Oklahoma's Native American population is the largest in the nation—252,420 at the 1990 census. Several indigenous cultures existed in the area before the first European visited in 1541. Francisco Coronado almost certainly crossed Oklahoma in that year, and Hernando De Soto may have visited E Oklahoma. Later Juan de Oñate passed through W Oklahoma, and some other Spanish explorers and traders and French traders from Louisiana visited the region, but there was no development of the area.
Tribes of the Plains cultures—Osage, Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache—dominated the west; the Wichita and other relatively sedentary tribes lived farther east. It is asserted that the first European trading post was established at Salina by the Chouteau family of St. Louis before the territory was transferred to the United States by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but the land remained in control of the sparse and nomadic native population. For the most part only traders, official explorers (notably Stephen H. Long), and scientific and curious travelers (among them Washington Irving and George Catlin) came into the present-day state.
In 1819 the Adams-Onís Treaty with Spain defined Oklahoma as the southwestern boundary of the United States. After the War of 1812 the U.S. government invited the Cherokee of Georgia and Tennessee to move into the area, and a few had come to settle. Soon intense white pressure for their lands, with the approval of President Andrew Jackson, forced the Cherokee and the others of the Five Civilized Tribes (the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the Seminole) to abandon their old homes east of the Mississippi and to take up residence in what was to become the Indian Territory. Their tragic removal is known as the Trail of Tears. They settled on the hills and little prairies of the eastern section and built separate organized states and communities.
The Cherokee particularly had a highly Europeanized culture, with a written language, invented by their great leader Sequoyah, and highly developed institutions. Some of the Cherokee were slaveholders and ran their agricultural properties in the traditional Southern plantation pattern; others were small farmers. The Five Civilized Tribes clashed briefly with the Plains Indians, particularly the Osage, but they were for a time free from white interference, and they were able to establish a civilization that strongly affected the whole history of the region.
The troubles of the whites did not, however, long escape them, and the Civil War was a major disaster. Although no major battle of the war was fought in present-day Oklahoma, there were numerous skirmishes. Most Native Americans allied themselves with the Confederacy, but Unionist disaffection was widespread, and individual violence was so prevalent that many fled, leaving their farms to desolation.
As a punishment for taking the Confederate side the Five Civilized Tribes lost the western part of the Indian Territory, and the federal government began assigning lands there to such landless eastern tribes as the Delaware and the Shawnee, as well as to nomadic Plains tribes, who put up strong resistance before they were subdued and settled on reservations. The territory was plagued by lawlessness and served as a hideout for white outlaws. After the establishment of a federal court at Fort Smith, Isaac Parker became famous as the
Immediately after the Civil War the long drives of cattle from Texas to the Kansas railroad head began to cross Oklahoma, traveling over the cattle trails that became part of Western folklore. The best known was the Chisholm Trail. The cattle were fattened on the virgin ranges of Oklahoma, and cattlemen began to look on the grasslands with speculative and covetous eyes.
The first railroad to cross Oklahoma was built between 1870 and 1872, and thereafter it was not possible to keep white settlers out. They came despite proscriptive laws and treaties with the Native Americans, and by the 1880s there was a strong admixture of whites. In addition, ranches were developed that were nominally owned by Native Americans, but actually controlled by white cattlemen and their cowboys. The region quickly took on a tinge of the Old West of the cattle frontier, a tinge that it has never wholly lost.
In the 1880s land-hungry frontier farmers, the boomers, agitated to obtain the
unassigned lands in the western section—the lands not given to any Native American tribe. The agitation succeeded, and a large strip was opened for settlement in 1889. Prospective settlers lined up on the territorial border, and at high noon they were allowed to cross on a
run to compete in finding and claiming the best lands. Those who illegally entered ahead of the set time were the nicknamed the
sooners. Later other strips of territory were opened, and settlers poured in from the Midwest and the South.
The western section of what is now the state of Oklahoma became the Oklahoma Territory in 1890; it included the Panhandle, the narrow strip of territory that, taken from Texas by the Compromise of 1850, had become a no-man's-land where settlers came in undisturbed. In 1893 the Dawes Commission was appointed to implement a policy of dividing the tribal lands into individual holdings; the Native Americans resisted, but the policy was finally enforced in 1906. The wide lands of the Indian Territory were thus made available to whites.
The Civilized Tribes made the best of a poor bargain, and the Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory were united in 1907 to form the state of Oklahoma, with a constitution that included provision for initiative and referendum. Already the oil boom had reached major proportions, and the young state was on the verge of great economic development. At the same time, cotton, wheat, and corn were major money crops, and cattleland holdings, although shrinking, were still enormous.
In World War I the great demand for farm products brought an agricultural boom to the state, but in the 1920s the state fell upon hard times. Recurrent drought burned the wheat in the fields, and overplanting, overgrazing, and unscientific cropping aided the weather in making Oklahoma part of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Farm tenancy increased in the 1920s, and in both the east and west the farms tended more and more to be held by large interests and to be consolidated in large blocks.
A great number of tenant farmers were compelled to leave their dust-stricken farms and went west as migrant laborers; the tragic plight of these
Okies is the theme of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. With the return of rains, however, and with increasing care in selecting crops and in conserving and utilizing water and soil resources, much of the Dust Bowl again became productive farm land. The demand for food in World War II and federal price supports for agricultural products after the war further aided farm prosperity.
Large state and federal programs for conserving river water and, at the same time, meeting irrigation needs have resulted in such constructions as the reservoir impounded by the Kerr Dam on the Arkansas River. For the most part, these programs resulted in improved agricultural conditions and created new recreation areas. In 1971 the opening of the Oklahoma portion of the Arkansas River Navigation System gave the cities of Muskogee and Tulsa (at its port Catoosa) direct access to the sea.
Oklahoma experienced another boom during the 1970s when oil prices rose dramatically. In the mid-1980s, however, Oklahoma's economy was hurt (as it had been in the 1930s) by dependence on a single industry, as oil prices fell rapidly. In the eary 21st cent., earthquakes in N and cental Oklahoma, due to the effects of injecting drilling wastewater deep underground, have become common and on occasion damaging. In a 2020 decision involving major crimes jurisdiction within the boundaries of the Creek reservation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the reservation had never been disestablished and continued to exist; the decision, which did not affect property ownership, had similar implications for other reservations in what was Indian Territory in 1907 and now forms much of E Oklahoma.
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