Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Boomers, Sooners, and Eighty-niners

By the 1870's, following the Civil War, most of what was to become the state of Oklahoma had been divided between various American Indian tribes, whose people had been forced to relocate there from other parts of the country. However, an area of roughly 3,000 square miles, much of it ceded to the United States government by the Creek and Seminole tribes, remained unoccupied and became known as the "Unassigned Lands." This region would give rise to the Boomers, the Sooners, and the Eighty-niners.

With the opening of the first Transcontinental Railroad, thousands of settlers were streaming west. In 1879, a number of prominent citizens, newspapers, and railroads began publicly campaigning to open the Unassigned Lands to settlement. These pro-settlement forces were known as Boomers.

The Boomers carried out "raids" into the area to survey for future towns. Some went as far as planting crops and building houses. For a decade, the government resisted, even sending troops. Finally, in March of 1889, the Springer Amendment to the Indian Appropriation Act of 1889 officially authorized settlement. However, instead of honoring the "squatter's rights" of the Boomers, the land was to be settled by a land run on April 22, 1889.

Almost immediately, claimants began illegally staking out land before the run. A section of the legislation referred to as the "sooner clause" prohibited this practice (staking a claim too soon), so those who persisted became known as Sooners.

Some Sooners sneaked onto claims the night before the run. Once the run had started, they would suddenly appear, having seemingly beat legitimate settlers. Naturally, this led to many disputes, and the term "Sooner" had a negative connotation for years, especially in Oklahoma. (Eventually the word lost its unfavorable association. In 1908, the University of Oklahoma adopted "Sooners" as the nickname of its football team, and later Oklahoma became known as "The Sooner State.")

Tens of thousands of settlers, many of them immigrants, came to Oklahoma for the land run. Cities literally sprang up overnight. At noon on April 22, 1889, at the many points of entry surrounding the claims, military officers fired pistols or rifles, sounded trumpets, or set off cannons, signaling the start of the run. An avalanche of horses, wagons, and even people on foot surged forward all at once. An estimated fifty-thousand vied to stake their claim on 160 acres of free land. Boomers and Sooners alike became known as the Eighty-niners.

Being an Eighty-niner was a source of great pride. Many gathered at annual picnics to share stories. In 1927, The 1889ers Society was formed, with membership comprised of Eighty-niners, their spouses, and their children or direct descendants. The society still exists today, and welcomes new members.

One of the best modern portrayals of the 1889 land run can be seen late in the movie Far and Away.

Many museums in Oklahoma have exhibits about the land run, including the Harn Homestead and 1889ers Museum in Oklahoma City, which preserves the homestead of William Harn, charged with conducting behind-the-scenes investigations of claim disputes arising from the land run.

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