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Why Is Oklahoma Called the Sooner State?

By Rebecca Harkin
Updated May 17, 2024
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Oklahoma, one of the central states in the United States, has the nickname The Sooner State. Oklahoma's Sooner State nickname refers to a group of people who claimed terrain in a tract of land known as the Unassigned Lands before it was considered legal to stake claims. These people were referred to as sooners, a name derived directly from the sooner clause in the Indian Appropriation Act of 2 March 1889. This clause revoked the land rights of any settler who entered the Oklahoma Territory before the area was legally open. Originally, the term sooner carried a negative connotation of a lawless thief, but the derogatory meaning has gradually improved since the University of Oklahoma football team adopted this name in 1908.

The history of Oklahoma’s Sooner State nickname began with the Indian Territories, an area of land that included two of the central states in the United States — Arkansas and Oklahoma. Most of the Indian Territory was occupied by displaced Indian tribes, but some land was not occupied and was open for settling and became known as the Unassigned Lands. Streaked by several rivers, abundant farm and grazing land, as well as the thick forested areas needed for settlement, this immense region was an attractive potential area for homesteading.

Settling the Unassigned Lands, however, was prohibited by the government and this angered many citizens who eventually banded together and drove into this territory only to be evicted by the United States Army. These evictions became known as the boomer raids and the raiders became known as “boomers." Eventually the raids, lobbying efforts of many citizens and the interest of the Santa Fe Railroad company in this land forced the government to open this area, which then became known as the Oklahoma Territory.

Large tracts of the Oklahoma Territory were divided among settlers during a land run on 22 April 1889, when many thousands of people rushed, at a designated time, into the area to stake a claim. People who hid inside the area ahead of time to illegally claim prime land became known as sooners. Unfortunately, lumped under this name and later also denied their claims were soldiers, U.S. Marshals and Santa Fe Railroad employees who were given permission to settle the territory ahead of time to control the boomer raids and scout land for railway development.

In 1908, the University of Oklahoma named its football team The Sooners. This move began the gradual change in the meaning of the term sooner. Originally carrying the connotation of a plunderer, the term sooner has instead come to mean an opportunist. While Oklahoma has long been known as The Sooner State, this nickname is now more readily and proudly embraced by its citizens.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1004613 — On Mar 15, 2021

The OU fight song only contains two words, boomer and sooner, both names of people who wanted to game the system! Nothing’s changed!

By literally45 — On Apr 22, 2014

Oklahoma isn't the only state with a nickname for residents that used to carry a derogatory meaning. Indiana is called the Hoosier State and "hoosier" is usually used to refer to uncultured or ungraceful people. But the meaning has changed now and many sports teams in Indiana are now called "Hoosiers."

The same applies for "sooners." It no longer carries a derogatory meaning. In both examples, these nicknames were coined by residents of other states but Oklahoma and Indiana decided to adopt them and shed the negative associations with these terms.

By fify — On Apr 22, 2014

@SteamLouis-- I'm not sure.

I personally don't understand why the term "sooner" was used to refer to all Oklahoma residents. I mean most of the residents were there legally, so why call the whole state by the name of a minority. Furthermore, sooner carried a negative meaning at that time.

Maybe the University of Oklahoma wanted to change the meaning of the term because all of the residents of the state were being referred to this way.

By SteamLouis — On Apr 21, 2014

Did the University of Oklahoma adopt this name for the football team to change the meaning of this term? Or had "sooner" taken on a positive meaning already by that time?

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