OK, the Sooner State

Oklahoma

March 2013

The name Oklahoma comes from two Choctaw words.  Okla, means “man” or “people,” and humma means “red.”  Therefore Oklahoma translates to “Land of the Red People” or “Land of the Red Man.”  Some sources explain that Oklahoma or Oka-oma means “mobile home destroyed by tornado,” but this is unverified.

It makes sense to call this the Land of the Red People as reddish-skinned people were the original residents.  These days?  Just over one percent of the population is Native.  And yet, Oklahoma has the largest Native American population of any state in the nation.

Our second tidbit about Oklahoma is that, yes, it is still illegal to wear your boots to bed.  Yeah, sorry.

We have just come from Mount Sunflower in Kansas.  From that high point, we first travel west into Colorado and make a left turn.  150 miles later we cross the state line into that little appendage of Oklahoma that sticks out to the left.  This is where the high point is.

Actually, that little appendage of Oklahoma that sticks out to the left has quite a history.  First, this sticky-outy territory (8% of the whole state by area) is larger than the entire state of Connecticut.

This strip of land contains almost all of the High Plains, and this strip of land was the location of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  The Dirty Thirties was a gruesome time for the folks who lived in the midwest.  This semiarid region averaged less than 20 inches of rain a year, and at times, no rain fell at all.  Add to this the increased agricultural demands of the country in the early 20th century and the deep plowing of the fields and the overgrazing of the grasses which led to erosion of the fine soil.  During this decade, wind raged through the plains and by the end of the 1930s, more than 75% of the topsoil had blown away.

More, Oklahoma endures the most tornadoes per square mile of all the states.

The government, under President F D Roosevelt, took matters under control.  Obviously, stopping the wind was impossible so workers planted more than 200 million trees to act as a windbreak, to keep the soil on the ground and to help the soil retain water.  Yep, our government did this.

Who are the people who lived in the panhandle?  The first residents in modern history were the nomadic tribes of Native Americans.  They followed the bison herds as if their lives depended on them, which they did.  When the Spanish introduced horses in the 16th century, the Natives were able to increase their range for hunting and for traveling.  They established different areas for summer and for winter dwelling.  Like when my parents, from the northeast, spent their winters in Florida.

Things were relatively quiet for the next few hundred years.  Then it got interesting.

In 1845 Texas expressed interest in joining the Union as a slave state.  Included in the deal would be the Oklahoma Panhandle, to be annexed to Texas.  But federal law prohibited slavery north of the southern border of the Panhandle so it became a neutral strip, or officially, the “Public Land Strip” or more commonly, “No Man’s Land.”  Now watch this:  Over the next period of time, No Man’s Land was claimed by Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, a Cherokee state, Mexico, Spanish New Spain and, oh yeah, Oklahoma.

In 1889, before these disputes were settled, No Man’s Land was opened to settlers in what became known as the “Oklahoma Land Rush.”  The doors were officially unlocked and the border was opened.  Next thing you knew, 50 002 white people came in to stake their claim, taking the land from the Indians.  Weren’t these excited settlers surprised to find that there were already white people living here!

Before the official opening, eager frontiersmen and -women had simply moved in, surveyed their own area and claimed ownership.  In fact, to protect their self-proclaimed ownership of the land, they set up their own government and called the place “Cimarron Territory.”  They jumped claim, as far as official American policy was concerned, which is to say that they came in sooner than they were supposed to.  They were therefore called the “Sooners” and the state was given the nickname, “The Sooner State.”  Should have been the “Too Soon State.”

In 1907, Oklahoma was declared the 46th United State, Panhandle and all, thus ending the disputes.

Eighteen years later Oklahoma adopted its official flag.  It was designed by an artist named Louise Funk Fluke.  To Ms Funk Fluke, we give a thumbs up in the form of the state’s official abbreviation:  “OK,” if for no other reason than her name.

We award her an “OK” for her flag design too, meaning it is not great, it is not bad.  It is an okay flag design.  The North American Vexillological Association rated OK’s flag 39th in design quality out of 72 entries.  That’s about as OK as you can get.  I’d sooner wear my boots to bed.

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