How Geography & Climate Impacted Oklahoma's History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Oklahoma has long been defined by its land and weather. In this lesson, we're going to go through Oklahoma's history and explore some of the major impacts of geography and climate on the state's development over time.

Oklahoma and American Geography

Where is Oklahoma? Yes, it's in the United States, but if you had to assign it to a region, which one would you choose? Is Oklahoma part of the South, and if so, is it the Deep South or Upper South? Is it the West, and if so, is it Southwest, Midwest, or just…West? Or is it something else entirely?

Regionalizing Oklahoma has been a difficult task for many people, because the state covers an array of geographic, climatic, and historical types. The humid and lush Red River Valley feels very much a part of the Deep South. The Ozarks are practically an appendage of the Appalachians. The gentle hills of the interior are part of the Midwestern Great Plains, and the flat panhandle typifies the open West. Oklahoma seems to have something for everyone, and as a result has attracted a little of everyone. It's a state constantly defined by the shapes, characteristics, and features of its land.

Much of Oklahoma history has been defined by the placement and availability of resources like water

Amerindian Nations

The first people to call Oklahoma home were Amerindians, who seem to have lived here as long as anywhere else in North America. In fact, some of the oldest archeological sites in the hemisphere are here. By the time that Europeans arrived, the region was filled with diverse populations who found different ways to interact with the landscape.

In the grassy hills were Mississippian cultures, parts of a wide group of mound-building agriculturalists extending up through Illinois. In the panhandle, Pueblo groups established farming along notable rivers and built permanent societies there. Much of the region, however, was filled with semi-nomadic groups like the Apache, Kiowa, Comanche, and Wichita, who spent their time hunting and gathering resources from the Plains. As the hard soil of the arid Plains was not really useable until the arrival of metal plows, Plains nations traded with the Pueblo and Mississippian people, exchanging meat for blankets or crops.

Indian Removal

The first Europeans to describe Oklahoma were the Spanish, but the French laid the first major claims to it as part of their massive territory called Louisiana. For the most part, they ignored it. Then, the United States purchased the entire Louisiana Territory in 1803. The USA wanted all this land to expand their agricultural society, but remote Oklahoma, with its varied climates, was still ignored.

In fact, the first major attempts by Americans to send people into Oklahoma wasn't focused on white Americans. It was focused on Amerindians. In 1830, the government signed the Indian Removal Act, forcibly removing Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and others from the American Southeast, and sending them to Oklahoma. Why Oklahoma? Basically, Americans hadn't figured out what to do with it yet, and didn't think they'd ever really need it. The Plains were too vast, the climate not always great for agriculture, and the land seemed unworkable. So, they sent the Amerindians there instead. To this day, Oklahoma has one of the largest Amerindian populations in the country.

Displacement of Amerindian nations to Oklahoma following the Indian Removal Act

The Land Runs

Oklahoma remained largely ignored by Americans, until finally in the late 19th century people realized that Oklahoma had something few other places still did: lots and lots of unclaimed land. Well, they saw it as unclaimed: the Cherokee and others had been living there for decades. The government purchased large chunks of Cherokee land, opening up a land run. Basically: whoever got there first got to keep it.

Starting in 1889, people raced to Oklahoma, trying to grab whatever land they could. Where they ended up often depended on where they came from. Farmers from the Midwest moved into the Plains regions, familiar to them, and brought techniques for planting corn. Southerners raced into the Red River Valley and other humid, lush regions, transporting their cotton industries. By 1907, the territory had a large enough population to be receiving statehood. By 1910, there were over 190,000 farms in Oklahoma.

The Land and the Depression

Unfortunately, not everything was as stable as it seemed. The 1920s started as an era of wealth, propagated by the widespread discovery of another resource in Oklahoma's land: oil. However, overuse of the farmland, an ongoing drought that had lasted a decade, and hotter than average temperatures killed off millions of acres of crops. Many tried to compensate by switching to crops that required less water, but the Dust Bowl had begun. From the late 1920s and throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, much of Oklahoma was enveloped in dust, drought, and failed farms.

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