Sunday, March 17, 2024

The Untold Story Behind the Oklahoma Land Run


After moving to Oklahoma a little over a year ago, I have been fascinated with its history. I mentioned the Choctaw and their relationship to the Irish potato famine in a previous post. You can check it out here.


Today I want to talk about the displacement of the Native Americans to make room for the settlers who claimed land during the land run on April 22, 1889 all while Oklahoma was still Indian territory. A lot of pieces had to be put in place in order to make it happened. None of them benefited the tribes who had lived there for decades due to relocation. Let’s not forget those tribes who lived in Indian Territory before the five Civilized Tribes were relocated. Those are the Caddo, Wichita, and the Osage.

Indian Territory (Oklahoma) was considered a wasteland by the U.S. Government, which is why it was given to the Native Americans. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s the desire to eliminate tribal sovereignty took on many forms. The most dramatic was the land rush. Note that the land allocated was the best available there. Relegating the undesirable land to the Indians. 

 Tribal Removal

The Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole, referred to as the five civilized tribes where force from their lands on the east coast to Indian Territory between 1830 and 1845. The term Civilized Tribes refers to their desire to assimilate into the white man’s culture in order to survive. Even so, the white settlers across the east coast wanted the Indian’s farms and homesteads because the land was rich for farming. But when gold was found, the Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. There were many trails of tears as various tribes were removed to Indian territory. Those who survived the forced marches made a life in the barren land. By the 1870s the Plains Indians, and tribes that once occupied Texas, were squeezed in alongside the others.

As Long as the Grass Grows and River Flows

 Most treaties between the U.S. Government promised the tribes the land “for as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.”  In other words, forever.

The natives adapted to the harsh environment, and lived in relative peace until the Civil War. The tribes took sides hoping to assure their tribal lands remained undisturbed.

Some Cherokee owned slaves, so they formed troops and sided with the Confederacy while other tribes as well as non-slave holding Cherokee sided with the Union. After the war all those slave holders had to free their slaves, and as punishment for siding with the Confederacy, they lost some of their land.

The Homestead Act 1862 passed during Lincoln’s administration to encourage westward expansion would come into play with the land rush. The Homestead Act stated heads of households would receive 160 acres of land and had five years to improve it in order to receive the deed. By the 1880s better farming techniques made the so-called wasteland of Oklahoma pretty appealing to farmers, ranchers and European immigrants.

The Unassigned Lands in Indian Territory was considered the best public, unsettled land in the United States. The Indian Appropriation Act of 1889 passed by Congress and signed by President Benjamin Harrison opened two million acres for settlement.

The eastern portion of Oklahoma was designated unassigned land. None of the now forty tribes that lived in Indian territory had been given land in that area. Add to it the land confiscated from the Cherokee, the land mass seemed sufficient to satisfy the demands land for new settlers.

     The Dawes Act

 But, the U.S. Government had already passed The Dawes Act in 1887 to extinguish communal tribal holdings. Thus, making it easy to mandate the native land be reassigned. Tribal heads of households would receive 160 acres each. Which left a large tract of land Indigent people had used as communal land for hunting and shared grazing since settling there. These lands promised to them forever would be handed over to those who won the land rush.

The allotted land taken from the tribes provided 11,000 homestead lots for settlers from the east and Europe.

It’s interesting that the five civilized tribes were not forced to abandon their communal land during the land rush. But in 1902 they, too, succumbed to the 160 acre rule. That year, a land lottery took place, distributing even more land. Over the next few decades more Indian land was offered by lottery.

Once all the land was subdivided and distributed to all the settlers, the U.S. Government  ignored the native’s rights to self-govern and all the other laws set in place to protect them. Eventually, what had once been tribal land was overseen by the U.S. Government.

Native Americans, in Oklahoma and other areas of the U.S., have been working the last fifty years to regain their tribal sovereignty. Not until the 21st Century has tribal sovereignty been truly recognized. Court cases have been won in the Supreme Court allowing Native children to be adopted only by others in their tribe. Tribal law enforcement has priority even over non-tribal residents in Indian territory. The tribes who call Oklahoma home have worked hard to provide for their members. And since 2021, tribal territories are recognized by both the Oklahoma and U.S. Government, allowing tribes to self-govern more freely in every area of life.

 We live in Chickasaw territory. As land is offered for sale, tribes are purchasing it and adding it to their reservation land.

The next time you watch Far and Away with Tom Cruz and Nicole Kidman, know that tribes were uprooted, and treaties broken once again. Oklahoma translated is Land of the Red Man. And over the last one hundred years, they have worked hard to keep the land promised them for as long as “the grass grows and the rivers flow.” If you'd like more information about the Natives continuing legal battles check it out here.

Visit my website and find both my historical and contemporary inspirational romances for sale. Angelina’s Resolve has a few wonderful scenes with Kiowa characters. I love adding real history to my books. Showing not only the ugly things but the kindness of those who did not agree with the government’s treatment of other races.




  1. Very interesting, Cindy. I always liked that movie (Far and Away). The real history behind that big land rush scene sure does give it a twist. Displacement is the history of so many civilizations throughout the world and time.

    1. For sure, Naomi. It's good to see the other side of the story, especially when I'm now in Oklahoma and can talk to ancestors of those who were displaced. Gives one a new perspective.