“Okla” is Choctaw for people. As much as it’s red earth and blue skies, mountains and lakes, tornadoes and earthquakes, and oil and gas, it’s Reba and Blake and hundreds of other Oklahomans who’ve shaped not just the state but the country.
“I have deep roots in this Oklahoma soil. It makes me proud.” — Scott Momaday (Kiowa)
My Oklahoma was born late in the day of September 16, 1893, when the shooting took place. Men were staking out their quarter sections amid buffalo grass after running in the Cherokee Strip Land Run.
My great-grandfather Ernest Buckminster had just chased one man off his claim along a line of cottonwoods by a creek when another man began staking a claim on his newly won land. He leaped on his horse, galloped up to the stranger, and told him to leave. The land was his now. Both were armed. Suddenly shots were fired between the two and the stranger left. Some versions of the family story have the stranger wounded.
How great-grandfather Buckminster got the land was told in neither hush nor brag — just a fact. With every land rush that kicked up dust across what would become Oklahoma, sounds of gunfire popping echoed all evening as men settled their property lines. These were the early birth pangs of statehood, but that wouldn’t happen for more than a decade.
Four states are younger than Oklahoma: Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, and Hawaii. But they existed in name and place long before Oklahoma was conceived.
Oklahoma is at once an ancient and instant land. Most of the state sprang up overnight along with townships, property lines, government, and law and order. No one part — the Unassigned Lands, my Cherokee Outlet, No Man’s Land, the Big Pasture, the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, Greer County of Texas, and so on — could have become a state on its own.
Each was tamed and settled by differing people: Yankees in the Outlet, former Rebs in the Nations (the Five Civilized Tribes), Texans in the Big Pasture, and the sons of wanted men in the Panhandle — No Man’s Land. Witnessing this instant creation were the children of the Trail of Tears and Plains warriors. They, too, became part of a crazy mosaic called Oklahoma.
In what would become the first megahit collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oscar Hammerstein characterized the brand-new state of Oklahoma as having “Plen’y of air and plen’y of room / Plen’y of room to swing a rope / Plen’y of heart and plen’y of hope.” And the people as fully aware of their relationship to the place: “We know we belong to the land / And the land we belong to is grand. ...” Pretty astute for a guy from New York City.
Closer to the actual land and the people of that red earth, historian Angie Debo, who moved by covered wagon to Oklahoma Territory in 1899 at age 9, spent a lifetime studying and writing about the state. It fell largely to this unimposing rural white woman from Marshall to remind the nation about the tragedy of Native Americans and point out the exploitation and injustices they’d endured, not least of which was their forced removal from ancestral lands in the East to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi and what would become Oklahoma. Debo, who earned a history degree in 1918 and a Ph.D. in 1933 from the University of Oklahoma, is still known for her pioneering works and for the emotion and controversy they stirred. Her 1940 classic And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes fundamentally changed the way historians thought about American Indian history.
“Oklahoma is more than just another state,” Debo once observed. “It is a lens in which the long rays of time are focused into the brightest of light. In its magnifying clarity, dim facets of the American character stand more clearly revealed. For in Oklahoma all the experiences that went into the making of the nation have been speeded up. Here all the American traits have been intensified. The one who can interpret Oklahoma can grasp the meaning of America in the modern world.”
And to interpret the place, you have to know the people.
It’s usually the land that shapes the people, but not in Oklahoma. With their strong colonial foothold in New Mexico, the Spanish, always looking for gold, were exploring parts of Oklahoma in the late 16th century. But it was the French, always looking for fur, who would leave more of a footprint. Trappers appeared in the Oklahoma wilderness after Spanish explorations, and the French would name many of the mountains and rivers in eastern Oklahoma — the Poteau, the Fourche Maline, the Verdigris — in their quest for pelts. Led by explorer Jean Baptiste Bernard de La Harpe, the first official French expedition came up the Red River in 1718 – 19. They would have seen lots and lots of trees. Before the French explorers arrived, half of Oklahoma was covered in virgin forests. By the 1930s, the state was down to only 200,000 acres of forest. Today, Oklahoma boasts more than 10 million tree-covered acres. A fifth of the state is covered in pine and hardwood.
