The Oklahoma Panhandle: Creating and Settling No Man’s Land

 

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.

Source: http://www.emersonkent.com/images/us_expansion_1820_adams_onis.jpg

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.

Source: https://www.awesomestories.com/images/user/0d6641dc50.jpg

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.

Source: https://www.tomrichey.net/uploads/3/2/1/0/32100773/compromise-of-1850-after_orig.jpg

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.

Source: https://www.tomrichey.net/uploads/3/2/1/0/32100773/compromise-of-1850-after_orig.jpg

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.

Source: https://www.kshs.org/index.php?url=p/kansas-historical-quarterly-surveying-the-southern-boundary-line-of-kansas/12540

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.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma_Organic_Act#/media/File:Okterritory.png

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.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Fine writing, and an interesting subject! Amazing that this is only your second post. Thanks for joining us!

    • #1
  2. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    What an ambitious undertaking. Thank you for this examination of the origins of so many different states.

     

    • #2
  3. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Fascinating account. And thank you for including the maps. (Everything goes better with maps!) Post-modernists who dismiss history don’t know ( and don’t care about) what they’re missing. 

    • #3
  4. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers
    @OleSummers

    Very good. I often travel thru No Man’s Land to northeastern NM, past Black Mesa and Kenton to drive in the 50 or so miles of mesas and canyons to Folsom. Very good job of including the maps, there are few of us who know the story well enough to follow without them! 

    • #4
  5. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    I have bicycled across the Oklahoma panhandle but I’ve never been able to dine out on the experience. Nobody is impressed. Perhaps everybody can tell I only did it south-to-north! The Cimarron Cutoff this was not, although I did recognize it when I crossed it. Maps are nice, historical markers are too, but most of what I knew about the area was from Flashman and the Redskins.

    • #5
  6. Rōnin Coolidge
    Rōnin
    @Ronin

    I like this kind of stuff.  The only thing I knew about the area was from the old T.V. show Cimarron Strip.

     

    • #6
  7. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    Thank you for this wonderful history. I’ve driven by Optima a number of times on my way between Albuquerque and Wichita. Didn’t know it was called No Man’s Land.

    • #7
  8. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy) Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy)
    @GumbyMark

    Thanks!  A few years ago my wife and I drove from Springer NM to Dodge City via 412/56 through Boise City and the Panhandle which made me curious about its history.  Now I know.

    • #8
  9. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Thank you for a very interesting post! I’m not from the area but I got interested in it two years ago when I narrated “1889” for Audible. It focuses mostly on that remarkable, literal race for homestead property, and how they managed to create towns and cities on it afterward, so it’s toward the end of your timeline.

    If you or anyone else reading this would like a free download of the Audible narration of 1889, drop me a message here and I’ll send you a promo code. And thanks for the opportunity to plug a book!

    • #9
  10. Steve Fast Coolidge
    Steve Fast
    @Steve Fast

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    Thanks! A few years ago my wife and I drove from Springer NM to Dodge City via 412/56 through Boise City and the Panhandle which made me curious about its history. Now I know.

    That’s only the first part of the history. The human drama begins when settlers arrive in the 1870s, which I didn’t really touch on. I’m dabbling in writing a history of my hometown, which is what got me interested in writing this first piece. My hometown was always small and insignificant, yet it illustrates important and interesting themes of life on the Great Plains and the rise and decline of small towns. Perhaps I’ll write the next part of the history of the area, but I’m not promising.

    • #10
  11. Steve Fast Coolidge
    Steve Fast
    @Steve Fast

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    Thank you for this wonderful history. I’ve driven by Optima a number of times on my way between Albuquerque and Wichita. Didn’t know it was called No Man’s Land.

    Several articles said that a reporter from the New York Sun dubbed it “God’s Land but No Man’s” in the mid-1880s and that that is the origin of the name No Man’s Land. But I couldn’t find any more specific reference.

    We’re kind of proud of being called No Man’s Land, even though many might take it as derogatory. It shows our independent spirit that holds us apart from everywhere else, even from Oklahoma, and that we could tame a land that no one else (excepting the Plains Indians, of course) had been able to master.

    • #11
  12. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    My wife had lots of relatives in Gate, OK.  Most have died or moved on. 

    • #12
  13. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    As a native Oklahoman who has been to Optima and spent a few formative years in the Panhandle (Guymon), I greatly enjoyed your post. Nice work, and thank you. 

    • #13
  14. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    If you’re driving to Black Mesa (Kenton), I highly recommend a stop at the local museum. It has a lot of interesting stuff piled everywhere, including some World War II oddities.

    • #14
  15. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers
    @OleSummers

    Dotorimuk (View Comment):

    If you’re driving to Black Mesa (Kenton), I highly recommend a stop at the local museum. It has a lot of interesting stuff piled everywhere, including some World War II oddities.

    Thanks, as much as have been thru there haven’t stopped to look at it. lol, and you have to slow down anyway , it is right to the north of that big dip in the road!

    • #15
  16. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    Ole Summers (View Comment):

    Dotorimuk (View Comment):

    If you’re driving to Black Mesa (Kenton), I highly recommend a stop at the local museum. It has a lot of interesting stuff piled everywhere, including some World War II oddities.

    Thanks, as much as have been thru there haven’t stopped to look at it. lol, and you have to slow down anyway , it is right to the north of that big dip in the road!

    We went to the museum and talked to a curator, then hiked Black Mesa. We stopped in Kenton afterwards to get ice cream at Dairy Queen. Working behind the counter was….the museum curator.

    • #16
  17. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Very interesting. I like the way you focused on one geographical result but connected it to a lot of other history along the way. 

    I’d now like to find out the history of how a part of the northeast corner of Oklahoma got to be Shawnee and Seneca land.  I wonder if those Seneca are the same Seneca who had a reserve in Ohio just east of present-day Findlay, and just north of a much larger Wyandotte reserve.  I presume these Shawnee were from Ohio, too, but there were two major factions of Shawnee in their response to being forced to move west, so I wonder which Shawnee those were.   I have some books that probably explain, but your inclusion of maps makes me want to study them again, focusing on the geographical result in the maps you posted. 

    • #17
  18. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Dotorimuk (View Comment):

    Ole Summers (View Comment):

    Dotorimuk (View Comment):

    If you’re driving to Black Mesa (Kenton), I highly recommend a stop at the local museum. It has a lot of interesting stuff piled everywhere, including some World War II oddities.

    Thanks, as much as have been thru there haven’t stopped to look at it. lol, and you have to slow down anyway , it is right to the north of that big dip in the road!

    We went to the museum and talked to a curator, then hiked Black Mesa. We stopped in Kenton afterwards to get ice cream at Dairy Queen. Working behind the counter was….the museum curator.

    They might have owned the DQ. Small towns are wonderful like that. 

    • #18
  19. Steve Fast Coolidge
    Steve Fast
    @Steve Fast

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I’d now like to find out the history of how a part of the northeast corner of Oklahoma got to be Shawnee and Seneca land. I wonder if those Seneca are the same Seneca who had a reserve in Ohio just east of present-day Findlay, and just north of a much larger Wyandotte reserve. I presume these Shawnee were from Ohio, too, but there were two major factions of Shawnee in their response to being forced to move west, so I wonder which Shawnee those were.

    https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=SE018

    • #19
  20. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Terrific post! Fascinating. Now why can’t they teach this kind of history to school children, instead of the awful drek that fills most text books !!

    History isn’t boring. Badly written history is. 

    • #20