In the summer of 2021 I found myself in Oklahoma for a family reunion. Much of it was spent on various watersport activities on Tenkiller Lake, but for a couple days we headed over to Guthrie. It's a weird little town. More than a century ago, it was the de facto capital of the not-yet-a-state; but very early on, that all shifted to Oklahoma City, and there just wasn't anything keeping people in Guthrie. Wikipedia has a chart of the historical population going back to 1890, when it had 5,333 people; in 2020 it had 10,759. Other towns grew and developed; roads and stores and houses were built and torn down and rebuilt differently; but Guthrie just kinda stalled out. A lot of the roads and sidewalks are still these awful, uneven brick walkways, and it's full of these ancient brick structures proudly displaying the year of their construction (frequently starting with "18"). It has the feeling of a Colonial Williamsburg, except it's not an intentionally curated historical theme park meant to imitate old aesthetics; it's just still like that. It never stopped. Like Colonial Williamsburg, though, the town now gets its money from historical tourism. We took a Historical Walking Tour with a big-personality guide that walked around and pointed at stuff and told lame jokes. (You probably know the type – it might not surprise you, for instance, that we were encouraged to come back after dark for the "Guthrie Ghost Tour.")
The main story of the tour, however, was the main moment of historical import for the town: The Land Rush of 1889. The short version is this: In 1889, the "Indian Appropriations Act" was passed allowing President Benjamin Harrison to take 2 million acres of land, previously designated as part of the so-called "Indian Territory," and open it for settlement. So at noon on April 22, 1889, eligible would-be settlers gathered in Guthrie to wait for a cannon to go off, signalling the start of the "land run" – essentially, a race in which each settler rushed out on their fastest horse into the newly-opened territory to claim the best piece of land they could get their hands on as theirs. There were several more of these land runs over the next couple decades before Oklahoma eventually became a state in 1907, but in essence, every person who owns land in Oklahoma, owns it because they bought or inherited it from someone who bought or inherited it from someone who bought or inherited it from someone... who claimed it in a land run.
I still can't stop thinking about this story. It's insane. Your first impulse, perhaps, might be outrage at the baldfaced theft of Native American lands – lands which, by the way, we had already forced them to take in exchange for abandoning their former homelands earlier in the same century. Personally I think it's often useful, in historical contexts, to set aside moral outrage for a moment and pause to try to understand better exactly what happened and why. But even then, it's just baffling. Why would this be the system for land allocation? Weren't there an infinity of legal disputes over who, exactly, had staked a claim on this or that bit of valuable land first? And what the fuck do you do, now that you've raced out on your fastest horse, staked a claim, and are (more or less) officially the owner of 160 acres of extremely flat land in the middle of Oklahoma?
I'll back up a bit in the story. Over the course of the 19th century, the United States was progressively expanding across the continent. A lot of the same reasons that would have motivated people to move from Europe to America (usually some combination of ambition for creating a New World and fear of persecution back home) made people want to set out into the West and try to find somewhere to plant a stake and call theirs. For individuals, wanting a bunch of land given to them basically for free was certainly a selfish motivation, but the whole society was caught up in it. The very ideas of "progress" and "growth," essentially "goodness" itself, were wrapped up in the process of expansion, traveling out into natural landscapes and transforming them into farms and towns and cities. So-called "manifest destiny."
Of course, every new expansion was met with a Native American tribe or set of tribes who already lived there. What about them? Should we buy their land off them? Trick them into signing some agreement they don't understand, which takes their land from them in exchange for something worse? Find some pretense or provocation to just kill them until they leave or die? Opinions differed, of course, but what pretty much everyone agreed on was that taking that land, by one means or another, and transforming it into farms and towns and cities was the goal. And so a repeating pattern emerged across the continent: European Americans would move into an area; an extended sequence of negotiations and battles and ceasefires and more negotiations would begin; but always, eventually, one way or another, the land would wind up in American hands being developed into farms and towns and cities. With that land "claimed," more European Americans would move further West, and begin the same process wherever they went. Native Americans were either killed, assimilated, or moved somewhere else; and generally, "somewhere else" was Oklahoma.
We got all the way to the Pacific. We negotiated a northern border with Canada. Some American settlers moved into northern Mexico for a while, fought a war of independence from Mexico, then agreed to let the newly independent territory get annexed by the US. Not long after the US fought another war with Mexico to claim another big chunk in the South. We put our expansionist urges on hold for a bit to fight an extremely bloody civil war. But eventually, the land ran out. And with no new "West" to send our ambitious young men into, we started looking around for any territory we had missed, and there was this big chunk of land we were calling the "Indian Territory" we had been sending all those Native Americans to.
It wasn't the government at first. For a while it was just private individuals, heading into the territory and setting up tent cities, coaxing new settlers in with the promise of cheap land, before the US military had to go in and force these settlers to leave. The term you will frequently hear about these folks is "Boomers," which is funny given the modern use of the term, but of course has no connection besides the name – apparently that's just a catchy pair of syllables to label a group of people with. I've had a little trouble figuring out the actual origin of the term; the tour guide said it had to do with the "boom" of the cannon at the start of a land run, although I've seen others say it's referencing the "booming" loudness of these people demanding to be given settlers rights. I have to imagine the concept of an economic "boom" was not unrelated.
