Land rush into Indian Territory [Oklahoma], 22 April 1889: photo by Bain News Service, (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Into Oklahoma at Last
THOUSANDS WILDLY DASHING IN FOR HOMES
The Scramble of Settlers, Boomers, and Speculators - Reports of Disturbance and Quarrels
Purcell, Indian Territory, April 22, -- A great change has come over this town. Yesterday it was a metropolis, to-night it is a hamlet in point of population. The metamorphosis was effected at 12 o'clock to-day, when several thousand men, women, and children crossed the Canadian River and entered upon a wild struggle for homes in the promised land. The scenes connected with this event will never be effaced from the memory of those who witnessed them.
The sun was not up sooner than the average boomer this morning. Probably not half the people slept at all during the night. Gasoline lamps flared from sundown to sunrise in the two business streets, and the ghostly forms of prairie schooners could be seen moving toward the ford a mile north of town. Daybreak found scores of men in the saddle and within an hour the town was as lively as it has been since the boom began. A steady stream of wagons poured from the broken country, west and north to the main ford and, when this became blocked, hundreds of them were turned to the right, facing the river at every point where fording seemed at all practicable. At least fifty wagons halted where their owners only sought a safer spot when Lieut. Samuel E. Adair of the Fifth Cavalry flatly told them he would prevent them from attempting to cross there.
Lieut. Adair, with a small body of troopers, came to the scene at 8 o'clock and patrolled the river bank until noon. Another guard was stationed at the Santa Fe bridge, and still another detachment crossed to the Oklahoma side and began beating the bush for hidden boomers. While this body failed to find any of the five outfits which have invaded the Territory during the last three days, it captured several wanderers and made an appalling discovery. Twenty men compromised the command, and they rode along the river for several miles before turning to scout through the timber. Below the bridge is a great bend, where the quicksands are known to be most treacherous.
As the troops emerged from a little strip of forest they saw, lying upon the sand, the body of a youth of not more than twenty years. He was poorly clad and his eyes, his ears, and his nostrils were filled with sand. A wagon track, heading from the opposite shore to a point about forty feet from where the body lay, and there suddenly disappearing, told the tale as well as an eye witness could have done. Some enterprising boomer, with his family and effects, had essayed to ford the stream and his outfit had been swallowed by the quicksand when it was apparently beyond the reach of danger. How they came, will never be known. The dead boy was freckled and homely, and was dressed in the primitive Texas style. His pockets contained nothing to throw light on the mystery. The oldest river man is puzzled to know how he managed to reach the shore after the others had perished. There have been many tragic occurrences in this country since the Oklahoma excitement began, but none more terrible than this boy disclosed. The troops made such disposition of the body as was possible and searched up and down stream for further traces of the fatality, but nothing more was found and the scout continued.
A mile below a boomer was discovered who had just crossed and was urging his horse up a ravine. He was captured without difficulty, and a soldier was sent back with him to the ford at Purcell. Three more rustlers were corralled soon after, and it being then nearly 11 o'clock, the troop was headed for Purcell, and the last Oklahoma raid was at an end. Several hundred men with outfits are known to have been in the timber or ravines of the Territory, and these are now reaping the reward of their temerity in opposing the mandate of Uncle Sam.
"Eighty-niners", preparing for the land run into the Unassigned Lands of Indian Territory [Oklahoma], April 22, 1889: photographer unknown, via Oklahoma Historical Society
At the Santa Fe station this forenoon hundreds had gathered hours before the time for the departure to the north. There was more baggage piled on the platform than would be put in any union station in the country. On a side track fully fifty cars were loaded or being loaded with household goods and merchandise destined for Oklahoma City or Guthrie. Poles and barbed wire for fences composed the cargo of fully one fourth of the cars and these were marked for immediate shipments. A barbed wire fence will be a powerful argument against occupation of a quarter section by five or ten boomers, if it is erected within twenty-four hours after pre-emption. A carload of beer was known to be side-tracked here this morning, but as most of the Deputy United States Marshals had gone to Guthrie or Kingfisher, it was not descended upon. The other day Chief Deputy Ensley discovered a barrel of beer on the platform of the station at Norman, and he destroyed it in the presence and to the infinite disgust of dozens of thirsty travelers.
Men with packs on their backs and their arms full of goods came down the bluff this morning and joined the crowd at the station. The eating houses were jammed to the very kitchen doors, and in the rear of one of these a curious woman, as she broiled beefsteak and made coffee over a fire in the yard.