Broken Bow in southeast Oklahoma was a logging town 17 years after my great-grandfather dealt with his claim jumper. If that doesn’t fit one’s image of Oklahoma, neither would the fact that here in Tornado Alley just as many Oklahomans died in mines as in twisters. Some of America’s most horrific coal mining accidents took place here.
Oklahoma’s image is one of cowboys and Indians. Legendary ranches were actually leased from the tribes. The famous ranches all began with a simple 160 acres. The Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch near Ponca City started with 160 acres and exploded to 135,000 acres. It was named for dad George’s favorite San Antonio saloon. A good amount of leased tribal land used by the Millers was paid for with bacon — 50,000 pounds of it — rather than money.
German immigrant Sam Daube started the Daube Ranch, which now consists of six ranches, near Ardmore in 1885. The Stuart Ranch by Caddo was started by Robert Clay Freeny in 1868. What is now a yearling grazing operation on the Lazy 71 Ranch was once the Little Brothers’ Ranch founded in the Cherokee Nation, as was the McFarlin Ingersoll Ranch. Founded in 1915 by R.M. McFarlin, it’s still in family hands. Other major ranches of note include the Chain Ranch in western Oklahoma, and the Hitch Ranch and Campbell Ranch in the Panhandle.
Ranches mean cattle. In 2015, Oklahoma had 4.6 million head of cattle serviced by about 30 feedlots. The prairie grass of the Osage Hills handles more than 135,000 head and grows herds of bison besides.
Cowboys need horses. About a decade ago, according to the American Horse Council, the horse industry in Oklahoma had a $1.2 billion impact with 326,000 horses. Due to its relatively small size, Oklahoma had 4.75 horses per square mile, the fifth highest equine density in the nation. The American Quarter Horse Association figures show Oklahoma is second only to Texas in the number of quarter horses in the state: 171,000 in 2013.
The state has produced legendary horses and riders.
Peter McCue stood at 16 hands, weighed in at 1,430 pounds, and could do a quarter mile in 21 seconds before being turned out to stud in Cheyenne until his death in 1923. Three Bars and Easy Jet also gained fame as studs. In two years (1969 – 70), Easy Jet won 27 races on the national quarter horse circuit, including the All American Futurity in 1969.
Famed Oklahoma riders include actor Ben Johnson and his father Ben Johnson senior. Appearing in countless John Wayne westerns, this Foraker native won the World Champion Team Roping event in 1953. His father, a foreman on the Chapman-Bernard Ranch, had been a world champion steer roper.
Tulsa’s Jim Shoulders entered the rodeo world at age 14 and ended up with 16 rodeo championships between 1949 and 1959, including five all-around titles, seven bull riding championships, and four bareback championships. Freckles Brown, who won the 1962 bull riding title at the National Finals Rodeo and had a ranch near Soper, won eternal fame by riding Tornado after the bull had thrown 220 riders. (Rodeo pilgrimage: Brown was a friend and mentor to the late bull riding champ Lane Frost; the two are buried next to each other in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hugo.)
Cowgirl and Rodeo Hall of Famer Lucille Mulhall, who was raised on her family’s Cherokee Strip ranch in Oklahoma Territory and worked her father’s Wild West Show and Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West, routinely beat out men in steer roping competitions from Oklahoma to Canada. Given the title “Champion Lady Steer Roper of the World” for winning against her male counterparts at the Winnipeg Stampede in 1904, she received a saddle and an 1873 Winchester from Teddy Roosevelt after he watched her win the 1900 Oklahoma City Rodeo.
Wild West performer and future silent film star Tom Mix was breaking broncs on the Miller 101 Ranch in 1906. Will Rogers and Pottawatomie County Olympian Jim Thorpe earned a dollar breaking in horses before gaining fame. Oklahoma Panhandle State University’s rodeo team in Goodwell has won three national titles since 1997.
Oklahomans’ impact goes well beyond its cowboy image. Oklahomans invented voicemail, parking meters, the shopping cart, the yield sign, rubber cement for children, and the Dick Tracy comic strip, along with Walmart, Sonic Drive-Ins, Hobby Lobby, and Groendyke Transport. In 1918, the Soucek brothers — Apollo was 10 and Zeus was 12 — achieved liftoff with their homemade glider powered by the family mule in Medford. As Navy test pilots, the boys set aviation records in the 1930s, retiring as admirals. Former prison convict Wiley Post set an around the world speed record before dying in a crash with fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers.
