September 15, 2000
As we prepare to observe the 107th anniversary of the opening of the Cherokee Outlet to non-Indian settlers on September 16th, 1893, we would do well to pause for at least a moment of reflection. While the hands on the clock neared the magic stroke of high noon on that hot, windy day in the last decade of the 19th century, what thoughts must have raced through the minds of those daring, hopeful homesteaders?
There they were, poised in a disorganized array of men, women, a few children, machines and animals, all of them straining at the entry lines in nervous anticipation of the soldiers' gunshot signal. Skittish steeds added to the tension and drama of the moment. Some of the younger men were mounted on fast ponies, others sat in flimsy buggies or wagons pulled by sturdy but slow plow horses. Bicycles were the choice of some. Many others bought tickets for a slow train ride into the territory. Were they wondering how their heirs and others of succeeding generations would deal with the land lying before them? No, more likely they were primarily worried that someone else would outmaneuver them when they reached the spot that they would like to claim for themselves.
It was a huge event, sprawled across a horizon that many believed would lead them to a land of milk and honey. History has never seen a larger dash for land. Man's innate yearning to own just a piece of soil motivated virtually all of them. They came from the upper Midwest of this country or from Back East, Down South, Up North, Out West. Rich men, mostly poor men, some only newly arrived in this hemisphere from impoverished and troubled European nations. The U.S. itself was struggling to deal with a general depression and some of the settlers came here to escape that pervasive, suffocating malaise.
It's probable that only a few were concerned with where or how they would spend their first night on the prairie. Most of them were accustomed to creature comforts in homes that had sheltered them until that day. They had little or no idea of the adventures awaiting them in Oklahoma Territory. Still they looked forward to the struggle they surely knew was awaiting them. Seconds ticked off and the long-awaited hour of 12 noon drew closer.
Some 100,000 brave souls made the run in hopes of staking a claim on one of the 40,000 homesteads in the Outlet. They lined up on the northern border of the Outlet in Kansas and on a southern line that led through Stillwater and Orlando, plunging toward each other when that long-awaited signal rang out across the rolling terrain. Some observers estimated that around 40,000 individuals were camped in the Perry area the night after the opening. They were hardy, determined people before they chose to come here, or else they would not have entered the Cherokee Outlet sweepstakes in the first place. The struggle that awaited them after the run only strengthened their resolve to win. When that long-awaited signal rang out across the treeless, sun-scorched land, a new volume was begun in the annals of this blessed bit of real estate. And today, we are the beneficiaries of their legacy. Thank God for every one of them.