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Often ridiculed by the rest of the country as dust-filled and
boring, OKLAHOMA has had a traumatic and far from dull history.
In the 1830s all this land, held to be useless, was set aside
as Indian Territory ; a convenient dumping ground for the so-called
Five Civilized Tribes who blocked white settlement in the southern
states. The Choctaw and Chickasaw of Mississippi, the Seminole
of Florida, and the Creek of Alabama were each assigned a share,
while the rest (though already inhabited by indigenous Indians)
was given to the Cherokee from Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia,
who followed in 1838 on the four-month trek notorious as "the
Trail of Tears". Today the state has a large Native American
population - oklahoma is the Choctaw word for "red man"
- and even the smallest towns tend to have museums of Native
Once white settlers realized that Indian Territory was, in
fact, well worth farming, they decided to stay. The Indians
were relocated once more, and in a series of manic free-for-all
scrambles starting in 1889, entire towns sprang up literally
overnight. Those who jumped the gun and claimed land illegally
were known as Sooners; hence Oklahoma's nickname, the Sooner
State . White settlers didn't have an easy life, however, facing,
after great oil prosperity in the 1920s, an era of unthinkable
hardship in the 1930s. The desperate migration, when whole communities
fled the dust bowl for California, has come to encapsulate the
worst horrors of the Depression, most famously in John Steinbeck's
novel (and John Ford's film) The Grapes of Wrath , but also
in Dorothea Lange's haunting photos of itinerant families, hitching
and camping on the road, and in the sad yet hopeful songs of
Woody Guthrie. After the slump of the early Thirties, improved
farming techniques brought life, and people, back to Oklahoma.
Today the state is known for its staunch conservatism; as the
Bible Belt stronghold, bars and liquor stores close early, while
tattoo parlors are banned altogether.
Oklahoma is not the flat and unchanging expanse of popular
imagination. Most of its places of interest, such as attractive
Tulsa, lie in the hilly wooded northeast; only the sparse and
treeless west is devoid of appeal, on the far side of the central
"tornado alley" prairie grassland which holds the
state's revitalized capital, Oklahoma City . The lakes and parks
of the south, which bears more than a passing resemblance to
neighboring Arkansas (complete with mountains, foliage and bluegrass
music), have made tourism Oklahoma's second industry after oil.
Car travel is the only way to explore Oklahoma. Amtrak serves
Oklahoma City with one train a day from Fort Worth, Texas. Greyhound
buses speed along I-35 and I-40, which converge on Oklahoma
City, but public transportation within the towns is minimal.
Tulsa and Oklahoma City have airports. Route 66 , which passes
through both cities on its way from Missouri to Texas, is no
longer a national highway, but if you have plenty of time (and
sturdy tires; much of the road is in a bad way), makes a nostalgic
alternative to the interstates. Travel literature detailing
the small communities and ghost towns on the way is plentiful
at roadside information centers or contact the Oklahoma Route
66 Association (tel 405/258-0008, ).
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