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Land Rush Museum Stands as a Reminder of Oklahoma's History - 2003-01-15

A few boundaries between U.S. states have special historical significance. The "Mason Dixon Line" between Pennsylvania and Maryland informally divided the slaveholding South from the anti-slavery North. The Ohio River between Kentucky and Ohio was the freedom point for escaping slaves before and during the U.S. Civil War.

By 1893 what white Americans called "Indian Country" had shrunk to what is now the eastern half of the state of Oklahoma. A much larger area had once been the nation's official "Indian Territory" to which the U.S. government had forced one tribe after another to move.

Although this was supposedly "Indian land," cattle ranchers leased much of it, and what were called "homesteaders" steadily encroached. Pressured by whites' westward migration, the federal government purchased Native American land and organized a series of chaotic land rushes.

The last and most dramatic run took place on September 16, 1893, into a strip larger than today's states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware put together. The land was used by the Cherokee Tribe as a pathway to hunting grounds in the Rocky Mountains. This last great run is remembered in a dignified little museum on the Oklahoma border, in Arkansas City, Kansas.

"At noon, if you looked over the boundaries of this Cherokee Outlet, you'd find this mass of humanity. When the cannon sounded, this whole mass would just charge across that line into the Cherokee Outlet," a display tape announces.

A display at the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum tells the story of the largest single competitive event in world history. In one afternoon, more than 100,000 people walked, rode horses or bicycles, drove wagons, or took a special train into the Cherokee Outlet in the mad scramble for land. Thousands more relatives waited outside the Outlet to learn if their loved ones had claimed a piece of land.

The Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum's assistant director, Heather Ferguson, says people waited in long lines in the hot sun to register for the big 1893 run. Each got a little flag to place in the ground in sections of land once he raced in and claimed a spot.

"Right after they got the land on the 16th, they had a certain time within which they had to 'beat it' [go] back to one of the post-race registration points to register the claim, and whoever got there first got the land," she said. "One man put his house on wheels and drove it across the border. He put his plow on his horse and plowed it. And then he went and staked his claim."

Oklahoma gets its nickname, the "Sooner State," from cheaters who snuck in to claim the best spots before the official land rushes began. The military did all it could to stop Sooners by setting range fires to burn them out.

In 1993, on the 100th anniversary of the last great run, the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum's nonprofit foundation produced a videotape of stories. It included an interview with Edith Joyce Davis, then a remarkable 106 years old. She was a little girl when her family made the run.

"It was a hot, hot day. It couldn't be worse," she said. "My father and my neighbor's father were in a buckboard with water and provisions. Mother was worried that they were going, because there were so many stories about the ugliness and the, maybe, crime that might happen on down there," she continued. "But we stood out there and waited till they got ready to go, and everybody said goodbye. And when they left, we felt kind-a sad, because we felt something might happen. We didn't know what."

Clarence Emerson, who was nine when his family helped start one of several instant tent cities inside the Cherokee Outlet that became permanent towns after the run, was also videotaped in 1993.

"My folks was great churchgoing people. And there wasn't no place to have church. And there was a liquor house [a saloon], and dad made arrangements with that liquor house to get some wooden planks and put on the kegs and make some seats out of that," she remembered. "They'd come over to our house, pick up the organ, go down the block, go in there, and set down and have church. When church was over, the boys'd carry it back again!"

So thousands of homesteaders got their piece of the 19th-century American dream as part of the nation's unrelenting westward migration.

Of course the story was not so happy for the Cherokees, who had already been forced to walk thousands of kilometers from their homelands to Oklahoma along what was called the "Trail of Tears." Then they lost this outlet to their hunting grounds. But Cherokees, Creeks, Poncas, and other Native Americans have retained some prominence in today's State of Oklahoma.

The Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum tells the full story in words, pictures, and videotape, and in rooms full of artifacts donated by descendants of families who made the run in the last great Oklahoma Land Rush.