Oklahoma’s cities sprang up in rather dramatic fashion: April 22, 1889, an estimated 50,000 settlers lined up at the edge of the 2 million-acre “Unassigned Lands,” now in central Oklahoma. At noon, a shotgun blast sent them racing to claim land plots. By the end of the day, Oklahoma City and Guthrie each had about 10,000 residents, street plans and the beginnings of municipal government. Within a month, there were five banks and six newspapers in Oklahoma City.
Those who’d jumped the gun and hidden out on choice homesteads earned Oklahoma its Sooner State nickname. You can get a similar head start on your Oklahoma genealogy by following our research advice.
Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory, had long been the US government’s chosen location for eastern American Indian tribes. The Trail of Tears from Charleston, Tenn., to Tahlequah, Okla., traces the forced migration of the Five Civilized Tribes — Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — after the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
But throughout the 19th century, thousands of others passed through the area on the way West or — at least for cowboys driving herds — north to railroads in Kansas. Ranchers grazed cattle; “squatters” set up farms. Pressure grew to open the Unassigned Lands, which the Creek had given up after the Civil War, and the Indian Appropriations Bill of 1889 made it possible. Squatters were kicked out, and the 1889 land run commenced.
The next year, the Organic Act incorporated the Unassigned Lands into Oklahoma Territory and made Guthrie its capital (later moved to Oklahoma City). Five more land runs took place before statehood in 1907. Oklahoma’s population has grown ever since, except during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when so many farmers left for California that even migrants from elsewhere were called “Okies.”
Shooting for censuses
Since Oklahoma is a relatively new state, you won’t have centuries of documents to research. Debra Spindle, research coordinator at the Oklahoma History Center <www.okhistorycenter.org>, suggests beginning with the census — but warns the records take a “different tack” in the Sooner State. You’ll have to look at a mix of territorial, state and Indian censuses.
The first US census for lands west of Arkansas, including part of present-day Oklahoma, took place in 1860. But it’s not complete: Enumerators included only residents of towns near missions, government agencies or military posts. That census does include a partial slave schedule for Indian Lands, which counts slaves held by Indians. Look for these records in the Arkansas schedules.
Oklahoma’s 1870 and 1880 censuses are missing, as is the 1890 enumeration, which was ruined in a fire. Other records you can check for that time period include the 1890 schedule of Union veterans and their widows, which survived the fire; look for it along with other US census records. A special 1890 Oklahoma Territory census, indexed at <www.ok-history.mus.ok.us/lib/1890/1890index.htm>, covers seven counties in central Oklahoma and the Panhandle.
The 1900 federal census separated the former Indian and Oklahoma territories. That and censuses through 1930 are on microfilm at large libraries, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <archives.gov> facilities and the Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org>. Search censuses online at Heritage-Quest Online <heritagequestonline.com> (free through subscribing libraries) and Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > ($155.40 per year). All that’s left of a 1907 territorial census are schedules for Seminole County, also at Ancestry.com and on NARA and FHL microfilm.
Several special censuses can help you discover Indian roots, including 1880 and 1890 Cherokee censuses; 1885, 1896 and 1900 Choctaw censuses; and a 1900 Chickasaw census. Some counts included everyone in the area. “You never know who’s going to turn up,” Spindle says, so they’re worth checking even if you don’t have Indian roots. These and other miscellaneous enumerations are available through the FHL and the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) <www.okhistory.org>.
Rifling through Dawes Rolls
Between 1825 and 1889, 65 tribes lived in what’s now Oklahoma; today, the US government recognizes 37 tribes there. “But don’t assume you have American Indian roots because you have family in Oklahoma,” Spindle cautions, “even if they lived in Indian Territory.”
Dawes Commission records can help you confirm family stories of Indian ancestry. From 1898 to 1914, the commission began accepting tribal membership applications from Indians in the Five Civilized Tribes living on reservations in Missouri and Oklahoma. NARA has an index to the Dawes Rolls in its online Archival Research Catalog, with a tutorial starting at <archives.gov/genealogy/tutorial/dawes>. Spindle suggests taking a shortcut: Check the 1900 census first. “If your family doesn’t appear in Indian Territory, chances are slim they’ll be listed in the Dawes Rolls.” If your ancestors are on the rolls, look for their applications on microfilm at NARA facilities and the FHL. You can order copies by following the instructions in NARA’s online tutorial.
Jumping the gun
Beginning in 1819, the Army stationed troops — including, after the Civil War, the African-American units called the Buffalo Soldiers — at Oklahoma frontier forts. If your ancestor was among them, see NARA microfilm T318 for an index to Indian War pension files from 1815 to 1891, or check Virgil White’s Index to Pension Applications for Indian Wars Service Between 1818 and 1898 (National Historical Publishing Co., $160). Pension files are available from NARA. Also read the detailed Early Military Forts and Posts in Oklahoma by Odie B. Faulk, Kenny A. Franks and Paul F. Lambert (OHS, out of print).
Oklahoma wasn’t yet a state during the Civil War, but the Cherokee, Creek and other tribes sided with the Confederacy and provided soldiers. You can search for soldiers on the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System <www.civilwar.nps.gov/cwss> (leave the State field blank, since Indian Territory isn’t an option) and order service records from NARA. Search an index of Oklahoma Confederate pension applications at <www.odl.state.ok.us/oar/docs/pension.pdf>; the applications are on microfilm at OHS and the FHL.
Loading up on land records
Before he could call a piece of land his own, your ancestor had to “prove up” his claim by living on it and making improvements, such as farming or adding a house or a fence. Oklahoma’s land runs and the scarcity of laws attracted many who had trouble getting land elsewhere, including women, African-Americans and those Spindle calls “people with a past.”
Until statehood, the area was called the Twin Territories: Indian Territory to the east, Oklahoma Territory to the west. Indian Territory was communal tribal land until 1902; ownership records of ceded lands are on microfilm at the FHL and OHS.
For Oklahoma Territory, use the Southwest Oklahoma Genealogical Society (SWOG) surname index of microfilmed NARA land tract books. SWOG volunteers will search for your ancestor for a fee (see <www.sirinet.net/~lgarris/swogs/tract.html>), or use the index on OHS or FHL microfilm
With your ancestor’s name, the date and the legal land description, you can order a case file from NARA. Patents for Oklahoma Territory prior to statehood, and all of Oklahoma after that, are available from the Bureau of Land Management New Mexico Office (see resources). Search for your Oklahoma ancestors’ post-statehood patents through the General Land Office Web site <www.glorecords.blm.gov>.
Aiming for vital statistics
You’re more likely to find Oklahoma births and deaths mentioned in the newspaper than in vital records, Spindle says, because vital records are hit-or-miss until the 1940s (1908 and 1917 vital-registration laws were widely ignored). Plus, state-level vital records are closed to all but next of kin and legal representatives.
As the state’s newspaper repository, OHS has microfilmed papers from all counties and many Indian tribes. Can’t make the trip there? Submit a research request or order copies of articles. A few Oklahoma papers are at Genealogy-Bank <www.genealogybank.com> ($69.95 per year).
Oklahoma doesn’t have statewide marriage records, so contact county courts or seek FHL microfilm (you’ll find coverage for some Indian tribes, too). Many counties started tracking marriages in 1890; those formed later started from the county’s creation. You may even find your ancestors’ union online in the Mary Turner Kinerd index <rootsweb.ancestry.com/~okgarvin/kinard/kinard.htm>. With all this research ammunition, you can start your genealogy run with a bang.