Woman Recalls Horseback Race for Free Land

Traveling by covered wagon and horseback, settlers participated in Cherokee Strip Land Run looking for free land.

Content Tools

Her dimming eyes sparkle with excitement when Eva Wintermute talks about the Cherokee Strip Land Run in 1893 in what is now Oklahoma. With a keen memory for detail, she adds new zest to the story of searching for free land:

"All we heard during a long, hot, miserable summer was talk of the Big Run. The Cherokee Outlet was the last frontier, a land of lush grass and fresh streams – five million acres of 'Promised Land.'

"I was only 17, too young to get a claim, but I had promised to marry Walter the next spring, so we looked forward to getting a claim of our own. Since Father's death, I had helped Mother keep the farm going and could handle a team like a man, so I agreed to drive the supply wagon for the Wintermute brothers, who would make the Run on horseback.

"Mother and I set out in a covered wagon from our home near Chautauqua Springs about a week before the Run and made the hot, wearisome trip to Arkansas City, where the men planned to register.

"We camped in the yard of a friend's home and cooked meals to take to Walter and his brothers, while they stood in line three days to register. Between meals, we fanned and shooed flies and visited with camp neighbors. Thirty thousand people were crowded into that town of 4,000.

"All kinds were there, the peddlers, the fakers, the blind and the greedy. Plain folks, whimpering children and yelping dogs, horse traders with business, young men selling water at 10 cents a cup. The heat was fierce, and a thick dust was on everything, swirling in the streets, clinging to our sweaty faces. Nothing but Strip talk was heard, but the most urgent need was for a cup of fresh water.

"On the day of the Run (September 16, 1893), Mother drove our wagon and I took the supply wagon, accompanied by Art Skaggs, a 12-year-old boy hired by the Wintermutes. We wedged into the line 12 miles west of Arkansas City. As far as the eye could see were covered wagons, buggies, buckboards, carts, bicycles, even a few surries. Thousands of men on horseback, riding Texas cow ponies, common horses, mules or racing thoroughbreds, shipped in from the East.

"The suspense was electric when the starting signal was heard at noon. The horsemen vanished in clouds of dust. I was doing fine until we met a prairie fire and the team bolted. Racing across gullies and over the hills, the wagon swayed so I thought we would turn over any minute. It was everybody for himself, and no racing horseman would stop to offer help. Art and I used all our strength pushing the wheel brakes and finally dragged the wheels enough to slow the team.

"We camped that night on the Chikaskia River near Blackwell, and soon after dark a wagon drove into camp and Mother stepped down.

"‘I got a good claim, but just couldn't stay there after dark by myself,’ she said. The next day we located the Wintermutes on the Salt Fork River near Tonkawa. Walter's claim turned out to be on school land, which had to be bought.

"So we started the trek back to Kansas, forgetting our dreams of starting a new home on free land."

Jessy Mae Coker
Sedan, Kansas

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.