Greer County, No-Man's Land and the Opening

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A tract of land which was bounded on the north and east by the North Fork of the Red River, on the south meridian of longitude had long been in dispute between the state of Texas and the United States. As early as 1860, this tract had been designated as a county by the legislature of Texas and was named Greer County in honor of a former lieutenant governor of that state. As long as it remained unsettled the dispute between the state and federal government as to its ownership was not pressed by either side. The first cattle ranches were established in Greer County, in 1881, and, within the next four years, a great many settlers located there. Nearly all of these were from Texas and the lands upon which they settled were homesteaded or taken up under the laws of that state. In 1885, the settlers were notified by officers of the United States that they were trespassing and that they should remove. Few of the settlers paid any attention to the warning, however, and several years later the district was organized as a county of the state of Texas. Eventually, the dispute was referred to the United States Supreme Court, which rendered a decision in 1895, rejecting the claims of the state of Texas, after which Greer County was attached to the Territory of Oklahoma.

The No-Man's Land tract, which was bounded on the north by Colorado and Kansas, on the East by the Cherokee Outlet, on the south by Texas and on the west by New Mexico, had never been attached to or included in the limits of any state or territory. A few stock ranches were established in the western part of this tract as early as 1871. Others were established during the course of the next ten years, until most of its area was occupied by cattle ranges. In 1885, many settlers went into western Kansas and eastern Colorado and some of these found their way into the No-Man's Land country. Several small towns or villages were established. Because that part of the country was not included in any state or territory, there were neither courts nor laws. Lawlessness was all too common in consequence. Finally the people determined to have some laws of their own, if Congress would not provide them with laws, and an organized government. They therefore organized the Territory of Cimarron, the capital of which was at Beaver City. A full set of territorial officers, legislative, executive and judicial, was selected and a delegate was sent to Washington to represent the new territory in Congress. A bill was introduced in Congress for the purpose of formally organizing the Territory of Cimarron but it failed to pass.

In the mean time, during the years 1885, 1886, 1887 and 1888, the question of the proposed opening of the Oklahoma country to homestead settlement occupied a great deal of time and attention in Congress. During the winter of 1888-89 a very determined effort was made to secure the passage of the Oklahoma bill through Congress. Many of the people who had long been interested in the movement were in Washington. The Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes, who were opposed to the opening of any part of the territory to white settlement, had delegations in Washington for the purpose of opposing the passage of the bill. It also met with opposition from other sources. For a time it seemed doomed to defeat. Finally, the Oklahoma bill was attached as a "ridder" (i.e. an amendment) to the appropriation bill for the Indian affairs department and thus it was forced through in spite of opposition. Under the terms of this act, the Oklahoma country was to be thrown open to settlement under the homestead laws under rules and regulations to be prescribed by the Secretary of the Interior. It was also provided that the President of the United States should set the date of the proposed opening in a proclamaiton which was to be issued thirty days in advance. President Benjamin Harrison issued such a proclamation, setting the twenty-second day of April, 1889, as the date.

Immediately after the publication of this proclamation, people began to gather along the border of the Oklahoma country, to await the hour when they should be permitted to enter and choose their homestead claims. Most of those who came this early traveled in wagons and lived in camp. As the appointed day drew nearer, the throngs around the border increased. During the last day or two the one railway line that spanned the district which was to be opened to settlement (the Santa Fe, which had been built only two or three years before) brought thousands of people to the border, from Kansas on the north and from Texas on the south. As the noon hour approached, when the assembled multitude might sweep across into the hitherto forbidden land, the eager, expectant people counted the moments. When the guarding soldiers gave the signal, a mighty shout arose and then the race began. In all the annals of human migrations and settlements, the like of that scene had never been witnessed before. Nightfall, a few hours later, found the land occupied by thousands of people, while a score of cities and towns were marked by hundreds of tents. The season was well advanced when the homesteaders took possession of their claims, but, many, if not most of them, had a few acres turned with a breaking plow and planted corn, vegetables, melons and other crops on the newly turned sod. Wooden buildings soon began to replace the tents in the cities and towns. The largest towns were Guthrie, Oklahoma City and Kingfisher. Government land officers were located at Guthrie and Kingfisher.

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Ann Maloney, Bartlesville, OK.
Copyright © 1998 Ann Maloney all rights reserved.