4. The Biggest Lottery In History
It is an extraordinary fact that one of the most gigantic, and certainly the most rapid, land settlements in the history of the United States has been little known and little recognized, either for its vast scope or its far-reaching importance.
The passing of the frontier, with its profound effects upon American life, is not a part of our early history. It ended with the World War. The trek of early settlers in covered wagons, the swift and colorful growth of the cattle kingdom, the land rush at Cimarron are a part of our familiar history. But the greatest of all these expansion movements was at its height within the twentieth century with 100,000,000 acres of Public Land opened by the government for settlement, waste land which in a few seasons produced crops, supported villages, towns, and finally cities, in their lightning growth.
In a sense the United States Government conducted a vast lottery, with land as stakes, and hundreds of thousands of men and women gambling their time and strength and hope on the future of the West.
The land so lavishly disposed of was the white man's last raid on the Indian. The period of bloody warfare was long past. The last struggle against confiscation of Indian land was over, and the Indians were segregated, through treaties, on tracts designated by the government, "like the cattle on the range being driven back to winter pasture or the buffalo driven off the plains," to which they mournfully compared their fate. And if there is anything an Indian hates it is boundaries.
The migration and settlement of vast numbers of people has changed world history time and time again. And the Americans have been a migrating people. From the early years of their first settlement of the colonies there had been a steady movement toward the West. Without the West with its great Public Lands the United States as it has become could hardly have existed. While there was a frontier to develop, land for the small owner, there would always be independence.
European theories might influence the East from time to time, but there was always a means of escape for the man or woman oppressed by labor conditions, by tendencies to establish class distinctions. Public Land! On the land men must face primitive conditions as best they could, but they were independent because the land was their own, their earnings their own.
For many years the Public Land seemed inexhaustible; it was not until the Civil War had been waged for two years, with the country disrupted by conflict, and people looking--as they will in times of disaster--for a place where they might be at peace, that they realized the desirable land at the government's disposal was gone. But there remained the land of the red men, and white settlers looked on it and found it good. They raised a clamor for it, and the most determined staked out their claims and lived on it regardless of treaty.
As a result, the government yielded to public pressure and took over the land from the Indians, forcing them back once more. It wasn't quite as simple as it sounds, of course; it took some twenty-five years and nearly a thousand battles of one kind and another to do it. But at the end of that time the land again had been absorbed by the people, settled in accordance with the Homestead Act of 1862, and the demand continued.
The government then bought Oklahoma from the Indians in 1889. It was impossible to satisfy all those who wanted homesteads and difficult to choose those who should have them. A plan was therefore hit upon to give everyone a chance. On the day of the Oklahoma Opening, throngs of white settlers stood at the boundary and at a given signal rushed upon the land, taking it by speed and strategy and trickery--and too often by violence.
Within twenty-four hours the land was occupied; within a week there were frame buildings over the prairie, and villages and towns followed at a speed inconceivable to the foreign nations which looked on, breathless and staggered at the energy of a people who measured the building of a western empire not by generations but by seasons. And the demand for land continued. There was a depression in the East and jobs were hard to get; with the growth of factories many young men and women had flocked from farms and villages to cities, and they were not finding conditions to their liking. They wanted to return to the life they knew best, the life of the farm. In the more populous sections the price of land was rising and was already beyond the reach of many pocketbooks. There remained only Public Land--land which was allotted to the Indians.
The government, accordingly, began to withdraw from the Indian Allotments great tracts, by further treaties and deals, slashing boundary lines, relegating the Indians to the unceded part of the land. The great tracts thus acquired were then surveyed into quarter-sections and thrown open to homesteading. In order to prevent the violence which had attended the Oklahoma land opening, a new method was hit upon. A proclamation was issued by President Theodore Roosevelt, announcing the opening of land on the Lower Brulé Indian Reservation.
As I had learned on that flying trip to Pierre, the operation of the plan was very simple. Land-seekers were to register at the Land Office in Pierre, making an affidavit showing their qualifications to enter, at which time each would receive a number. On a given day, October 12, 1907, the numbered envelopes containing the affidavits, which had been deposited in large containers, fastened and sealed so that they could not be opened, were to be drawn by lot, after having been thoroughly mixed--as many numbers drawn as there were quarter-sections to dispose of. The first person whose number corresponded with the number drawn had first choice of the land.
