In 1889, as many as 50 thousand settlers poured into Oklahoma hoping to stake claim to a portion of nearly two million acres opened for settlement by the U.S. Government. Many had campaigned the federal government to open the land for settlement and were known as Boomers. The land, formerly occupied by Native Americans, was considered Unassigned Lands after the federal government forcibly relocated many Native American tribes. On April 22, 1889, at noon sharp, a bugle sounded, and hopeful settlers surged across the territory line. The number of settlers surpassed available land and they soon realized that some snuck into Oklahoma ahead of the April 22nd open date. This gave them a leg up on the law-abiding settlers and first in line for the most desirable land. Those early homestead seekers were known as Sooners.
In 1887, the Dawes Act was one of many federal laws that slowly stripped Native Americans of their tribal lands and paved the way for the Oklahoma Land Rush. It authorized the government to break up the tribal lands and allot them to individual Native Americans in parcels of 40, 80, and 160 acres. Only Native Americans who accepted the land could become U.S. citizens and any remaining land would be made available for public sale.
The Indian Appropriations Act of 1889, also known as the “sooner clause,” opened these Unassigned Lands to settlers, but specified that anyone who entered Indian Territory ahead of time would be denied land. There were, however, a group of “legal Sooners” who had permission to enter the territory ahead of time. This group included government employees, railroad workers, and others with special permission. In some instances, legal Sooners took advantage of their position to drive off early settlers, sending them back to the line, only to turn back and stake claim to the same property.
In the weeks leading up to the land grab, wagon trains snaked through neighboring states, many making their way to border towns. One newspaper reported a line of wagons 60 miles long! It wasn’t just men hoping to stake a claim, women were among those hoping to establish a homestead on some of the best unoccupied public lands in the country.
The mood was jubilant in border towns as crowds awaited the noon hour on the 22nd. Some abandoned their horses in favor of trains, hoping to get there faster. One newspaper reported that men packed the roofs of rail cars after the coaches filled up. Settlers had two ways to initiate a claim. The first was to file a claim at the land office, the second was to personally settle on a piece of land. If a conflict arose between two parties trying to claim the same land, priority went to those physically on the land.
When the clock struck 12:00 on the 22nd, the mad rush began. Those who snuck into the territory early concealed themselves in ravines and bushes, and when the bugle sounded “seemed to rise right up out of the ground” to claim the property. Thousands poured into Guthrie, Oklahoma, which saw it’s population go from 10 in the morning to 15,000 by nightfall. Oklahoma City experienced similar growth and there were more than 11,000 filings for homestead land by the end of the day. Bitter resentment arose towards Sooners who entered the territory early. This led to many court cases for years to come where litigants protested hundreds of claims. The loss of tribal lands further marginalized Native Americans who saw additional land rushes take more tribal lands in subsequent years.