Category Archives: History

Oklahoma land run

History is messy.

In Oklahoma, we’re reminded of this every April when a school decides to teach kids about the state’s history by re-enacting the land run of 1889, and one or more parentsĀ  get upset because the land in question was more or less stolen, likely as not from the ancestors of people still living here.

For those who don’t know the story, almost all of what is today Oklahoma was designated Indian Territory in the 1820s and 1830s. Tribes were moved here lock, stock and barrel, mainly from the southeastern United States, mainly to solve land disputes. The disputes were generally as follows: The Indians had land and whites wanted it.

Originally, all of present-day Oklahoma except the Panhandle and the southwest corner were promised in perpetuity to the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians. But the relocation went so well, at least from the United States’ point of view, that it soon began moving other native peoples into the territory. This was facilitated by, of all things, the American Civil War.

Abandoned by the Union at the start of hostilities, the tribal governments of Indian Territory signed treaties with the Confederacy. In practice, Indians from the territory fought on both sides, but the treaties were used to force concessions from the tribes when the war was over. Among these was the surrender of the western half of Indian Territory so that the federal government could move Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Pawnee, Comanche and other Plains Indians onto it. Dozens of smaller tribes — Delaware, Kickapoo, Pottawatomie, Ottawa, Kaw, to name a few — were also shoehorned in.

While mapping out all of these reservations, officials somehow managed to leave 2 million acres smack dab in the middle of the territory. These became known as the Unassigned Lands, and it was this part of Oklahoma that was opened by the epic land run of April 22, 1889.

This land run, and the four that followed it, were subject to a good deal of violence and fraud. The term “Sooner,” by which the state would become known, was applied to settlers and land speculators who sneaked into the Unassigned Land ahead of the official start and staked claims before anyone could get there.

Under federal pressure, all of the tribes agreed to allotment — that is, the tribal lands were broken up and distributed to individual tribal members, with the surplus made available to non-Indian settlement. These were distributed through a total of five land runs and at least three sealed-bid auctions. Thus, while Oklahoma has one of the nation’s largest Indian populations, it has no Indian reservations.

Only about half the state — the western half — was opened to settlement in this way. The eastern half had more people than land, and so none was left for homesteading by outsiders.

Within a generation, well over the half of the Indian allotments had passed into other hands, often through less than fair means. When, in the 1930s, a woman named Angie Debo exposed the extent of the fraud and deception, the University of Oklahoma Press canceled its book contract with her. And Still the Waters Run was finally published by Princeton.

So yes, there is some bitterness about the Land Run. In Oklahoma City, which owes its existence to the 1889 run, there is particular exuberance. A giant sculpture sets along a busy Interstate highway exchange east of downtown.

I have no Indian ancestry but my children do, through their mother, and they are somewhat conflicted on this subject, as am I. But I’m ok with that.

History is messy. Contrary to the simple moral fable we seem to so desperately want, history is ambiguous and complex and in some cases inevitable. So, yes, teach the Oklahoma Land Run. It was a wonderful, exciting, exuberant chapter in our state and nation’s history.

But also teach what came before and what came after, the price that was paid for that free land, and who paid it.

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Elmer McCurdy

This isn’t a new story, but it is a good one in a macabre and darkly humorous way. It’s the story of an outlaw who roamed the West for the better part of seventy years, mostly as a corpse.

Elmer McCurdy was a sad sack character, raised in Maine by an uncle and aunt he believed were his parents until he was ten, when the women he thought was his aunt told him she was his mother, and that she didn’t know who his father was. Understandably confused, McCurdy took up hard drink about the same time he reached puberty and by twenty was well on his way to ruin.

Drifting out to southeast Kansas, he joined the Army and allegedly received demolition training. Upon his discharge in 1910, McCurdy undertook to become a safe cracker and hold up man.

At first things didn’t go well. And then they got worse. McCurdy and a companion were arrested in St. Joseph, Missouri, on suspicion of intent to commit burglary, but talked their way out of it. Moving to Oklahoma, he and some companions held up a train under the impression it carried $4,000 in cash. And it may have. Problem is, McCurdy used too much nitroclycerin and blew the safe and most of the money to smithereens. About the only thing left were some silver coins melted into unrecognizable globs.

In September 1911, McCurdy and two others tried to rob a bank at Chautauqua; this time, Elmer’s inexpert use of explosives resulted in the demolition of the bank’s interior but failed to open the safe.

His big score occurred the next month, when he and some friends determined to rob a train carrying $400,000 in oil royalties to the Osage Nation. Unfortunately for McCurdy and his gang, they stuck up the wrong train, and their haul consisted of only $46, some whiskey, a pistol, a coat and the conductor’s watch.