Government posters and advertisements for the land opening were published in every section of the country. And along with the government publicity appeared the advertisements of the railroads. For them increased population in this area was a crying need. While we had drowsed through the lazy autumn days, advertising campaigns were shrieking to the people all over the country of the last frontier.
And that October day "it blowed wide open!"
Into the little town of Pierre they swarmed--by train, by stagecoach, by automobile, by wagon, on foot--men and women from every part of the country, from almost every state--people who had been crowded out of cities, people who wanted to settle as real dirt farmers, people who wanted cheap land, and the inevitable trailers who were come prepared to profit by someone else's good luck.
Like a thundering herd they stampeded the United States Land Office at Pierre. "The Strip! The Strip!" one heard on every side. It was called the Strip because the tract was long and narrow. One day the little frontier town of Pierre drowsed through a hot afternoon, and the broad plains lay tenantless, devoid of any sign that men had passed that way. The next day the region swarmed with strangers.
Sturdy, ruddy-faced farmers, pale-looking city boys, young girls alert, laughing--all sons and daughters of America--not an immigrant peasant among them; plumbers and lawyers, failures and people weary of routine, young men from agricultural colleges eager to try scientific methods of farming and older men from Europe prepared to use the methods they had found good for generations; raucous land agents and quiet racketeers alert for some way of making easy money from the tense, anxious, excited throng.
For many of that jostling, bewildered, desperately anxious throng the land was their last chance to establish themselves. And yet the atmosphere was that of a local fair, loud with shouting, with barkers crying their wares, with the exclamations of wonder of people looking upon a new country. And the air was heavy with the tense excitement and suspense that attends any gambling game.
McClure, the Halfway House, where my little print shop had been thrown up, was the only stopping place in that part of the country and at the end of the main road from Pierre to the reservation, which lay some five miles on across the prairie.
All that day the landseekers pushed their way into the shed annex which served as a dining room of the Halfway House, and filled the table which stretched from end to end. If there was no room for them, they ate lunches from the store's food supply at the counter. We who had grown accustomed to the sight of empty prairie, to whom the arrival of the stage from Pierre was an event, were overwhelmed by the confusion, the avalanche of people, shouting, pushing, asking questions, moving steadily across the trackless plains toward the reservation.
Every homesteader who had a tug that would fasten over a doubletree, a wagon that could still squeak, or a flivver that had a bolt in it, went into the transportation business--hauling the seekers from Pierre or from McClure to look at the land.
A generation before people had migrated in little groups in covered wagons to find new land. Now they came by automobile and railroad in colonies, like a great tidal wave, but the spirit that drove them was still the pioneer spirit, and the conditions to be faced were essentially the same--the stubborn earth, and painful labor, drought and famine and cold, and the revolving cycle of the seasons.
"Shucks, it's simple as tying your shoe," stage driver Bill assured the excited, confused landseekers. "Jest take enough grub to last a coupla days and a bottle or two of strong whisky and git in line at the Land Office."
The settlers were almost as excited as the landseekers. For many of them it was the first opportunity they had had since their arrival to earn a cash dollar. And while the gambling fever was high it was easy to persuade the newcomers to spend what they could. Coffee, sandwiches, foods of every description were prepared in great quantities and disposed of to clamoring hordes. It seemed a pity I couldn't find some way of making some money too. I would. Without wasting time I wrote some verses on the land opening, made a drawing to accompany them, and sent it to a printer at Pierre to have postcards made of it.
Wilomene White had made some belts and hatbands of snakeskins, and she planned to put them, together with my cards, wherever we could sell them as souvenirs.
I rode in at daylight for the cards, but the town was already astir. People stood in line in front of the Land Office waiting to get in to register. Some of them had stood there all night. Some sat on the steps, cold, hungry and exhausted. But they had come a long way and could not afford to miss their chance.
Every train that came in was loaded with men and women. The little state capital became a bedlam, and the Land Office was besieged. They crawled along in a line that did not seem to move; they munched little lunches; a few fainted from exhaustion and hunger. But they never gave up.
Here at last was news that was news--for which the press of the country, and Europe, clamored. These land openings were a phenomenon in the settling of new territory, beyond the conception of foreign countries. Reporters, magazine writers, free lancers pushed in for their stories of the spectacular event.
