Stillwater’s First Christmas

Captain Payne and the Boomers crossing the line into Oklahoma

By Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director

Given the title of this article, you might imagine that Stillwater’s first Christmas occurred on December 25, 1889, just eight months following the first Land Run into the Unassigned Lands.  But you would be wrong.  Stillwater’s first Christmas occurred five years before that in 1884.

Throughout the mid-1800s the land that would eventually become the state of Oklahoma served as a place for the United States Government to forcibly remove Native American tribes from their homelands all over the county.  This relocation of the tribes began with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 when the government forced the Five Civilized Tribes out of traditional lands in the south-eastern states. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole were forced to follow what became known as the “Trail of Tears” due to their suffering from exposure to the harsh elements; they were hungry and sick and far too many died along the route.  Gradually more tribes traveled their own “trail of tears” to share Indian Territory—the land that the U.S. Government promised would be their home “as long as the waters run.”

Because some members of these tribes fought on the southern side in the Civil War, the treaties were revised in 1866 to diminish the size of the original Indian holdings.  After the Civil War, the only non-Indians permitted in Indian Territory were cattlemen with grazing leases and permit holders among the Five Tribes.

In the center of Indian Territory there remained a section of land called the Unassigned Lands. This area had not been “assigned” to any tribes for relocation by the 1880s and was being held in reserve for future Indian settlement.  The area became a focus of conflict for years between the U. S. Government, various business interests, and land-hungry settlers. It was in the northeast corner of these Unassigned Lands that present day Stillwater was eventually founded.

The influential railroad lobby introduced several bills in Congress to open up the land.  These bills were opposed by the Five Tribes and the cattlemen’s lobby.  Because of this opposition, railway companies hired professional promoters to mobilize home-seekers to demand settlement in the unassigned lands on the basis of the Homestead Act of 1862.  The Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. The Act stated that anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government (including freed slaves and women), was 21 years or older, or the head of a family, could file an application to claim a federal land grant.

One of these promoters was David L. Payne, who made many illegal incursions into the Unassigned Lands.  By making these “raids” into the unassigned lands with his followers, Payne was trying to force the U.S. government into opening the area for settlement.  Payne, a colorful Civil War veteran, established several Boomer camps on the Kansas-Indian Territory border, known as “Payne’s Oklahoma Colony.” They called themselves “Boomers” because they maintained that the Unassigned Lands was where the next big economic boom would take place—they saw the land as a great opportunity to build successful farms, businesses, and communities.

Leaders and of the Boomer Movement, David Payne on the left with William Couch on his right.

The Colony was financed by money from memberships and by the railroads and other businesses interested in the opening of the territory.  Payne published a newspaper to boost morale in the camps, and also printed fliers designed to increase public interest in Oklahoma settlement.

Payne’s Boomers had chosen a wooded valley just 60 miles south of Arkansas City, Kansas as the target for their raids into the territory. The Boomers camped near where two streams joined, along a creek that became known as “Still Water”.  The spot had been chosen because of its proximity to water and supply and mail lines as well as its respite from the bareness of the treeless prairie.

Many attempts were made to settle at Still Water beginning in 1879, just ten years before the first land run.  Each time the Boomers made an attempt, they were forced to leave, and were escorted back to Kansas by U.S. Soldiers.

Payne led many expeditions into the territory, all of which were unsuccessful in persuading the government to open the land to settlement.  During a speaking tour, Payne died of a heart attack in Wellington, Kansas on November 28th, 1884.  A fellow boomer, William Couch, would continue the crusades into the “Unassigned Lands.”

Which brings us to Still Water’s first Christmas.  The most famous of all these confrontations began in December 1884.  On December 8, 1884, Couch assembled 300 followers and ventured to a camp on Stillwater Creek.  On December 12, 1884, the Boomers reached Still Water again, this time with the intent of standing their ground.  The Boomers worked in the cold and wintery mix of spitting snow and sleet to build shelters and fortifications.  More wagons from Kansas joined them during the following two weeks, and the population of the settlement grew, doubling its original size.

