DIVIDING THE SPOILS
IN the pioneer days of fifty, forty, and even thirty years ago, when settlement on the frontier meant something of hardship and privation, the homestead law, with its provision for a small fixed charge upon every homesteader without regard to differences in land values, served to reward the hardy pioneer for pushing out beyond his neighbors by bestowing upon him the first choice of soil and location. Not only was he rewarded in direct proportion to his hardihood by this system of "first come, first served," but the Government and the country at large gained as well, in the development of new territory.
In preparation for this great westward movement, the Indians of the plains and mountains were from time to time gathered upon reservations; those east of the Rocky Mountains were located, in the main, along the Missouri River on the north, and within the Indian Territory on the south. The advancing civilization of the white man came up with these reservations, established itself alongside them, and pushed on westward to the natural limit.
As late as twenty-five years ago the same conditions obtained over a limited extent of the western territory, and the homesteading of Government land continued normally, steadily, always a little in advance of railroads and the comforts which come with settled conditions. Finally the arid and semi-arid lands of the eastern Rocky Mountain slope were reached; railroads extended everywhere. Then, instead of a fertile farm in the wilds to be obtained at the cost of personal comfort, the prospective homesteader was offered decidedly unproductive land within easy distance of railroad and town. Still the business of homesteading went on; but the high prairies refused to yield the expected reward. The disastrous recoil from the great eastern slope will not soon be forgotten, either by the over-confident settlers, or by the eastern investors who later acquired the "farms" as souvenirs of money loaned and lost.
With the taking of the last of the really good public lands, the wave of restless humanity which constitutes the cutting edge of civilization turned back to the Indian reservations—generally large, fertile tracts, adjacent to well-developed country. There the land-seekers gazed hungrily at the possessions for which the Indians had given up their great hunting-grounds. With a Government at its beck and call, pledged to execute the expressed will of the people, it was not in human nature for these people to wait long. New bargains were made with the Indians, and cessions of land secured—always their best land, and at one-half to one-tenth of its real value. Reservations were diminished or done away with altogether, and tribes consolidated, and once more there was public land—not land in the wilds, to be earned by the subduing of it, but good land, and well within the boundaries of civilization.
Wholly changed conditions confronted the land department of the Government. The inequalities of value inherent to any country were enormously increased in these reservations by the proximity of towns on their borders, and by railroads often running directly through the ceded lands. A new scheme of equitable land distribution was demanded by the new conditions.
With the vanishing of the frontier the homestead law, with its fixed-price, first-come-first-served system, served its last useful purpose. Its impartial gifts and rewards had led the hosts westward to the Pacific coast, and it deserved to pass into history as a grand instrument in the upbuilding of the West. Not one condition remained to give the homestead law an excuse for exercise, yet from that time until to-day these ceded Indian lands have all been opened under the essential provisions of that law, for no other reason than that a Government bound by the Vociferous Few to questionable methods of gaining cessions of Indian lands has been equally bound in its manner of dividing the spoils.
What has always been the result?
Instead of the Government beckoning to civilization to people its wilderness, we find it announcing the day and hour set for the opening of its public land. The fixed price per acre is but a fraction of its value; Uncle Sam gives the Faithful the full benefit of his sharp bargains with the Indians. The military parades across the tract to keep it clear of "sooners"—an expressive term applied to boomers who enter the promised land sooner than they ought; on the day of the opening, soldiers with loaded rifles are posted in front of the hungry horde, with orders to shoot if the line is overstepped—and they have shot, too, with telling effect; adventurers take the place of bonâ fide settlers, and alluring Chance supercedes reasonable expectation of reward for labor.
The evils and abuses attending the "rush" system reached their culmination at the opening of the Cherokee Strip, on the northern border of the Indian Territory, in September, 1893. The reader cannot better comprehend this method of dividing the spoils than by attending, in retrospect, this most grotesque event.
A hundred thousand men stand in line on land in Kansas and Oklahoma worth from ten dollars to twenty-five dollars an acre, gazing upon land to be offered at the crack of a gun for one dollar and a half and two dollars and a half an acre. That is the measure of the Government's bargain with the Indians. Some have been there for weeks, some for months—why so long, nobody knows; neither do they. The shrewd ones have been waiting no more than a day or two; they and their horses are fresh for the rush. Twelve o'clock is the hour set for the opening, and on the last morning of the long wait a deep, suppressed excitement possesses the motley crowd, growing more intense as the forenoon wears away.
