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The Oklahoma Boomers and Sooners

Who were they?

At the end of the Civil War in the United States, there were many displaced people. 1865 was a year of chaos and fear. President Lincoln had been assassinated, and his successor, Andrew Johnson, was not very effective in reconciling the Unionists and Confederates. Soldiers had lost their occupation, and their regular income. Farmers had seen their lands ravaged by constant battles. Plantation owners in the south had been dispossessed. And millions of freed slaves were in search of a new life away from those who had enslaved them. Unemployment was high, and the economy was in tatters.

So it’s no wonder that ears perked up when it came to light that there were more than two million acres of ‘unassigned lands’ sitting in the middle of Oklahoma Territory. This territory had been granted to the five civilized tribes: the Indians who had been pushed off their lands in the east by white settlers. But there was a vast heart-shaped area in the middle of Oklahoma that hadn’t been specifically assigned to any tribe.

David L. Payne, a farmer, Civil War veteran, and politician, started campaigning in the 1870s to

David L. Payne

have this land released for settlement. He was a big, bombastic, intrepid operator, who didn’t shy away from confrontation. He led eager settlers onto the Unassigned Lands, where they built dwellings and planted crops in an attempt to establish permanent residency. But their actions were illegal, and they were evicted again and again. This movement of so-called ‘Boomers’ gained popularity when it became obvious that the government’s only reaction to the trespassing was eviction. Payne insisted that good, arable land should not be denied to land-hungry settlers.

Finally, the US Government gave in, and the Old Oklahoma Territory was opened by means of a Land Run on April 16, 1889. Unfortunately, David L. Payne had succumbed to a heart attack in 1884 and died before he saw the fulfilment of his dream. Nonetheless, his movement continued, and his friend William L. Couch, took on leadership.

“Colonel” Charles C. Carpenter holds some claim as the first Oklahoma boomer. A flamboyant imitator of General George Armstrong Custer, Carpenter, too, wore his hair in long curls and dressed in fringed buckskin. Carpenter was supported by the Kansas City Times in its efforts to promote settlement of the Unassigned Lands of Indian Territory. A cartoon in the Kansas City Times portrayed him as Moses holding a rock tablet inscribed with the slogan “On to Oklahoma.”

Carpenter and his wife established themselves on the Kansas-Indian Territory border where they began soliciting the support of local merchants—for a price. The Arkansas City Traveler, which opposed white settlement of Indian Territory, complained that Carpenter was a “sore backed, crooked legged, cross-eyed cuss” who was leading would-be settlers into an ambush.

Colonel C.C. Carpenter ‘The First Boomer’

 “Carpenter is the same bragging, lying nuisance that I knew seventeen years ago.”

Nonetheless, Carpenter’s boomer invasion took place from there in May 1879, when a wagon caravan headed down through infant Tulsa to the Deep Fork River. The settlers established a token settlement called City of Oklahoma. On April 26, 1879, Pres. Rutherford B. Hayes issued a proclamation forbidding homestead entry of the Oklahoma lands. Soon after, troops from Fort Reno were sent to eject the Boomers and destroy their improvements.

Carpenter himself had remained safely in Coffeyville, Kansas, and Inspector John McNeil of the Indian Service was sent to order him to cease his activities. McNeil did so, reporting back that Carpenter was “the same bragging, lying nuisance that I knew seventeen years ago when he infested Fremont’s (South Dakota) quarters.” When confronted by McNeil, Carpenter quickly folded his tent and faded from the light of history.

Samuel Crocker

Samuel Crocker then took up the cause. A native of Devonshire, England, whose family had immigrated to Iowa in 1854, Crocker had worked as a farm laborer, printer’s devil, railroad agent, express agent, assistant postmaster, and merchant in his youth.

He became a prominent speaker on monetary and labor issues in the early 1870s and joined David Payne’s Oklahoma Colony in 1885. He became editor of the Boomers’ official newspaper, the Oklahoma War Chief, the same year. He argued that cattlemen illegally occupied central and western Oklahoma, with the collusion of federal authorities. He participated in the Boomers’ 1886 invasion of Oklahoma and in various pro-Oklahoma political conventions.

Crocker participated in the Washington lobbying that led to the opening of the Unassigned Lands to homestead settlement in 1889. As a member of William Couch’s railroad grading team at Oklahoma City on April 16, 1889, he, along with other veteran boomers, stepped off the railroad right of way at noon (the very moment that the Land Run officially started) to claim nearby sites. He filed on an eighty-acre homestead just north of town. His claim, however, was contested. In 1898 he sold his house to the contestant and abandoned the claim.

Dr. C.C. Lister (University of Oklahoma) explains that “to the Indians, David L. Payne and the Oklahoma Boomers were a desperate and uncultured band of frontier ruffians, the dregs of Kansas and adjoining states; to the railroad corporations, a tool of exploitation; to the cattlemen, hated rivals; but to the home-seekers they were the vanguard of a commonwealth.”

To this day, the Boomer is regarded as a symbol of heroism in Oklahoma, and is one of mascots for the University of Oklahoma football team. The other mascot is the ‘Sooner’, the name given to those nefarious folk who showed up for the Great Land Run of 1889, then slipped across the border early to claim quarter sections of land illegally. Although the US cavalry chased after these cheats, arrested them by the dozen and even set light to the prairie to smoke them out (several were burnt to death), many were successful in claiming the choicest pieces of land.

These days, if you attend a football game at OU, you’ll see the ‘Sooner Schooner’, a Conestoga covered wagon, chase around the field before the game, pulled by two white ponies named ‘Boomer’ and ‘Sooner’.

Sources: Stan Hoig, Fort Reno and the Indian Territory Frontier, 2000. Carl Coke Rister, Land Hunger: David L Payne and the Oklahoma Boomers, 1942.

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