At high noon on April 22, 1889, settlers furiously dashed across the Oklahoma plains to stake their claims to nearly two million acres put up for grabs by the U.S. government. On the anniversary of the Oklahoma Land Rush, look back at the estimated 50,000 “boomers” and “sooners” who engaged in what some have called the greatest horse race in American history.
As the sun approached its zenith on April 22, 1889, an anxious army of 50,000 land-hungry settlers awaited their signal. Then, as the minute hand slipped over the hour hand at noontime, cannons boomed, pistols fired and bugles blared across the dusty plains. Horseback riders kicked their mounts with their spurs and wagon drivers cracked their whips as they thundered across the prairie in a frenzied sprint. Exhilaration coursed through their veins and wind whipped through their hair as they charged ahead to stake their claims to what they hoped would be their new homesteads.
The “boomers” participating in the Oklahoma Land Rush all thirsted for a piece of the cheap land that had been opened up for white settlement by the U.S. government. Unlike other portions of the Indian Territory, which was sandwiched between Kansas and Texas, that had been assigned to the nearly 40 Native American tribes forcibly relocated by the federal government in previous decades, these vast “Unassigned Lands” had not been designated to any particular tribe. Due to improved agricultural and ranching techniques, even this arid, treeless landscape once thought worthless had become coveted by white farmers and ranchers seeking virgin territory. Responding to their wishes, President Benjamin Harrison declared on March 23, 1889, that the Unassigned Lands would be open for settlement beginning precisely at noon on April 22. First come, first served.
Under the Homestead Act of 1862, settlers could claim 160 acres of public land and receive title to the property after five years if they lived on and improved the plot. Women, although legally prohibited from voting, were eligible to participate in the Land Rush, and there was no citizenship requirement either. Immigrants from Ireland, England, France and Scotland were among the tens of thousands of boomers who began to amass like an invading force along the region’s northern border with Kansas and the southern border along the Canadian River.
Federal troops patrolled the region’s borders to prevent illegal incursions by settlers who violated the “sooner clause” of the Indian Appropriation Act by entering and occupying land prior to the time proclaimed by the president. However, the cavalry simply could not stop all of the “sooners” who crossed the border and hid out in the brush and in ravines to get a jump on the competition.
On the morning of April 22, tens of thousands of law-abiding boomers gathered at the border, and long lines of covered wagons snaked away from river crossings. All the settlers knew it was survival of the fastest. Horseback riders hoped they had the fleetest steeds beneath their saddles so that they could reach their desired plots before anyone else and await the arrival of the rest of their families and supplies on the cumbersome wagons that rattled over the rutted prairie. As many as a third of the settlers boarded “boomer trains” operated by the Santa Fe Railway through the heart of the Unassigned Lands, although the iron horses were prohibited from traveling faster than their equine counterparts, lest they gain an advantage.
Once the cavalry troops signaled the arrival of noontime, the race was on. Throughout the region riders planted stakes into the ground to signal their new patches of land, while the sooners who had sneaked in ahead of time suddenly emerged from their hiding spots and took advantage of their head start. Some of the “eighty-niners” immediately started to make improvements to the land—stringing barbed wire, digging wells and arranging the first logs of their cabins—before hurrying to land offices to register their claims.
In the course of a single afternoon, new locales such as Oklahoma City suddenly emerged from the prairie. Guthrie had been transformed from a small railroad station to a tent city of 10,000 people in just hours. By nightfall, more than 11,000 agricultural homesteads had been claimed during the Oklahoma Land Rush. Not surprisingly, numerous disputes arose with multiple parties claiming the same plot of land. The Oklahoma Land Office recorded that by 1892, approximately 5,000 claims were being contested. Court battles between boomers and sooners took years to resolve, and some cases even ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Oklahoma Land Rush hastened the demise of the Indian Territory. Subsequent land rushes in the 1890s eventually removed most of the land from Native American control. In 1890, the Unassigned Lands became the Oklahoma Territory, which united with the Indian Territory in 1907 to form the 46th state of the Union—Oklahoma, which has paid homage to its Land Rush heritage by adopting the nickname of the “Sooner State.”