations in the new state, and elected delegates to go to the United States Congress to petition for statehood. If this ever happened, the State of Sequoyah would been the first state to have a Native American majority population.
The convention’s proposals were overwhelmingly endorsed by the residents of Indian Territory in a referendum election in 1905. The U.S. Government, however, reacted coolly to the idea of Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory becoming separate states. They rather have them share a singular state.
Murray, known for his eccentricies and political astuteness, foresaw this possibility prior to the constitutional convention. When Johnston asked Murray to represent the Chickasaw Nation during Sequoyah’s attempt at statehood, Murray predicted the plan would not succeed in Washington, D.C.. He suggested that if the attempt failed, the Indian Territory would work with the Oklahoma Territory to become one state. After President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress turned down the Indian Territory proposal.
Seeing an opportunity for statehood, Murray and Haskell proposed another convention for the combined territories to be named Oklahoma. Using the constitution from the Sequoyah convention as a basis (and the majority) of the new state constitution, Haskell and Murray returned to Washington with the proposal for statehood. On November 16, 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt signed the proclamation establishing Oklahoma as the nation’s 46th state.
Although the first oil well in the United States was completed July 1850 in the old Cherokee Nation near Salina, it was in the early 20th century the oil business really began to get underway. Huge pools of underground oil were discovered in places like Glenpool near Tulsa. Many whites flooded into the state to make money. Many of the “old money” elite families of Oklahoma can date their rise to this time.
Throughout the 1920s, new oil fields were continually discovered and Oklahoma produced over 1.8 billion barrels of petroleum, valued at over 3.5 million dollars for the decade. In 1920 the spectacular Osage County oil field was opened, followed in 1926 by the Greater Seminole Oil Field. When the Great Depression Oklahoma and texas oil was flooding the market and prices fell to pennies a gallon. In 1931 Governor William H. Murray, acting with characteristic decisiveness, used the National Guard to shut down all of Oklahoma’s oil wells in an effort to stabilize prices. National policy became using the Texas Railroad Commission to set allotments in Texas, which raised prices as well for Oklahoma crude..
The prosperity of the 1920s can be seen in the surviving architecture from the period, such as the Tulsa mansion which was converted into the Philbrook Museum of Art or the art deco architecture of downtown Tulsa.
For Oklahoma, the early quarter of the 20th century was politically turbulent. Many different groups had flooded into the state; “black towns”, or towns made of groups of African Americans choosing to live separately from whites, sprouted all over the state, while most of the state abided by the Jim Crow laws within each individual city, racially separating people with a bias against any non-White race. Greenwood, a neighborhood in Northern Tulsa, was known as Black Wall Street because of the vibrant business, cultural, and religious community there. The area was the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race War, one of the United States’ deadliest race riots.
The Oklahoma Socialist Party achieved a small degree of success in this era (the small party had its highest per-capita membership in Oklahoma at this time with 12,000 dues-paying members in 1914), including the publication of dozens of party newspapers and the election of several hundred local elected officials. Much of their success came from their willingness to reach out to Black and American Indian voters (they were the only party to continue to resist Jim Crow laws), and their willingness to alter traditional Marxist ideology when it made sense to do so (the biggest changes were the party’s support of widespread small-scale land ownership, and their willingness to use religion positively to preach the “Socialist gospel”). The state party also delivered presidential candidate Eugene Debs some of his highest vote counts in the nation.
The party was later crushed into virtual non-existence during the “white terror” that followed the ultra-repressive environment following the Green Corn Rebellion and the World War I era paranoia against anyone who spoke against the war or capitalism.
The Industrial Workers of the World tried to gain headway during this period but achieved little success. The Ku Klux Klan was also particularly active but was virtually eliminated following a major campaign by the state government in the 1950s.
Disgruntled Oklahoma farmers and laborers handed left-wing Democrat Jack C. Walton an easy election victory in 1922 as governor. One scandal followed another–Walton’s questionable administrative practices included payroll padding, jailhouse pardons, removal of college administrators, and an enormous increase in the governor’s salary. The conservative elements successfully petitioned for a special legislative recall session. To regain the initiative, Walton retaliated by attacking Oklahoma’s Ku Klux Klan with a ban on parades, declaration of martial law, and employment of outsiders to ‘keep the peace.’ He declared martial law in the entire state and tried to call out the National Guard to block the legislature from holding the special session. That failed, and legislators charged Walton with corruption, impeached him, and removed him from office in 1923.
Dust Bowl Era
During the height of the Great Depression, drought and poor agricultural practices led to the Dust Bowl, when massive dust storms blew away the soil from large tracts of arable land and deposited it on nearby farms and ranches, distant states, the Atlantic Ocean, and even occasionally Great Britain. The resulting crop failures forced many small farmers to flee the state altogether. Although the most persistent dust storms primarily affected the Panhandle, much of the state experienced occasional dusters, intermittent severe drought, and occasional searing heat. Towns such as Alva, Altus, and Poteau each recorded temperatures of 120°F (49°C) during the epic summer of 1936.
Advances in agro-mechanical technology simultaneously enabled less labor-intensive crop production. Many large landowners and planters had more labor than they needed with the new technology, and the federal Agricultural Adjustment Act paid them to reduce production. Plantation owners throughout the American South and much of eastern and southern Oklahoma released their sharecroppers of their debts and evicted them. With few or no local opportunities available for them, many emancipated, but destitute blacks and whites fled to the relative prosperity of California to work as migrant farm workers and, after the onset of World War II, in factories.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, photographs by Dorothea Lange, and songs of Woody Guthrie tales of woe from the era. The negative images of the “Okie” as a sort of rootless migrant laborer living in a near-animal state of scrounging for food greatly offended many Oklahomans. These works often mix the experiences of former sharecroppers of the western American South with those of the exodusters fleeing the fierce dust storms of the High Plains. Although they primarily feature the extremely destitute, the vast majority of the people, both staying in and fleeing from Oklahoma, suffered great poverty in the Depression years. Some Oklahoma politicians denounced The Grapes of Wrath (often without reading it) as an attempt to impugn the morals and character of Oklahomans.
After World War II
The term “Okie” in recent years has taken on a new meaning in the past few decades, with many Oklahomans (both former and present) wearing the label as a badge of honor (as a symbol of the Okie survivor attitude). Others (mostly alive during the Dust Bowl era) still see the term negatively because they see the “Okie” migrants as quitters and transplants to the West Coast.
Major trends in Oklahoma history after the Depression era included the rise again of tribal sovereignty (including the issuance of tribal automobile license plates, and the opening of tribal smoke shops, casinos, grocery stores, and other commercial enterprises), the building of Tinker Air Force Base, the rapid growth of suburban Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the drop in population in Western Oklahoma, the oil boom of the 1980s and the oil bust of the 1990s.
In recent years, major efforts have been made by state and local leaders to revive Oklahoma’s small towns and population centers, which had seen major decline following the oil bust. But Oklahoma City and Tulsa remain economically active in their effort to diversify as the state focuses more into finance and manufacturing.
Oklahoma City Bombing
In 1995 Oklahoma became the scene of one of the worst acts of terrorism ever committed in U.S. History. On April 19, 1995, in the Oklahoma City bombing, Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, including 19 children. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were the convicted perpetrators of the attack, although many believe others were involved. Timothy McVeigh was later sentenced to death by lethal injection, while his partner, Terry Nichols, who was convicted of 161 counts of first degree murder received life in prison without the possibility of parole.