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Oklahoma History: Pioneer Life in Early Oklahoma

Updated on December 12, 2017

Forward: A few thoughts about Pioneer Life in Oklahoma

Pioneer life in Oklahoma wasn't easy, but for those brave souls who ventured out into the wild lands of untamed Oklahoma it was their dream. They saw this new state as a ray of light, a chance to own a piece of the American Dream; a home and land of their own.

As you read this, try to imagine for a moment what life was like in the late 1800's. Imagine their hardships. Imagine the way they lived their lives simply, and understand their belief that hard work and determination can build great cities.

This is our past, and we should all take great pride in it. If it wasn't for those brave men, women, and children that ventured into the wild unknown then Oklahoma wouldn't be as it is today. They fought the ravages of nature in order to establish a home for themselves. They had a dream, a vision of what life should be. Without their desires, achievements, drive and determination, the state of Oklahoma would be a much different place.

Settling Oklahoma

Western expansion reached Oklahoma in the late 1800’s in a way that was unprecedented in the history of the United States. In 1889, a choice portion of Indian Territory in Oklahoma was opened to white settlement, and the early settlers in Oklahoma engaged in various “land runs” throughout the territory. At this point in history, Oklahoma was still mostly void of all things considered civilized. The only visible elements of civilization was a railroad line that crossed the territory, and water towers and other requirements for steam rail operation were located at intervals along the tracks that connected Arkansas and Texas. Beyond that, early pioneers to Oklahoma Territory had to make do with what they could bring or build on their own.

The first settlers arrived in their covered wagons with very few necessities and no luxuries of life. They usually brought enough grain with them to plant crops. Wild turkeys, geese, deer, elk and prairie chickens were plentiful so meat was provided in abundance.

"Staking a site": Oklahoma land rush in 1889.  Guthrie, Oklahoma
"Staking a site": Oklahoma land rush in 1889. Guthrie, Oklahoma
A typical Wagon Train.  (My great grandmother used to tell me stories about this when I was a kid.  She remembered her parents riding in a wagon train.)
A typical Wagon Train. (My great grandmother used to tell me stories about this when I was a kid. She remembered her parents riding in a wagon train.)

Oklahoma Pioneer Homes

The settlers’ first homes were very crude one-room houses built out of raw timber.  Occasionally, if one could afford the time, a small shed was built to house their tools.  Floors were made of logs where only the top portion was skimmed flat.  The floors were loosely joined together and cracks in between the logs ran the length of the house.  These early Oklahoma pioneers had a rough time keeping their houses warm in the winter, even though they kept a small fireplace burning throughout the winter months.  In addition to providing heat, these fireplaces provided a means of cooking.  The settlers later built two story log houses with a hall in the center, which contained the stairway leading upstairs to the bedrooms.

The houses were rarely plastered, but sometimes they would be weather boarded inside.  During the summer months, flies and fleas invaded these homes like an army.  In addition to being made of crudely cut logs and unsealed against the elements, most homes had no screens at the door.  Windows were square places left in the logs and covered over with greased paper.  In many cases early settlers in Oklahoma simply chose not to even have windows.

The yards were enclosed with a rail fence.  In the front yard, a “stile block” was set up to assist the modest women of the family in mounting their horses or helped into the big wagon.

Their furniture consisted of the four-poster beds, curtained off, with trundle beds underneath on which the children slept, a chest of drawers, a homemade table, chairs, and in the more aristocratic families, a sofa.

Settlers in Oklahoma on the only home they know. 1886
Settlers in Oklahoma on the only home they know. 1886
A typical Homestead. 1893
A typical Homestead. 1893
A typical Homestead. 1897
A typical Homestead. 1897

Daily Life: Feeding a Family of Fourteen

Families were large by today’s standards. It was typical to find families that had as many as 10 to 15 children. A family of eight was considered a moderate sized family. For a moment, imagine fitting a family of that size in the small homes they were able to build. Imagine having to feed a family that large in modern times. It was difficult, but families had to be large in order to maintain the ranches and farms they built.

Staple food for the settlers was the barn and salt pork smoked by hickory log fire, dried beef, wild turkey, wild geese and deer. Cooking was done in iron kettles, which were set on tri-cornered iron holders. This was placed in the hottest place in the fire in the fireplace. Skillets, pots and tin pans were also used and every family had a huge brass kettle in which they made their soap, apple butter, maple syrup, and rendered out the lard.

Fires were made by striking a piece of steel against a flint rock. Light was furnished by tallow candles that the house­wife made. There were no sewing machines and all garments had to be made by hand..

1895 shows the typical extended family including aunts, uncles, all sharing one home until each family could make it on their own.
1895 shows the typical extended family including aunts, uncles, all sharing one home until each family could make it on their own.

Farming Very Crude

The farming of the early settlers seems very crude to us today with all the mod­ern farm machinery.  When the early settlers came to Oklahoma, most came by horse and wagon, and they brought a few farm implements with them.  The land was mostly grass and clay, which had to be plowed before a crop could be raised.  Before the seed could be sewn, the land had to be "sodded out," which consisted of plowing the land a few inches deep.  Once the land was ready, early settlers grew cane, or forage sorghum, which was a popular crop to plant in the newly plowed sod.

