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How many rushed during the Oklahoma land openings?

The race was on, and the sound of the rushing horses and wagons was “like the roaring of thunder.”

[Hoig, p. 171, 2000]


At noon on April 22, 1889, a gunshot on the border of what was then called the Unassigned Lands of the Indian Territory launched the first of six well-defined land giveaways in what is now the state of Oklahoma. Contemporary newspaper and eyewitness accounts described the prairie starting line as awash in the largest gathering in the West to that date, with a subsequent massive rush, followed by the disappointment of many who were unable to make a claim. Similar outcomes were reported at the other openings, and these reports have been repeated and accepted in popular culture and the academic literature. Using recently digitized BLM land grant records, data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture, and the 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Census, we re-examine the land openings and show that the historical accounts greatly overstate the number of people actually rushing for lands.

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  1. See Foreman (1942) for a detailed history of Oklahoma and the land rushes.

  2. See Cannon (2013) for a discussion of the long history of homesteading in the movies, including Far and Away (1992), Cimarron (1931, 1960), Oklahoma Frontier (1939), and Unforgiven (1960), which all involve the Oklahoma rushes. There are also hundreds of novels set in this context, including Dreams to Dust (2009), and the Oklahoma Land Rush book series (2001–2003). See also Shanks (2005).

  3. See, for example, historian Dennen (p. 730, 1977), lawyers Grady and Alexander (p. 315, 1992), and economists Anderson and Hill (pp. 172–174, 2004) or Bohanon and Coelho (pp 213–216, 1998).

  4. We use large datasets to make our case. DeLyser (2008) provides an interesting single example of the role newsmen had in creating a local legend of Nannita Daisey jumping from a moving train to become the first woman to establish a land claim in 1889. DeLyser documents that the story is false and the result of “... some 100 years of superficial scholarship fed by the powerful romanticizing forces of mythic images of the American West ...” (p. 64, 2008).

  5. Ever since Allen (1991), there have been several attempts at rationalizing the use of homesteading to settle the West. To the extent the races were smaller and non-exhaustive, the cost of homesteading was lower than some have suggested, which generally supports these second-best theories.

  6. Kidwell (2018).

  7. Wickett (p. 45, 2000).

  8. Kidwell (2018).

  9. The page numbers refer to the scanned online article.

  10. Other eyewitness accounts suffer from the same selection bias. Louis Mossler, who raced for a homestead in the Cherokee Outlet, noted that when he went to register his claim: “... we arrived in Perry .... There stood a tent city of ten thousand population, where the day before had been only prairie” (p. 172, 1954).

  11. See Morris et al. (p. 48 1986), Wilson and Turner, accesses Aug. 16, (2018), Faulk p. 8, (1989), and Billington (pp. 721–722, 1960).

  12. We have conducted a search of early newspaper articles related to the Unassigned Lands and Cherokee Strip rush, and when locations are mentioned, they almost always refer to Guthrie, Oklahoma City, or the odd other townsite. See, for example: Muncie Daily News, April 23, (1889) or Clinton Evening News, April 26, (1889a).

  13. The Clinton Evening News, April 23 (1889b) reported that 38 town companies attempted to locate in Guthrie on the opening day.

  14. For example, the Robinson Constitution, Feb. 4, (1891) notes that only 4000 people showed up for the Cherokee Strip rush. See also Boothe (2007) who states that only 5000 participated in the Cheyenne–Arapaho race.

  15. The Oklahoma Land Rushes would hardly be the first aspect of Westward Expansion to be exaggerated in the popular imagination. Anderson and Hill (2004) document a variety of such examples in the West: general violence and lawlessness, a lack of private property among Native American tribes, and characterizations of Indian-white relations. See also DeLsyer (2008). Setting the empirical record straight is important in iconic historical episodes given the influence these have on framing broader discussions. See, for example, Coase (1974) on lighthouses or Cheung (1973) on bees.