They begin to form for the great race. The cowboys in front with their hardy prairie horses, ready to swear to each other's "time" before the land office officials—for after the race each must prove the time of his arrival if several enter claims for the same tract. Men with race-horses, too, confidently take their places beside the scrubby cow-ponies; but they will not ride their thoroughbreds next time—racers do not understand about badger-holes and gopher-mounds; very few cow-ponies ended that race with broken legs. Then there are horses in harness; sulkies, buckboards, spring buggies, and even lumbering lumber wagons,—prairie schooners, tops and all, loaded with stoves, and chairs, and babies, and chickens, with now and then a pig thrown in; sure signs, these, of the nomadic, renting farmer, the all-wise, know-nothing, soldier of misfortune, the typical western renter.
You find him everywhere, this sage of the corner grocery; in the West he is the nomadic renter. In the fall, to begin with, there is the renter and his family, fresh from their latest failure. He bargains for a broken-down team and mortgages it back to the owner for the full price,—the owner is pleased to have his team fed through the winter. He borrows a cow for her "keep" and increase, then rents a farm "on shares"; the owner furnishes the seed, and rewards himself liberally in the lease for doing so. The winter passes somehow, with odd jobs; by spring he had delivered a course of lectures at the country store on How to Run the Government, and the store-keeper holds a mortgage on the crops "to be" for supplies advanced. Now he half plants his crops, and tends them—hurriedly; for he is needed at the store to explain grave defects in the national currency system. Harvest time comes, and he "buys" machinery; another chattel mortgage. But the lightning of misfortune never misses him; if too wet, his crops wash out; if too dry, they burn out; for they were never really in. And he lays it all to the currency.
After the harvest comes the accounting. The land owner helps himself first, then the store-keeper; the machinery goes back to the factory, and the owner of the team claims his own. Last of all, the source of his milk supply ambles out through the gate in the wake of her unfeeling master.
So, once more in the fall, there is the renter, and his family—plus one. The annual cycle is rarely left incomplete.
Months ago the renter heard of the great Cherokee Strip opening, and started forthwith for the promised land. He has been camping out all the way down from Ioway, or Illinoiay; he has been camping here for weeks. But for the first time in his life his cock-sureness wobbles a little; there is something in the determined looks, in the be-pistoled figures of the line in front that dispels his dream of a home for the asking. Deluded renter, you are only one of fifty thousand! This is to be a race for the swift, not for the settler.
The great, lumbering wagon cannot make the run—he gets that through the armor of his self-conceit. So he proceeds to "on-hitch" his least "winded" plough-horse, and gets astride; and as this Don Quixote outfit shuffles to the front, the children squall, and the chickens squawk, while his long-suffering, much better half tearfully prays that this once in their dreary lives good fortune may smile upon them.
Over there is a man standing beside a rough stone set in a little mound of earth; that stone is a section corner. He is talking in a low tone with two or three friends; the quarter section of land marked by that stone is worth four thousand dollars, and it will cost some lucky man two hundred and forty. As he thinks of it his breath comes hard, and his eye has a dangerous light. He turns to his friends. Will they bear witness that at the crack of the gun he was the first to claim this tract? Will they stand by him?
His friends gaze down the line of thousands and turn apprehensively away; they have seen the same dangerous light in too many eyes that morning.
Each man has a little flag to thrust into the ground as soon as he thinks he has reached a square half-mile of land without a claimant. But suppose there is another flag, and another claimant? Well, each man has a little gun, and if he can convince his unwelcome neighbor by argument that he is the better shot, there need be no bloodshed.
It lacks fifteen minutes of twelve o'clock. The tension of the supreme moment brings silence to the trembling line, save only low mutterings over the final adjustment for places. Men who have never seen a hundred dollars at one time in their lives now see thousands in their grasp if only they can place themselves among the winners; and there are five men to every prize. Out one hundred yards in front, and twice as far apart, stand soldiers with loaded rifles. Some, already drunk with the anticipated excitement, care more for the game than for the stakes to be won or lost, but to many a man in that line who has staked his last dollar on the one chance to win more than he can ever earn, those last minutes are a long, hot agony of suspense. Suddenly a revolver is accidentally discharged; a middle-aged man, in the frenzy of the moment, mistakes it for the starting gun, and with a bound his horse shoots over the line.
