In the latest example of the outrage mob, cancel culture, and the deep-seated need to get offended at everything, the 1889 Land Run has been canceled. You may remember a recent controversy surrounding Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC) and its decision to remove a monument depicting the 1889 Land Run. The irony is that OCCC most likely would not exist were it not for the land run, but I digress.

In all honesty, I don’t have any special affinity for the monument. It wasn’t anything particularly special; merely a small slab of concrete with a depiction on it that was more myth than reality. Interim President Thomas was at least partially correct in his statement when he said that the monument was not historically accurate. However, what does draw my ire is the reason for the removal. In the statement, the Vice President of OCCC states that they removed the monument because it “celebrated cruelty and oppression.” Granted, the administration is fully within their rights to remove the monument for any reason, but it is unfortunate that they chose to paint the ‘89ers, and the 1889 Land Run in general, in such a light. In doing so, the administration went so far that they merely substituted a different myth for reality.

Here at the 1889 Institute, we celebrate the year 1889 as a pivotal year in the development of Oklahoma as a state, but even more, we celebrate the 1889 Land Run because we believe it “typifies the American ideal of opportunity – readily available to anyone with the personal initiative to take it, with no expectation of equal results. Regardless of status, education, or station, no participant in [the] land run had an official advantage. In this way, the land run illustrates 1889 Institute’s commitment to fighting privilege granted by government, and expanding opportunity where government has intruded excessively.”

As a result, we have added a section under our “About” page, with a (very) concise history of the “Unassigned Land” and the land run of April 22, 1889.

In essence, by signing treaties with – and fighting for – the Confederacy in the Civil War, the Five Tribes annulled their treaties with the United States. Thus, in 1866, the leaders of the Five Tribes were required to negotiate and sign new treaties. One stipulation required the Tribes to cede large portions of land in central and eastern Oklahoma to the U.S. government for a designated price. According to the treaties with the Creek and Seminole, the U.S. government’s stated intention was to use the ceded land to “locate other natives and freedmen thereon.” Accordingly, most of the land was quickly granted or sold to various other tribes as reservations. By the late-1870s, Congress had virtually ended the practice of Native removal/relocation to Oklahoma; however, there was still a large section of land in the center of the state (land-locked by tribes) that was unoccupied or “unassigned.”

It was this territory that was opened to settlement in the land run of April 22, 1889 (after the U.S. paid an additional sum to remove the tribal/freedmen stipulation). The “Unassigned Land” was not stolen. In reality, aside from a handful of cattle barons and cowboys, the occasional attempted Boomer settlement, and employees of the railroad, it was uninhabited. It was in the public domain. And yet – partly due to the influence of some tribal leaders and cattle barons – homesteaders were barred (until 1889) from entering and claiming land that legally should have been available to them under the Homestead Act of 1862.

Of course, the ‘89ers weren’t angels. Neither were the tribes, the cattle barons, or the U.S. Government. It is very hard to place individuals on sides or “teams” because each and every individual had a different motivation (including some tribal members who favored settlement for economic reasons). Rather than painting the history of Oklahoma as either a history of racism and oppression or some romanticized version of the pioneer spirit, we should come to the realization that history, and the people who make it, do not fit into a neat box or ideology. Human beings are complex, but one thing is more and more apparent: people are rarely loyal to principle, ideology, or party, but mostly to their own self-interest.

Tyler Williamson is a Research Associate at 1889 Institute and can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.