A three-man posse tracked McCurdy to a barn near Bartlesville, Okla., where he had spent the night drinking his share of the loot. Refusing to surrender, firing drunkenly at the lawmen, McCurdy was finally shot and killed.

And that’s when Elmer McCurdy’s life got interesting.

When no one showed up to claim the body, the Pawhuska, Okla., undertaker who embalmed McCurdy put the body on display and charged visitors a nickel to see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” In 1916, two sideshow operators posing as relatives obtained McCurdy’s body from the undertaker, and began exhibiting it as “The Outlaw Who Wouldn’t Be Captured Alive.”

For the next three decades, Elmer McCurdy traveled the country with various carnivals and sideshows,once even appearing briefly in low-grade horror movie, his true identity and even the fact he was, in fact, human remains, growing hazier with each passing year. In 1976, a crew filming an episode of the television program The Six Million Dollar Man bumped into what they thought was a papier mache figure hanging in a funhouse at a Long Beach, Calif., amusement park. When an arm broke off, revealing a human bone, the medical examiner was summoned.

The mummified corpse was eventually identified as Elmer McCurdy, erstwhile bad guy. In 1977, the remains were finally laid to rest in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Okla.

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History repeats itself

We had a considerable to-do in our state this week. The Common Education Committee in the House of Representatives reported out a bill to cut off state funding of Advanced Placement U.S. History classes, and was shocked by the angry public reaction when word got out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had something to do with that. Part of my job is keeping an eye on the Oklahoma House. So I wrote a story about this bill and the committee discussion.

The claim against AP U.S. History — or rather, to the outline published by College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program — was that it is overly concerned with some of the less attractive aspects of America’s past. The author of the bill, Rep. Dan Fisher, said he wasn’t against against covering the bad stuff, but in his opinion AP was way off kilter. His two supporting witnesses were a county assessor and a former teacher from somewhere in the Northeast.

Fisher considers himself something of an expert on U.S. history. He likes to dress up like an eighteenth century parson and lecture on how the American Revolution was really a kind of holy war led by men of God. His main sources are two books written in the 1860s; anything much more recent than that, he says, is tainted by “revisionism.”

As far as I know, Fisher has never tried to include this particular view in the state’s history curriculum.

In the course of discussion on the bill, it was suggested that AP courses are a lot like Common Core in that they could be interpreted as a way of imposing national standards or curricula on the states. One representative said she had asked the state attorney general if Advanced Placement violated state law.

After the blue books hit the fan, Fisher and the others who supported the bill said they never intended to hurt AP, that they had been misunderstood, that they had not understood the implications of the bill. This last, that they didn’t quite understand what they were getting into, may be true. I’m certain they were completely surprised by the uproar, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that at least some of them had not thought beyond the risk of being labeled unAmerican.

What they got was national ridicule, from cable news to The Onion, and probably more surprising to them, a deluge of phone calls and emails from angry constituents. (A co-worker asked why Oklahomans didn’t get that angry about some of the anti-LGBT churned out by our Legislature. That’s easy, I said. No one’s kids get college credit for being gay.)

Fisher says he hasn’t given up on the bill, but will rework it before it gets a floor vote. Many observers think it’s as dead as George Washington’s cat, but in Oklahoma you never know.

And anyway, none of this is new. About fifteen years ago, I covered a story involving the state textbook committee, a heretofore obscure board that, as its name implies, approves public school textbooks. But a few Young Earth creationists had managed to get themselves appointed to the committee, and they were trying to nix the new science books for not including their particular point of view.

A similar furor erupted, lasted for a while, and subsided.

I personally don’t know how or if AP history is corrupting our youth. It’s an optional course, so if parents don’t like it they can keep their kids out of it. People I know who teach AP history say it really hasn’t changed in years, and I can believe it. I used to cover higher education, and one of the things I learned is that eduspeak is constantly inventing new ways to say the same things, only more obscurely.

Among the fears posed by the Great AP Menace is that students are not being taught the “foundational documents” of American history. My sense is that this is a little like asking why long division is not taught in calculus class. Advanced Placement, as the name implies, are advanced courses; they are, in fact, college level courses.

Foundational instruction begins much earlier. I’m not an educator, but I’d guess kids should have a pretty good idea what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are by middle school. Probably, they’ve been exposed to such things as the Mayflower Compact and Washington’s Farewell to the Troops. One would certainly hope so.

History is not like math. There are few constants; two-plus-two does not always equal four. History is messy and changeable, open to interpretation and susceptible to all sorts of external influences. The teaching of history is further complicated by dual and often competing purposes: a common narrative to unite an increasingly diverse nation, and a warts-and-all explanation of how we arrived where we are.

It’s kind of fun, too. People have argued about history since the Greeks came back from Troy, so why stop now?