"Hold on there! Come back!" yells the crowd in wild discord, and the man imagines the crazy horde racing at his heels.
"Halt!" commands the soldier in front, bringing his rifle to position; but the man hears nothing, sees nothing, thinks of nothing except the prize ahead. The soldier drops to his knee, and aims; there is no report above the din of the excited mass at the line—only a puff of smoke; the old man topples from his horse—dead, with a bullet in his brain.
Twelve o'clock. The report of the signal gun is echoed down the miles of line from every soldier's rifle, and with a dull roar that makes the earth tremble the racers are off! Horsemen, buggies, buck-boards, wagons, as far either way as one can see—and prairie schooners, too, lumbering and pitching in the rear. Away over the rolling prairie they speed, disappearing finally on the distant hills like a lot of scared jackrabbits, now well strung out. Suddenly a trained race-horse goes down—he has learned his first lesson in badger holes. A bullet from his master's gun ends the animal's suffering, and with him goes his master's last chance. It is sixty-six miles across the strip, but another line is racing up from the south. Half-way, if they run so far, the unlucky ones in the two lines must meet, and turn back.
On they go, with now the fleet horsemen well out of sight ahead, and the prairie schooners as well out of sight behind. It is hot,—a hundred in the shade, and no shade; and dry,—no rain has fallen for weeks, and not a green thing is to be seen; no water anywhere, and a strong head wind.
There is smoke ahead—a prairie fire! The cowboys in advance, impelled by a cheerful desire to impede those following, have fired the dry prairie. The grass is short, and a prairie fire runs ahead of itself in spots; it is easy to get through the breaks in the fire-line—if the grass is short. But word comes along the line that the fire has caught a schooner in the tall grass of a ravine,—and there is one less family to people the new country.
The boomers are continually dropping off to plant their little flags—some one will get this land, and why not they? Here a man finds himself in a wide stretch with no one near; he "strikes," then leisurely searches for the corner-stone. A school section. "Damn!" And he has no second chance, for the line has swept past him.
Four sections out of every thirty-six reserved for school and county funds, but with nothing to distinguish them; so one out of nine of the successful racers must draw blanks in Uncle Sam's great game of chance, in spite of their success.
A young fellow has run thirteen miles in the front rank of the line, and locates a beautiful tract, but he comes upon a man calmly smoking, while his horse grazes peacefully near, with not a hair turned. "Sooner!" angrily charges the young man; then he suddenly looks down the barrel of the sooner's gun. It is a wicked little black hole; the young man sees the point of the argument, and gallops on.
Down in that ravine are a few trees—there are no trees, except in ravines. There is something unusual about one of these trees. Go nearer, and a man hangs from one of the limbs. A slip of paper is pinned to the coat: "Too Soon" Nothing more; a brief but comprehensive epitaph.
A determined boomer plants his flag on a tract of fine bottom land—the prettiest quarter section in sight, he notes exultingly. A young tenderfoot from "back East" unwittingly plants his flag on the same tract. He thinks he is first, and perhaps he is. He approaches the boomer to expostulate, and the boomer draws, but the tenderfoot is not familiar with that line of argument. A shot; and a pretty home in New York State will wait and wait for news of its adventurous son. The boomer turns from the shivering form to the little half-mile of land dancing in the hot sun before his feverish eyes, and mutters, "Mine, mine!"
Which of these two is the more miserable victim of the Government's gambling scheme?
Evening comes, and with it the wind dies down. The dry air quickly cools. The great rush has left its members scattered over the prairie—far too many of them for the rewards it had to offer, but the interminable fights, disputes, and lawsuits over the spoils are for other days. A short communion with the pail of cold grub and the canteen of warm water; then to the blankets, under nature's canopy.
