RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: For most of his life, Sam Anderson didn’t think about Oklahoma City much at all. Sam is a journalist. He’d lived in New York City for a long time, and Oklahoma City just wasn’t on his radar. But then in 2012, he was assigned to do a story about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the city’s new basketball team had just gone to the NBA Finals. And they had this amazing trio of young stars: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. They were all really different players, with really different temperaments and styles, but there was something kind of magical and unstoppable about the way they played together. So Sam got on a plane, and as he was flying to Oklahoma City to meet these guys and to write about their team, he was reading a book about the history of Oklahoma to get more familiar with the place.
SA: And it was talking about the origin of tornadoes, and it was saying that tornadoes are caused by this collision of three separate, very different weather forces. You’ve got kind of dry air coming from the desert, you’ve got this cold arctic air coming down from Canada, and you’ve got this warm heavy hot Gulf air coming from the south and they all collide over Oklahoma in a way that those forces don’t collide really anywhere else in the world.
RM: And at that moment, Sam had a realization, and he wrote down in the margin of the book, “Harden, Durant, Westbrook.”
SA: Which was the three big basketball stars on the Thunder, who were a similar trio of strangely clashing forces that basketball had never really seen before. So in that little leap, I was noticing these thematic echoes between things about the history of Oklahoma, and things about the basketball team, and the kind of civics of the modern city.
RM: Sam started seeing these kinds of connections everywhere. The history of Oklahoma City started to seem so interwoven with the contemporary life of the place in these fascinating and unexpected ways, that he decided he wanted to write a whole book about it. Not just about the basketball team, but about the city itself. From its founding, which was a really very weird event, to the present day. The book is called “Boom Town” and it’s one of my favorite things I’ve read in the past year. I think it will go down in history as one of the great pieces of narrative non-fiction actually. So today we’re dedicating the episode to my conversation with Sam. There are so many interesting chapters and anecdotes in this book, but I wanted to focus primarily on the insane founding of Oklahoma City; in an event that’s known as the “Land Run of 1889.” To understand that story, you have to go back just a little bit further to earlier in the 1800s, when Oklahoma wasn’t even a state yet. It was a place known as “Indian Territory.”
SA: And the U.S. government was kind of using it as this spot on the Great Plains that it could force indigenous peoples into, to make room for American settlers as they took over the country. So, you had dozens of tribes that were forced into there, all the trails of tears lead to Oklahoma. So that’s what it was in the 1800’s.
RM: Then, during the civil war, a couple of tribes in Indian Territory made alliances with the South rather than the North. And as punishment, after the war, the federal government stripped them of their land. This left an enormous patch of unoccupied space right in the middle of the territory.
SA: Roughly half the size of Connecticut. So it’s a fairly big space, and suddenly it just had nobody in it. And everybody referred to this patch of Indian territory as the “Unassigned Lands.”
RM: In the 1860s and 70s, white settlers from the surrounding areas like Kansas and Texas, started making illegal raids into the Unassigned Lands to try to seize it as their own. And the leader of this group, known as the Boomers, was a guy named David Payne.
SA: Yeah, so David Payne was apparently this incredibly charismatic guy. I mean the pictures of him, he’s quite striking. He has these really intense eyes and this kind of beautiful hair. He looks like he could be an indie singer or something, or you know, playing a banjo and wooing young girls. So you know, he would he would ride around Kansas and get up on a wagon, and he would shout out these speeches to these struggling farmers about how there was this patch of America that belonged to the American people, but the government wouldn’t let them have it. And he managed to convince many, many, many people to buy into his vision of Oklahoma as this kind of sacred holy land for white settlers in the middle of Indian territory.
RM: And this is the beginning of the scheme that was The Land Run, which you talk about as being the craziest way that a city could possibly have been born. So, can you describe what are kind of the ground rules of The Land Run and how did it start Oklahoma City?
