The land that now forms most of the state of Oklahoma appears as “Indian Territory” on maps drawn in the 1800s. Created for resettlement of Indian (Native American) peoples removed from the East, Indian Territory eventually was home to members of tribes from across the nation. Indian Territory was dissolved with the creation of the present state of Oklahoma in 1907. Today, Oklahoma has the largest number of Native Americans and the greatest number of tribal nations of any state in the United States. More than sixty-seven nations exist in Oklahoma; twenty-nine of these are federally recognized Native American Nations.
The original idea
In 1825, Congress set aside for Indian use the country west of Missouri and Arkansas and east of Mexican territory. Closed to white settlement, it was first called Indian Country and then, by 1830, Indian Territory. Indian Territory arose from the tensions created by the westward expansion of white settlers into Native American lands. The federal government wished to remove Native Americans from their eastern homelands, opening those lands to white settlement and it also wanted to protect the relocated Indians from land-hungry whites. In giving Native Americans Indian Territory, the government assumed that Indian Territory would remain the far western edge of the United States.
Some Native American peoples voluntarily moved to Indian Territory from the east. Cherokees known as the Old Settlers moved there in 1828. Then, in 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized negotiations and funds for the relocation of all southeastern tribes to Indian Territory, whether they were willing to go or not.
During the 1830s, tens of thousands of Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles were removed from their homelands in Mississippi , Alabama , Tennessee , and Georgia . These groups, often called the Five Civilized Tribes, were marched forcibly from their homes. Thousands died in the harsh removal. The Choctaw and Chicasaw moved first. A large group of Cherokees, led by principal chief John Ross (1790–1866) resisted the removal. After trying to stop the forced relocation in the courts and failing, all but a small portion were rounded up by federal troops in 1838 and confined to holding camps. Ross then agreed to oversee the journey of his followers to join those already settled in the northeastern part of Indian Territory. Fiercest resistance came from the Seminoles (see Seminole Wars ). After a protracted war in the swamps of Florida , all but a few had been forced westward by 1842.
Life in Indian Territory
In Indian Territory, the southeastern Native Americans established tribal governments, planted crops, and founded new schools. Customs of daily life, religions, and cultural traditions were transplanted from the eastern homes and adapted to the new setting.
Meanwhile, other eastern tribes were being pressed to move into Indian Territory. From New York came Senecas and others from the Iroquois Confederation. Out of the Great Lakes region and Ohio valley came Potawatomis, Shawnees, Delawares, Wyandots, Kickapoos, Miamis, and others. Quapaws were displaced from Arkansas. These groups were assigned lands immediately west of the Missouri border.
These relocations were mostly peaceful, except for a group of Sac and Fox people. Led by leader Black Hawk (1767–1838), this group resisted removal from Illinois, but after several bloody encounters with state militiamen, they were forced to resettle in Iowa , then part of Indian Territory.
In the 1840s, the U.S. government settled the tribes within the hunting areas of other tribes, often placing them near their traditional enemies without regard to the conflicts that would arise. The war-like Osages, Kiowas, and Comanches, for example, were especially vigorous in attacking the newcomers from the east. Creeks and Seminoles disagreed on treatment of African American slaves brought with them, and old hostilities were rekindled between Choctaws and Chickasaws. Boundary disputes arose between the Creek and Cherokees. Divisions among the Cherokees were especially bitter. Relations between the followers of John Ross, who had resisted being moved, and the minority Old Settlers, who had supported the removal treaty, erupted into violence.
A “permanent Indian frontier”
The government meanwhile established military posts throughout the territory to maintain peace among the tribes. They continued to promise that Indian Territory would be permanent keeping whites and Indians apart and allowing the native peoples to gradually learn the ways of the white culture.
Events of the mid-1840s changed the frontier idea. Texas was annexed in 1845; Oregon Territory was acquired from Great Britain in 1846; and Mexico ceded a vast area of the southwest to the United States in 1848. With the United States now stretching to the Pacific Ocean, Indian Territory suddenly was in the middle of the nation, not on its far edge. As white settlers pressed westward, around and through the territory, the tribes there soon faced a new set of demands.
