We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Michael J. Hightower discusses 1889: The Boomer Movement, the Land Run, and Early Oklahoma City .
Evan C. Rothera’s review of 1889: The Boomer Movement, the Land Run, and Early Oklahoma City is available online and in issue 47.1 of OHR.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
1889 tells the story of Indian Territory (later, the state of Oklahoma) between the post-Civil War treaties of 1866 through 1890, the first full year of non-Indian settlement in the six counties that constitute central Oklahoma. I frame the story within the larger history of Old Oklahoma where displaced tribes and freedmen, wealthy cattlemen, and prospective homesteaders faced off in disputes over public land and federal government policies.
As disputes captured headlines nationwide, Indian Territory became a battleground of Gilded-Age politics. Although the fundamental controversy over non-Indian settlement in central Indian Territory ended with the land run of April 22, 1889, disputes over land ownership continued for generations. Settlers who crossed illegally into central Indian Territory before the appointed hour (noon, April 22, 1889) gave the state its dubious moniker as the “sooner state.”
1889 gets behind the mythology to reveal Oklahoma’s foundation story as far more nuanced—and far more interesting! —than many historians have depicted it.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
To capture the drama of illegal “boomer” incursions into central Indian Territory, the Run of ’89, and nascent urbanization of the townsite that became Oklahoma City, I rely heavily on oral history interviews conducted by the WPA in the 1930s. Those interviews are preserved in print and microfilm as the Indian-Pioneer Papers. They are also available online in the University of Oklahoma’s Western History Collections.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
As Oklahoma and Indian territories were among the last territories opened to non-Indian settlement and were not admitted to the union as a single state until 1907 (Arizona and New Mexico entered the union in 1912), older Oklahomans interviewed in the 1930s were likely to remember the state’s transition from frontier to region. Some, men and women alike, had crystal-clear memories of their youthful adventures as cowboys, soldiers, train conductors, teachers, bankers, businessmen, and other professions that facilitated townsite settlement.
Together with newspaper articles, memoirs, and correspondence, oral history is a powerful tool in allowing these pioneers (members of what I call the generation of 1889) to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, racial prejudice and lack of access to the levers of communication make Native American stories harder to come by. Yet I did find plenty of oral history interviews with women and African Americans that help to dispel gender and racial stereotypes of frontier settlement.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
Relying on the Indian-Pioneer Papers to tell the eighty-niner story enabled me to write history “from the bottom up” rather than “from the top down.” Almost by definition, oral historians are also social historians. Whether oral histories were collected yesterday or a century ago, they reveal lived experience and give us glimpses into everyday lives.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
Like many frontier stories, Oklahoma’s foundation story and its centerpiece, the run of 1889, has been mythologized to the point where the actual history has been obscured. Moreover, marketers and politicians have appropriated the imagery to further their causes and buried the history under a pile of slogans and heroic tropes. I am a fan of OU football (unless they’re playing the OSU Cowboys…), but I can’t watch the Sooners without reflecting on the challenges the generation of 1889 faced, the Native Americans they pushed out of their way (Oklahoma was, after all, Indian Territory), and the crimes many of them committed by “jumping the gun” on the day of the run and stealing land that they failed to obtain legally.
Oral history strips away tropes and stereotypes and replaces them with first-hand accounts of what happened on the Oklahoma frontier, and it helps to explain why it mattered. Eighty-niners’ stories—some tragic, some hilarious, and all packed with meaning—are what I hope readers will remember long after they finish the book.