At any rate, a concerted "Boomer" movement to seize Oklahoma for settlement by European Americans rose in influence and popularity. It was inevitable. I'm skipping a lot of details, obviously, and I hope you'll understand that's not an effort to elide any bloody details; this blog is already going to be way too long. But the pattern was more or less the same as before: the US negotiated, and renegotiated, and took by force, all part of an inexorable movement toward obtaining the land to open for settlement. After five land runs (and a few land lotteries and such), Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
There's a lot of directions to go from here, but I'd like to stick with the Oklahoma settlers for a little while. As I wondered when I first heard this story, there were indeed a lot of legal disputes over who owned what. Most famously, a huge number of disputes hinged on "Boomers" versus alleged so-called "Sooners." Originally "boomer" had been the name for advocates of opening the land for settlement, but in this context a "boomer" was someone who had obtained the land "legitimately," i.e. waiting for the cannon in Guthrie or wherever, before racing out to claim their land. A "sooner" had cheated by somehow finding their way into the territory (technically illegal, before it was opened for settlement) and pouncing on some bit of land before any "boomers" even had a chance to race there. There were years of bitter legal battles over every aspect of this. As one example: some people were legal representatives of the US government, and as such allowed to be in the territories before the cannon went off. Were they allowed to claim land this way? The answer was ultimately "no," although it took a lot of years of legal cases to decide that.
Now forget about all that for a moment. Imagine you're one of these settlers. Whatever the circumstances that led to it, you're now the proud new owner of 160 acres. What now? You're legally required to "improve the land" in the next 5 years in order to keep it. So you're gonna chop down some trees and try to make some kind of house out of them, start a family if you haven't already, and try to work the land into producing something you can sell, so you can go into town and buy some of the stuff you desparately need. One thing it's easy to forget about colonization is that aside from the morality of it, it's really hard. There's an enormous amount of both manual labor and expertise that you're gonna need just to "live off the land," let alone amass any kind of wealth out here. Do you have what it takes? Keep in mind that if you were already a farmer in 1889, that's probably because you already had a farm somewhere, in which case you didn't need to participate in any goofy land runs. So realistically, you and all your neighbors probably aren't working from a lot of experience as you try to figure out how do this (maybe a few folks have some experience working somebody else's farm).
So a lot of folks are pretty poor. Farmers have always been in a pretty precarious position – crop yields depend on a lot of factors outside your control, even if you do everything right – and there's a lot of knowledge involved that is pretty slow and expensive to acquire (imagine how many crops you have to lose to some pest before you figure out the right type of prevention/treatment for it). But desperation breeds determination, and settlers tried harder to pull more out of the soil.
You might already know where this is headed. In the 1930's, when everybody was particularly poor and particularly desperate, those farmers tried particularly hard to pull more out of the soil. Widespread erosion of topsoil combined with a drought caused the catostrophic ecological collapse known today as the "Dust Bowl." Think for a moment: that's less than 50 years after that first land run. Less than 30 after Oklahoma became a state. These desperate folks signed up for the government's weird horse race, just to compete for a chance to toil desparately and ineffectually at farming until their combined efforts destroyed the land they had all raced out here to own. And then they picked up whatever they had and moved to California.
Doesn't this story feel familiar? I can't be the only one, right? Not that this specific bit of history is all that well-known – I don't think most Americans know anything about the Land Run of 1889, although if you went to public school in Oklahoma I'm certain they talked a lot about it. But the game of it! There's this system between you and what you need to survive, and the system pits you against everybody else in these weird, arbitrary competitions. You have to prove yourself! You have to "earn" it! But "earning" it just means winning at the game, not necessarily producing anything of value for anyone else (that's just one way to win at the game, and probably not the most lucrative one by a long shot).
Meanwhile there are people that want to moralize at you, and tell you everything that system gives you was stolen; that you're benefiting from the cruelty and theft that was done to someone less fortunate. But that's pretty hard for you to believe, when you're already working so hard for so little from this system. You're supposed to be the cheater here, the recipient of ill-gotten gains? I think there's something fundamentally American about this story, although I'm sure the feeling is familiar to plenty of people in other parts of the world, too. Juxtaposing with today, it almost feels too on the nose - making everybody compete in a literal race to get their handouts? A state of perpetual desparation propelling everyone to hustle harder and harder, all of which only accelerates an impending ecological collapse? The word boomer?
One problem with studying history is that it very rarely tells you what you should do differently. I certainly don't know, anyway. The trouble with yelling about the "system" is that the "system" is just a collection of other people, all of whom are also just trying their best to figure out how to survive. You don't feel like you're getting what you deserve from the "system" but none of them do, either. So what then? You can hunt around for who the "bad guy" is, and there are certainly some of those out there, but to the extent this system is failing due to individual bad actors, it's only because it created the circumstances for them to exist and incentivized them to act as badly as they do. If you magically poof them out of existence, new ones will take their place, because it's the inevitable consequence of this system's design.
But I think there's value in recognizing the dynamics, at least. There's nothing contradictory, for instance, about simultaneously being a victim of the system's design and a beneficiary of its cruelty. Nor is there necessarily any guarantee that the things you do to succeed within it are actually producing value. You "earn" what you get, in the sense that you had to do something hard to obtain it, but you simultaneously "deserve" so much more (in that every person deserves to have what they need to survive) and yet you may or may not "deserve" even what you've been given.
The only lesson I've figured out to draw from this (and again, I've been stewing on it for a year and a half) is that it's not enough to focus on the task in front of you, earn your keep, and trust that if everyone else does the same it'll be alright. Difficult as it may be, unlikely as it may seem, we all have to poke our head out of the water and look for things we can do, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.
If you figure out what those things are, please let me know, and if I figure it out I promise I'll share it.