The First Mayor

B
y the time of President Benjamin Harrison’s proclamation opening the Unassigned Lands to non-Indian settlement, Captain William L. Couch had become a director of the Seminole Town and Improvement Company with the purpose of establishing a town site at Oklahoma Station. He leveraged his prominence in the Boomer movement to secure entry to Oklahoma Station for himself and several family members, including his father and several brothers. Like others who wanted to get a jump start on the competition, Couch hired on as a railroad worker; in reality, he wanted to keep an eye on his intended claim and those of his family members.

At noon on April 22, 1889, Couch strode from the Santa Fe Depot to claim his 160 acres, a windswept swath of prairie just west of the townsite then being surveyed for the Seminole Town and Improvement Company. In the chaos that followed, others staked claims on Couch’s homestead. By mid-afternoon, U.S. marshals had joined forces with U.S. Army soldiers to remove settlers whose claims were clearly illegal. A new word, “sooner,” entered the frontier lexicon to designate cheaters whose desire to stake claims trumped their respect for the rules of settlement.

In the absence of federal law authorizing governing bodies for the new communities in the Oklahoma country, Oklahoma City residents gathered in a mass meeting on Saturday, April 27, to establish their own. Couch was elected as the provisional mayor, Articles of Confederation were read and adopted, and a general election was scheduled for the following Wednesday, May 1. When election day arrived, citizens chose Couch to serve as provisional mayor, a full slate of city officials, and six members to serve on the city council. The Seminole Town and Improvement Company, which provided the organizational capacity behind the new government, continued to protect its own, and to sell lot certificates attesting to the legitimacy of settlers on town lots, whether they were sooners or not.


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