Monday, April 27, 2009

“Resistless Torrents of Humanity”

A Boomer family staking its claim. Library of Congress.

On April 22, 1889, along the southern border of Kansas and the northern border of Texas, crowds of adventurers, farmers and speculators lined up for the biggest land rush in the history of the west.

At noon, soldiers eyeing synchronized watches fired their guns, and the race was on.

“The gates of Oklahoma were swung open at noon today, and resistless torrents of humanity began to pour over its soil,”according to an account in the Washington Post. “From the Cherokee strip came the great fleet of prairie schooners across the Canadian; from the Chickasaw nation came troop after troop of sturdy ponies, each one carrying a boomer; from the Arapahoe and Cheyenne reservations on the west came a yelling mob of horsemen, who fired volley after volley to celebrate their final victory.”

It took only a few hours, historian Ray Allen Billington writes, for settlers known as “Boomers” to claim most of the 1.9 million acres opened up for white settlement by order of President Benjamin Harrison.

Within a few weeks, settlers elected W.L. Couch mayor of a new town, Oklahoma City. The federal government quickly established a territorial government for the region, and less than twenty years later – in 1907 – Oklahoma was admitted to the Union.

One of the most storied events in the history of the west almost didn’t happen, however. The congressional vote to authorize purchase of land owned by tribal communities came after years of bitter sparring between proponents of settlement and those who believed that the land should be left to Native Americans.

At the center of the battle in the House of Representatives was Rep. James B. Weaver of Iowa. After his presidential campaign in 1880 at the head of the Greenback-Labor Party, Weaver returned to Congress in 1884 and 1886, only to be defeated in 1888.

The Oklahoma issue clearly resonated with Weaver, whose own family settled in southern Iowa after a similar land rush in 1842. His newspaper, the Iowa Tribune, published sympathetic accounts of attempts at homesteading, and portrayed settlers as embattled pawns of rich cattle barons who wanted the land kept open for their herds.

In 1889, returning to Washington for a lame-duck session of Congress, Weaver threw himself into the battle to open up Oklahoma for settlement. No stranger to political controversy, Weaver single-handedly held up business in the House for several days until he won a commitment from House leaders for a vote on settlement legislation.

Official Washington looked on – first in amusement, then in dismay and finally anger – as Weaver used the procedural rules of the House to stall business. The New York Times called the impasse “Mr. Weaver’s Deadlock.”

The Post found Weaver’s filibuster amusing at first. In a schedule of congressional business, the paper noted that the Senate would convene at 11 a.m. “and Mr. Weaver meets at noon.”

But the irritation of official Washington eventually began to be reflected in its pages. “Very few of Weaver’s colleagues in the House or his acquaintances in Washington are willing to give him credit for sincerity,” the paper sneered.

Nevertheless, Weaver got what he wanted. On January 12, 1889, House leaders agreed to Weaver’s demands and scheduled the vote he sought. Although the measure was defeated in the Senate, the Creeks and Seminoles agreed to sell their land rights to the federal government for $4.1 million.

Weaver numbered among those who flocked to the territory after its opening, but it was not one of his finest hours. He aligned himself with speculators who staked claims to land prior to the opening. A contemporary account indicates that he coutenanced mob violence to resolve a claim dispute.

"If Weaver had political ambitions" in the new territory, Dan Peery wrote years later, "he killed himself with the lawful citizens" by his actions.

Nevertheless, some good will remained. In 1892 Weaver won the presidential nomination of the People's Party. Prior to his nomination at Omaha, Oklahoma Populists endorsed his presidential bid -- unanimously.


Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1974.

Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, Minn.: Edinborough Press, 2008.

Washington Post, April 23, 1889.

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