Early on, Wichita, Arapaho, Comanche and Osage people populated or used this land. By 1834 it (minus the panhandle) had been declared autonomous Indian Territory and Tribes from across the nation were relocated here, often at gunpoint. In one of the most dramatic examples, more than 4000 of 15, 000 Cherokee perished of cold and hunger while marching the ‘Trail of Tears’ to the territory in the winter of 1838–39.
In the 1880s, before the US gave the go-ahead to parcel out former Native American lands, eager homesteaders (‘Sooners’) crossed territory lines to stake claims. That’s right: the Sooner State is named for lawbreakers. In April of 1889 settlement to non-Indians was officially opened and towns emerged overnight in the Great Land Rush.
Statehood in 1907 was followed by another boom when oil was discovered in the 1920s, but the Depression and soil erosion hurt the state badly. Thousands of ‘Okie’ farmers migrated west on Route 66 to find a better life. The state’s agricultural industry eventually rebounded, due to greater care for the fragile Plains environment. Oil continues to play a role in the state’s development.
The western section of what is now the state of Oklahoma became the Oklahoma Territory in 1890; it included the Panhandle, the narrow strip of territory that, taken from Texas by the Compromise of 1850, had become a no-man’s-land where settlers came in undisturbed. In 1893 the Dawes Commission was appointed to implement a policy of dividing the tribal lands into individual holdings; the Native Americans resisted, but the policy was finally enforced in 1906. The wide lands of the Indian Territory were thus made available to whites.
The Civilized Tribes made the best of a poor bargain, and the Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory were united in 1907 to form the state of Oklahoma, with a constitution that included provision for initiative and referendum. Already the oil boom had reached major proportions, and the young state was on the verge of great economic development. At the same time, cotton, wheat, and corn were major money crops, and cattleland holdings, although shrinking, were still enormous.
Immediately after the Civil War the long drives of cattle from Texas to the Kansas railroad head began to cross Oklahoma, traveling over the cattle trails that became part of Western folklore. The best known was the Chisholm Trail. The cattle were fattened on the virgin ranges of Oklahoma, and cattlemen began to look on the grasslands with speculative and covetous eyes.
The first railroad to cross Oklahoma was built between 1870 and 1872, and thereafter it was not possible to keep white settlers out. They came despite proscriptive laws and treaties with the Native Americans, and by the 1880s there was a strong admixture of whites. In addition, ranches were developed that were nominally owned by Native Americans, but actually controlled by white cattlemen and their cowboys. The region quickly took on a tinge of the Old West of the cattle frontier, a tinge that it has never wholly lost.
In the 1880s land-hungry frontier farmers, the boomers, agitated to obtain the “unassigned” lands in the western section—the lands not given to any Native American tribe. The agitation succeeded, and a large strip was opened for settlement in 1889. Prospective settlers lined up on the territorial border, and at high noon they were allowed to cross on a “run” to compete in finding and claiming the best lands. Those who illegally entered ahead of the set time were the nicknamed the “sooners.” Later other strips of territory were opened, and settlers poured in from the Midwest and the South.