  16. See Edwards (2008) on the low quality of homesteading data available prior to 2015.

  17. The Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States Office (BLM), has the federal land patent data at

  18. There were various federal exceptions to the 160 acre allotment; however, these were unimportant for the locations and time period analyzed in this paper.

  19. We contend that the 5-year delay provides a reasonable estimate, given a settler’s incentive to perfect title as soon as possible for resale or collateral. Waiting to file for a patent may have been rational if settlers de facto property rights were secure and legal title conferred little added benefit, but this was not the case. The costs of filing a patent to perfect title would have been a small fraction of the value of the land and the improvements made to it, suggesting that waiting 5, 10, or 20 years too long is unreasonable. Moreover, intentional delays are inconsistent with Hibbard’s (1924) observation that over 22% of all Homesteaders between 1881 and 1904 paid extra to “commute” their patents and receive title within 6 months rather than waiting the standard 5 years.

  20. Every land rush had reports of “Sooners”—individuals who sneaked out the night before and laid low in the grass to claim the land the following day (e.g., Howard p. 2, 1889). To the extent these Sooner claims were accepted, the numbers in Table 2 overestimate the numbers of home-seekers on the starting line.

  21. The one land rush that sometimes has an historical account that comes close to a true accounting is the Cheyenne–Arapaho. Kracht (accessed May 15, Kracht 2018) notes that “That day, 3.5 million acres were thrown open, but when it was done, over 2.8 million acres lay unclaimed, about four-fifths of the land offered.” Gibson, (p. 180, 1965) states that “... only 25,000 participated ... and nearly 2 million acres ... were passed over.”

  22. The relative scarcity of cash sales casts further doubt on claims that demand for land exceeded the available supply, since an excess demand would have spurred land sales.

  23. In Allen and Leonard (2019) we examine the actual parcels taken by each racer and show that the timing of claims is best explained by land quality. The fact that timing is predicted by land quality casts doubt on the assertion that variation in patent timing is driven by processing delays at the land office, which should not be correlated with land quality.

  24. Delyser (p. 72, 2008) provides one anecdotal case of timely titling. She records the history of Nannita Daisey who claimed her homestead in 1889. According to the BLM land files, her title was given on June 4, 1895, or 6 years after her claim. The delay of one year is of little consequence, but it is interesting to note that the Oklahoma County court records do not register her patent until 1900.

  25. The Agriculture Census measures farming activity rather than the status of land patents, and should not be sensitive to potential delays in patenting.

  26. Maps and a Table of the match between individual counties and the four territories we are able to match to are available from the authors.

  27. Although there was variation in the actual size of parcels, the mean acreage of patents is 152, which closely approximates the standard homestead size of 160 acres.

  28. Here we maintain the assumption that homesteaders arrived 5 years before the patent was filed but that cash patents were filed immediately.

  29. The 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Census of the Unassigned Lands reports a population of 54,234.

  30. One reason for the large discrepancies in the Caddo Lottery may be that the associated “counties” were still listed as Indian Reservations in the Census as of 1890, so the Census figures may represent American Indian farms rather than the subsequent white settlers.

  31. The Pitt report does not mention how homesteaders were identified. From the BLM patent files, there were 1050 cash sales of land in Oklahoma County over the period, and some of these could have been identified as “homesteaders”, especially if the sales were in the first year of the land opening.

  32. See Allen (1991, 2019) or Barzel (1997).


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Correspondence to Douglas W. Allen.

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D. W. Allen and B. Leonard are grateful to P.J. Hill for helpful comments and suggestions.



See Table 5.

Table 5 Numbers of cash sales by year

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Allen, D.W., Leonard, B. How many rushed during the Oklahoma land openings?. Cliometrica 14, 397–416 (2020).

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  • Homesteading
  • Land rush
  • Racing
  • Oklahoma

JEL Classification

  • N21
  • N51
  • N91