Today, April 22, marks the anniversary of the “Greatest Horse Race in History,” the first Oklahoma Land Run in 1889. On this day, towns like Guthrie, Oklahoma City, and Norman, sprang into existence in a single afternoon. It also left towns like Purcell, which had swollen to be described as a metropolis by a New York Times observer due to its location on the Canadian River, the southern border of the soon-to-be-opened lands, virtual ghost towns after the official opening of the territory at twelve noon.
The Santa Fe Railroad previously cut through India Territory from north to south, connecting Arkansas, Texas, Kansas, and New Mexico, stopping at small depots in Guthrie, Edmond, and Oklahoma City. The picture at right shows the Edmond depot before the land run, followed by a photo of the Guthrie depot.
Congress had failed to make any provision for civil government in the newly opened lands, and the nearest criminal court was Fort Smith, AR, nearly 200 miles from Oklahoma City.
Certain personnel had been allowed to enter early, including railroad workers and federal marshals, but these “legal sooners” were not allowed to make land claims—in theory. A Harper’s Weekly 33 (May 18, 1889: 391-94) columnist relates the reality of the situation as the crowd approached Guthrie at twenty minutes past noon:
I ran with the first of the crowd to get a good point of view from which to see the rush. When I had time to look about me I found that I was standing beside a tent, near which a man was leisurely chopping holes in the sod with a new axe.
“Where did you come from, that you have already pitched your tent?” I asked.
“Oh, I was here,” said he.
“How was that?”
“Why, I was a deputy United States marshal.”
“Did you resign?”
“No; I’m a deputy still.”
“But it is not legal for a deputy United States marshal, or any one in the employ of the government, to take up a town lot in this manner.”
“That may all be, stranger; but I’ve got two lots here, just the same; and about fifty other deputies have got lots in the same way. In fact, the deputy-marshals laid out the town.”
As the only lawmen within 200 miles, I don’t guess these deputy federal marshals had much reason to be too concerned about obeying the law.
All photos belong to the Oklahoma Historical Society.