OKLAHOMA — Not every state is instantly recognizable by shape alone, however, Oklahoma is. It’s been referenced as a pan and even a jagged meat cleaver by one account.
But Oklahoma’s shape didn’t come without a cost, and not all are familiar that the Oklahoma Panhandle used to be a lawless paradise called “No Man’s Land” that left a mark in the Wild West. Territory lines had been drawn all around the rectangular strip that now separates Texas from Colorado and Kansas.
As a result of slavery, the rugged and sparsely populated panhandle was roughly a 34-mile-wide by 166-mile-long strip of land referred to as Public Lands, Indian Territory, or No Man’s Lands. Drawing and re-drawing territories while balancing slave states and free states were the battles of legislation in the mid-late 1800s. Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, New Mexico, and Kansas were subjected to such legislature that inevitability overlooked a small unclaimed rectangle of territory to abide by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This unique slice of land managed to avoid state and federal jurisdiction until the late 1800s, appealing to the outlaws and misfits of the wild west.
Those seeking to escape the arm of law enforcement found themselves a haven in No Man’s Land. It’s said once the temperance movement crusaders began deconstructing saloons in Kansas, those unwilling to support prohibition went west to establish their brothels and bars. The lack of law enforcement and nature of the characters that sought refuge there, the untamed lands quickly became rampant with fugitives and violence, taking on its own distinct culture.
The Panhandle’s vast expanses of open prairie land provided cover for illegal activities such as horse theft, cattle rustling, and moonshining. It was an attractive hideout for notorious figures such as the Doolin-Dalton Gang from Kansas and the Coe Gang – a band of outlaws that built the Robber’s Roost – a stone hideout that housed girls and a full-sized bar. That is, until the U.S. Army had enough of the gang stealing their horses they cannoned the place and hung everyone they captured. Plenty of tales say even Jesse James faked his death and tried to buy Indian Territory farmland, though, despite the tales’ long-lived history, these proved to be untrue.
“The town was noted for the character – horse thieves and badmen,” the author of Ghost Towns of Oklahoma wrote of the first settlement of the area – Sod Town. Others say it was the epicenter of the moonshine trade.
Final Days of Lawless Remote Land
Nomadic indigenous people moved through the Panhandle, and many informal open-range ranchers did, too, for the cattle trails of the area. The area was not good for farming or easy to settle in due to the lack of trees and access to goods available east. But many people passed through the area because of the Sante Fe Trail, leaving them susceptible to raids and opportunistic thieves.
After the land was declared public land, squatters tried to claim property by building homesteads. Some tried to establish the area as an official territory but to no avail. Finally, the Panhandle became part of Oklahoma territory after the Organic Act of 1890, which separated Indian Territories from Oklahoma.
Today, the area is celebrated for the efforts of the frontiersmen who forged ahead and settled in the undesirable land. Museum’s, annual festivals, tales, and ghost towns exist to tell the stories of the bygone era of the Wild West.