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Homeland security 1.0

Not quite a century ago, during the Great War, Tulsans deemed guilty of “disloyalty” were sent to insane asylums. Unattached women of suspect morals were interned without recourse in a “detention camp” at First and Elgin; men judged insufficiently enthusiastic about their patriotic duty to buy Liberty Bonds were, in the words of an official post-war report, “made to see the light.”

This was not just Tulsa. Under color of patriotism and the war effort, very likely influenced by reaction to an influx of immigrants, the stirring of a civil rights movement, and women’s march to suffrage, the nation launched a broad attack on personal liberty.

It began, if not innocently, at least with good intentions. The National Defense Act of 1916 authorized the creation of state and local Councils of Defense. The state councils were activated shortly after U.S. entry into the war in the spring of 1917; the state councils, in turn, authorized the local councils.

Initially, the councils were to inventory industrial, agricultural and transportation assets and coordinate their utilization for military purposes. Rather quickly, they assumed or were given responsibility for monitoring the activities of regular citizens, ferreting out suspected spies and saboteurs, intimidating suspected enemy sympathizers, tracking down draft resisters and war profiteers, even pressuring clergy to stick to the script.

The Tulsa County Council of Defense was led by prominent and conscientious citizens, and most of what it did was beyond reproach. Some of it, though, fed the worst instincts of human nature.

The council maintained an investigations department that handled more than 300 cases in a little over a year, ranging from disloyalty to fraud. It also worked in cooperation with the American Protective League, a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation bureau — later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and the 1,000-member Home Guard, a force of men ineligible for regular military duty who were supposed to replace the National Guardsmen called to active duty.

Much of their work was relatively routine — background checks, identifying draft dodgers, looking out for the families of service members. But they also interrogated “alien enemies,” put a stop to German-language schools and religious services (even German classes at the local high school) and packed off an unknown number of “disloyal” citizens to the “insane asylum.”

The war ended at the end of 1918. The councils of defense and the Home Guard were disbanded the next year. But the overriding zeal of the times lingered, manifesting itself in the rise of a new Ku Klux Klan, the Palmer Raids, even Prohibition, and an insistence on conformity to a certain definition of what it means to be an American.

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Pitchforks and politics in early Oklahoma

Five years ago, I wrote a column for the Tulsa World about one of the most poignant and largely ignored events in Oklahoma history. It happened in August 1917, and was called the Green Corn Rebellion.

The rebellion, such as it was, stemmed from rural Oklahoma’s long-simmering discontent with the social, political and economic conditions of a young state founded on the promise of opportunity. Socialist Party organizer Oscar Ameringer said Oklahoma’s sharecroppers, tenant farmers and small land-holders lived in greater poverty than the immigrants of New York’s Lower East Side.

Ameringer found a receptive audience. Mostly from default, many rural Oklahomans called themselves socialists, although the capital-S Socialists weren’t so sure they agreed. Oklahoma Socialists didn’t want to collectivize the farms, they wanted to own them. They wanted banks and railroads and landlords that didn’t cheat them, real schools for their kids, seed and equipment at fair prices, and to be paid enough for their grain and cotton to turn a decent profit.

Fred Holt, the Socialist candidate for governor in 1914, got almost 53,000 votes — 21 percent of the total — in an election decided by less than 5,000. Six rural Socialists were elected to the Legislature, and more than 170 won local and county offices.

A discriminatory (and unconstitutional) literary test targeting African Americans had been enacted a few years earlier. Now the Democrat-dominated Legislature went after poor whites by limiting access to voter registration. The move guaranteed political control but only intensified frustration in the hinterlands. Masked riders terrorized small-town bankers and local authorities. Rural radicals, shut out of the Industrial Workers of the World, formed a rag-tag organization called the Working Class Union.

U.S. entry into the Great War, and especially the draft that went with it, did not go over well in rural Oklahoma. Farmers saw no reason to fight for Wall Street and European royalty; a shadowy organization known as the “Jones Family” actively encouraged and assisted in avoidance of the draft.

Matters came to a head in early August 1917 when several hundred men converged on a remote farm about eighty miles southeast of Oklahoma City. The idea was to march on Washington, cutting telephone and telegraph lines and burning bridges along the way, picking up strength and living off “green corn” scavenged from fields on their route.

Misguided, delusional, ill-planned, ill-led, the rebellion disintegrated almost immediately, put down by local posses even before the National Guard arrived. Authorities used the uprising as a pretext to crack down on all dissidents, whether they had anything to do with the rebellion or not. Some four hundred men were arrested and 150 were sent to prison.

Radical politics in Oklahoma essentially ended with the Green Corn Rebellion. But the radical’s ideas did not. The Working Class Union’s outrageous demands had included an eight-hour work day, child labor laws, a workers’ compensation system, protection from predatory banking practices, and decent schools.

Some might say that the fight goes on.

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