It is a glorious, still night out on the prairie. The heat, the dust, and the wild excitement seem like unpleasant incidents of long ago. The heavens in that clear, dry atmosphere are fairly ablaze with stars; one cannot gaze into their quiet depths and realize that within the past few hours one hundred thousand men have indulged the, fiercest of human passions, and for higher stakes than they have ever before dreamed of. But relaxation comes after unnatural stress, and men begin to know how tired they are; so winners and losers alike roll up in their blankets to sleep. The delicious calm of the night is made weird by the far-off, long-drawn-out cries of the boomers, calling the numbers of their land: "My—number—is—section—township—range—. K-e-e-p—o-f-f!" Then, after each call, crack! goes a rifle, as added warning; now from one direction, perhaps plainly, and again from another, so far away that little more than the faint report comes out of the darkness.
With the rising of the sun comes the wind, and then the heat; higher wind, and more fierce heat. Everybody is astir. Some start back for Kansas—the exodus of the unlucky begins early. Others head for the land office, farther south, to file their claims, and many flock to the towns which have sprung up over night along the railroad. A mushroom town is a jolly thing to see—and then to get away from. All through the night freight-wagons and the railroad have been bringing merchandise and material to the town-site, and the stuff is piled everywhere. Already the lucky winners of town lots have put up tents, braced against the howling wind, and a few have begun work on their cheap frame buildings. It is a busy day in this dust-swept town for the noisy, unwashed multitude, and Sunday at that. Sunday, and from an improvised pulpit under the railroad water-tank, a preacher delivers the first sermon to a very small but not select audience, while a lively vaudeville show farther along gives the town its first suggestion of paint. But carpenters, merchants, teamsters, and boomers of every description are too busy with the first business of their town to give much attention to either.
A tented restaurant springs from the ground; only black coffee and biscuit, but the coffee is hot—what a relief from cold grub and warm water! Business is rushing, and long arms are reaching over the crowd in front. Then some one announces, "Lady coming!"
A lady! Instantly, respectfully, the crowd makes a clear way to the counter, and here comes the lady—Heaven save the name!
A bedraggled, unwashed, sand-biting human creature like the rest of us, but a female withal; she may be the forlorn wife of some boomer, or she may be the remnant of a trim maiden schoolma'am from "back East." There is no telling which; twenty-four hours next to nature have obliterated all distinguishing marks. She shuffles up to the booth, gets her creamless coffee and butterless bun, and shuffles off again.
But there is chivalry for you, put to the severest test and not found wanting. Plenty of men in that crowd who will fight, and shoot if necessary, for a prize in Uncle Sam's great lottery, but a respectable woman is safer there than on many a city street.
But human nature, and good nature, cannot long stand under these strenuous conditions, and now the exodus is on in earnest. Even the winners are ill-prepared to live in a treeless, waterless country from which nothing can be gathered for a year. Back to civilization the boomers wearily march, on horseback, on foot, in wagons,—and the prairie schooners again, with their stoves, and chairs, and babies, and chickens,—but what a changed lot from the expectant, excited boomers of a few days ago! Worn out, dirty, disgusted; supplies gone, money gone, hope gone, and cursing their luck. Many corner stores, if the orators succeed in getting "back home," are going to hear caustic lectures on the mistakes of the Government.
So this motley crowd of disappointed boomers works its passage back to Ioway, and Illinoiay, and to all the other ways which had known them before the great fever to get something for nothing took possession of their senses. Some—good sports, good losers—laugh at their own folly, and thank Heaven for returning sanity. Others stare into the face of ruin—they had burned their bridges behind them, and are stranded, perhaps with families, in a strange land. And the families? The strangers' corner in many a Kansas cemetery can show little mounds—and sometimes larger ones—made in September, 1893.
And what was it all about? Did they want land to cultivate, land on which to establish homes?
Not one in ten, for not one in ten of the winners made homes of their winnings more than long enough to get their patents and sell out.
It was the value in this land above the Government price—the value which the Indian had given up in his bargain with the Great Father—that brought these adventurers from all parts of the country. It was the wild chance to come in for a share of their Government's spoils that aroused them to a gambling pitch.
Deluded fools! They furnished a boom for the new country, and left millions of their good dollars in the land of the Vociferous Few who had engineered the whole scheme. Easy victims!
A grotesque method, this, for settling the public domain. But the opening of the Cherokee Strip was an object-lesson in governmental rectitude compared with the latest developed scheme for dividing the spoils in the Indian country. Not until the year 1904 did the Vociferous Few demonstrate to what length a half-dozen men can safely go, with the aid of a willing Congress, in the gentle art of buncoing the Indian and hoodwinking the public.