The Unassigned Lands, or "Oklahoma Country," consisted of 1,887,796 acres in the center of what was then Indian Territory. Although much of Indian Territory had been assigned to various Native American tribes, none had been permanently assigned to this area. Many Americans thus believed that this land was public domain and should be open for settlement. Between 1870 and 1879, thirty-three bills asking for the opening of the lands for settlement and the creation of Oklahoma Territory were brought before Congress but none were passed. In 1880s, numerous groups of "Boomers" were organized to promote land openings and many made illegal attempts before being removed by the U.S. Army. The most famous of these, Captain David L. Payne, made nine attempts to settle this area, but was escorted out each time by the U.S. Army. Payne was sponsored by Kansas City merchants who foresaw a new market for their goods in the Unassigned lands.
As public sentiment increased, Congress and the President were pressured by potential settlers, railroads, and others to open the Unassigned Lands for permanent settlement. Finally, at the close of the Congressional session for 1889, a rider permitting the opening of the Unassigned Lands was attached to the Indian Appropriations Bill for the upcoming fiscal year.
During his third week in office, the new President Benjamin Harrison, issued a proclamation which set the opening date at April 22, 1889. The lands would be opened at noon.
To be eligible to participate in The Run, one had to be the head of a family, at least eighteen years of age if a male or twenty-one years of age if a female, and be an American citizen or have filed a declaration of intention to become one. After staking a claim, successful homesteaders had to file a homestead application at either of the U.S. Land Offices. They also had to pay a $14 filing fee. A settler had to settle on his claim within six months, or he risked losing it. Those who claimed land within one of the two designated townsites could only try to control as much land as they were physically able. Once town councils were organized, they would lay out the town plan and decide how many acres would be attributed to each claimant. One could only hope the town council didn't authorize a street through his claim.
Some participants illegally entered the area early. Those that were not caught and returned to the borders simply hid until after noon on April 22, they then "legally" staked their claims. First known as "Moonlighters," because they sneaked in at night, these settlers were later called "Sooners." U. S. Army troops from Fort Reno were stationed at the borders and at both land offices to keep the peace and keep out Moonlighters. Additional security was provided by Colonel W.C. Jones, U.S. Marshal for Kansas and the Indian Territory, and numerous deputies he posted at the land offices.
At noon on Monday, April 22, the opening signals were given and the "race" began. An estimated 50,000 people participated. The fastest horses soon left the slower wagons and carriages behind. No bridges or roads, save for the occasional cattle trail, existed. Eight trains arrived in the Guthrie depot throughout that day. Many passengers did not wait for the locomotive to stop, but simply jumped off the slow-moving trains at a choice spot. The population of Guthrie before the run had consisted of a few soldiers, deputy marshals, and railroad personnel; by nightfall it had swelled to 10,000-15,000 people living in tents or crude shacks. Oklahoma Station, an isolated railroad stop that morning, had grown to a tent city of over 10,000.
Despite the sudden influx of people into an unorganized area, the Land Run proved to be a peaceful event, with very little crime or violence. There were many disputes over claims, some of which led to extended court battles. Although the laws of Nebraska had been extended to include Oklahoma, no provisions for organizing local government had been made. Most townsites organized their own governments and elected town officials. On August 20, 1889, a group calling itself the Convention of Western Oklahoma met in Guthrie and wrote a memorial to Congress asking for authorization for self-government. Presented to Congress in December of that year, this memorial claimed that there were now 50,000 people in Oklahoma. On May 2, 1890, President Harrison signed the Organic Act, establishing a government for Oklahoma Territory. George Washington Steele of Marion, Indiana, was appointed as governor of the new Oklahoma Territory.
© information compiled by the Guthrie Museum Complex, 1997