The mere size of it, the gambling element, the surging mobs who had risked something to take part in it were material for stories. The real hero of the stories, of course, was the land itself--the last frontier. There were a few who pondered on what its passing would mean to the country as a whole.
I ordered 500 extra ready-prints by wire from the Newspaper Union and persuaded a bronco-buster to turn the old press for me.
Bronco Benny rode bucking horses during the day for the entertainment of the tenderfeet passing through and helped me at night, relating in a soft western drawl the events of the day as he worked: "Did you see that little red-headed gal--wanted one o' my spurs as a souvenir--haw haw!"
"Bronco, wait a minute," I would interrupt; "you've ruined that paper. Spread a little more ink."
"And I says, 'You shore, Miss, you don't want the pony throwed in?'" pushing the roller lazily back and forth over the inking table then across the form on the press. "She ups and takes a snapshot," he rambled on.
To my delight the postcards were selling like hot cakes at ten cents a piece. The Ammons's finances were looking up. In many homes today, throughout the country, there must exist yellowed copies of the card, the only tangible reminder of an unsuccessful gamble in the government lottery.
At midnight one night an old spring wagon rattled up to the shack and we heard the voice of a man--one of the locators who had been hauling seekers. He held out a handful of small change. "Here," he said proudly; "I sold every card. And here"--he pulled out a note and a small package. The note read:
"Your poem is very clever, but your drawing is damn poor. If I'm a Lucky Number I'll see you in the spring. In the meantime, for heaven's sake, don't try any more art. Stick to poetry." It was signed "Alexander Van Leshout," and was accompanied by a ready-to-print cut.
This newspaper cartoonist from Milwaukee was only one of many people from strange walks of life who entered that lottery. There were others whose background was equally alien to life in a homestead cabin, who came to see the West while it was still unchanged, drawn for reasons of personal adventure, or because the romantic legends of the West attracted them. People drawn by the intangibles, the freedom of great space, the touch of the wind on their faces, a return to the simple elements of living.
Standing in the dreary lines in the Land Office where some of them waited for as long as two days and nights at a time, we saw farmers, business men, self-assured boys, white-haired men and women.
A gray-haired woman in her late sixties, holding tightly to an old white-whiskered man, kept saying encouragingly: "Just hold on a little longer, Pa." And whenever we passed we heard her asking of those about her: "Where you from? We're from Blue Springs." The Land Office recorded the man as David Wagor.
It was not necessary to be a naturalized citizen in order to register, but it was necessary to have filed intention to become a citizen. One must be either single or the head of a family; wives, therefore, could not register. For that reason we were interested in a frail young woman, a mere girl, sagging under the weight of a baby on her arm, patiently waiting her turn. She was shabbily dressed, with a trace of gentility in clothes and manner. Whether she was a widow or unmarried only the Land Office knew, but it pinched the heart to realize the straits of a fragile girl who was ready to undertake the burden of a homestead alone.
"You are getting to be an outlaw printer," the proof king wrote me. "You were not authorized to incur this additional expense." But, catching the excitement of the crowds and perhaps a little of their gambling spirit, I was not upset by his reproof. I filled the paper with the news items about the Opening and sold out every copy to the landseekers passing through.
The plains never slept now. All night vehicles rattled over the hard prairies. Settlers on their way home, starting for Pierre, hurried by in the middle of the night. Art Fergus's team of scrubby broncos were so tired they didn't even balk in harness. Flivvers bumped over the rough ground, chugging like threshing machines.
The westerners (every man's son of us had become a full-fledged native overnight and swelled with pride as the tenderfeet said "You westerners") responded exuberantly to the sudden life about us. Cowboys rode in from the far ranges for one helluva time. They didn't kowtow to this "draw-land" game, but they could play draw poker. And they wasn't gamblin' for no homestead--you couldn't give 'em one. But they'd stake two or three months' wages on cards. They rode hell-for-leather down the streets, gaudy outfits glittering in the sun. With spurs clicking they swung the eastern gals at a big dance. And the dignity of the state capital be damned!