Losing more land
During the 1850s, Indian holdings in the territory were reduced dramatically. The organization of the Kansas and Nebraska territories in 1854 lowered the Indian Territory's northern boundary, removing more than half of its former area. Tribes in Kansas and Nebraska were urged to surrender land to white settlers now swarming across the Missouri River. Within a year, nine tribes agreed to withdraw to a small portion of their holdings and to sell the rest.
After the American Civil War (1861–65), the federal government forced a new series of land cessions (surrenderings). In what has been called the “Second Trail of Tears,” many smaller tribes were removed from what had been the territory's northern portion. The Osages, Kaws, Poncas, Otoes, and Missouris were resettled on land surrendered by Cherokees. Iowas, Sac and Fox, Kickapoos, and Potawatomies were removed to land taken from Creeks and Seminoles.
As the Native North Americans of the Great Plains lost the Indian wars of the late 1860s, they were sent into the increasingly crowded Indian Territory—Cheyennes and Arapahoes in the west-central portion, and south of them the Comanches, Kiowas, and Eastern Apaches. These years were among the bleakest of Indian Territory's troubled history. Western tribes struggled with the hopeless demand that they take up farming on the semiarid high plains. Angry rivalries and bitter memories continued to foul relations among the Five Tribes. The eastern part of Indian Territory became a haven for outlaws.
Texas cattlemen began driving herds across Indian Territory to Kansas railheads, and by the 1870s ranchers were pasturing their animals on Indian lands. The Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad was built southward across the territory by 1872, followed by the Atlantic and Pacific and a branch of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. As these developments introduced thousands of whites to the area, pressure grew to open Indian lands to outside settlement. By 1894, an estimated 250,000 whites lived in the Indian Territory.
The Dawes Severalty Act (also known as the General Allotment Act) of 1887 provided for breaking up land collectively held by Indian tribes into individual holdings, or allotments, with the remainder opened to white settlement. When special commissioners tried to set this process in motion in Indian Territory, they were vigorously opposed by native leaders. Congress finally compelled the Five Tribes to comply, and their lands were distributed among those on the tribal rolls or set aside for town sites and schools. Meanwhile, federal courts had taken full jurisdiction in the territory, effectively ending tribal governments.
The land runs
In 1889, much of the land of the western portion of Indian Territory was distributed to non-Indians through a series of dramatic “land rushes” or “runs.” In one run that year, at least fifty thousand persons—known as boomers—arrived at the scheduled land rush. When the cannon boomed, they dashed onto the lands designated as “unassigned” to take up claims. The largest of these land runs was in 1893, when a portion of former Cherokee land was overrun by more than one hundred thousand boomers.
The western half of the territory and a strip immediately north of the Texas panhandle were taken over by non-Indians and organized into Oklahoma Territory. The tribes in what remained of Indian Territory petitioned Congress to allow them to form the independent Indian state of Sequoyah. Congress refused. In 1907, with all tribal lands distributed, Indian Territory formally disappeared when Congress merged it with Oklahoma Territory to create the state of Oklahoma.
INDIAN TERRITORY. Between 1820 and 1842, the Five Civilized Tribes were removed to Indian Territory, an area that encompassed most of current day Oklahoma. In 1866, the western portion of the territory was ceded to the United States for use as reservation land for other tribes. In 1889, a section of this western portion was opened to settlement and became Oklahoma Territory in 1890. An outcry for statehood soon emerged with settlers calling for the union of Oklahoma and Indian Territory. Cherokee Chief William Rogers and Choctaw Chief Green McCurtain opposed this union and led a constitutional convention to create a state of Sequoyah from the land known as Indian Territory. Congress ignored their proposal, and in 1907, Congress merged Indian and Oklahoma Territories into one state. With this action, Indian Territory disappeared.
Burton, Jeffery. Indian Territory and the United States, 1866–1906: Courts, Government, and the Movement for Oklahoma State-hood. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
See alsoIndian Policy, U.S., 1830–1900 ; Sequoyah, Proposed State of ; andvol. 9:Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 .