Race and Agriculture in Oklahoma Territory
Finalist: Oklahoma Book Award
Before the great Land Rush of 1889, Oklahoma territory was an island of wildness, home to one of the last tracts of biologically diverse prairie. In the space of a quarter century, the territory had given over to fenced farmsteads, with even the racial diversity of its recent past simplified.
“A well-documented story of the drama that economically marginal black, white, and Indian (Kiowa and Comanche) farmers entered into in frontier Oklahoma. She offers some compelling evidence to show that while nature was less than fully cooperative, it was racism, politics (especially the economies of politics), personal and group ambition, and cultural conflicts that stacked the deck.”
—Great Plains Quarterly
“A remarkable and thoughtful book. . . . A good book, thoroughly researched, carefully reasoned, and in terms of prose and style skillfully presented.”
—Journal of Southern HistorySee all reviews...
“This eloquently written book revises traditional, simplistic views of Great Plains agricultural development as a triumphant progress of Anglo civilization by introducing and placing into perspective the roles of African American and Native American. . . . A valuable addition to the libraries of Western histories as well as scholars of the environment, ethnicity, and culture.”
—Journal of the West
“Lynn-Sherow offers a revealing history of settlement in Oklahoma that is both ecological and cultural. Capitalism and race relations figure largely in a story of resource exploitation. . . . Her research base is wonderfully rich, her argument well made. Lynn-Sherow is equally at home discussing political economy, historical ecology, and agricultural practice. This is a fine book, one worth arguing about. . . . This could be not just a fine book, but a landmark work.”
—American Historical Review
“Red Earth cultivates a beautifully nuanced description of the cultural ecology of Oklahoma territorial agriculture, digging up the racism that informed as much of Oklahoma's agricultural development as did the environment, science, technology, and the market economy. . . . Lynn-Sherow perceptively and persuasively explains how racism, both personal and institutional, enabled white agriculturists to emerge dominant after a protracted struggle to shape Oklahoma's agricultural beginnings.”
—Journal of American History
“A pioneering study of the complex interplay between human cultures and their physical environment. Red Earth convincingly demonstrates that the battle between whites, Native Americans, and African Americans to control access to the land in Oklahoma Territory had a profound effect on the ecology of the region.”
—Western Historical Quarterly
“Broadens our understanding of the intersection of race and agriculture and the origins of institutionalized racism during Oklahoma’s territorial period. . . . Red Earth helps to explain the origins of white dominance in a region that ‘was [in 1889] a colorful reflection of the nation’s cultural and ecological diversity.’”
—Chronicles of Oklahoma
“Although the agricultural and environmental history of the southern plains is well documented, Lynn-Sherow’s emphasis on the interaction of culture, race, and environment breaks new ground. . . . She provides information and interpretations that serious students of the territorial period of Oklahoma should consider.”
—History: Reviews of New Books
“This fine book is for those with interests in Western, ethnic, or environmental history. Recommended.”
“Red Earth uncovers and explores the cultural ecology of Oklahoma agriculture in its most diverse and contested period, complicating older triumphal narratives that minimize race and the ecological consequences of agrarian choices.”
—David Rich Lewis, editor of the Western Historical Quarterly and author of Neither Wolf Nor Dog
“A fine and eloquent book, deeply researched and engagingly written, significant in its implications, and striking for its blend of sympathy and tough-mindedness.”
—Mart A. Stewart, author of What Nature Suffers to Groe: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680–1920
“Acute in nuance, rich in documentation, and packed with details and telling anecdotes.”
—Joseph Amato, author of Rethinking Home: A Case for Local History
“A fascinating account.”
—Douglas R. Hurt, author of Indian Agriculture in AmericaSee fewer reviews...
In this book, Bonnie Lynn-Sherow describes how a thriving ecology was reduced by market agriculture. Examining three central Oklahoma counties with distinct populations—Kiowas, white settlers, and black settlers—she analyzes the effects of racism, economics, and politics on prairie landscapes while addressing the broader issues of settlement and agriculture on the environment.
Drawing on a host of sources—oral histories, letters and journals, and agricultural and census records—Lynn-Sherow examines Oklahoma history from the Land Rush to statehood to show how each community viewed its land as a resource, what its members planted, how they cooperated, and whether they succeeded. Anglo settlers claimed the choice parcels, introduced mechanized farming, and planted corn and wheat; blacks tended to grow cotton on lands unsuited for its cultivation; and Kiowas strove to become pastoralists. Lynn-Sherow shows that as each group vied for control over its environment, its members imposed their own cultural views on the uses of nature—and on the legitimacy of the other in their own relationship with the red earth.
Lynn-Sherow further reveals that racism, both institutionalized and personal, was a significant factor in determining how, where, by whom, and to what ends land was used in Oklahoma. She particularly assesses the impact of USDA policy on land use and, by extension, environmental and social change. As agricultural agents, railroads, and local banks encouraged white settlers to plant row crops and convert to market farms, they also discriminated against Indians and blacks. And, as white settlers prospered, they in turn altered the relationship of Indians and African Americans with the land.
The transformation of Oklahoma Territory was a protracted power struggle, with one peoples relationship to the land rising to prominence while banishing the others from history. Red Earth provides a perceptive look at how Oklahoma quickly became homogenized, mirroring events throughout the West to show how culture itself can be a major agent of ecological change.