History of Oklahoma City

United States > US City Index > Oklahoma City > History

Just over 150 years ago, Oklahoma City was little more than a wild plain, yet to be tamed by man and molded into a modern community. This history begins with the painful end of the way of life for America's native people. Beginning in the 1830s, Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes were forcibly removed from their own lands in the southeastern part of the country by the United States government and sent to a land that would one day become Oklahoma. There were few horses or wagons to accommodate the travelers, so this journey of many hundreds of miles was often made on foot and in all extremes of weather. Torn from the home they loved and saddled with a long, demanding move, tribes lost people in great numbers to exhaustion and sickness. The path to Oklahoma was disparaged with the name, The Trail of Tears.

Throughout the next two decades, Oklahoma was known simply as Indian Territory, but after the Civil War, a change was on the horizon. Following the war between the states, many frontiersmen settled in Texas and took up the lucrative career of cattle ranching. In order to transport their cattle back east, ranchers had to drive the herds into Kansas where the railroads were. Soon, the heart of Oklahoma was seeing hundreds of cattle drives, the most popular thoroughfare being a path named the Chisholm Trail. Texas ranchers took notice of Oklahoma in their travels, and saw its sprawling, open plains as a perfect place in which to expand their business.

Throughout the 19th century, the majority of land that would one day make up the state had been given to Native Americans forced by the United States Government to move from their homes. However, one tract of these lands, located in the center of Oklahoma Territory, was never designated for a particular tribe and was soon dubbed the Unassigned Lands. As the century drew to a close and westward migration became increasingly popular, pioneers and cattle barons began clamoring for the government to allow for settlement in this vacant area. When they met with little response from lawmakers, these trailblazers made their own path into the Unassigned Land and established homes. This attempt to draw attention worked, and in March 1889, legislation authorizing settlement of the land was signed.

The very next month, the territory was opened to homesteaders in the most spectacular way: a race for land. For days, pioneers camped around the borders, waiting until April 22, the day of the Land Run. It is estimated that around 50,000 people were on hand to make a dash for the perfect piece of Oklahoma soil to call their own. Some eager settlers could not wait until the appointed day, instead sneaking over the borders under the cloak of darkness to claim their plot in advance. Nicknamed "Sooners", these enterprising Oklahomans have forever left their mark on this city -- in name and in spirit.

The Land Run began on April 22, 1889 with a cannon blast at high noon. The ground shook with the thunder of footfalls, hoofbeats from lightning-fast stallions, and wooden wheels on covered wagons. This enduring image, captured in history books, Western Art and the American imagination, completely defines the essence of Oklahoma and its residents -- there is a lust for life and adventure here that is unmatched.

Oklahoma City began modestly, with 10,000 homesteaders and no city government. Soon realizing the need for leadership, residents came together to elect officials. Despite this effort to make the territory operate more like an established American city, outlaws flocked to this new frontier. Daring and flamboyant real-life characters made famous in Hollywood movies often called Oklahoma home -- names like the James brothers and Belle Starr. Oklahoma City was growing rapidly, due to a sharp increase in commerce and an influx of money obtained from railroads now coming through the area. In just 10 years, the city's population doubled from 10,000 to 20,000. Demand for settlement lands continued, and other land runs were held through 1906.

The new century found Oklahoma City prosperous, flush with the success of railroad commerce from the Frisco, Katy, Rock Island, and Santa Fe companies. Tracks criss-crossed the downtown area, bringing in and shuttling out grain, livestock, produce and other lucrative cash crops. Riding high, residents were jubilant when President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation granting statehood. Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state in the Union on November 17, 1907. Guthrie, a town north of Oklahoma City, was named the state capitol. During the statehood celebrations, a mock wedding ceremony of a frontiersman and a Native American woman was performed there, symbolic of the new state's heritage.

Oklahoma City, with its thriving railroad and industrial businesses, continued to grow, with the population climbing to nearly 65,000 by the end of the decade. City dwellers desperately wanted the state's capitol to be in their bustling town, not in humble Guthrie. So Oklahomans, known for having a populist streak, took the matter into their own hands, circulating petitions and holding a vote to move the capitol. The effort was successful, and in 1910, the state capitol was relocated to Oklahoma City, where it has remained.

The following two decades saw an explosion of wealth and accomplishment in Oklahoma. Oklahoman and Native American Jim Thorpe astonished the world at the 1912 Olympic Games when he took the gold medal in both the pentathlon and decathlon. Henry Ford opened an assembly plant in the city in 1915, and the machine revolution hit Oklahoma City. Downtown grew further still -- moving its boundaries outward and constructing buildings that reached high into the Oklahoma sky. It is in this period of construction that red bricks were used, forever marking the downtown area as "Bricktown". America was introduced to Oklahoma's favorite son -- a simple man named Will Rogers. The frontier equivalent of a Renaissance man, Rogers was an all-around entertainer who performed as a screen actor, radio personality, writer, philosopher, humorist and cowboy. Aviation also came to the forefront with legendary pilot Wiley Post. Post, who lost his left eye in an oil rigging accident, holds the distinction of being the first man to fly around the world alone. The nation mourned along with Oklahomans when Rogers and Post were killed in a 1935 plane crash.

Oklahoma City was enjoying its sunny economic climate when, on a fateful day in December 1928, oil was struck in Oklahoma City. Wildcatters flocked to the city and wells soon dotted the landscape. Millions of barrels of thick black crude left the state and money rolled in -- the black gold boom days were here, but they would not be for long. The 1930s brought the Great Depression, and Oklahoma found itself one of the hardest hit by economic trouble. This was only compounded by the fury of nature. Drought and the fierce Oklahoma wind stirred up storms of red dirt that covered the landscape. Farmers and ranchers watched their livelihoods die in the parched "Dust Bowl" environment. Photographs depicting this era of Oklahoma history are still ingrained in the minds of Americans, and many still associate the present-day city with these images.

Oklahoma City never fully recovered from the Great Depression. The city struggled on, but the second World War further depleted the city and its residents of funds, resources and spirit. The growth and expansion once celebrated was now a curse as families retreated to suburbs and adjacent small towns. The heart of Oklahoma City was in decline and deserted. Politicians and civic leaders strived to find a remedy for the ailing city, but numerous plans for renewal in the 1960s and 1970s were lost in the tumultuous social and economic climate.

The 1980s marked the lowest point, when the oil bust wiped out hope for a turnaround. Despite this setback, the strong Oklahoma spirit, displayed from the Land Run on, prevailed. Mayor Ron Norick formed a panel of community leaders to solve the problem, and a plan called Metropolitan Area Projects -- MAPS, for short -- was presented to the public. Residents knew this progressive plan had the potential to transform the city back into an attractive place in which to live and visit. In 1993, Oklahoma City citizens voted to impose a new tax to fund the project. It has been estimated that around $650 million in public and private funds have gone to make this project such a success. Initially, progress was slow. Modern-day pioneers led the way, most notably Spaghetti Warehouse, one of the first new residents in Bricktown. Once investors and companies realized the popularity of those initial establishments, the district began to rapidly fill. The Bricktown resurgence culminated in 1999 with the July 4 opening of the one-mile Bricktown Canal.

Oklahoma City has finally achieved a return to its former glory. This once simple homestead town is now America's Crossroads -- located at the junction of I-35, I-44, and I-40, as well as being a prominent stop on historic Route 66. Cowboys are rarely seen outside of a museum these days, but the same unbreakable spirit of those Sooners remain.