The Sooner State
(from Growing Up Stories)
Kenny A. Chaffin
All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin
Quite often on the farm plowing, digging postholes or just herding cattle we’d find ammonite fossils. Our black dirt farm was just off State Highway 99c a few miles southwest of Madill ‘in the arms of Lake Texoma.’ We were 10 miles north of the Evil Texicans as the crow flies, straight north of the Willis Bridge. There was never much love lost between Oklahomans and Texans particularly in the football arena. Lake Texoma was the major source of summer entertainment for swimming, water skiing and fishing but I never considered it a source for the ammonites even though I knew they were water dwellers. Ammonites were ancient sea creatures that lived from 400 to 65 million years ago and died out along with the dinosaurs. They were spiral shaped with segmented shells looking something like a giant snail or today’s nautilus but are actually related to the more intelligent cuttlefish and octopus.
After I’d learned a bit about them from the encyclopedia and library books on fossils and ancient life I remember holding one that I’d come across in the pasture, a large one maybe a foot wide in my hands and just staring at it in awe thinking, “This was once the bottom of the ocean and this thing was alive wriggling, twisting and swimming through it.” I was astounded. I imagined salty blue-green water reaching from the black dirt at my feet to the puffy white cumulus clouds floating above. I was amazed that all this land could have been at the bottom of the ocean. That was one of several events which set me on a life-long quest to learn everything I could about life, science, nature and the universe, a quest which has never ebbed in my six decades and which I expect to continue through my last dying breath.
Oklahoma sits slightly south of the center of the United States, in the lower part of the Great Plains and was at the edge of a great inland sea that filled the central U.S. until about 60 million years ago. The land where our farm was would have been under water and that water would have been thriving with life, much of it ammonites as evidenced by the abundance of fossils found on our land. To Daddy they were more a nuisance than anything, just rocks that broke plows or got in the way of digging post holes or other work, but to me they were magic they transported me to another world, another time, another place.
The land left over from that abundant sea life and the sediments it left behind created The Great Plains, a huge swath of flat fertile land on which the prairie grasses (tall and short) would grow and on which the buffalo would feed. Because of that sea and its ‘recent’ demise the existing vegetation is relatively new by geological time standards and consists of mostly grasses and few trees. This is how The Great Plains came to be. This vast prairie would be undisturbed by humans for 60 million years.
The first evidence of human travel through Oklahoma was during the last ice age and the oldest permanent settlements are from the Mississippian culture between 800 and 1450 BCE. These are the Spiro Burial Mounds near the Arkansas border in the eastern part of the state.
The plains Indians of course followed the migrations of the buffalo. They had no permanent settlements but they left traces of their travels over most of the state. The name Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw words okla and humma, meaning "red people" and was suggested by the Choctaw Chief Allen Wright during negotiations with the U.S. Government.
Geographically the state slopes slightly downhill from the northwest to the southeast. It has over 500 named creeks and rivers and 200 man-made lakes created by dams, the largest number of artificial reservoirs of any state. The Land of 10,000 Lakes has got nothing on Oklahoma...well except for a few more lakes....but ours were created by intelligent design.
The French explored and laid claim in the 1700’s to much of the land west of the Mississippi river including what is now Oklahoma. It was acquired from them in the well-known Louisiana Purchase of 1803. One hundred and four years later in 1907 Oklahoma became the 47th state followed by Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii.
The things Oklahoma is most known for other than being in Tornado Alley is being the Indian State since it was the destination of the Trail of Tears and of course being part of the Dust Bowl in the 30’s. I won’t delve into all the Indian history as there is plenty of information on line (see the links at the end of this text) and in books but it was probably the most horrific thing to take place on American soil with the possible exception of the Civil War. The Native Americans were forcefully moved in tribes to designated locations, reservations in Eastern Oklahoma starting with the Choctaw in 1801 and proceeding systematically through all the eastern seaboard tribes. Sixty-thousand of the one hundred thirty thousand relocated Cherokees died as a result of the forced march they were required to make in the middle of the winter in 1838. Even those relocations were not to be the end of the evil perpetuated on the Native Americans though. During the cattle drives from Texas to Kansas and points north many whites began settling in the Indian allocated lands. Eventually this led to conflict and to the passage of the Dawes Act of 1887 another atrocity against the Native Americans. It subdivided the communal Indian lands into individual ‘family’ properties and allocated specific size plots to each Indian and in the process stripped the tribes of half their lands. The railroads and whites took it at the behest of the U.S. Government. This ‘open land’ led to another thing Oklahoma is known for – the land runs. The ‘freed up’ Indian lands were made available through the Homestead Act to any U.S. citizen that was willing to follow the rules. In some cases this meant lining up on the border and racing into the allocated areas to ‘stake a claim’ (i.e. literally putting stakes in the ground to mark a plot of land) of 160 acres as allowed by the Homestead Act. Some of these settlers were less than ethical and snuck in early placed their stakes and just waited. These were known as the ‘Sooners’ and that is where the state nickname comes from - The Sooner State. It is also the name of the University of Oklahoma football team.
Although The Dust Bowl did not affect southern Oklahoma so much it was devastating in the panhandle and northern parts of the state and certainly made an impact in the psyche of the nation through the photos, stories and of course through Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm.
Oklahoma is primarily agricultural but it is also an oil state. I guess that’s one more thing! Oil wells have been discovered and drilled all over the state including ones on the actual State Capital grounds which are unique in the world. The Osage Indians got lucky in that there are significant oil deposits under their land in Northeastern Oklahoma making them the richest of all Native American Tribes.
Partially because it lay on the edge of the inland sea and due to other geological activity the land sloped downward to the southeast and ranges from red dirt in the northern and central parts of the state to rich black dirt of southern Oklahoma where our farm was located. The Red River brought much of that black dirt to the area and forms a natural border between Oklahoma and Texas with the designated boundary line running down the middle of the river and subsequently down the middle of Lake Texoma. The lake is formed by Dennison Dam and is one of the largest man-made lakes in the country. This is where I grew up; the lake was where I spent many a summer day.
And this was the land Grandpa Sid came to from Missouri in 1901 six years before it was a state, when it was still Indian Territory. He would have been eighteen years old at the time and from what I can learn he moved to Indian Territory with his parents to a place just south of where the farm I grew up on is located. I can only guess that it was homesteading that brought them here when land opened up but I don’t actually know and the records are sparse. I’ve always wondered where, how he got the land and farm where I grew up. I wish I’d asked these questions when I was growing up or at least before it was too late but back then all I wanted was out, to be away from there. I believe that he or his parents homesteaded it or another homestead and later traded/bought the farm. There were two plots of land, two parcels, the land where the farmhouse and barns were, which was a quarter section – 160 acres and another parcel half that size across State Highway 99c which had no buildings or improvements other than an old dry water well.
That farm and land was turned over to Daddy to work the year of my birth. For the next fifteen years that’s exactly what he did, he worked his ass off, but in the end it came to naught as the farm was lost to bankruptcy.
Native Americans/Trail of Tears:
About the Author
Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black and The Poet of Utah Park and his collection of science essays How do we Know are available at Amazon.com:
http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B007S3SMY8. He may be contacted through his website at http://www.kacweb.com.