Later, cotton became the most popular crop grown because it was easy to grow and typically brought a good profit.  Growing cotton required a lot of labor, so the farmer utilized the large number of family members to help.  The new land was highly productive, and when rainfall was adequate, good crops could be harvested.

Ranch in 1895.
Ranch in 1895.
Farmers plowing in 1892.
Farmers plowing in 1892.

Life on the Frontier

The amusements were simple but were keenly enjoyed. There were occasional quilting bees when the women of the neighborhood would gather and help the housewife with her quilts. Weddings were occasions of feasting and merrymaking. Distances were so long that frequently the guests would remain overnight.

Schools in the area were one room log buildings with puncheon floors. Hard long benches served as desks with no backs to them. Sometimes the school was perched upon pegs or stilts two feet or more from the ground. The studies usually consisted of three R’s, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

Boys and girls usually continued to attend school until they were married. The teacher would give out stray bits of in­formation about physiology, astronomy, geography, history from his own scanty knowledge of the subjects. More than 70 to 80 pupils were enrolled and crowded into the small log school.

Classes were called to the front of the room to recite the lesson. Members of the teaching profession usually received about $25 per month. The teachers were nearly always men and boarded around from house to house.

The school house served as a meeting house on Sunday for the religious groups. Itinerant preachers brought the word of God to the God fearing settlers. The women sat on one side of the house and the men on the other. After the services the preacher would be invited to accom­pany some member home. The entire congregation would spend the rest of the day listening to the preacher talk and getting the gossip of the neighborhood.

A typical one room schoolhouse.
A typical one room schoolhouse.
A lot of business was done in 1889 out of a city office.Here you see the U.S. Land Office, the clerical staff and the U.S Marshalls.
A lot of business was done in 1889 out of a city office.Here you see the U.S. Land Office, the clerical staff and the U.S Marshalls.

Remembering those who have Gone Before

The years following the Oklahoma Land Run in 1889 were rough for the early settlers.  There are a great many stories of hardships, trials, and tribulations, but at the same time, there's an equal number of stories about successes and great times of joy.

As we live our lives today, sometimes it's all too easy to forget those who have gone before us.  These are the people who paved the way across every state in the nation.  These are the people who laid the first bricks in our downtowns, and who first brought civilization to uncivilized places.

Take a moment to imagine what life was like for these early pioneers.  As you do, ask yourself, could you do it?  Could you help found a state? A nation?

In the end, we are all founders of a great state.  We are all founders of this great country.  We move life forward, making progress for all of humanity as we go.  As we do this, like our forefathers before us, we are creating a brighter future for those who follow.

A typical "Main Street" - 1890's.
A typical "Main Street" - 1890's.
The hardware store provided the prairie town more than just hardware. It provided general merchandise, grocery, building materials and an active catalog business for all the items not found in the store.
The hardware store provided the prairie town more than just hardware. It provided general merchandise, grocery, building materials and an active catalog business for all the items not found in the store.

© 2010 Eric Standridge


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    • profile image


      15 months ago

      My family lived there in the 1940's on an old ranch. No electricity or running water, but a big well. A large home, with grandparents there also. Cows, cotton, lots of food, chickens, etc. As a child I loved it; so much to see and do.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Wow I didn't know that you used to stay in school until you were married. I wonder if they would still keep you in school if you never got married? Surly not.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Wow now a 4 or 3 is conseterd a normal family a normal family is 14

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      6 years ago from Hollister, MO

      I did have relatives who made the Land Rush... and became very successful there... Thanks, for the memories, and the reminders of life then, and there! ;-)

    • profile image

      Beth Livingston 

      6 years ago

      My great, great grandfather was also a Preacher in Oklahoma in late Oklahoma territory on the late 18oo's. the story goes that he opened a small church and had 9 children. My mom's mother was on of the latest to be born in OK. territory at that time. They are all buried in the Cemetery in the middle of OKC. I do try to go up there as often as I can....... Just really knowing the facts keep me so excited and wondering what live they actually ha!!! P. S. There last name was Cross!

    • profile image

      Larry Collier 

      7 years ago

      My great grandfather was James P Sampson who founded. The DUNCAN BANNER . My grandmother as I was told was the first white girl born in Guthrie. Ethyl Guthrie Axom

    • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

      Eric Standridge 

      9 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

      Marge, I bet you have some truly amazing stories to tell! It really wasn't that long ago since Oklahoma was known as the wild frontier.

      Unfortunately, much of the history of those early pioneers have been lost. I hope that you have been able to save the stories that your grandparents have told you. I was too young to do so and now I regret it - people and places live on through our histories.

      Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      marge ryan 

      9 years ago

      My grandparents entered in 1889 in a covered wagon and settled in Waukomis then later moved to El Reno and then to Oklahoma City and when my mother, Marie finished high school, they moved to Chicago. My grandfather, John Meacham, taught school in Iowa, then became a pharmacist and opened a successful drug store in Waukomis, and again in El Reno.


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