The Cherokee Strip, 1893 – Oklahoma’s Biggest Land Run. (There were two previous runs, 1885 and 1889.) 

I am proud of my Grandfather Mounce (Samuel Huston), who made that run with his faithful horse, Dolly. After the necessary improvements, he later married my Grandmother, Daisy Victoria. My sister and I owe a great debt to those pioneers, just as do the many other descendants of “Boomers” (who lunged off the Kansas line at the “Boom” of the canon, or even the “Sooners,” who cheated and slipped over the line early). 

A photograph of the Land Run of the Cherokee Strip that opened settlement to the Cherokee Outlet on September 16, 1893. This photograph is titled “The Race,” and was taken from atop scaffolding by an associate of photographer William S. Prettyman who was based in Arkansas City, Kansas. Courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society.

We remain faithful subscribers to the newsletter, “Friends of the 1893 Land Run,” and have sent descriptions of the wonderful stories we inherited about the race and the aftermath on the farm, as many other members have. However, I was concerned I wasn’t sufficiently aware of the bigger picture. Hence, after more research, I am sharing this response.

The famous race for land was memorialized in statues (“Pioneer Woman,” Ponca City, Oklahoma), festivals, even a film, “Far and Away,” with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman). However, most of the descriptions are, quite understandably, personal, often centering on one family’s hopes and dilemmas. I wanted to look at the context, the history, with a broader vision. Those of us who come from those roots need to understand more fully how they began and who or what we owe for our lives.

Although free parcels of land handed out by the government had been policy since the beginning of the Republic, the specific impetus for the Cherokee Strip race was the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Lincoln; the Democrats (at that time, they were right wing and racist, but now, that would fit more Republicans). Mostly it was southern congressmen who opposed the Homestead bill, so completion could only come when they left the United States for their secessionist plans. 

A sod house in western Oklahoma, from the W. A. Rigg Collection at Oklahoma Historical Society.

Also, another law before the race—the 1887 Dawes Act—was necessary. It mandated “severalty” for Native Americans on reservations, effectively “detribalizing” those original Americans, already badly treated. That law was destructive to Native American sovereignty, culture, and identity. It was Congress’s reactions to intense pressure from Whites to open up “Indian” lands, previously promised. Opponents at the time, (Senator Henry Teller of Colorado) warned it would make Native Americans “vagabonds on the face of the Earth.” 

Lands opened, in a relentless litany, were: 189l, Tonkawa; 1892, Pawnee; then 1904, Ponca/Otoe/Missouri; 1906, Osage/Kaw. Other lands (Kiowa, Comanche, Apache) were opened by lottery. The 1828 Treaties with sovereign Indian nations (the “Five Civilized Tribes” and others) were now all broken. Many individual Indians could not participate in the race because their tribe had been forced to be allied with the treasonous Confederacy.

Another factor explaining the “hunger” for land, leading to the policies and the races: economic depression, one of the worst, up to that time—late 1880s, early 1890s. An active Populist Party made gains, others joining them in their push-back to big banks and big railroads. But President Grover Cleveland was hostile, vetoing bills to distribute feed grain among drought-stricken farmers of Texas, bills to help struggling small business, even pensions to Civil War veterans. And (as before) southern Congressmen opposed. The back-lash led to the election of William McKinley (Sources: National Archives). 

Issued to commemorate the centennial of the Cherokee Strip Land Run, this stamp celebrated one of the largest, most spectacular races in history. An 8-million-acre parcel of land in northwest Oklahoma, the Cherokee Strip was opened for settlement on September 16, 1893.   More than 1,000 entrants raced to stake a claim in what the New York Times had billed as the “greatest real estate deal of the century.”

In Oklahoma, on the local level, a few claim-holders/farmers were barely making it. One hundred-sixty acres might have been enough in the East for sustainability, but not out West. And most lands went to speculators, cattlemen, mine owners, and railroads. Of 500 million acres, only 80 million went to actual farmers. Roosevelt’s “Small Tract Act” and his New Deal helped, but later, in 1938. 

Yet, the Homestead Act, one of America’s shining examples of homespun socialism, gave hope to many (and gave me a home). It was an interesting mixture of government activism, socialism, and democracy. Native Americans (from non-southern tribes) were eligible, women were eligible. But weather challenges and inappropriate farming techniques led, inevitably, by the 1930s, to the Dust Bowl. In many cases, the new lives won in the Race were damaged by climate and a by a decrease of government assistance. 

Take-aways? Lessons I have learned? My Grandparents and their family could not have made it “on their own.” Historians warn: “No society on Earth has ever functioned wholly on mythical individualism.” On the contrary, in the U.S., from the very start of our country to the present day, “Big Government has been the bedrock of the settlement of the frontier” (Ryan Cooper, “The Secret History of Cowboy Socialism,” 14 Jan. 2016). 

The sad history of racism completes the lesson: Once the Indians had been driven out, “White settlement was stoked with the first example of genuinely socialist policy: that is: ‘free land.’” And for the future? Let’s hope we can get over our childish insistence that the federal government, which has supported so much of our growth since Lincoln, is somehow meddling or “illegitimate.” If not, we will continue (in Oklahoma and the nation) to “struggle with patchy development and inept government” (Cooper). 

Actors Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are pictured in silhouette staking out their piece of land in the movie Far and Away.

Other authors weigh in–they advise: don’t let the word ‘socialism’ scare you; it has a long, decent track record in the U.S. For example, the U.S. “socializes the cost of aging with Social Security and Medicare” (Ed Quillen, “The West was Built on Government Subsidies,” 23 Oct 2009). So much of the U.S. economy and key services are governmental—military bases, the Post Office, dams, (think, TVA), power sources, government roads (think Eisenhower’s Inter-states), even tourism; e.g., state and federal parks. “The whole “winning of the West” was a “federal enterprise” (Quillen).

Back to my family: government aid was great; we appreciated it so much. But it wasn’t enough. In the end, our farm, courtesy of the government and of our hard work, had to be sold. Sadly, not a barn or chicken coop is left. All we have are the photgraphs and the memories. But we have—if we make it work for us now—the possibility in the future of better government, and better federal policy that, once again, can be forced to be progressive and humane, in order to help us help ourselves. 

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mounce is Professor Emeritus, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and long time subscriber to “Friends of 1893 Land Run” newsletter. He and his sister, Ms Betty Jean (Mounce) Glasgow, are grand-children of Samuel Huston Mounce, who staked a claim in 1893 in north central Oklahoma, near Ponca City and Tonkawa. They have previously submitted stories regarding their grandparents Mounce, the race, the settlement, and their long lives on the family farm. 

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows actors Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in a flyer to promote the movie, Far and Away.