How did Oklahoma become a State?
The state of Oklahoma is unique among US states in that it was intended to be, at least broad areas of it, a home for Native Americans who were moved there as the United States expanded. People moved into areas that once had Native Americans. However, over time, Oklahoma began to also emerge as a state with settlers who moved in from neighboring regions.
The Emergence of Oklahoma
Oklahoma was part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 that greatly expanded the area of the United States (Figure 1). The region was settled by a variety of Native American populations, including the Caddoans, Siouans, and Athapascans (mainly Plains Apache). The area was also raided and used as a hunting ground by Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho populations. This mostly continued through the 18th century and into the early 19th century. Things began to change by the 1830s when the growing United States focused on policies of forced Native American removals from the southeastern United States. This policy was started by the 1830 Indian Removal Act under Andrew Jackson.
Since George Washington's administration, US government policy towards native populations sought to assimilate Native Americans through the teaching of English, conversion to Christianity, and adoption of European styles and dress. However, Andrew Jackson disagreed with this policy and sought to remove all Native Americans from the country. Southern states were in favor of removal because they wanted to take over rich farming areas that had been developed by Native Ameican tribes in the South.
After he became the 7th US president, he sought to implement a new policy focused on the removal of indigenous groups. While the United States recognized the region around Oklahoma as Indian Territory or Indian Country, in the 1830s Indian Territory was much larger than Oklahoma, with wide territories west of the Mississippi river designated as part of the Indian Territory.
However, that land gradually was reduced over time as the northern regions became settled. Initially, Indian Country was a place envisioned to be the home of indigenous populations, a place to separate the Native Americans from settlers. However, the value and interest in the land to the north reduced the area for Native Americans. The primary tribes that the United States governments removed were Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw.
This policy continued into the Civil War era. Most of the tribes relocated were from southern states, as these states were the most vocal supporters of the Act that Jackson signed. There was opposition from northern states, but Jackson saw this as hypocritical given that Native Americans by then had been largely removed or integrated into life in the northern states. Perhaps the most well documented forced removal was the Cherokee Nation removal in 1838, triggered by the discovery of gold in Georgia, what became known as the Trail of Tears. Still, overall more than 60,000 total Native Americans were forcibly removed across the southern states. The Five Civilized Tribes had essentially acclimated to the United States culture. They who mainly practiced agriculture, owned slaves, led to a new economy in the Territory of Oklahoma, which included cotton plantations.
During the 1840s, Oklahoma was transforming into an agricultural state. Many of the tribes also owned black slaves, along with cotton agriculture, increasingly led these tribes to have more significant connections to southern states, and that led many of the tribes to side with the South in the Civil War. For a time before the Civil War, the region was prosperous. However, there was no explicit agreement on which side to join in the Civil War among the tribes. Additionally, there were divisions and conflicts among the tribes that persisted after the Civil War. Still, many did side with the South.
Eventually, after the war, the Union decided to divide the Indian Territory. Ultimately, the Indian Tribes in Oklahoma were punished for aligning with the Confederacy during the Civil War, but this also served as a convenient excuse to seize their lands.
The Establishment of the State
After losing land, the Indian Territory began to form into Oklahoma. The Dawes Severalty Act (General Allotment Act) of 1887 became the next major law affecting Native Americans in Oklahoma. This effectively removed tribal ownership on land to that of individuals, while also creating a pathway to citizenship for Native Americans. This, in the end, also meant that the main tribes, particularly the Five Tribes, lost about twenty-seven million acres of land as it was redistributed to individuals. The next big change came with the Land Run of April 22, 1889, which led to an influx of settlers claiming areas not occupied by individuals or tribes.
In 1889, there was a dispute over what became Oklahoma's panhandle, between settlers and Native Americans, leading to a judge calling this area "No Man's Land," leaving the area out of Oklahoma territory (Figure 2). In the 1890s, further, migration changed the Territory around Oklahoma into a more mixed Native American and non-indigenous and white population. This is the time when the nickname for migrants to Oklahoma emerged, the Sooners, as lands designated for settlement were sometimes already staked before the land became officially opened for settlement. Effectively, people cheated to obtain land before it was officially opened. The railroad in this time also began to run through the state, making it also valuable land for the companies that owned the railroads and tracks.
The railroad encouraged more migration as well into the region. During this time, lawless actions and tensions between settlers and Native Americans increased, and land disputes increasingly arose. As settlers began to move in great numbers, and the Native Americans in the area had not recovered from internal conflict and population decline from the Civil War, power hand now clearly shifted towards white settlers. The Curtis Act of 1898 then was passed, and that formally dissolved tribal governments, which had effectively ruled areas of Oklahoma, and canceled reservation status and removed tribal schools and local government institutions.
This change created the pathway for the state of Oklahoma to emerge out of what was once Indian Territory. There were attempts by the tribes in Oklahoma to create their own state named the State of Sequoyah, but this option was rejected. By 1906, the white settlers had the most power in the Territory, and they pushed for statehood under the Oklahoma Enabling Act, which then granted statehood to the Territory in 1907 and making Oklahoma the 46th state. By then, oil had been discovered, and new settlers were arriving into the Territory, further increasing power into white settlers and families.
After 1907, Oklahoma's fortunes did go up and down with the oil industry. The state was severely affected in the Great Depression, as the economy collapsed. This period led to the Dust Bowl, as poor farming practices led to wide-scale soil loss. After the war, Oklahoma led the Country in creating artificial lakes to help with water conservation. The economy gradually shifted away from oil, and agriculture changed to practice more water and land conservation practices. In the recent Supreme Court ruling in July 2020, this has now, once again since the early 1890s, has effectively given some greater sovereignty back to Oklahoma native groups. The Five Tribes of the 19th century received a favorable result that gives the jurisdiction to prosecute criminal cases against Native Americans living in eastern Oklahoma. The ruling states that Natives cannot be prosecuted by state or local law enforcement and have to face tribal or federal courts.
However, this is likely to have further implications outside of just the courts. This may also have implication on taxes and other government functions, even putting into question of eastern Oklahoma should effectively be returned as areas administered by the Five Tribes. This includes the state capital Tulsa. More likely, however, it may simply open up a different system of governing for eastern Oklahoma's Native American eastern regions, but non-Native Americans who live in the area are likely to still be subject to state and local law.
The creation of Oklahoma emerged in the early 1800s based on decisions to force Native Americans, mostly from the southern United States, to the area that became Oklahoma. Changes in the borders of Indian Territory and settlement gradually led to the emergence of Oklahoma territory after the Civil War. The state was declared in 1907, but by then Native Americans lost political power in the state. The recent Supreme Court ruling may, however, put some of that power in the hands of Native Americans in eastern Oklahoma, although it is likely to be limited.
- For more on Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act, see: Stewart, Mark. The Indian Removal Act: Forced Relocation. Snapshots in History. Minneapolis, Minn: Compass Point Books, 2007.
- For more on Native Americans in Oklahoma until the Civil War, see: Clampitt, Bradley R., ed. The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.
- For more on acts and other historical changes to Oklahoma territory after the Civil War, see: Blackman, Jon S. Oklahoma's Indian New Deal. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
- For more on recent history, see: Baird, W. David, and Danney Goble. Oklahoma: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.