Kickapoo women around 1900.
Nearly 125 years ago, on May 23, 1895, the smallest and last federally-approved land rush in Oklahoma Territory got under way as “surplus lands” of the Kickapoo were thrown open for settlers to homestead.
That rip-off had begun in 1889. The Kickapoo had fled their homeland in southwestern Wisconsin after the Blackhawk War in 1832. By a circuitous route over many years, they had ended up in Indian Territory. That region had been the turf of the ancestors of the Caddo, Osage, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Wichita, and Comanche for millennia. But in the 1830s, it became the new home of the “Five Civilized Tribes” who were being removed at gunpoint from their east-of-the-Mississippi homelands. Over the next several decades, 20 more tribes were shipped to what became Oklahoma.
In 1889, there were in the western part of the territory areas originally meant to be filled with other removed tribes, 2 million acres of so-called “Unassigned Lands.” As part the Indian Appropriation Act of that year, those lands were set aside for white settlement. Out of that came the first Oklahoma land rush.
Also in 1889, the Cherokee Commission aka the Jerome Commission was established. It was a tribunal, comprising two generals and a civilian. But the chief negotiator was David Jerome. His mission was to legally acquire Indian-owned lands. In practice, this meant intimidating the tribes into dissolving their reservations and accepting allotment under the Dawes Act of commonly owned land to individual Indians in 80- to 320-acre plots. What was left over after allotment, the so-called “surplus,” was sold to the government at the government’s price. This surplus was then opened up to homesteaders, 15 million acres in all, in a series of land “rushes.”
The corruption involved—with sheriffs, their deputies, minor federal officials, and others getting a head start on the best land, the so-called “Sooners—is a story for another time. For the Indians, that part is irrelevant. It was all over for them when they were forced to sign away their rights. By June 1890, agreements had been “obtained” from the hold-outs, the Iowas, Sacs and Foxes, Potawatomies, and Absentee Shawnees. Only the stubborn Kickapoo remained. After a commission visit with the Kickapoos, Jerome wrote to his superiors on July 1:
The Kickapoos are altogether the most ignorant and degraded Indians that we have met, but are possessed of an animal cunning, and obstinacy in a rare degree. We were prepared, by what we had heard before our coming for an exhibition of these qualities. […] The Commission, each member in turn, made speeches to them, explained our business with them, told them of the impending changes in their mode of living, earning a living &c, and submitted to them a proposition in writing, which is hereto attached and made a part hereof, and placed a copy of it in the hands of the Chief, and asked them to go with their Interpreter and consider it. […] When the paper, containing the proposition, was placed in the hands of the Chief, the Kickapoos seemed to become somewhat uneasy—a little Indian jargon was exchanged—when he, the Chief, handed back the paper and refused to keep it. They then took their leave, and promised to return in the afternoon. At the time appointed they came back, and promptly told us, that they would not make any contract, because it would offend the Great Spirit.
Jerome went on to say that if the president were to set a deadline for allotting land, this would speed the process with recalcitrant tribes.
A year later, the commission met with the Kickapoos again, this time letting them know that the allotment process was going to happen whether they wished it or not. So, they should sell and get the best deal they could.
Ock-qua-noc-a-sey was the chief speaker of the Kickapoo. He had a lot to say about the land being given by the Great Spirit who would be angry if the Kickapoos sold it. The allotment deal was something that came from “someone under the earth,” he said, adding that the Kickapoos would be better off to let the whites overrun it than sell it.
“Whenever the white people take all the land from the Indians,” he said, “we believe the land will be destroyed. […] We have a small reservation here and you have the biggest part of the United States; and you should be satisfied and we are doing well.” Dissident Indians from the tribes that had already been forced to sign came to warn the Kickapoos not to “touch the pen.” And Ock-qua-noc-a-sey and others who had been speaking did not.
On June 18, they got up from the negotiations and went home. Later, all but three of the adult male Kickapoos showed up for another meeting. Four had already signed the allotment agreement. Others seemed ready to sign. But then Chief Wape-mee-shay-waw showed up, and after some talk, all but the signers came to the chief’s side. The commission had failed.
But, in August, at the instigation of John T. Hill—who, wrote Berlin B. Chapman in 1939, was probably as much Kickapoo as David Jerome—Ock-qua-noc-a-sey and Kish-o-corn-me signed the allotment deal and used dubious power-of-attorney to sign for 51 other Kickapoos, the adult male population of the tribe in September 1891. So seven men, one of doubtful heritage, made a deal for the whole tribe.
Washington considered the document binding. The majority of Kickapoos did not, and they continued to resist right up until the allotments were handed out three years later. Of 206,080 acres on the reservation, 22,640 acres were allotted to 283 Kickapoos, 80 acres each by March 27, 1895. The remaining 183,440 acres purchased by the federal government were opened to settlers who made their claims in a land run.
The Kickapoo lands were added to Lincoln, Oklahoma, and Pottawatomie Counties. Today, the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, federally recognized since 1936, has 2,720 enrolled members, some 1,800 of whom live in the state. About 400 Kickapoo, including children, speak the tribe’s Algonquian language. Two other federally recognized Kickapoo tribes totaling a few hundred enrolled members live in Kansas and Texas.