According to Lieutenant W. M. Day, on December 24, 1884, he and forty cavalry troops arrived at the Boomer town and were met by “about 200 men armed with double-barreled shotguns and Winchester rifles.  I made every endeavor to arrest them peaceably, but they resisted.  I placed a troop in camp in the town and sent a courier to Fort Reno for instructions.”  Day called for reinforcements and told the settlers that if they did not leave the land in two days they would be forced out.  In his report on the encampment Lt. Mathias Day claimed, “The settlers call this place the town of Stillwater.” This is the first documented reference to the name of “Stillwater.”

While, this was not the first time soldiers had been sent to force the Boomers to leave, it was the first time they were met with resistance. The troops were outnumbered and instructed to return to Camp Russell to await a larger force.

Thus, Stillwater’s first Christmas was experienced by the Boomer Colony as they worked in defiance to build a settlement along the Stillwater Creek, while being monitored by the U.S. Army whose assignment had been to remove them from the Unassigned Lands. It was a cold and uncomfortable Christmas fraught with tension between the opposing sides of the issue of whether the Unassigned Lands were public domain and subject to settlement under the Homestead Act of 1862 or reserved for future Native American resettlement.

A month later, on January 25, 1885, Colonel Edward Hatch leading approximately 600 cavalry with two cannon arrived.

Couch managed to restrain the more hotheaded Boomers from firing on the soldiers, insisting that if shots were to be fired, it would be the soldiers who initiated the altercation.  Colonel Hatch chose to cut off the Boomers’ supply lines, effectively giving them no choice but to give up.

The standoff made national headlines in the New York Times, and forced Congress to clarify the issue in order to clear a path for the Springer Amendment to be added to the Indian Appropriation Act of 1889.  The Amendment would allow settlement of the Unassigned Lands under the Homestead Act of 1862.  The bill was signed into law on March 2, 1889, allowing  President Benjamin Harrison to issue a proclamation opening the lands “at and after the hour of 12 o’clock noon on the 22nd day of April next.”

On April 22, 1889, at noon, the cannons fired signaling the race to acquire land in the territory that would eventually become present day Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma, and Payne Counties.  Overnight, cities were born in Oklahoma, and new beginnings were made.  And among the cities that sprang up overnight was Stillwater, where the struggle for this beginning of Oklahoma originally started just a decade before.

These repeated standoffs gained national attention in the press and forced Congress to clarify the issue.  National attention turned to the complicated legal status of the Unassigned Lands.  The cattlemen were forced out of the territory, and land titles with the Creek and Seminole tribes were clarified.  The path was clear for the Springer Amendment to be added to the Indian Appropriation Act of 1889.  The Amendment would allow settlement of the Unassigned Lands under the Homestead Act of 1862.  The bill was signed into law on March 2, 1889, allowing President Benjamin Harrison to issue a proclamation opening the lands “at and after the hour of 12 o’clock noon on the 22nd day of April”.

At noon on April 22, 1889, the cannons fired signaling the race to acquire land in the territory that would eventually become present day Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma, and Payne Counties.  Overnight, cities were born in Indian Territory, and new beginnings were made.  And among the cities that sprang up overnight was Stillwater, where the Boomers’ struggle to open the Territory for settlement originally started a decade earlier.  This is the basis for claims that Oklahoma began in Stillwater.

Life was hard for those who made the run in 1889.  Land seekers had to hold onto their claim and make improvements to it in order to “prove up” the claim and take legal ownership of it.  These improvements included constructing permanent shelters and planting crops.

In Stillwater, there were no roads, and the nearest railroad for supplies was miles away.  Building shelter was necessary.  Many homesteaders soon replaced their tents with sod houses or dug outs because the prairie did not supply enough timber for building many log structures.

Those who settled in Stillwater worked hard to keep the new town alive.  Without a railroad the town was at a great disadvantage, because goods and people coming to town had to travel long distances over rutted prairie fields.   There was a great deal of competition among the many young towns in Payne County, and Stillwater’s survival was not assured until hard work by local civic leaders won the county seat, the agricultural experiment station, the agricultural and mechanical land grant college and a spur railway line for the town.