Oklahoma in the 20th century was oil as much as it was innovation. Arriving in Oklahoma penniless, E.W. Marland convinced rancher Zack Miller to use his cowboys to guard his oil rig as he brought in his first well on Ponca tribal burial grounds in 1911. Marland would go on to found Marland Oil, which would become part of Conoco.
The King of the Wildcatters, Tom Slick, used his saddlebags for an office as he raised a dollar here and there for drilling. His first gusher in 1912 uncovered the mammoth Cushing Oil Field. Frank Phillips in Bartlesville founded Phillips Petroleum. Harry Ford Sinclair, a Kansas transplant who moved to Tulsa in 1913, founded his own oil company, as did William Grove Skelly. Harold Hamm of Enid has made a billion-dollar fortune in energy in the 21st century.
Lloyd Noble of Ardmore created Noble Drilling. During World War II, he volunteered to drill in the Arctic, refusing a profit from the government for his efforts. Robert Kerr was born in a log cabin near Ada. He and Dean McGee formed Kerr-McGee Oil. Erle P. Halliburton of Duncan created an oil service company that has a worldwide reach.
Oklahoma’s Woody Guthrie, the poor man’s poet, wrote 3,000 songs, including “This Land Is Your Land.” With tunes like “Joy to the World,” “The Pusher,” and “Never Been to Spain,” Hoyt Axton’s songwriting became known throughout the world. And, of course, Oklahomans like Carrie Underwood, Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, Roy Clark, Vince Gill, Blake Shelton, and Reba McEntire and transplants Conway Twitty and Roger Miller have always dominated the country charts. For the record: Merle Haggard wasn’t really an Okie from Muskogee, but his parents were Okies from the self-proclaimed steer-wrestling capital of the world, Checotah.
Movie stars have been coming out of Oklahoma since Territory days. Before Oklahoma’s Favorite Son Will Rogers made 50 movies, Tom Mix, who once worked in a saloon in Guthrie, had been in hundreds. Before being shot dead in the streets of Cromwell, Old West lawman and gunfighter Bill Tilghman made movies with former train robber turned Oklahoma Territory attorney Al Jennings. A visitor to many a watering hole, no less than matinee idol Clark Gable worked the Oklahoma oilfields as a rigger and a wrangler before moving on. Teenage boxer Dale Robertson from Harrah broke into movies after World War II. A few more recent box office bigwigs from the Sooner State: James Garner (from Norman), Ron Howard (from Duncan), and Chuck Norris (from Ryan). Brad Pitt was born in Shawnee.
Oklahoma’s domination of sports is mythical. Sac and Fox athlete Jim Thorpe set records in the 1912 Olympics and was one of the founding fathers of the National Football League (his home in Yale, where tragic jazz trumpeting great Chet Baker was also born, displays artifacts from Thorpe and his family). In baseball, OKC-born Baseball Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bench caught for the Cincinnati Reds. Mickey Mantle, from Commerce, hit 536 home runs and was in 12 World Series. Carl Hubbell of Meeker invented the screwball. In football, there’s Barry Sanders, Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Jason White, Joe Washington, Lee Roy Selmon, Brian Bosworth, Thurman Thomas, and Steve Largent.
They didn’t get prime-time coverage, but in the art world, Kiowa painter Tommy “T.C.” Cannon and Apache sculptor-painter Allan Houser were superstars.
The point of all these shout-outs is this: From my great-grandfather to the Soucek brothers to George Miller, from Wiley Post to Lucille Mulhall to Jim Thorpe, there’s a common theme among Oklahomans. It was illustrated when Waukomis mechanic Clyde Cessna couldn’t get his plane off the ground at Great Salt Plains until he swapped engines with fly-swatter designer William Lindsley of Waynoka and went on to start Cessna Aircraft Company.
In Oklahoma, you don’t follow rules in becoming what you want to be.
Read more about Oklahoma in our July 2016 issue on newsstands now.