The first people may have arrived in what’s now Oklahoma 30,000 years ago. Many thousands of years later Native American tribes including the Plains Apache, Caddo, Comanche, Wichita, Kiowa, and Osage lived on the land.
Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado traveled to the region in 1541 searching for fabled cities made of gold. By the 1700s both Spanish and French explorers and traders had come to the area. Both France and Spain controlled parts of the area for some time. Then in 1800, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte acquired the land from Spain. Three years later, he sold the Louisiana Territory (a huge swath of land that includes present-day Oklahoma) to the United States.
In the 1830s many Native Americans were forced to leave their homelands in the eastern United States and relocate in what’s now Oklahoma, which was then called Indian Territory. In the 1890s part of Indian Territory became Oklahoma Territory. Then in 1907 the Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory were combined again to become the state of Oklahoma. Today members of over 30 tribes still live in Oklahoma.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
The word Oklahoma is a combination of two words in the Choctaw language, which is spoken by the Choctaw people.
In 1889 settlers were allowed to race into parts of Oklahoma and claim land for themselves. But some managed to get to these spots before the territory was officially open to them. They were called “sooners,” which eventually became the state’s nickname: the Sooner State.
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
The state can be divided into 10 different geographic regions. The Ozark Plateau is in the northeast. It includes a bit of the Ozark mountain range, which has ridges, steep valleys, caves, and sinkholes.
In the northeast is the Prairie Plains, fertile farmlands where animals graze.
In the southeast is the Ouachita Mountains region, which includes Ouachita National Forest (part of this forest is also in Arkansas.)
East-central Oklahoma contains the Sandstone Hills region that has low, rocky hills.
In south-central Oklahoma, the Arbuckle Mountains are one of North America’s oldest ranges, at 1.3 billion years old. They’ve been heavily eroded, or worn down.
Travel southwest to reach the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, the state’s biggest wildlife refuge.
The Red River Valley runs along Oklahoma’s border with Texas. In addition to the Red River, which forms the wiggly boundary between the two states, this area has sandy, fertile soil and some forests.
In the center of the state is Oklahoma’s largest land region, the Red Beds Plains, with gentle hills made of red sandstone and shale.
Farther west are the Gypsum Hills, low hills capped with up to 20 feet of sparkling gypsum, a soft mineral.
The High Plains are flat grasslands in the northwest. They include the Oklahoma panhandle, the 34-mile-wide strip that stretches west beneath Colorado. This is the highest and driest part of the state.
Pronghorn antelopes, American bison, armadillos, and coyotes are just a few of Oklahoma’s mammals. Birdwatchers can look for greater roadrunners, red-headed woodpeckers, and scissortail flycatchers. Oklahoma is home to amphibians like gray tree frogs and Woodhouse toads (the state’s largest toad). Reptiles include copperhead snakes, snapping turtles, and American alligators.
Common trees that grow here include red maple, sweetgum, Ponderosa pine, hickory, and eastern redbud (Oklahoma’s state tree). Coneflower, buttonbush, Indian blanket, and ghost flower are some of the state’s wildflowers.
Oklahoma is one of America’s top producers of petroleum, crude oil, and natural gas.
—State celebrities include baseball player Mickey Mantle, folk singer Woody Guthrie, country singer Garth Brooks, and actors Will Rogers and Brad Pitt.
—Visitors can learn about the Old West at the National Cowboy Western & Heritage Museum, which displays Native American artifacts, a model turn-of-the-century town, and a kid-size corral.
—People come from around the world each summer to see Native American artwork and dance performances at the annual Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival in Oklahoma City.