The History of Oklahoma City

From Pre-Statehood to Today

Historic Oklahoma City Capitol
From "Historic Photos of Oklahoma City" / Courtesy of Turner Publishing

Oklahoma City has an intriguing and complicated history. What follows is an abbreviated version of that, the highlights and lowlights from pre-statehood until today.

The Oklahoma Territory

In the 1820's, the United States government forced the Five Civilized Tribes to endure a difficult resettlement into the lands of Oklahoma, and many died in the process. Much of the western areas of the state, however, were part of the "Unassigned Lands." Including what is now Oklahoma City, these areas began to be settled by a variety of pioneers in the late 1800's. Doing so without permission, these people were referred to as "Boomers," and they eventually created enough pressure that the US government opted to hold a series of land runs for settlers to claim the land.

The Land Run

There were actually several land runs between 1889 and 1895, but the first was the most significant. On April 22, 1889, an estimated 50,000 settlers gathered at the boundaries. Some, called "Sooners," snuck across early to claim some of the prime spots of land.

The area that is now Oklahoma City was immediately popular to the settlers as an estimated 10,000 people claimed land here. Federal officials helped maintain order, but there was a great deal of fighting and death. Nevertheless, a provisional government was put in place. By 1900, the population in the Oklahoma City area had more than doubled, and out of those early tent cities, a metropolis was being born.

State of Oklahoma and Its Capital

A relatively short time later, Oklahoma became a state. On November 16, 1907, it was officially the 46th state of the Union. Based largely on the proposition of striking it rich through oil, Oklahoma grew exponentially in its early years.

Guthrie, several miles north of Oklahoma City, had been the territorial capital of Oklahoma. By 1910, Oklahoma City's population had surpassed 60,000, and many felt it should be the state's capital. A petition was called, and the support was there. The Lee-Huckins Hotel served as the temporary capitol building until the permanent capitol was built in 1917.

Continued Oil Boom

Oklahoma City's various oil fields not only brought people to the city; they also brought money. The city continued to expand, adding commercial areas, public trolleys and a variety of other industries. Though the area suffered during the Great Depression like everyone else, many had already become quite rich from the oil boom.

In the 1960's, however, Oklahoma City began to seriously decline. The oil had dried up, and many were migrating outside of the metro to suburban areas. Various recovery attempts for the most part failed until the early 1990's.

Metropolitan Area Projects

When Mayor Ron Norrick proposed the MAPS initiatives in 1992, a number of Oklahoma City residents were skeptical. It was nearly impossible to imagine the positive results that could come. There was resistance, but sales tax to fund city renovations and construction was passed. And it may be fair to say it began a rebirth for Oklahoma City.

Downtown has once again become a highlight city center. Bricktown features sports, arts, restaurants and entertainment, popular for tourists and locals alike, and there's a sense of place in areas such as Deep Deuce, Automobile Alley and more.

Interrupted by Tragedy

Before all of that came to be what it is now, Timothy McVeigh parked a truck full of explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The explosion would be felt miles from the city. In the end, 168 people were dead and a building stood cut in half by the horror. 

Although the pain will live forever in the hearts of the city, the year 2000 brought the beginning of the healing. The Oklahoma City National Memorial was erected on the very ground where the federal building once stood. It continues to offer solace and peace for every visitor and resident of Oklahoma City.

The Present and the Future

Oklahoma City proved to be resilient. Today, it is one of the largest metropolitan cities in the plains states. From the arrival of the NBA's Thunder franchise in 2008 to the rise of the Devon Energy Center skyscraper, the city is alive with optimism and development. 

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