Of the many lonely stretches found across the United States, few match the 5,749-square-mile rectangle known as the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Composed of three counties, today the Panhandle is home to about 28,500 people, less than half as many as when Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907.
The region suffered the ravages of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s as severe drought and blinding dust storms led many to leave for greener pastures.
The Panhandle is a relatively isolated region, dotted with abandoned buildings and hearty residents. Today, it seems difficult to believe that there was once a serious push to make the strip of land a separate territory, with the ultimate goal of statehood.
Originally part of Texas, the strip was surrendered in 1850 as a result of the Missouri Compromise. Texas, a slave state, had to give up the swath of land because federal law under the compromise prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel.
As a result, the region became known as a “neutral strip,” and was without state or territorial ownership. As evidence that advertising agencies did not hold the sway that they do today, the area was officially called the “Public Land Strip” and was commonly referred to as “No Man’s Land.”
Without a legal authority to provide oversight, the ensuing 40 years were full of confusion and turmoil.
Ranchers began moving into the region following the Civil War but officially the land could not be settled until it had been surveyed by the US government. Still, settlers flooded in, with many coming from Kansas.
By late 1886, these settlers had taken things into their own hands and had not only surveyed the land for themselves, but organized a self-governing and self-policing jurisdiction, which they named the Cimarron Territory, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
US Rep. Daniel W. Voorhees of Indiana introduced a bill in Congress to attach the so-called territory to Kansas. It passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives but was not signed by President Grover Cleveland.
Those in the so-called Cimarron Territory decided to go it alone, instead. In late 1886 they organized a board charged with forming a territorial government, enacted a preliminary code of law and divided the strip into three districts. They also called for a general election to choose three members from each district to meet the following March to form a government.
When the elected council met Owen G. Chase was chosen president, and a full cabinet was named. The council also enacted additional laws and divided the strip into five counties, three senatorial districts (with three members from each district), and seven delegate districts (with two members from each district).
The members from these districts were to be the legislative body for the proposed territory. Elections were held Nov. 8, 1887, and the legislature met for the first time on Dec. 5, 1887, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
In the spring of 1887, Chase went to Washington DC to lobby for admission to Congress as the delegate from the new territory – meaning territorial recognition for the area – but was not recognized. Ultimately, politics proved the nascent Cimarron territory’s downfall, as another group contesting the Chase government met and elected its own delegate, J.E. Dale, who also went to Washington.
Chase and Dale both reported in Washington, showed credentials, and asked to be recognized as the official delegate to Congress from an organized territory. Either would have been seated if it had not been for the opposition of the other, according to information taken from the Oklahoma Writer’s Project.
Congress’ inability to decide which representative to recognize is said to have been the key issue that kept “No Man’s Land” from eventually becoming a separate entity.
A bill was introduced to accept Chase but was never brought to a vote. Neither delegation was able to persuade Congress to accept the new territory.
The passage of the Organic Act of 1890 assigned “No Man’s Land” to the new Oklahoma Territory, signaling the Cimarron Territory’s death knell.
In retrospect, it’s almost certainly a good thing that the state of Cimarron never came into being.
Given the devastation caused in the region by the Dust Bowl, it seems likely that had the Panhandle been a separate state it probably would have been bankrupted by the economic and ecological disaster.
(Top: Map showing what would become state of Oklahoma, during the 19th century. The hypothetical Cimarron Territory, identified as the “Neutral Strip” juts out to the far upper left.)