The Most Eventful Horse Race In History' Run in Oklahoma Just 66 Years ago This Month.
Sixty-six years ago this month occurred "the most eventful horserace in history."
On April 22, 1889, an army of more than 50,000 Americans from nearly every state in the Union had gathered along the borders of a long-forbidden territory. At noon came the signal which sent them on their mad rush into the Promised Land and when a new day dawned they were already busy transforming a wilderness into a land of cities and farms.
Never before had America witnessed such a scene and it is not likely that it will ever see it again. But out of the dust and confusion and turmoil of that day arose a new commonwealth and Oklahoma, "the land of the red people," added a new star to the American flag.
Back to this historic horse-race -- or "the run." as they refer to it in the Oklahoma of today-is the age-old story of a land-hungry people. Soon after the Creek and Seminole Indians, assembled in a great Indian council at Fort Smith, Ark., in 1866, ceded their lands west of the ninety-eighth meridian to the United States government, the agitation for opening this country to white settlement started.
In a few years came the railroads and in their wake the "boomers." Between the two there was a close connection, at least in the initial stages of the movement.
In 1870 the M., K. & T., the first railway to enter the Indian Territory, began laying tracks southward from the Kansas border. Its construction was rushed across the Cherokee, Creek and Choctaw nations, and thence across Red River into Texas. The A. & P. (Frisco) built its line across the Shawnee, and Wyandotte reservations, entered the Cherokee nation and affected a junction with the M., K. & T. at Vinita in 1872.
The Boom Begins
In 1884 the Santa Fe line began building straight through the center of the territory from north to south. This line, completed in 1887, passed directly through the conveted "unassigned lands" and its coming was the last clarion call to homeseekers. The big boom the irresistible cry for the new lands for white colonists - swelled into a national demand.
The outstanding figure among the "boomers" was Capt. David L. Payne, who had been a scout during the Indian wars of the Southern plains in the sixties and seventies. As early as 1880 Payne led a colony to the North Canadian river and attempted a settlement near the present site of Oklahoma City. He was arrested and his colonists conducted back across the border. Within a month Payne was back with another colony, which met the same fate.
But he never relaxed his efforts. Colony after colony was organized under his leadership and pushed across the forbidden borders, only to be met by the bayonets of Uncle Sam's soldiers.
Payne was finally indicted by a federal grand jury, but his death at Wellington, Kan., in the midst of another forward movement, removed this industrious captain of the "boomers" from the scene. His work was taken up and carried on by William L. Couch. The last invastion was in the fall of 1885, when Couch was placed under arrest, and his people removed from the territory.
By this time the federal authorities at Washington were beginning to get busy. Bill after bill authorizing the opening was debated and defeated. At last after a bitter fight, participated in by Indians and Indian agents, cattle barons and special interest lobbyists, the Oklahoma bill passed the house in February, 1889, failed in the senate, finally was tacked on as a rider to the Indian appropriation bill and became a law March 3, 1889. President Harrison issued a proclamation setting the date of the opening on April 22, 1889.
Like wildfire the slogan "On to Oklahoma" again swept through the country and the prospective homeseekers, now clothed with legal powers, began everywhere to assemble for the grand rush. Two million acres in the unassigned lands were surveyed and staked into quarter sections and townsites.
Detachments of cavalry were deployed to patrol the borders of the new lands. Registration offices were opened at Guthrie and Kingfisher. Arrangements were made with the railroads to run as many trains as possible into the new territory on the day set for the opening.
The Great Day Dawns
A graphic account of what took place on that historic April 22 is given by Carl Coke Rister in his book, Southern Plainsmens," published recently by the University of Oklahoma Press. He writes:
"The morning of the eventful day dawned bright and clear. For many miles along the northern boundary of the land to be opened thousands of homesteaders were camped, and hundreds of others were coming in hourly. Soldiers patrolled the southern side of the line to keep back any overly ambitious contestant, yet a majority of those who were present accepted such restrictions without complaint and a spirit of good cheer and friendly banter seemed to prevall. Still, as the morning wore away, the waiting people became restless, and long before the time came to start they were arranging themselves in line along the boundary.
"A signal officer, with a flag in one hand and a bugle in the other, took a position where all could see him. Promptly at twelve he sounded the note which sent thousands in a mad headlong dash towards the south; and other officers stationed at intervals along the boundary relayed the signal down the line. The din and confusion which followed is indescribable. Many horses hitched to vehicles became frightened with the sudden noise and clamor and broke away in runs, overturning vehicles and spilling their contents on the prairies; a choking cloud of dust enveloped the racers making it difficult for one to see another and thereby imperilling the lives of heedless contestants; the speeding trains disgorged their shouting and exulting passengers, who were sent sprawling on the gound or who struck the earth running; and horseback riders, leaning low over their laboring mounts, were strung out across the prairies or they raced side by side, and their loud oaths, laughter and shouts accentuated the thundering hub-bub.
"Along the southern boundary of the land to be opened the confusion was almost as great. Thousands of contestants had congregated at Purcell and at other points on the southern bank of the Canadian river. This siltfilled river was an effective barrier which made the work of patrolling soldiers easy. Several days before the opening, desirable crossings were located, and before the start was made long lines of horseback riders followed by vehicles were opposite Purcell on the north bank of the river.
A Tense Moment
"A short time before the starting signal was to be given Lieutenant Adair of the Fifth cavalry, mounted on a white horse, took his station on a hill where all could see him. The atmosphere seemed to be charged with excitement and tenseness as the watchers saw him lift a bugle to his lips; and it is reported that even before the notes of the instrument were heard along the south bank, reckless horsemen were plunging into the turgid waters of the stream, making for the opposite bank, and that vehicles, in some cases loaded with familes and household effects, were following closely behind them. Some of the vehicles mired in the quicksands, but the drivers unhitched their teams, mounted their favorite horses and countinued the race. Within an hour the prairies on the northern side of the river were covered with excited homeseekers, some peggin down stakes on their claims, some speeding on to other sites.
No less an amazing spectacle than this epic "run" was the sight which followed immediately, of towns springing into existence on the prairie overnight. It is said that within two hours after the homeseekers had crossed the Canadian, a townsite company was laying out the municipality of Lexington, not more than a mile distant from Purcell. That night Guthrie was a tented city of 15,000 population and Oklahoma City had more than 10,000. All in all more than 100,000 people that historic April 22.
Not all of them stayed. Thousands became discouraged when they failed to establish claims or became involved in quarrels, fights and litigation over the land they wanted. For them the Promised Land proved to be only a mirage, so they drifted back to their old homes in other states. But many more thousands did stay and, enduring all the privations of life on the last frontier, they helped build the commonwealth of Oklahoma. Today as they join in celebrating the anniversary of their state, they look back upon their work and call it good.
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