Oklahoma Panhandle

Black MesaBlack Mesa - highest point in Oklahoma

Just what is the Oklahoma Panhandle--that strip of land, 34 miles north to south and 168 miles east to west? A strip that looks like it somehow doesn’t belong to any state, and in fact, almost became a one, itself.
 

Oklahoma Panhandle

No Man's Land

The Oklahoma Panhandle once belonged to Texas. In fact, so did parts of what became New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming.

When the pared-down version of Texas we know today petitioned to become a state, being a slave state, it could not include any area north of the 36th parallel.

To the east was Indian Territory—the main body of present-day Oklahoma. New Mexico Territory to the west of the panhandle was formed in 1850. The Kansas Territory was formed in 1854, and including part of that, The Territory of Colorado was formed in 1861.

This left an area of land called the “Public Land Strip,” also called “The Neutral Strip.” It was considered “neutral” because it was part of neither a slave nor free state.

Cimarron Territory

In the years following the Civil War, cattlemen established settlements in the area. The strip provided good grazing ground, and was not far west of the Chisholm Trail that cattlemen used to drive cattle from Texas, north to the railheads in Kansas.

Settlers surveyed the land themselves, and named it the Cimarron Territory, and in the 1880s, almost became part of the state of Kansas. Congress approved this move, but the proposal was not signed off on by President Grover Cleveland.

Settlers also tried to form the State of Cimarron, but Congress, at that time, considered the area too small to justify being its own state, even though it was larger than both Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Oklahoma Territory

In 1890, the strip became part of the newly formed Oklahoma Territory. “No Man’s Land” became Seventh County, soon after re-named Beaver County with Beaver City as the county seat.

When the Oklahoma Territory joined the union in 1907 as the State of Oklahoma, Beaver County was divided into Beaver, Texas, and Cimarron counties.

The Dust Bowl

The Panhandle was the area of the state hardest hit by the Dust Bowl conditions during the Great Depression decade of the 1930s.

During the decades prior, farming of land that had once been grazing land for cattle and buffalo created conditions that allowed for the Aeolian process—wind erosion of the landscape.

Farming methods, perhaps more than in other parts of the state, used deep plowing of virgin topsoil. When drought conditions occurred, the wind erosion kicked up tremendous dust storms.

Bank failures and foreclosures led to many farmers and other residents in Oklahoma Dust storm-Cimarron County-1936and the surrounding states to migrate to California looking for opportunities to escape the severe drought conditions. Farmers became crop pickers, overtaking jobs once primarily taken by immigrants from Mexico.

Not everyone left the Oklahoma Panhandle and surrounding areas during the Great Depression. Some who stayed and endured the conditions showed incredible grit, strength, and determination.

Dust storm-Cimarron County-1936

The Oklahoma Panhandle Today

Today, many of the people who live in the Panhandle are survivors of the Depression, or the children of those survivors. Theirs is a rich culture of cowboys, farmers, and ranchers. Guymon is the Panhandle’s largest city with a population of 11,442 in the 2010 census. Oklahoma Panhandle State University, founded in 1909, is located in Goodwell.

Tourists today can visit the No Man’s Land Museum located in Goodwell. Tourists can also explore Oklahoma’s highest peak, Black Mesa, in the northwest corner of the Panhandle, see massive sand dunes at Beaver Dunes State Park, and visit the Optima National Wildlife Refuge in Texas County.


I am the son of survivors of the Great Depression—two who stayed instead of migrating west. Two who showed the grit, strength, and determination that helped the Oklahoma Panhandle become a great place to live, work, and visit. You can read about my parent’s experiences during the Depression in my novel, Daughter of the Cimarron, published by Ashberry Lane.

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