Greer County: Texas Irredenta?

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled against Texas and decided the ownership of Greet County, now located in southwestern Oklahoma. Prior to the ruling, Texas claimed and administered this region, treating it as an integral part of the state. Texas companies ran cattle in Greer County, and, more importantly, settlers from Texas comprised the bulk of early residents, establishing the county in the minds of many as a part of Texas' extended culture region. In the decades after the Court's ruling, Texans have revisited the issue informally, lamenting the injustice done and the severance of a Texas culture area from the homeland. One prominent historian even referred to Greer County as Texas irredenta. This study considers the Greer County case in the context of irredentism--the political claim of a state to a severed cultural territory. Based on evidence from government reports, court documents, and migration patterns, it seems clear that Greer County represented a peripheral area of mild cultural influence, not an integral part of Texas' culture region. The case thus fails to rise to the level of irredentism, relegating any lingering Texas attachment to Greet County more to nostalgia than to cultural geographical patterns.

INTRODUCTION

March 16, 1996, marked the centennial anniversary of an obscure, but meaningful Supreme Court decision, one that decided the fate of a one and a half million-acre territory in what is today southwestern Oklahoma. This disputed region, perhaps the most contested piece of real estate of its size in the United States that few people have ever heard of, was known for years as Greer County. On the surface, the conflict over ownership of this territory between Texas and the United States appeared similar to any of a number of other boundary and territorial disputes in North American historical geography (Miller 1911; Bowman 1923; Paullin 1932; Thomas 1952; Comeaux 1982; De Vorsey 1982). Early delineation of the boundary drew on deficient geographical knowledge of the area. Later boundary surveys, nearly inept at times, did almost nothing to settle the dispute, and in fact actually worsened it. In the ensuing years after the dispute was settled, fewer and fewer people even recall that there was a border problem. While following all of these classic patterns, the Greer County dispute, however, exhibited unique and far-reaching implications. Certainly the case had many political and legal ramifications. After all, at one time or another Texas, the U.S. government, and the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations all claimed Greer County, and each side put forth detailed and credible arguments supporting its position. Texas, however, disposed of its own public lands, unlike other states, and had the potential to exert a very strong influence on an unsettled area for that reason. It ultimately took several cases for the Supreme Court to sort out all the issues of title and ownership of this sizable area, with the Court finally determining that Greer County belonged to Oklahoma Territory (Paullin 1932; Pool 1975).

The conflict over Greer County had even more important and interesting cultural implications, though they had no real impact on the legal proceedings. In this respect, though, the claim was seemingly much more one-sided on Texas' behalf. While the United States asserted a strong legal claim to Greer County, this led to little in the way of settlement or cultural geographical development. In fact, the federal government did all that it could to delay, if not prevent, settlement in Greer County. The U.S. interpretation that the area fell within Indian Territory meant that whites from the United States could not settle there, and officials repeatedly warned trespassers to stay out of Greer County. Yet, because of the confusion over ownership of Greer County, the federal government did not settle any Indian tribes there, either. Texas, on the other hand, in pressing its claim to the region, did affect settlement of Greer County, and thus exerted a cultural influence. …