Did Oklahoma Really Begin in Stillwater?

By Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director

Many of us know the story of the Land Run of 1889 and have repeated the claim that Stillwater is where Oklahoma began, but did Oklahoma really begin in Stillwater?  Where does this claim come from?

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the Five Civilized Tribes out of traditional lands in the south-eastern states. The tribes 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, 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.

The course of history that led to the establishment of Oklahoma as a state began when the first Native Americans were removed to the area.  Many of the tribes living in Indian Territory established communities, businesses, and farms.  Various forts in the territory housed American soldiers who policed the territory.  Trading posts served Native Americans, soldiers, and non-Indians throughout the territory.  Cattle ranchers drove their massive herds of cattle from Texas through Indian Territory into Kansas and beyond and along the way, began leasing lands in north and western Oklahoma to graze their herds on the plentiful prairie grasses.  Truly, Oklahoma had already “begun.”

In the center of Indian Territory remained a section of land called the Unassigned Lands. This area was to be held in reserve for future Indian or freed slave 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.

David L. Payne

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.

One such promoter was David L. Payne, who made many illegal incursions into what is now Stillwater 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”.

The Colony was financed by 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 chose 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.

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”.

David L. Payne’s last camp.

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.