Today in History – November 16

Oklahoma entered the Union as the forty-sixth state on November 16, 1907. Five days later, The Beaver Herald, the Beaver County Oklahoma newspaper, carried this news, reporting in the headline that “The Brightest Star in the Constellation Now Shines for the 46th State—Oklahoma.” The history of Oklahoma is tied to the early nineteenth-century use of this land for relocating the Native American population from the settled portions of the United States. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act on May 30, 1830, authorizing land grants in this open prairie, west of the Mississippi, in exchange for Native American property to the east. Oklahoma became the migration destination of Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee tribes as the federal government coerced these peoples to relocate. Known as the “five civilized tribes,” these Native Americans of the south and southeastern United States were forced west by the enormous land hunger of this period. By 1880, sixty tribes had moved to Oklahoma where they created a government structure, landownership laws, and a thriving culture. Thus, the name Oklahoma is derived from the Choctaw Indian words “okla,” meaning people, and “humma,” meaning red.

Cheyenne Sun Dancer. Henry C. Chaufty, c1909. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1889 Congress opened part of the region, which the United States had acquired in 1803 under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase, to settlement by non-Native Americans. The Oklahoma Territory was organized in 1890. The new state of Oklahoma incorporated what remained of Indian Territory.

Home of Quanah Parker, near Cache, Okla.External Denver Public Library Digital Collections: Photographs.External

Ben Stimmel was among the first non-Native Americans to take advantage of the opportunity to settle in the Oklahoma Territory. A native of Ohio, Stimmel had spent the 1880s mining gold in White Oaks, New Mexico. “We lived in White Oaks until September 1889,” Stimmel recalled, “when we set out in a covered wagon drawn by four horses, to go to Oklahoma to buy a farm. We had two children and two hound pups.”

They settled in Hennessy, Oklahoma, Stimmel remembered, “where we built up a real nice farm and lived for twenty five years.” But on April 20, 1912, disaster struck:

A cyclone hit our farm. It took the roof off of our house, and destroyed our barn and all out buildings. We had a hundred Indian Runner ducks and after the storm we found them about half a mile from the house in a mud swamp, all dead. The family saw the cyclone coming and all got in the storm cellar. After the storm I salvaged what I could from the farm and left Oklahoma for Lincoln County, New Mexico, where they don’t have cyclones. I have lived here ever since.

[Ben Stimmel]. Edith L.Crawford, interviewer; Carrizozo, New Mexico. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Driving Cattle to Pasture. [Bliss, Oklahoma Territory] A.C. Abadie, camera; Thomas A. Edison, Inc., May 9, 1904. America at Work, America at Leisure: Motion Pictures from 1894 to 1915. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division

Oklahoma was devastated by the weather conditions of the 1930s. Thousands of families migrated west, out of the Dust Bowl, to take advantage of the opportunities that California afforded.

Oklahoma Refugees. California. Dorothea Lange, photographer, Feb. 1936. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

In the mid-1930s, Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Dorothea Lange traveled to Oklahoma to document the devastating effects of the Great Depression and seven-year drought, which had reduced the Southern Great Plains to a “Dust Bowl” unsuitable for farming. Lange’s work includes numerous images of Oklahoma farm families in and en route to California in search of a better life.

The popular image of this plains state changed with the premiere of the musical Oklahoma in 1943.

Richard Rodgers (seated at piano) and Oscar Hammerstein II. Richard Rodgers Collection, 1917-1980. Music Division

Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) collaborated on some of the most popular musicals of the twentieth century. This joint effort, the 1943 production Oklahoma, was set in Oklahoma Territory near Claremore in 1906, and focused on a young cowboy and his sweetheart.