Oklahoma

Oklahoma” is my favorite American musical, and probably the favorite of many Americans. It has all the essentials, wonderful and memorable music, clever lyrics, and a great love story.  It was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and the music was by Richard Rodgers, both Jews.  But, things in Oklahoma were not as bright and breezy as they might seem.

Each State that joined the Union has its own history, and Oklahoma has some unique aspects which make it a special case.  First were the Indian settlements, when in 1838-9 the three main tribes of native Americans in the area of Alabama, the Cree, Choctaw and Cherokee, were forced from their lands, by order of President Andrew Jackson in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, to satisfy the needs of the white settlers.   They were forced on a march by the US Cavalry from there across the Mississippi River to what was then Indian Territory, that they were promised would be theirs “in perpituity.”  This march was known as “the trail of tears,” because ca. one third of their number perished on the way.  The name Oklahoma derives from the Cherokee for “red people.” Their ownership did not last long because they were disenfranchised when the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 declared the Oklahoma Territory open to white settlement.

Then there were the Range Wars, between the “cowboys and the farmers.”  “The farmer came out west and made a lot of changes – he came out west and fenced off all the ranges.”  This was the basis of the conflict between the cattle “barons” and the farmer “settlers.”  The range wars took place between about 1860-1890 over most of the Western US, and involved law enforcement on both sides, sometimes paid for by the cattle owner’s associations and sometimes supporting the rights of the “little man.”  The movie “Shane” was a classic example of the latter.  The Range Wars had aspects of class warfare, land rights, water rights, and criminality.  Many were accused of cattle rustling and some were lynched for that, even though it was later shown that many were not guilty.

The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 was the first land rush in US history to take over “Unassigned Lands.”  The land rush started at high noon on April 22, 1889, with an estimated 50,000 people lined up for their piece of the available two million acres (8,000 km²).  The Unassigned Lands were considered some of the best unoccupied public land in the United States. The Indian Appropriations Bill of 1889 was passed and signed into law with an amendment that authorized President Benjamin Harrison to open the two million acres for settlement. Due to the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, legal settlers could claim lots of up to 160 acres in size. Provided a settler lived on the land and improved it, the settler could then receive the title to the land.  Oklahoma became a State of the Union in 1907.  This was the background to the bright and breezy history of Oklahoma.

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