"I’m a Sooner born and Sooner bred, and when I die, I’ll be Sooner dead, Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner…" - Arthur M. Alden, 1905
Had he lived, David “Boomer” Payne would have reveled in the Oklahoma football crowd’s enthusiastic singing their fight song every fall since 1905, and he might even have understood the occasion. The first football game as we know it was played in 1876 under the watchful eye of Walter Camp. At six foot six and 240 pounds, Payne’s background, experience and personality would fit right in with the exuberant college fight song. Born in Indiana in 1836, a cousin of Davey Crockett and also related to Daniel Boone, Payne left home at the age of 18, after hunting and trapping through the Rocky Mountains, when the Civil War began he enlisted in the 4th Kansas Volunteers. Following the war, in 1868 he served with Custer in battles with the Wichita Indians.
Payne homesteaded land in Kansas and 1871 he was living south of Wichita after establishing a ranch and stage stop. Later, an interest in politics found him in Washington D.C., serving as doorkeeper in the House of Representatives where he met Elias C. Boudinet a Cherokee lawyer and railroad lobbyist. Born in Rome, Georgia Boudinet was the son of Elias Boudinet. The elder Boudinet was assassinated in 1839, victim of a plot to kill several of those who signed the controversial Treaty of New Echota in 1835. It was from the younger Boudinet that Payne learned about the possibility of obtaining free land in Indian Territory. Although it was controversial among his fellow tribesman, Boudinet was convinced Indians needed to become United States citizens in order to be protected by the constitution and that land should be held be individual title rather than by the tribe as a whole. Following the Civil War, treaties had been executed freeing certain Indian lands as a penalty for the Civilized Tribes joining the Confederacy. In addition, there was nearly three thousand square miles of “Unassigned land” in Indian Territory on which no tribe had settled. Excited about the potential of “free land,” David Payne returned to Kansas and, in 1880 announced the formation of the Southwestern Colonization Association. Charging $2.50 per person as a membership fee, Payne advertised the colonization in Indian Territory as a “land boom” and members of the Association soon became known as “boomers.”
For the next four years Payne organized caravans at his ranch and led at least nine, some estimate twelve forays into Indian Territory. Upon arrival at their destination, colonizers would quickly establish claims, build homes and even schools and churches before inevitably being driven out by federal troops and escorted back to Kansas. One subverted venture to territory now occupied by Oklahoma City saw both Payne and his housekeeper establishing claims of 160 acres in an area of the city that today is the most populated.
Arrested in 1884 and under the jurisdiction of Judge Isaac Parker, “Boomer” Payne was forced to make the long journey to Fort Smith. There he was tried, found guilty of “introducing whiskey into Indian Territory” and fined one thousand dollars. Payne returned to Kansas, ostensibly to plan his next foray. Unfortunately, plagued with various illnesses, David Payne suffered a heart attack and died November 28, 1884.
Ironically, ten years after Payne first became involved, his “lieutenant” William Couch, who had accompanied him on several incursions, participated in the first “legal” land run on Unassigned Lands April 22, 1889. Couch staked a claim in present day Oklahoma City and later was appointed the city’s first provisional mayor. But his appointment would be short lived. On April 4, 1890 Couch was shot during a property dispute and died of his wounds two weeks later.
The counterpart to “Boomer” is “Sooner” and Sooners attempted to enter the Unassigned Lands in 1889. The Unassigned Lands today would comprise Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma and Payne Counties. The word Sooner is derived from the Sooner Clause in the bill signed by President Grover Cleveland. The clause states that anyone entering the land prior to the designated opening would be removed. Some Sooners were deputy marshals, land surveyors or railroad employees, those who had legitimate business and were able to legally enter the territory early. Others, sometimes called “moonshiners” because they entered by the light of the moon, hid in ditches or the woods at night then appear after the land run started to stake their claim.
The university football program began in 1895, twelve years before statehood. The fight song Boomer Sooner was composed in 1905 by Arthur Alden, a student from Norman. Alden borrowed the tune from Yale Universitie’s fight song Boola Boola composed a few years earlier. Many other fight songs have been composed for Oklahoma University since but never gained the same popularity.
Interestingly, Boomer Sooner, a song reminding us of pioneers attempting to obtain land illegally, is often followed by Oklahoma describing why they wanted to. Seems logical, it’s a history lesson for all of us to remember.
Author's Note: SNAPSHOTS OF CHEROKEE COUNTRY, the fourth in a series of history books published by the author, is now available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.