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Why Does Oklahoma Have A Panhandle?

Chickasha, Oklahoma (again)

November 5, 2022

Oklahoma comes very close to being a boxy nonentity on the national map. Thank goodness for the state's "panhandle," a 166-mile-long strip of land extending west toward New Mexico, which gives the state its familiar saucepan shape. But what's it doing there, this awkward strip of land just 34 miles wide, the only thing separating Texas from Kansas and Colorado? Like so much else in American history, the panhandle is a mark left by slavery.

Squabbles between free and slave states left a narrow strip unclaimed.

When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, the future Lone Star State was even larger than it is today, stretching all the way north into modern Wyoming. But the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had forbidden slavery north of the 36½th parallel, so Texas got its top chopped off. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act that created Kansas in 1854 used a different border: the 37th parallel, which had previously divided the Osage and Cherokee reservations in Indian Territory. There was a pesky 34-mile gap left over between Kansas and Texas.

For 40 years, it was a landlocked island without a government.

As a result, the panhandle spent the next four decades as a question mark on the map, not part of any state or territorial jurisdiction as late as 1890. It was officially given the catchy name "Public Land Strip," and the thousands of settlers who streamed in illegally to squat on the land began to call it the "Cimarron Territory." But mostly, the panhandle was referred to as "No Man's Land."

The panhandle was a sinner's paradise.

As you might imagine, a narrow "No Man's Land" of lawlessness between Kansas and Texas didn't really attract the frontier's best elements. Outlaws ran rampant, and violence and mob justice were the citizenry's only recourse. Once Carry Nation's temperance crusaders began smashing saloons in Kansas, the panhandle became a haven for moonshiners and brothels. One boom town, the straightforwardly named Beer City, was called "the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Plains."

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