Tag Archives: Oklahoma

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 parents  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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David Boren: The student body and the body politic

Twenty years ago on Monday, U.S. Sen. David Boren because President David Boren. Not President of the United States David Boren, as it once appeared he might someday be, but President of the University of Oklahoma David Boren.

Twenty years ago, Boren saw what Congress was going to become — what it was already becoming — and wanted no part of it. The keenest political mind this state has ever produced, elected to a third term just four years earlier with 83 percent of the vote, decided it was time to move on.

The national polarization and the rightward shift in Oklahoma politics that Boren’s inner Geiger counter detected two decades ago nears toxic levels. Politically, the differences between Boren and the man who succeeded him, Jim Inhofe, grow wider with each passing year.

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note the career trajectories of Boren and Inhofe. They entered the Oklahoma Legislature the same year, in 1966, and Boren defeated Inhofe in the 1974 gubernatorial race. The way Inhofe tells it, Boren was supposed to beat up embattled incumbent David Hall in the Democratic primary, leaving the way open for Inhofe to win the general election. Inhofe didn’t count on the 33-year-old Boren winning the whole thing.

Politically, Boren remained in the ascendency until 1994. Inhofe, by then First District congressman, defeated Boren-like Democrat Dave McCurdy in a bare-knuckled fight that effectively ended Democratic dominance of Oklahoma politics.

This shift did not occur only in Oklahoma or only from one party to another. In Kansas, Republicans such as Nancy Kassebaum and Robert Dole gave way to Sam Brownback, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. In Texas, conservative Democrats such as John Tower and Lloyd Bentsen — one of Boren’s mentors — have been replaced by the likes of John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. One can theorize but only that about the causes and effects of such a startling evolution.

Boren became a university president because he believed it was his best chance to have a lasting impact on his state. His proteges are just now beginning to move into positions of state leadership. One, a Republican, is speaker of the House of Representatives. Several are in the Legislature. Thousands of others are scattered through the state, through all walks of life.

Twenty years from now, we will know better whether David Boren did indeed leave the legacy he so much desires.

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Oklahoma’s Ewe Lamb Rebellion

William Henry Davis “Alfalfa Bill” Murray generally wins the prize for Oklahoma’s most colorful and eccentric public figure. Born in Toadsuck, Texas, he became an intermarried citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was president of the Oklahoma constitutional convention and first speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He served in Congress, started an ill-fated agricultural cooperative in Bolivia and hitchhiked his way to victory in the 1930 gubernatorial election.

Gruff, profane, ill-kempt, Murray denounced the Ku Klux Klan, called African Americans “coons” and sent the National Guard to keep Texas from opening a toll bridge across the Red River. He tromped around the governor’s office in his stockinged feet, had the executive mansion’s lawn planted to potatoes and made a delusional run for the presidency in 1932.

So yeah, he was pretty far out there.

But for sheer unadulterated weirdness, Henry S. Johnston runs a close second. A Biblical scholar, he also dabbled in Rosicrucianism, an esoteric and obscure philosophy allegedly based on “ancient truths” passed from Middle Eastern mystics to a medieval German named Christian Rosenkreutz. Johnston attended seances with his wife, consulted astrologers and numerologists, claimed to have been reincarnated at least twice, and counted his secretary’s canaries among his closest advisers.

In the end, it wasn’t the canaries that proved his undoing. It was the secretary.

These were hazardous times for Oklahoma governors. The previous elected chief executive, Jack Walton, last just 10 months before the Legislature removed him from office. Impeachment proceedings were initiated against two more of the state’s early governors, and a third had been indicted on federal fraud charges.

Johnston was elected governor in 1926. A dapper, scholarly man, he had been the first president pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate, and for a short while it appeared  his term as governor would be a successful one. At his urging, the Legislature increased appropriations for common education and authorized the construction of a crippled children’s hospital.

But lawmakers used to speaking to the chief executive whenever they liked were at first annoyed and then outraged by Johnston’s appointment of an executive secretary, Mayme Hammond, who blocked the door to the governor’s office. More than that, they believed, she exercised undue and possibly even mystical influence over Johnston, and at times acted as the de facto governor. At the end of the 1927 legislative session they demanded Hammonds be fired.

Johnston, in his typically meandering manner, refused.

“If you came to me with a thousand sheep,” he said, “and I had only one ewe lamb and you wanted me to destroy that, do you think I would be so base as to destroy it? I repeat, gentlemen, it would be yellow, it would be unjust to Mrs. Hammonds to sacrifice her and her character on false charges.”

Thus began what became known as the Ewe Lamb Rebellion.

Hammonds’ opponents labeled her a “She-svengali” and initiated a special session for the purpose of driving her and Johnston from office. Hammonds probably didn’t help herself any by explaining her ability to keep track of goings-on all over the state through astral projection. It also didn’t help that her relatives, including her husband Dr. O.O. Hammonds, began showing up  and the state payroll.

The initial attempt to oust Johnston failed, but the continued presence of Hammonds and Johnston’s support of the Al Smith, the Democrats’ Catholic, anti-Prohibition candidate for president in 1928, eventually led to his undoing. In 1929, Johnston was convicted on a single count of incompetence and removed from office.

Thus, Oklahoma became and remains the only state to impeach and remove from office two consecutive elected governors.

Lieutenant Governor William J. Holloway, a level-head former state Senator, replaced Holloway and was able to put through several significant reforms during his short time in office. More importantly, he instilled a sense of order to state government despite the turmoil of the onset of the Great Depression.

But the Oklahoma constitution barred Holloway from seeking election to a full term in his own right, thus opening the way for Alfalfa Bill Murray — an eccentric, to be sure, but an eccentric no one dared impeach.

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