About 10 o'clock the street fakirs and gamblers closed up their schemes and games for the present, packed their paraphernalia, and made tracks for the station. Some were bound for Guthrie and others for Oklahoma City, and a few expressed their determination to go to Kingfisher, which they considered desirable from the fact that it would not be overrun at first with gentlemen of their calling. If all the Purcell "sports" settle in Oklahoma and display the hustling qualities whey have shown here the other fellows will have to rise very early in the morning to make the running with them.
When the first train of eight coaches rolled in to the station from the south every boomer who had planned to invade Oklahoma by railroad was on hand. A howl of rage went up as the train sped on, with trainmen on every platform to prevent anyone from getting aboard. This train ran a little below town and halted until the hour set for its departure into the Territory.
Soon afterwards a special train of 12 coaches appeared, and inside of five minutes it was crowded with over one thousand people. It ran down the switch and stopped until 11:40 o'clock. The overflow was so great that another train of equal size was brought up, and this also was crowded to the platforms in an incredibly short time.
As the trains lay on the siding, each car was a theatre. It seemed as if every man had a plan whereby he could leave the train after it had passed into Oklahoma, and stealthy glances at the bell rope showed that the engineer's gong would sound about the time the train was over the bridge of the town. A discussion in one car brought on a free fight among some gamblers and pistols were flourished in the most reckless manner. There happened to be a Deputy United States Marshal on the car, who once cut the lobe from a man's ear at thirty paces or thereabouts, and when he threw up his gun the others disappeared as if by magic, showing indisputably that reputation in this country is not the inadequacy it is held to be in the East. The two specials were finally joined together behind a double-header, and thus equipped the train waited for the word.
In Canadian street at 11 o'clock the town people who remained on the bluff found plenty of entertainment. There are situated several livery stables and the horse mart. At that hour fully 200 horses were being rubbed down and saddled and bridled, and every man in sight was engaged in the work. From the preparations a stranger of sporting proclivities would unhesitatingly have declared that a horse race was on the ticket; and so there was, the biggest race ever run in the United States - a race for homes, for 160 acres of Oklahoma land.
The owners of the horses being so carefully groomed were, for the most part, young men who own regulation boomer outfits; who have been here for months, and some of them for years, and all of whom, it is believed, belong to the Oklahoma Legion. Every man of them has staked out a claim within ten miles of Purcell, and the idea of each is to get to it as soon after midday as possible and wait for the wagon to make a more leisurely trip. To accomplish this each had secured a fleet horse, and cared for it religiously in anticipation of this trying hour. No cavalrymen going on inspection ever paid such minute attention to details as did those home seekers. Every girth, every strap, was put to the severest test, and bridles and bits were carefully examined.
Wild West Hotel, Calamity Ave., boom town, Perry, Indian Territory [Oklahoma], September 1893: photographer unknown (National Archives and Records Administration)
Finally, when nothing more remained to be done, the boomers mounted and rode to a point half a mile south of this town, where a wide stretch of sand, with no more than an eighth of a mile of water, formed the only barrier to Oklahoma. Here they formed a line, and patiently waited for the signal to break for the promised land.
At the main ford, a mile below other horsemen had gathered in advance of the long procession of wagons which ranged up the river in one line and to the top of the bluff in another. To the northeast hidden from view by a clump of tumbles, many wagons whose owners were too timid to trust the river were stationed in readiness to cross the railroad bridge as soon as the troops should give the word. A number of Deputy United States Marshals were noticed among the horsemen at both fording places, and although there was any amount of grumbling, they retained their positions in the line and seemed determined to make the race with the others. Events show that they did so and an infinite amount of trouble will grow out of this very fast.
Lieut. Adair, with his troops, forded the stream at 11 o'clock, and the men were stationed at intervals on the further banks, so they could guard every known fording place. Previous to crossing, the Lieutenant had announced that at noon, sun time, he would order his bugle to sound the recall, and that this would be the signal for the rush to begin. At 11:30 o'clock one of the troopers discovered a wagon crossing, half a mile below him, and succeeded in heading it off. The old Texan who owned it swore roundly, but was forced to follow the sand drifts to where the Lieutenant was stationed, and was kept there until after the signal was sounded.
As the supreme moment drew near the excitement increased. Every person who had not arranged to cross had secured an advantageous position on a housetop or the great bluff just north of the town and was feverishly waiting. Not a few field glasses were brought into requisition. Oklahoma is visible for miles from any elevation in Purcell and seems a succession of beautiful valleys, with well-timbered ridges between. The Times' correspondent, glass in hand, stood 100 feet above the river and had an uninterrupted view of the panorama.
