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What is a Sooner?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term "sooner" was used in a derogatory fashion to describe the group of American settlers who unlawfully claimed lands in what eventually became Oklahoma. These people staked their claim to land when it was called the “Unassigned Lands,” prior to the territory being opened by President Benjamin Harrison with his Indian Appropriation Act of 1889. These lands were opened up for land claims in the famous land runs of that year, in which settlers basically participated in a race to claim a piece of land for themselves.

Legal settlers believed that the sooners cheated their way into their land claim by laying claim to the land before the official beginning of the run. This event was portrayed in the movie Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, in 1992. Legal settlers resented the illegal methods with which some people had settled the land, and many of these people were forced to defend their claims in court, in cases such as Smith v. Townsend in 1893.

A sooner should not be confused with a boomer, who believed that the Indian lands were public property. Many boomers participated in raids to attempt to compel the settlement of the lands by whites. This practice was deemed illegal, and many boomers were physically removed from the Unassigned Lands. It was due in part to their actions that the land runs of 1889 were made possible.

The term “legal sooner” was used to describe settlers who had been in the territory legally prior to the land run, such as railroad workers and federal marshals. Although they were in the area legally to help build the infrastructure of what would become Oklahoma, their land claims were also denied because they had not participated in the land runs.

Over time, the term lost its derogatory connotations and began to represent the irrepressible, hardy pioneer spirit of Oklahoma. The word was adopted by the University of Oklahoma in 1908 as their football team’s name, and Oklahoma was unofficially deemed the “Sooner State” in the 20th century. The term now identifies members of University of Oklahoma sports teams, current students and alumni, and devoted fans of the university’s teams. It has become a badge of honor among many Oklahomans.

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Discussion Comments
By anon251660 — On Mar 02, 2012

@anon214369: It IS just like an Oklahoman to turn a derogatory term into something good. We Oklahomans owned up to our history and didn't ignore our negative past. Instead, we did the only thing we could do with it: turn it from a negative thing into a positive thing.

Here is something for you to think about, too. Who do you think these "sooners" were before they were Oklahomans? These people came across the entire United States and sometimes even outside the our great land. Most of these cheaters were from other states, so these descendants of cheaters go way back before our Oklahoma state history. So, if you want to call all the Oklahomans, or Sooners, cheaters, then you should call the entire country a band of thieves and cheaters, too, since we are a conglomerate of everyone.

By anon214369 — On Sep 14, 2011

I have to talk about this last sentence because it's a real show stopper! "The term sooner has become a badge of honor among Oklahomans." This tells you everything you need to know about most Oklahomans.

If they don't like the truth, they will shroud it and distort it and then turn it into something to be proud of -- at least, they tell themselves to be proud of it, but it's still out right saying you're descendants of thieves and cheaters.

The worse part is, when you live here, you can see how it was back in the old days because the people still act the same. Give them cars, cells phones and kindles and they still act like thieves and cheaters.

They are the epitome of two faced. I don't know what's worse out here, being accepted as one of them, or always treated like an outsider. Anyway, enough with my "Sooner" rant. I'll end it with never trust a cheater or a thief; they're only interested in what's in it for them. And "Sooners" are both.

By anon131958 — On Dec 04, 2010

It was a long time ago folks. What say we move on? Get over the genocide comments and the bad, bad white man crap. Mike E. Proud American!

By dkarnowski — On Sep 29, 2010

@ronburg44, we are in fact doing just what you speak of with several areas around the world. While we may not be offering claims of land to new American settlers we are accomplishing something very similar. The US's support for Israel and their actions of uprooting Palestinian families from their homes and allowing Jewish settlements to be built in their place.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are very similar as well but instead of forcing out families we are forcing out political powers and corporations. We are using a military force to uproot these foreign systems and replacing them with our own military complexes and corporate operations. After all, all those oil fields once were owned and operated by Iraqis.

By ronburg44 — On Sep 29, 2010

I just can't even imagine a time when a simple race could determine who was able to settle and claim a piece of land. Maybe it is because we have grown up in a time where real estate values are high and home ownership is only for those capable of earning a salary.

It really brings a moral question to the foreground of thought. Was it right for us as new Americans to force natives off of their land so white people could settle there. I think the answer is obvious, it was essentially a mass exodus and genocide.

I just hope we learned our lesson and aren't out in the world doing the same kind of unjust acts to other people.

By surreallife — On Nov 12, 2009

These events all took place prior to Oklahoma becoming a state, which took place in 1907.

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