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The Cherokee Strip

Cherokee Strip Was Pandemonium

by John Edward Hicks

[Thanks to Linda Combs for contributing this material.]

The following was printed in the Kansas City Times, September 14, 1968:

A bugle blared, rifles barked and at noon, September 16, 1893, the Cherokee strip was open for settlement.

This, 75 years ago next Monday, one of the greatest races in history was on, with an estimated 100,000 persons taking part. Men, women and children traveled by train and horseback, and in all types of horse-drawn vehicles, and many were afoot.

Homeseekers and opportunists had been gathering for several days along 165 miles of the southern borders of Kansas. They were there to race for approximately 6 million acres of land, extending 58 miles to the south.

The strip lay between Kansas and Oklahoma territory, opened to settlement four years earlier. The Cherokee tribe was loath to part with it, having leased it to the Cherokee Strip Cattlemen's association for $100,000 annually. The association had agreed to double its rental.

Pressure From Many

Three railroads and countless politicians, opportunists and land-hungry farmers wanted it opened. Finally a law was passed saying no more cattle could be grazed in the strip. The Cherokees sold. The opening was announced with a great fanfare.

On the south, east and west, too, the strip's boundaries were lined with land-seekers. But most were on the Kansas border.

The greatest jam was at Arkansas City, an 11-year-old village three miles from the border, that already had gone through the names of Adelphia, Walnut City and Cresswell. It was estimated 30,000 or more made the run from there.

Soldiers patrolled the four borders. The homesteaders toed the line, many astride horses. There were sulkies, 2-wheeled carts, light buggies, and even bicycles. Farmers were there with heavy wagons and plodding teams. There was even the old-time prairie schooners, one with this legend on its canvas side:

"White-capped in Injianny, chinch-bugged in Illinois, secloned in Newbrasky, bald-knobbed in Missouri, Oklahomy or bust."

Probably an equal number clambered on railroad cattle cars that were hauling human freight for this day only. The trains were black with humanity; men were hanging from every slat.

Trains Were Loaded

Ten trains of 10 boxcars each ran out of Arkansas City. A train of 39 cars picked up its crowd at Hennessey, and there were 42 carloads at Orlando. The Santa Fe sold 8,000 tickets to Kildare alone.

Then the signal was given, the crowd burst over the line with a roar. Horsemen were unseated, wagons overturned, pedestrians trampled. There were cries of angry men, neighing of panic-stricken horses, shouts, curses, clatter of hoofs, and the rattle of wagons. It was truly pandemonium.

The trains started, too, but with restrictions. They were allowed to travel only 15 miles an hour, with a stop every five minutes.

Chivalry died that day on the prairie. When a stop was made and train doors were thrown open, men clambered over men to get out and stake a claim. Women were not spared, being sometimes trampled and their clothes torn. The long skirt of one caught and held her firmly in a barbed-wire fence while two young men a few yards away drove stakes in the claim she was so near.

All the train riders were not homeseekers. There were special trains of sightseers going out from Arkansas City, Caldwell, Wichita, Winfield, Guthrie, Oklahoma City, Norman, El Reno, Hennessey and other towns.

The race lasted about two hours, when those from the north began to meet those from the south. Places that had consisted of one building, there to serve as a land office, or even bare spots on the prairie, became cities before night.

One of these was Ponca City, the site of which had been scouted by Burton S. Barnes, a furniture manufacturer from Michigan. He organized at Arkansas City the Ponca Townsite company, selling 2,300 certificates at $2 each which entitled the holders to participate in a lottery. Then he made the race with a high-spirited team and surrey to stake the claim. About 2,000 arrived at the site of Ponca City that first day.

New Town Beside River

Woodward also was of quick growth. The Santa Fe railroad in 1887 had pushed across the strip and paused at the Canadian river to build a bridge.

There, in the strip, was Hob Town or Desperado City, with two stores, several saloons and a restaurant. The Gerlach brothers sold their nearby ranch and became principal store owners.

When the strip was opened, John J. Gerlach readied a box-car of goods and had it rushed in from Higgins, Tex., a mile from the line, to Woodward, where a land office was located. He was selling goods on his lot before he could get his tent up, and shortly afterward opened a bank in one corner of the tent.

Perry, which had only a land office at noon, was a roaring tent city of 25,000 that night. Aside from the land office, the most important place in town was the Buckhorn bar, operated by Hill brothers in a circus tent, the gayest of the 70 saloons in Perry's "Hell's Half Acre."

Blackwell was started by a company of townsite boosters from Winfield, Kas., headed by Col. Andrew Jackson Blackwell of Claremore, whose wife, a Cherokee, had an allotment adjoining the site. It got off to a good start but had a bad scare in the way of a rival across the river a mile away, promoted by Isaac Parker. The rival had brick buildings and a railway being built when something went awry. Blackwell got the railroad and Parker faded away.

The old freighters' trail from Caldwell to El Reno ran through the site of Enid and when Jim Fenlon, blacksmith, set his anvil down in the middle of the trail, the town settled around within an hour. At noon the town had four inhabitants and one wooden building, 20 by 40 feet. At 3 o'clock it had 12,000. By night it had a hotel and several restaurants.

Citizens of the strip still get together on September 16 of each year in such towns as Enid, Ponca City and Woodward, to talk of that long ago when 100,000 hardy pioneers settled the strip in a day.

Money Changed Hands as Homesteaders Scrambled to Get Certificates

by Brian Coyne

Arkansas City, Kas. -- Writing from Arkansas City in the Kansas City Times, September 16, 1893, the reporter said:

"At noon Saturday, the Cherokee strip passes from the government to the homeseekers. At that hour, the strip will be without a single white inhabitant. Two minutes afterward it will have a population of at least 78,000.

"By nightfall, it will have an equal number of members of the families of those who actually make the race for homes will be within the borders."

ON SEPTEMBER 14, the demand for certificates, without which a homesteader would not be permitted to enter the strip or to file on a claim at a land office, was so great that facilities for registration had to be expanded. There was great competition for places in line.

A story from Hennessey, Oklahoma territory, concerned a man named Niblock, said to have been a liquor dealer from Kansas City, Mo.

"Niblock had paid during the day," the reporter wrote, "$25 in $5 installments to advance himself in line, and he was about to spend $5 more for a place near the door of the booth when he dropped dead with the money in his hand."

A contraband business was reported at Guthrie, Oklahoma territory, which had been going on since Tuesday, September 12. It was estimated that at Guthrie and Oklahoma City from 500 to 1,000 persons had paid up to $5 each for certificates.

"If they are genuine," a reporter wrote, "some of the booth clerks are in for trouble."

On September 15, the day before the opening, Arkansas City's population was estimated at 75,000, with thousands camped along the banks of the Arkansas and Walnut rivers and all around the city. A great exodus began that day as homeseekers moved to campsites along the state line.

"Tonight," one correspondent telegraphed his paper on September 14, "thousands of people are camped along the line and their campfires make an almost unbroken chain along the boundary. The weather today, while it is hot, was cool in comparison to that of the last few days. But the wind blowing from the north stirred up the dust in choking, blinding clouds."

THE CROWD that was to plunge into the strip far exceeded that which made the race into old Oklahoma four years earlier. Nearly 30,000 went in from south of Arkansas City, 15,000 from Caldwell, 3,000 from Kiowa and 3,000 from Hunnewell. In Oklahoma territory 11,000 started from Orlando, 9,000 from Stillwater, and 5,000 from other points. With most of the homeseekers joined by their families, the population of the strip the night of September 16 was estimated all the way up to 150,000.

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