The 120th Anniversary of the Oklahoma Land Rush

Exactly 120 years ago today, on September 16, 1893, more than 150,000 settlers took part in the massive Cherokee Strip land rush to claim one of 42,000 parcels of the public domain.  This was one of the most colorful single events in the history of federal land management and a huge job for one of BLM’s founding agencies, the General Land Office (GLO).

Through treaty, and an eight and one-half million dollar purchase, the federal government acquired title to 8.1 million acres of land from the Cherokee tribe across the Northern Oklahoma territory.  “The Strip” was 58 miles wide and ran for 228 miles along the Kansas border. 

A cadastral survey to establish land boundaries had already been completed before the area was opened for settlement.  Under direction of Secretary of the Interior M. Hoke Smith, the GLO set up nine temporary offices or “Booths” in tents across the Kansas state line and along the Southern border of the strip.

The concept was that settlers were to pre-register at these temporary offices, but they only opened for business shortly before the event. The three officials who staffed each booth were totally unprepared for the thousands of people who lined up day and night to secure their right to claim a homestead.

At one location on one day, more than 7,000 people waited in the blistering heat around the clock to secure their piece of the American dream. The booth at Arkansas City recorded more than 30,000 preregistered settlers.  Despite the rules of the game, more than 40,000 unregistered pioneers made the dash with everyone else across the prairie and scrambled to secure a homestead.

The run for land started by the firing of guns and cannons at high noon on September 16th  and eager settlers took off on foot or horseback, and using buggies, trains, and even bicycles, they stampeded through the heat and dust trying to beat out everyone else for their own piece of The Heartland, and as many thought, “To get something for nothing.”  

When the dust settled thousands of land patents were recorded during what is often thought of as the last days of the wide-open West.  Many historians mark this event as the closing of the “American Frontier” and the end of a two century-long era of settlement and westward expansion.  Except for the unexplored wilds of Alaska, this great unclaimed remnant of the public domain was the last major land area managed by the government which was opened for homesteading and settlement.

Ironically, after all the excitement and shenanigans were over and some degree of normalcy kicked- in, only about 25 percent of the pioneers who filed claims actually survived the six-month residency requirement and received a deed to their land.