The whole prairie was in holiday mood. Ida Mary dismissed school at noon--no one cared whether school kept or not--and we put on our prettiest dresses to join the crowd. Through the throngs pushed the land locators. They stood on curbs, in front of the Land Office and the hotels, grabbing and holding onto their prospects like leeches. They had been accustomed to landing a settler once in a blue moon, driving the "prospect" over miles of plain, showing him land in various remote districts in the hope that he would find some to suit him. Now they had dozens clamoring for every quarter-section. This was their golden harvest. Nearly all the seekers were too avid for land to be particular about its location, and many of them too ignorant of the soil to know which was the best.
"Plumb locoed," Bill described the excited seekers. "The government's charging $2.50 to $4.00 an acre for that land. I drive 'em right over vacant homesteads just as good for $1.25. Think they'll look at it? No-siree!"
But we are a gambling people and the grass on the other side of the reservation fence looked a lot better.
After they registered, most of the landseekers wanted to see the land and pick out a claim--just in case they won one. The chances of winning must have seemed slim with that avalanche of people registering, and the results would not be known until the Drawing, which would be a week or more after the entry closed.
Late one afternoon a crowd stood on the border of the Strip, on the outside of the old barb-wire fence that divided it from the rest of space. And the wire gate stood open. The landseekers who had driven over the land stood looking across it, sobered. I think it occurred to them for the first time that this was a land where one had to begin at the beginning.
The buffalo and the Indian had each had his day on this land, and each had gone without leaving a trace. It was untouched. And as far as the eye could see, it stretched, golden under the rays of the setting sun. Whether the magnitude of the task ahead frightened or exhilarated them, the landseekers were all a little awed at that moment. Even I, seeing the endless sweep of that sea of golden grass, forgot for the moment the dry crackling sound of it under wheel and foot, and the awful monotony of its endlessness which could be so nerve-racking.
And by the gods, the grass was higher and thicker on the other side of the fence! "How rich the soil must be to raise grass like that," they said to each other. Groups of men and women gathered closer together as though for some unconscious protection against the emptiness. Around the fence stood vehicles of all descriptions, saddle horses, and a few ponies on which cowboys sat lazily, looking on. Even those who had come only for adventure were silenced. They felt the challenge of the land and were no longer in a mood to scoff.
Standing at that barb-wire fence was like standing at the gate of the Promised Land. And the only way in was through the casual drawing of numbers. They stood long, staring at the land which lay so golden in the sun, and which only a few could possess.
There were more real dirt farmers represented here than there had been in most of the homestead projects--men who were equipped to farm. But they were still in the minority. They picked up handfuls of the earth that the locators turned over with spades, let it sift through their fingers and pronounced it good. A rich loam, not so heavy or black as the soil back east, but better adapted, perhaps, to the climate. Aside from the farmers nobody seemed to know or care anything about the soil or precipitation. And, ironically enough, it occurred to no one to ask about the water supply.
"The land back east is too high-priced," the city laborer declared, "we can never hope to own any of it."
"We'd rather risk the hazards of a raw country," said the tenant farmer, "than be tenants always."
"We'll sell our eastern land at a high price," said the landowners, "and improve new land."
"My mother took in washing to save money," said an earnest-faced boy, "so I could make this trip. But if I win a whole quarter-section (and how big a quarter-section looked to a city dweller!) I'll make a good home for her."
A middle-aged widow from Keokuk told the group about her: "I mortgaged my cottage to come. The boys are growing up and it's their only chance to own land."
Others in the group nodded their heads. "Yes, land is solid!"
Leaning heavily on his cane a little old man with a long white mustache and sharp eyes denounced the lottery method. "'Taint right, 'taint. Don't give a feller a chanct. Look at me with my rheumatiz and I got as good a chanct as any of 'em--brains nor legs don't count in this. Now in the Oklahomy Run ..." And he told about the Oklahoma Run of almost a generation before, when speed and strategy were necessary if one were to be first on the land to stake a claim. But the Oklahoma Run, for all its drama and its violence, dwindled in importance beside these Drawings with their fabulous areas and their armies of people.
