The Vault

How Railroads Advertised for Homesteaders to Settle in Indian Territory 

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As 19th-century homesteaders moved west, the lands in present-day Oklahoma where eastern tribes had been resettled after removal earlier in the century came under threat of settlement. This flier, printed on behalf of the Kansas City, Lawrence, & Southern Railroad in anticipation of the opening of unassigned lands in the state’s “Indian Territory,” shows how railroads whipped prospective emigrants into an anticipatory frenzy. “The rush will be great, and early comers will have every advantage,” the flier warns.

After the Homestead Act of 1862, which opened western lands to qualified citizens, the Indian Territory of Kansas and Oklahoma—home to more than three dozen tribes—was subject to a series of legal measures that reduced its extent. A new philosophy of assimilation favored bringing Native Americans into the United States as individual citizens, rather than allowing them lands and tribal sovereignty—a philosophy that conveniently left many acres open for settlement.

During the decades after the Homestead Act, settlers acting illegally forced the government’s hand by squatting on Indian land. The Ingalls family, of Little House on the Prairie fame, was one of a group of white settlers who set up house on Osage lands in Kansas in the 1860s, before that tribe was removed (again) to Oklahoma. Historian John E. Miller writes of the role of ads like this one in prompting such squatting:

Whether individuals [in Kansas] hoped to take out homestead claims after the Indians departed or whether they intended to purchase land from the railroad or to acquire it in some other fashion is not entirely clear. Most likely, all the recent arrivals had been lured by advertisements and predictions that Indian control would shortly be extinguished and that white settlers would then be free to take ownership.

While the National Archives dates this flier to circa 1880, the unassigned lands weren’t opened until 1889. The gap shows how long settlers—and the outfitting and transportation businesses that served them—had been eyeing prospective homesteads in the middle of Indian Territory.

The government acted in 1890 to create Oklahoma Territory, which reduced the size of Indian allotments. By 1907, when the state of Oklahoma was created, the previous Indian Territory was subsumed into the state.  

National Archives.