SA: Yeah, so modern historians looking back basically all agree that this was the worst way you could ever start a city, and even within those confines it went very poorly. So, there really were not many rules. I mean, so the government finally says, “Yes all right, you can have the Unassigned Lands. Anybody who wants a piece of it. Here’s what we’re going to do. Come lineup at the border of the Unassigned Lands.” this is the 300-mile long circumference. In most places, it’s not marked. Where it is marked it’s like a stack of rocks or a creek or something. “So, come line up around this border on April 22nd, 1889 and at noon, we will give a signal and anybody who wants some of this land can rush in, and hammer down some wooden stakes and claim some of this territory. If you’re out in the country, you can have 160 acres. If you’re in what’s been designated a townsite, you can have a smaller patch of that townsite.” and that’s pretty much it.
RM: Even the basics of this is amazing because who decides what NOON is in 1889. You know I’m saying?
SA: Yeah, right. Right. There’s not like a standardized atomic clock somewhere, you know, that they can set off a digital precise signal, so people had to kind of figure out for themselves what noon was. And people came from all over the world. This set off like a real movement around the globe. You had people in Europe like coming to Liverpool, and coming to Hamburg to like, ship out to get to Oklahoma. You had people putting classified ads in major newspapers in Chicago and New York to “Let’s meet up and form an alliance and make a plan, and go to Oklahoma and claim some land.” And for the day itself, you had something like 100,000 people show up to line up at the border and make a run for it.
RM: So noon strikes, maybe at different times for different people along this 300 mile border. What happens next?
SA: So noon strikes, quote unquote noon, and in some places, there are soldiers giving the signal so everyone has to wait. Up north the soldiers have this long rope that they’ve pulled across part of the border that people are held behind. Down south there’s a river that people are sitting on their horses like, in the middle of the river sort of sinking in quicksand waiting for the signal. And then in some cases they fired guns in some cases they blew a bugle, and they were off. And you had, you know, rich people, poor people, middle-class people. You had people riding the family wagon. You had people on racehorses that they had just bought like, the day before. You had people riding broken down mules. There were people on bicycles. There were people on foot, and they just burst across the border and start racing. And this land is rough, it’s like, I mean, there are dry creek beds all over it, there are buffalo wallows where buffalo rolled around and immediately, these wagons start hitting these ruts and just busting apart. I mean, these are not vehicles intended for, you know, rough riding at high speeds. So these vehicles are busting apart, and people are flying out of them and rolling across the prairie and getting up and running forward and it’s just wild. I mean, people are shooting guns to speed up their horses and accidentally shooting each other. Horses are dying of exhaustion. I think it’s just about the wildest scene you can imagine.
RM: And this is complicated even more by the people who really cheated, who started way before noon. And they came to be known, pretty derisively at first, as the “Sooners.” And the Sooners are still part of the modern day mythology of Oklahoma, even today…
SA: Yeah, right. I mean Boomer and Sooner are words that you’ll hear a lot if you’re in Oklahoma. If you go to a college football game, it’s actually a thing that the crowd yells back and forth, Boomer, Sooner. Boomer, Sooner.
RM: Right, the University of Oklahoma football team is actually called the Sooners. It’s this identity that Oklahomans really embrace now.
SA: You know, you’ll hear that like on ringtones, and people’s phones and stuff. So yeah, there is a real throughline in the identity of Oklahomans. So the boomers were the ones who agitated for the opening of the Unassigned Lands. Sooners were people who when the date of the land run was finally set, managed to cheat. A lot of them happened to be Boomers as well, because the boomers felt particularly entitled to this land, because they’re the ones who did the work to get the government to allow them in. So, they kind of resented all these other people who were just showing up the last minute. So, they found all kinds of ways to cheat. I mean, there were there were stories of like, a hot air balloonist hovering over Oklahoma just before noon so that he could just touch down on his favorite spot when the bugle was blown. I mean, there were many, many, many camps of people who were hiding out in these kind of gullies and along creeks. These kind of Sooner camps that the federal troops would come through and disperse in the weeks leading up to the land run, and then they would reassemble.