Across the prairie came the sound of horses' hoofs and the heavy rumbling of a wagon. A locator with a hayrack full of seekers was coming at a reckless pace, not stopping for the trails. At the reservation gate he brought the team to a quick stop that almost threw his passengers off the wagon. Some of them were so stiff and sore they couldn't get off their cushion of hay; others were unable to stand after they got up. But the locator was not disturbed by a little thing like that. He waved his right arm, taking in at one sweep the vacant expanse to the rim of the horizon and shouted:
"Here's your land, folks. Here's your land." He was locating them en masse at $15 to $25 a head. No hunting up corner stakes. It all looked alike to these bewildered people, anyhow, drunk as they were with the intoxication that land lotteries produce.
He turned his weary team and human cargo around and started back to town. A wholesale locator had no time for sleep. He must collect another hayrackful of seekers early next morning.
Some of these landseekers tried to analyze the reasons for this great movement, the factors which had swept them along with this tidal wave of human migration. "We're concentrated too much in cities," they said, "crowded and stifled, and our roots are choked. We have to go back to the land where a man can grow himself the things he needs to live on, and where his children can grow up with the country--and have a place in it."
Our attitude toward the land is peculiar to America. The European conception of a plot of ground on which a family is rooted for generations has little meaning for people who move by the thousands onto untamed acres, transform it into plowed fields and settlements and towns, and move on endlessly to plow new fields.
This constantly renewed search for fresh pastures has kept the country vital, just as the existence of its Western Public Lands has kept it democratic. For its endurance the American spirit owes much to its frontier.
Beside me stood a thin-faced, hollow-chested young man, a newspaper reporter from Chicago. He ran lean fingers through brown, straggly hair, looking from the Strip, reaching to the horizon, to the people waiting to shape it according to their needs. "Great copy," he said lamely, but he made no entry in his notebook.
Outside another gate, five miles or so beyond the main entrance from McClure, was a little trading post, Cedar Fork, on the Smith ranch. The long buildings were said to have been a sort of fort in the Indian war days. The seekers overflowed even here, and when the swift darkness settled on the plains, stayed for the night, the women filling the store and house while the men slept in the barn loft or haystacks, or even in their vehicles.
They wrapped themselves in heavy coats or blankets against the biting chill of an October night--after a day so hot the tenderfeet sweltered and blistered under the midday sun.
The next morning there was frost, with the air sharp and fresh. The Smiths tried to feed the shivering, hungry seekers. The seekers always seemed to be hungry. Kettles and washboilers full of coffee, slabs of bacon sizzling in great pans, and, one after another, into the hot grease slid a case of eggs. Home-baked bread was sliced into a washtub. Shaking with cold, coat collars turned up, shawls and blankets wrapped about them, tired, hollow-eyed and disheveled, the seekers looked like a banished people fleeing from persecution. But they were not disheartened.
On October 14 the "Drawing" started. The registrations were put into sealed envelopes, tossed into boxes, shuffled up, and drawn out one at a time, numbered as they were drawn out--as many numbers as there were claims--with an additional number to allow for those who did not file or whose applications were rejected. Then the filing of the winners began. Most of the seekers had already selected their claims. They had six months' time in which to establish residence on the land.
The stampede was over. After three weeks of high-pitched excitement the seekers were gone, the plains regained their silence, and the settlers around McClure were left to face the frontier winter with its desolation and hardships. The void after the crowds had gone was worse than if they had never come. The weather had turned raw and gray, and there was a threat of snow in the air. Exhausted and let down, Ida Mary and I were desperately blue.
And then we saw someone coming across the plains--the only moving figure to be seen in the cold gray dusk. From the dim outline we could barely make out horse and rider, but we knew them both--Wilomene on old Buckskin. She was riding slowly as though there were nothing left out here now but time.
She wore a dark red flannel shirtwaist, a divided skirt of black wool, a suede jacket and black cap like a jockey's. There was an easy strength and self-assurance in her carriage. She crossed the firebreak and rode up over the ridge calling her cheery "Hoo-hoo-hoo!"
"She's going to stay all night," exclaimed Ida Mary, seeing the small bag dangling from the saddlehorn.
After supper we counted the dimes we had earned from the postcards--more than $50. And far into the night we talked of the people who had invaded the Strip.
Next spring there would be life again over the plains when the "lucky numbers" came out to live on the Strip. Would the reporter from Chicago be among them, and the mystery girl with the baby in her arms, and Pa Wagor--and a young cartoonist from Milwaukee?
It was something to look forward to when the blizzards shut us off from the world.