The Largest Land Run In History Was A Ruthless Race

By | September 1, 2021

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Crowd on horseback, Oklahoma Land Run of 1893. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

How fast could you run to get some free land? It might sound like the premise of a game show, but it was a fact of life in pioneer times, culminating in the largest land run in history on September 16, 1893, where more than 100,000 settlers raced for their lives—or at least their land.

Come And Get It

Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the prairie grasslands of Oklahoma, which the U.S. government regarded as a barren wasteland, was rather ungenerously gifted to the local Native Americans, whose (coincidentally more fertile) ancestral lands were subsequently taken. As more settlers made their way across the Great Plains, however, they discovered that the land was better than they realized, so President Benjamin Harrison called take-backsies in 1890, banning grazing leases on the "unassigned" land so the Natives living there couldn't profit from it. From there, it wasn't hard to convince them to sell the land to the government, who opened the eight million acres known as the Cherokee Strip to whoever wished to come and claim it.

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Silver gelatin print titled "One Minute Before the Start." (L.D. Hodge/Wikimedia Commons)

On Your Marks

On September 16, 1893, the Cherokee Strip land run—a system of claiming land that required settlers to wait at a starting line until they were allowed to race to their claims—was set to start promptly at noon. More than 100,000 people, many of them newly arrived immigrants, charged ahead on horses, bicycles, or even on foot to find the best homestead plot once the starting pistol fired, with land agents and deputies patrolling the area to record the claims and keep the peace, respectively. It was quickly suspected that some settlers had sneaked into the area before the land run had begun to claim their land early, but without proof, there was little the authorities could do about it. Still, these people became known as "Sooners," a name that lived on as the nickname of the University of Oklahoma's football team.