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I grew up in the small town of Optima, OK, which had 92 people, in the heart of No Man’s Land, the Oklahoma Panhandle. I’ve become curious how my home region became No Man’s Land, so I did some research. It turned out to be a story of how a series of unrelated decisions by the federal government, foreign governments, and American politicians affected a largely unsettled portion of North America and accidentally formed the land in which I grew up. Here is the story of each of the four borders of the rectangular Oklahoma Panhandle.
Eastern Boundary. When the US made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, its western border with New Spain was disputed. The US claimed all lands drained by the Mississippi River plus some other lands on the Gulf Coast. Spain contended that we had only purchased the west bank of the Mississippi River from France and nothing more. Under President James Monroe, the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 set part of the boundary between the US and New Spain at 100° W. between the Red River and the Arkansas River (red arrow). This established what would become the eastern boundary of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Before the treaty, both the US and Spain had claimed the Panhandle area – after the treaty, both sides agreed it was part of New Spain.
Thanks to the treaty, the US gained Florida and undisputed borders to the Louisiana Purchase and excluded Spanish settlement from Oregon Country. In exchange, Spain gained larger buffers around its territory in California, Santa Fe, and Texas and got rid of its Florida province that it couldn’t defend.
At the time this imaginary line was in the middle of a mostly unsettled continent, but it would have an important effect. In 1836, when the Cherokees were forced to move west on the Trail of Tears, they negotiated the ownership of a strip of land called the Cherokee Outlet. It was to run from the western boundary of their new Cherokee Nation proper in modern-day Oklahoma to the western boundary of the United States, which was then the boundary that had been set in 1819 by the Adams-Onís Treaty. Because the Panhandle was Mexican territory in 1836, the Cherokee Outlet did not extend into the future Panhandle; so the Panhandle was never part of Indian Territory.
Southern Boundary. After winning the Mexican-American War in 1848, a major decision had to be made about whether the territory seized from Mexico would be slave or free. The Republic of Texas already had slavery, but its claimed territory extended far north into modern-day Wyoming. Under the Compromise of 1850, it was decided that Texas would be a slave state but that the Missouri Compromise line that banned slavery north of 36°30’ N. in the Louisiana Purchase would be extended westward into Texas.
As a result, Texas ceded all lands north of 36°30’ N. (red arrow) to the federal government. Because the US Constitution requires that states can only give up territory voluntarily, Texas negotiated a deal that in exchange the federal government would assume the crushing sovereign debt that it had accumulated while it was the Republic of Texas. As a result, the southern border of the future Oklahoma Panhandle was set, cutting it off from Texas; and it became unorganized territory, just like most of the American West at the time. Federal law applied in unorganized territory, but the land was not surveyed, and there was no local government to enforce the law.
Western Boundary. After the Republic of Texas gained independence in 1836, it claimed the former Mexican territory east and north of the Rio Grande River, which included the towns of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. These towns had historically been part of the Spanish and then Mexican province of Nuevo Mexico and not Texas. They had been settled from Mexico, while Texas had been largely settled from the US – its Hispano culture and history were distinct from that of Texas. After the US annexed most of the Southwest in 1848 following the Mexican-American War, there were threats of violence between the Texans and New Mexicans over the disputed boundary between the two. Under the Compromise of 1850, Texas gave up its claims to land east of 103° W. and north of 32° N., from which New Mexico Territory was formed. This set the western border (red arrow) of the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Northern Boundary. By the early 1850s, there was enough white settlement in what is now Kansas that it was decided to organize Kansas Territory. Again, the big question was whether Kansas should be slave or free. The initial proposed southern boundary of Kansas was 36°30’ N. so that Kansas would include the Santa Fe Trail Cutoff and so that it would follow the Missouri Compromise line and be free. If this proposal had been approved, there would have been no Oklahoma Panhandle.
But when Stephen Douglas proposed his infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he used 37° N. as the southern boundary of Kansas Territory (red arrow). There were probably two reasons for this. First, Douglas wanted to repeal the Missouri Compromise that had forbidden slavery north of 36°30’ in the Louisiana Purchase, so it was in his interest to pick another southern boundary line for Kansas to divert attention from the change.
Second, it was believed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the dividing line between the large Osage and Cherokee Nations was on the 37° N. line, so it would simplify matters if only the Osage territory was included in Kansas and all the Cherokee territory left out. (Today the Osage Nation is located in Oklahoma because they were forced to move in 1870, but in 1854 their territory was still in Kansas.) Although neither the Osage nor the Cherokee territory extended as far west as the future Panhandle, the supposed boundary between the Osage and Cherokee Nations was simply extended straight west to the eastern border of New Mexico Territory, which was at 103° W. So in 1854, Kansas Territory was created north of 37° N., setting the northern border of the future Oklahoma Panhandle. Thus, a strip of land was cut off from all surrounding states and territories and became known as the Public Land Strip. By 1861, the Public Land Strip was the only unorganized territory left in the continental US, and it would remain so until 1890.
Becoming Oklahoma. The Public Land Strip was open for squatters to claim land for free. Beginning in the 1870s, open-range cattle ranches came to No Man’s Land, and some farmers and merchants settled there as well. Because there was no organized government in the strip, outlaws and claim jumpers drifted there as well. In response, the settlers organized vigilance committees and unofficial local governments to take care of the problems. But without legal land titles, the ranchers and other settlers could not borrow money; and the lack of official law enforcement hampered growth.
So in 1885, Congress passed a bill to attach the Panhandle to Kansas, but Grover Cleveland let it die. The next year, a council was elected to sit in Beaver City to adjudicate land claims and other disputes and to form a territorial government. In 1887, the council in Beaver City proposed that Congress make No Man’s Land an organized territory called Cimarron Territory with official government and elected a delegate to represent them in Congress, Dr. O. G. Chase. However, another group disagreed and elected a separate delegate, John Dale, to represent them in Washington. Due to this dispute, Congress did not take the proposal seriously; so it was tabled. An attempt to join New Mexico Territory fizzled. Unusually harsh winters in the mid-1880s took their toll on the ranchers and farmers. In April 1889, many discouraged settlers left No Man’s Land to participate in the Oklahoma Land Run in the new Unassigned Lands in central Oklahoma. This was the end of attempts to organize a separate territory in No Man’s Land. Given the small size and population, it was unlikely that Congress would ever agree to create a separate state in No Man’s Land.
On 2 May 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Oklahoma Organic Act that created an Oklahoma Territory out of western Indian lands and joined No Man’s Land to the new territory. In 1907 Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory were joined to form the new state of Oklahoma. The long journey to settle No Man’s Land and to establish organized government was finished. Today in the Oklahoma Panhandle, we celebrate Pioneer Day the first Saturday in May to mark the day when No Man’s Land joined Oklahoma Territory.Published in