Oklahoma City: History

Land Run Leads to City's Founding

Inhabited by Plains tribes and sold to the United States by France as a part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, much of what is now Oklahoma was subsequently designated as Indian Territory. As such, it was intended to provide a new home for tribes forced by the federal government to abandon their ancestral lands in the southeastern United States. Many of those forced to relocate in the 1830s were from what were called the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole—who soon set up independent nations in the new territory. After the Civil War, however, the pressure of westward expansion brought railroads into the Indian Territory, where the U.S. government began to declare some land available for white settlement. Prairie land surrounding a Santa Fe railroad single-track boxcar station was designated as a townsite when presidential proclamation opened the central portion of Indian Territory to claims stakers on noon of April 22, 1889. Thousands crossed the borders of the "unassigned lands" at high noon when a cannon was fired. By sunset of that day the land run had produced a tent city of 10,000 people on the townsite, which eventually became Oklahoma City.

The settlement attained official status in 1890, just a few weeks after the western half of Indian Territory was redesignated Oklahoma Territory, named for a Choctaw phrase meaning "red man." Incorporated as Oklahoma City on May 23, 1890, Oklahoma City swiftly became one of the new territory's largest cities. More railroad connections to the city helped make it a center for trade, milling, and meat packing. The Oklahoma and Indian territories merged and were admitted to the union as the state of Oklahoma in 1907. Oklahoma City became the state capital in 1910.

Oil Brings Prosperity

The capital city was flourishing as a financial and manufacturing center when in 1928 an oil field beneath the city proved to be what was then the largest oil strike ever made. Oklahoma City joined neighboring regions in the petroleum industry with vast economic benefits. A gigantic deposit at the Mary Sudik well in Oklahoma City gushed wildly for 11 days in 1930, spewing 10,000 barrels of oil each day in a great geyser and spreading an oily cloud that deposited petroleum as far away as 15 miles. By the time it was closed down, the Mary Sudik well had produced a total of one million barrels of oil.

Future Points Toward Diversity

The end of the oil boom dealt the city a severe blow. During its height in the early 1980s, developers added 5.2 million square feet of office space downtown. When the boom went bust, so did the real estate market. By the 1990s, downtown Oklahoma City was in a decline, with few shopping areas and too much empty office space. While the petroleum industry continues to be a solid part of Oklahoma City's economy in the early 21st century, the region has also been involved in the development of the state's other natural resources, such as coal and metals. In addition, the city supports such industries as livestock, agriculture, energy, aviation, and manufacturing.

Oklahoma City made international headlines on April 19, 1995, when a Ryder truck fitted with a homemade oil-and-fertilizer bomb exploded in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 men, women, and children, and injuring more than 400 others. In December 1996, the Wall Street Journal reported: "Twenty months after the bombing that vaulted it on to front pages around the world, this gutsy city is hoping a rapidly growing economy and a $300 million public-works program will revive one of the nation's sickest downtowns." Feelings of optimism were running high that a dramatic comeback for the city was in the works.

In April 2000 Oklahoma City unveiled its monument to the victims of the bombing. The main component of the memorial is 168 bronze-and-glass chairs, one for each victim, positioned in rows that correspond to the floors of the building where the victims were when the bomb exploded. It is a potent symbol in a city that still continues to grieve a tragedy even as it rebuilds and tries to modernize its image.

As the 21st century dawns, many of the city's efforts at revitalization and moving forward appear to be paying off. With up to $1 billion in new downtown investment, Oklahoma City was named one of the "Best Places to Live in North America" by Places Rated Almanac. The city continues an economic revitalization that has seen it move prominently into the areas of medicine, aviation, high technology, and diversified energy resources.

Historical Information: Oklahoma Historical Society, Historical Building, 2100 North Lincoln Boulevard, Oklahoma City, OK 73118; telephone (405)522-5209