Anyone who has ever read the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder knows a bit about the unique and varied history of Oklahoma. It was originally set aside by the United States government as a reservation for Native Americans of all tribes. However, American settlers with westward pioneering ambitions tried to settle it before it was legally permissible for them to do so. The second book of Mrs. Wilder’s series discusses her family’s attempt to settle in Oklahoma when she was a child, and their subsequent ousting from the territory by American soldiers who were rounding up and evicting illegal settlers like the Ingalls family.
In fact, Oklahoma’s nickname, the Sooner State, refers to this eagerness of American settlers to lay claim to the land before the United States government made it legal for them to do so. These early, illegal settlers knew there was good land in Oklahoma from reports of people who had been though it, whereas the American government tried to convince its people the land there was no good and suitable only for Native settlement. Most Americans did not believe this propaganda, however, and attempted to stake claims to the best pieces of land there.
The United States government attempted to discourage this at first by forcibly removing American settlers and referred to the territory as Indian Territory on maps to show just which group of people the land was meant to belong to. However, the government eventually recognized that it could not stop everyone who was determined to settle there from doing so. Therefore, the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 formally opened the doors to American settlement in Oklahoma. Eventually, enough American settlers went to live there that the term Indian Territory was dropped from maps and the area became known simply as Oklahoma Territory. On November 16, 1907, Oklahoma Territory became Oklahoma, and the nation’s 46th state.
Oklahoma was the place that Native Americans were forced to migrate to during the infamous Trail of Tears in the earlier part of the 19th century. As the American presence in Oklahoma grew, the government established the Dawes Act in 1887, which divided the state into lands for individual tribes, and eventually, individual families. Farming and land ownership were encouraged among the Natives, but the Dawes Act also gave the United States government overall ownership of the land. As such, it allowed the railroad to go through Oklahoma, which reduced the amount of land available to the Natives by half.
There were attempts made to create an all Native state out of Oklahoma, but these failed, and laid the groundwork for the Oklahoma Statehood Convention in 1907, after which, statehood to Americans was soon granted. Natives who already owned land in Oklahoma were allowed to keep it, but now they had to share it with American settlers and live among them.
The discovery of oil in Oklahoma shortly after it became a state made the land even more valuable to the United States government, and large tracts of it were taken by the government for federal ownership and use. Those who lost their land in the federal land grab were given money for their land, though not always at market value, especially if they were natives, and they were encouraged to move farther west.
Eventually, an uneasy alliance between the United States government, American settlers, and Natives who were forced to go there was formed. A mixture of all of these groups stayed in Oklahoma, and are there today. Oklahoma can truly be said to be the real melting pot of the dueling American cultures of Native and non-Native, making it unique among the states.
- Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation
- The Little House Books: the Library of America Collection
- The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands (The Civilization of the American Indian Series)
- The History of Oklahoma