Settlement of the Southern Plains

The Oklahoma Land Rush Office at Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, during the Oklahoma Land Rush, 1889

The 1862 Homestead Act encouraged the expansion of agricultural settlement in the territories and states created out of the old Louisiana Territory. The act granted title to 160 acres of public land to settlers who remained on, "improved", and developed the property for five years. After the Civil War, the Homestead Act and western railroad expansion encouraged thousands of settlers to move into the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, and finally the Oklahoma District.

By the late 1870s frontier settlement had swept across the Plains. Two arms of settlement reached west - one on the Northern Plains, and the other to the southwest through Texas. Between them lay the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) and its millions of acres, occupied by twenty-two Indian tribes. Settlers demanded that the federal government restrict the tribes to smaller reservations in order to open most of the land to white settlement. For four years, lawless settlers or "Sooners" illegally entered the Oklahoma District to stake out farms, only to be evicted by United States troops. By the 1880s this unrelenting pressure forced the federal government to open parts of the Oklahoma Territory.

In 1889, the government forced the Creek and Seminole tribes to sell their land in the Oklahoma District for just over four million dollars. Congress then opened the district to white settlement under the Homestead Act.

The Oklahoma District was opened at noon on April 22, 1889. On that day, 100,000 persons gathered at the district's northern border in wagons, on horseback, and even on bicycles. Fifteen trains lined up at Arkansas City, Kansas; ready to steam into the district. When cannons and guns signaled noon, pandemonium broke loose. Noise and confusion reigned as thousands of Boomers staked claims. Speculators, settlers, and transients claimed 1,920,000 acres of Oklahoma within a few hours. The boomtowns of Guthrie and Oklahoma City were established overnight.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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