At 11:40 o'clock the conductor of the long special train on the siding gave the signal. The engines whistled shrilly and the special began its trip Oklahomaward. It seemed as if every man on the train shouted when the train moved, and a moment later the sound of the pistol shots told that the Texans were firing their salute. Gathering speed, the train soon came opposite the ford, and then a furious fusillade broke out. It was continued until the train dashed around the bend, preparatory to crossing the bridge.
The succeeding twenty minutes were the longest of the day to those on the banks of the river. Lieut. Adair could be seen calmly sitting watching, and all eyes were centred on him.
Suddenly he is seen to motion to the soldier near him, and the next moment the cheerful strains of the recall are sounded. In an instant the scene changes. There is a mighty shout, and the advance guard of the invading army is racing like mad across the sands toward the narrow expanse of water. The north and south wings seem to strike the water together. In they go, helter-skelter, every rider intent on reaching the bank first. There goes a horse into a deep hole and his rider falls headlong out of the saddle. Before he can arise he is apparently crushed by another animal, which has stumbled and fallen in. The crowd on shore gives a cry of horror, which speedily changed to relief as neither man is hurt. They struggled to their feet, and as one of the horses breaks away and joins the flying host his owner surges after him, with the water up to his waist, and the other man remounts.
By this time the swiftest ones are over and speeding up the slope of the nearest ridge. The head of the line of wagons is just emerging from the river bed. At this rate it will not be ten minutes before all are across. The racers take different directions, but most of the wagons northeast. The glass detects dozens of men miles beyond the river. These are boomers who have been hiding.
There goes a white flag raised over what appears to be a wagon two miles away. "That's Dr. Johnson's claim," said an anxious watcher, "and the doctor is riding for it for all he's worth. I reckon he will lose it though." The doctor does lose it, dugout and all, unless he can prove that the man who hoisted the flag was on the ground before 10 o'clock.
Six shots in rapid succession, coming from a point a mile away, attract attention. "They're settling one dispute already," remarked a man who has pioneered all through the West.
"Pashaw, they're only giving notice of preemption," said another.
More shots were heard, but no one could satisfactorily explain them.
Soon the last wagon had crossed the main ford and the canvas covers began to dot the Oklahoma landscape. Within thirty minutes Purcell had resumed its normal aspect.
Hell's Half Acre, Perry, Indian Territory [Oklahoma], 1893: photographer unknown (National Archives and Records Administration)
At the Santa Fe bridge the mode of crossing was so wearisome that after two wagons had been hauled across by hand the boomers became discouraged and decided to brave the dangers of the ford after all. So they took the back track and about 2 o'clock were safely in Oklahoma and headed for the north. As every claim within ten miles of Purcell had already been taken, these people will travel late tonight to make up for lost time.
About 5 o'clock reports from the front began to come in, and they give a fair indication of the state of affairs which to-day's grand rush precipitated. The business men of Purcell were largely represented among the horsemen who led the precession. Two of these headed for a claim which one had long since staked out and which the other coveted. They made first-class running, but the covetous man won by a few yards and set a stake. The other declared that he would hold the claim, and began work on a dugout. The situation was waxing when mutual friends, who had secured the adjoining 160 acres, came along and succeeded in preventing "gun play." The dispute was not settled, however, and to-night both men claim the homestead.
Another merchant named Harness made a noble ride and came up to his selected claim only to find Tom McNally, Deputy United States Marshall, in possession. Harness dismounted, and by and by his wagon arrived with a tent, which he proceeded to put up. McNally asserted that he had been sent into the territory by Lieut. Adair and was therefore entitled to take up a claim. This argument is worthless, because McNally was in Government employ at the time, and even if he wished to resign he could not well do so all by himself. McNally is a tough citizen and is considered extremely dangerous when drunk. He swears to-night that he will hold the claim and Harness is equally positive he will not.
The spirit of the law has clearly been violated by the Purcell merchants who have pre-empted claims to-day. They do not intend to live upon them, and most of them will make no improvements at present beyond building shanties or tents or making a dug-out. In the meantime home seekers will roam through Oklahoma and perhaps lose their lives in contesting claims with other needy men.
A dispatch from Oklahoma City to-night says that at 12 o'clock men seemed to rise out of the ground there, and in an incredibly short time a town site was staked off and lots placed on the market. These men dropped from last night's south-bound train when it slowed up for the station. It is estimated that 200 left the same train between Guthrie and Oklahoma. It is reported that two men have been killed eight miles from Purcell.
Land rush into Indian Territory [Oklahoma], 22 April 1889: photo by Bain News Service (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)