SA: William Couch, who had taken over the boomer movement when David Payne died, was one of the main cheaters and he was deeply connected to the railroads. And so he and his business businessman cronies actually went in many times. There’s this incredible picture of him and one of his associates standing in what is now downtown Oklahoma City; and it was just then this absolute empty, scrubby, grass prairie a month before the land run, mapping out how they wanted the city to look. And so, when the signal’s given… theoretically, it should have taken people maybe an hour plus to get there because it was 15 miles from the closest border. And yet, the moment the bugle blew you had people, including William Couch and his cronies, leaping out of the bushes, jumping out of train cars, falling out of trees. It’s like this mythological origin story where people just suddenly appear out of the landscape. And the soldiers don’t know what to do because there’s so many of them and they’re just planting tents all over, and hammering stakes, and William Couch and his crew have a whole team of surveyors who have all of their equipment, their chains and poles and everything, and they’re laying out streets and lots as they have mapped it in the months preceding the Land Run.
SA: And then part of the labor of making Oklahoma into a real place after this was adjudicating all of that cheating. Who cheated and who didn’t? Who deserves to keep their land and who didn’t?
RM: Because they settled the land as settlers, not as city builders exactly. Like, they didn’t account for the things that make a city function. They really just plotted out their own land for their own private use.
SA: Yeah, it’s such a little it’s such a nice little metaphor in a way for, I don’t know, the American experiment? The American temperament? Because, exactly! You had this huge wave of people rushing in. I mean waves from all sides, and what everyone was thinking about was: I need to get mine. I got an anchor down in this place so that whatever comes of it, I’ll have my piece of it. So, there was no central planning, there was no foresight whatsoever. And so, by the end of the day on the site that would become Oklahoma City, you had something like 10,000 settlers and they had claimed pretty much every single patch of land. I mean, they were like. it was just like, tent flap to tent flap almost. And you didn’t have any of the negative space that you really need for a city to work. You didn’t have streets, you didn’t have alleys. Other than the part of the city that had been mapped out by these cheaters, and they managed to sell certificates to to to own lots on the land that they had plotted out. But otherwise and mostly, it was just a giant, absolute mess that could never, going forward, function as a place where humans live.
RM: So this huge influx of people all claimed different parts of the land and this is on day one of the founding of Oklahoma City. What happens that first night?
SA: So you get this incredible chaotic rush of people. They all manage to claim a spot. Now in some spots, you know, there’s five separate settlers claiming that they were there first. So you have all these disputes. All kinds of activity. When the sun sets that night, you get this kind of general relaxation. Everybody stops jockeying for plots, everyone stops their work. People kind of relax and look around and rest. And again, because this was so recent we have all these eyewitness accounts. We have news accounts, there were reporters on the ground.
So we know things like, there were centipedes crawling around everywhere because of course, the whole ecosystem has just been shocked into agitation by this injection of humans into it for no reason. And so, you have this incredible scene of just tents, as far as you can see. Masses of brand new people who’ve never been to this place before, most of them. Most of whom have no connection to one another at all. And the one story that really stands out from that first night was sometime around 10:00 p.m. or midnight. Accounts vary a little bit. It’s quieted down, and then a voice suddenly calls out into the silence. It’s a man’s voice it’s a really, really, strong, loud low voice and what he calls out is very clear in the night air, but also totally inscrutable. And he says “Oh Joe! here’s your mule.” and everybody kind of looks around. There are various stories about what that means.
RM: It might have been a reference to an old Confederate song. Or maybe the people in the camp were talking about a thing that happened that night.
SA: There was a guy named Joe at the neighboring lot, and his mule had wandered off and this guy found it. But what happens is more interesting than whatever started it, because within a few seconds, another voice echoes that one. It says, “Oh Joe here is your mule.” And then somebody else echoes it, and then somebody else, and soon it turns into this like, absolute bizarre party of everybody in Oklahoma City shouting, “Oh Joe here’s your mule.” over and over and over again at one another. And it’s just resonating over the whole townsite. And they say actually it was so loud that the federal troops who were stationed about a mile away for the night heard it and they started calling it back too. Then settlers on the outside of town heard it, and they started calling it out too. And so you just have this cacophony of people shouting “Oh Joe, here’s your mule.” and some people say that it spread that night from settler to settler all the way 100 miles north, back to the Kansas line where this whole mess had begun. So that was the first night.
RM: And this is kind of the moment that you cite when you know, that all the settlers kind of become a town for the first time.
