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A story of the Oklahoma Panhandle

By David Dary
Norman, Oklahoma (AP) 12-07

Oklahoma evolved like a patchwork quilt. In the language of quilters, it is a “crazy quilt” that developed without much design. One example is the story of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

The history of the Oklahoma Panhandle has its roots to the Compromise of 1850 and in 1845 when Texas became a state. The U.S. then acquired a vast amount of territory that Texas had claimed since its days as a Republic.

When Texas joined the Union as a slave state, it agreed not to extend its sovereignty over any territory north of 36 degrees and 30 seconds north. Therefore the northern boundary of the Texas Panhandle only stretched that far north, even though as a republic Texas claimed a strip of land stretching northward into modern Wyoming.

After Kansas Territory was created in 1854, its southern boundary was set on the east-west 37th parallel as agreed to in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that called for all territory north of the line to be free and everything south to be slave.

This left a narrow strip of land about 34 and one-half miles wide about 168 miles long between Kansas Territory and the Texas Panhandle.

Between 1850 and 1890, most government maps identified this strip of land as “Public Land” or “Public Land Strip.” Many people called it “No Man’s Land.”

During the warm months of the year this strip of land was home to nomadic Plains Indians, mostly Comanches. Countless traders with their caravans of freight wagons crossed the strip traveling between Missouri and Santa Fe. Military expeditions also used the route.

During the 1860s sheep herders from New Mexico settled near the western end of this strip of land. In 1874, white buffalo hunters ignored the government’s “no hunting” order for the southern plains including “No Man’s Land.” The hunting increased after the free-roaming Indians were moved to reservations.

In 1878, cattlemen arrived looking for free open range for their animals. In was not until about 1880, that Jim Lane, a former wagon freighter, became the first permanent settler in “No Man’s Land.” He constructed a large dugout on Beaver Creek toward the eastern end of the strip. He brought several wagons loaded with supplies and opened a store.

In 1885, the U.S. land office in Washington, D.C. declared that “No Man’s Land” was not part of Indian Territory.

Government officials concluded the strip was public land and squatters could settle there. The news spread and land-hungry settlers who had suffered drought and economic depression elsewhere began to move into “No Man’s Land.”

Unfortunately, settlers found no government land office and no government surveys to facilitate homesteading or squatting.

The settlers surveyed the land into quarter sections using “zinc pot” markers left in two-mile intervals along six-mile-square congressional townships surveyed in 1881 by the government.

The settlers squatted on the land they wanted hoping that they could eventually acquire legal title.

The settlers did not attempt serious farming. They could not afford the equipment. Most simply grew what crops they needed to survive. Life was hard, especially during the cold winter months and during periods of drought.

During the late 1880s the settlement of Beaver and a couple of other communities developed in the eastern portion of “No Man’s Land.” Several post offices opened there before 1890.

Since no territorial or state government claimed the “strip,” squatters in most settlements organized citizen committees to resolve land claim disputes. Citizens also formed vigilante committees to maintain law and order. A few even hired men as town sheriffs.

They needed law and order because “No Man’s Land” attracted many men who made their living stealing horses or swindling people out of their land claims.

By early 1887, the citizens of “No Man’s Land” sought to formally organize their own territory to establish government.

On February 27, 1887, they held an election and selected nine delegates. A month later a territorial council was organized in the town of Beaver, the projected territorial capital.

The council divided “No Man’s Land” into five counties, made laws, and decided to send a delegate, Dr. Owen G. Chase, to Washington, D.C. to seek congressional recognition of what they called Cimarron Territory.

Another political faction, however, decided to send J.E. Dale to Washington.

If just one delegate had gone east, Congress might have paid attention and established Cimarron Territory.

Some congressional representatives reported, however, that “No Man’s Land” did not have a large enough population or the resources needed to become a territory.

Although “No Man’s Land” was larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, Congress ignored the proposal to create Cimarron Territory and what eventually would be a state of Cimarron. The proposal died.

“No Man’s Land” finally got government in May 1890 when it became part of the Territory of Oklahoma. By then, however, it had lost population.

Perhaps two-thirds of its residents left in the summer of 1889 to participate in the run of the unassigned lands on April 22, 1889.

When Oklahoma became a state a century ago “No Man’s Land” was organized into three counties – Beaver, Texas and Cimarron – and it became the Oklahoma Panhandle.