The Story of Kansas

Kansans led land rush into Indian Territory

On this date – 124 years ago – at high noon, the world exploded into Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

An estimated 50,000 white people rushed to claim land for 9,000 homesteads.

Many of them were Kansans, or at least had ties to Kansas.

The Land Run of 1889 was simply called the Unassigned Lands.

In many respects, it was Kansans who championed and led the efforts for the Oklahoma land runs.

It was men like David Payne, nicknamed the Father of Oklahoma because he was one of the first to urge European settlers into what was then Indian Territory. Payne gained favor with white 19th-century Americans because, when Congress wrote laws keeping settlers out of Indian lands, it attached no fines or punishment.

To white settlers, the lands seemed free for the taking.

In the early 1870s, Payne settled in northeast Sedgwick County. Payne, along with Wichita leaders such as Marshall Murdock, founder and publisher of The Wichita Eagle, thought the city could be the hub of a huge trade center if the Indian lands were opened.

Murdock wrote stories advocating the land settlement and sent them to newspapers around the world.

Payne started the Oklahoma Boomers Association and on Feb. 1, 1883, left Arkansas City with 132 wagons, 553 men and three women. The settlers camped where Oklahoma City is today but were driven out by federal troops. Payne kept trying to lead boomer expeditions into the Indian lands.

When Payne died unexpectedly Nov. 28, 1884, Wichita leaders who supported Payne campaigned for another leader to step forward and lead the settlement into Indian Territory. That man was Maj. Gordon W. Lillie, also known as “Pawnee Bill.”

In the 1880s, Lillie was in show business with William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

But sometimes business wasn’t as lucrative as Lillie would have liked, and his show in the fall of 1888 was about to go under. That’s when he received a letter from the Wichita Board of Trade inviting him to take up the reins of Payne’s movement. When Lillie arrived in Wichita, he was met at the train station by a brass band.

In the spring of 1889, the would-be settlers camped in Kansas state-line towns, such as Arkansas City and Caldwell.

To the settlers, the new lands offered hope.

Texas cattlemen had already discovered the land was rich in mixtures of bluestem, buffalo, switch and bunch grasses. The Cherokee began charging the cattlemen $1 a head for the cattle they had grazing, but eventually backed down to 40 cents a head.

When the cattlemen refused to pay, the Native Americans stampeded cattle.

Added to this: Beginning in 1889, Kansas and the rest of the Midwest was under a heavy drought. The national economy was poor, and people were out of work or had jobs that didn’t pay a living wage.

Thousands of families were flocking to Wichita and on to Arkansas City and Caldwell in hopes of moving into Indian Territory.

The land was opened one area at a time for homesteaders. All told, there were more than half a dozen runs into the land before Oklahoma became a state.

Other Kansans who played a pivotal role in developing Oklahoma included Dennis Thomas Flynn, of Kiowa.

Flynn served as postmaster and city attorney in the Kansas town before becoming a territorial delegate in Oklahoma.

Angelo Cyrus Scott received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Kansas in Lawrence and was a court clerk in Allen County before he participated in the Land Run of 1889.

He organized Oklahoma City’s first newspaper, the Oklahoma Times, as well as the city’s YMCA, Chamber of Commerce, and later became the president of Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State University.