Considering the inflated prices that real estate is experiencing almost universally today, it seems incredible that the US government ever sold land off at pennies per acre and even gave it away for free, but that’s exactly what happened to much of Oklahoma in the late 1800s. What was once reserved as Indian Territory was opened up to white settlers in the biggest, most chaotic land grab in American history.
Despite the solemn commitment Congress made in 1828 to a number of Native American tribes that the area eventually becoming Oklahoma would forever be reserved as Indian Territory, and land they had been forced to occupy after being driven out of their ancestral lands, Congress reneged on that promise. Forcing the Cherokees to put up their Oklahoma land for sale, and to accept a paltry $7,000,000, the US government claimed back 7,000,000 acres. The tribes who occupied the lands were known as the Five Civilized Tribes; the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole – who allied themselves with the South during the Civil War.
Following the war, the US government regarded these tribes as defeated enemies. This animosity, combined with increasing pressure to open up the Indian Territory to white settlers, resulted in literally dirt cheap Oklahoma land for sale, and eventually, free land to whomever could claim it first.
The newly available Oklahoma land for sale was sold first-come, sold by bid, or won by lottery, or by means other than a run. The settlers, no matter how they acquired occupancy, purchased Oklahoma land for sale from the United States Land Office. The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 was the most prominent of the land runs, although there were several others.
Between 1889 and 1895 there were seven land races in Oklahoma. By the time of the land rush of 1893, the rush for the Cherokee Strip, America was languishing in the worst economic depression it had ever seen. The US government hoped that holding land races for free land, rather than offering Oklahoma land for sale would stimulate the economy by creating farms and crops at a low cost.
This was one of the factors that swelled the number of hopeful land-racers that day. Many would be disappointed. There were only 42,000 homesteads – far too few to accommodate the estimated 100,000 who raced for land that day. Additionally, many of the “Boomers” – those who waited for the cannon’s boom before rushing into the land claim – found that most of the choice plots of Oklahoma land had already been claimed by “Sooners” who had snuck into the land claim area before the race began.
The impact of the land rush was immediate, transforming the land almost overnight. Unlike Rome, many cities of Oklahoma were built in a day. William Willard Howard recorded his observations of the Oklahoma land races in Harper’s Weekly in May of 1889. He said “At twelve o’clock on Monday, April 22d, the resident population of Guthrie was nothing; before sundown it was at least ten thousand.
In that time streets had been laid out, town lots staked off, and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government. . . Never before in the history of the West has so large a number of people been concentrated in one place in so short a time. To the conservative Eastern man, who is wont to see cities grow by decades, the settlement of Guthrie was magical beyond belief; to the quick-acting resident of the West, it was merely a particularly lively town-site speculation.”