SA: Yeah, I mean psychologically you know, it’s hard to put yourself there, but it’s got to be the craziest day of everyone’s life. And you know, they’ve endured all kinds of hardships; hunger and thirst and terror. You know, everyone is armed to the teeth, and everyone’s arguing, and you don’t know if you’re getting a good spot or a bad spot, and your wagon broke, and you almost broke your arm, and you know, et cetera et cetera. And then suddenly at night, you get this bizarre sort of communal, I dunno, it’s almost like a sing-along or something you know? And yeah, so all of these people who are completely unrelated to one another, who have just arrived at this new and strange place in this kind of tidal wave of selfishness, you know? Are suddenly participating in this community awakening, and I feel like that must have been this incredibly intense bonding experience that started to help this very strange collection of people become an actual collective who would go forward and become a real city.
RM: After the “Oh Joe” incident, on the second day of Oklahoma City’s existence, two different leaders emerged. There was William Couch, who was the de facto leader of the Sooners, also known as the “cheaters.” He had plotted and schemed in order to enrich himself by selling land certificates in this one part of the city. And then there was Angelo Scott, who had come to Oklahoma during the Land Run. He was a hyper-educated lawyer from Kansas who was this very high-minded and decent guy who did not approve of the cheater faction and their land schemes. So he set about trying to create some order in the chaos of the new city.
SA: So after “Oh Joe, here’s your mule.” After the chaos of that first day, everybody wakes up everyone who’s been able to sleep, and they look around and they realize, “Oh my gosh this place is a mess. There’s no room to fit an alley between these private properties.” And Angelo Scott is one of the people who steps up and says, “We’ll let’s figure this out.” And he gives, actually on the second day, he hands out three bells to three kids and puts them on little horses and sends them riding all around Oklahoma City ringing bells and saying, “Come to a big town meeting.” And thousands of people come, and Angelo Scott steps up onto this wooden crate and he kind of lays it out for everybody. He says, “Listen, here’s where we are. Our town is chaos. We have one faction of people who are trying to impose order on it by cheating…” and he says, one of the ironies of the places that they could have had absolute peace if they had adopted this you know, the cheater’s plan for the city but it would have been on the basis of absolute fraud. So they have to figure out some other way to do it.
RM: And so Angelo Scott helps organize an election in which a “Citizen’s Committee” comes together. The job of that committee is to go around the whole town, adjudicating every lot, figuring out who can stay and who can go, and what land needs to be seized and turned into streets, alleys, and public spaces. It’s like this ad hoc, on-the-fly town planning.
SA: And so they went lot, by lot, by lot and worked their way their way north until they reached the southern edge of the cheater’s part of town. And waiting for them there were men holding Winchester rifles who said, “That’s fine that you’ve done that down there, but I think you’d better leave this part of town alone.”
RM: This could have been a moment where the city teetered into civil war. But instead, Angelo Scott organized another mass meeting. And they came up with a compromise plan.
SA: So, in the end, they had to do something that was really abhorrent to someone like Angelo Scott and to a lot of people. But it was the only way to kind of stitch the city together without actually breaking into violence. So, what they did was these two different plans, the Citizens Committee plan down south, and the boomers plan up north. Part of the problem reconciling them was that they had been laid out at slightly different angles.
RM: This meant that even if they tried to stitch these two parts of town together, it would be difficult because the streets wouldn’t match up.
SA: And so, the compromise they settled on was to build what they called “jogs” which are these kinds of diagonal streets that connect the two different street grids. And Angelo Scott called them “the scars of a bloodless conflict.” And so, essentially, just imagine walking down a street and then you come to an intersection and you have to turn kind of ten feet to the left to keep walking straight along that street. It was a nightmare for traffic, it caused traffic jams forever and in fact, you can still go stand on these jogs in the modern Oklahoma City street grid. They have not been ironed out of the street grid.
RM: It’s amazing that you can still see it to this day. Do people know why it is the way it is in Oklahoma City?
SA: I think most people don’t probably know. It’s just kind of their funky little downtown.
RM: When we come back after the break, we’re going to talk with Sam Anderson about his favorite research discovery of his entire career.
SA: I think I could write 800 books and never make another discovery as amazing and improbable as Operation Bongo. So I’d be delighted to tell you the story of Operation Bongo.
RM: Stay with us.