Thursday, February 5, 2015

Emil Peters (Part 1): Water Boy for the Cherokee Strip Land Run (#5 of 52 Ancestors)

At the age of 16, Emil (pronounced "Aim-uhl") Peters had lived his entire life in the small town of Walton, Kansas. The largest nearby town was Arkansas City (pronounced "R-Kansas") whose population was about 5,000. Emil must have been amazed as he watched Arkansas City swell to over 75,000 people.

Street Scene in Arkansas City, Chicago Daily Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 14 Sep 1893,
page 1, column 1
, digital image, (, accessed 04 Feb 2015

Arkansas City was located just north of the Cherokee Strip, a narrow piece of land in Indian Territory just south of the Kansas border. This narrow strip of land belonged to the Cherokees who had used it as hunting ground after their forced arrival in Indian Territory. But, for the few years before 1893, this land had been leased from the Cherokees for cattle grazing.

President Benjamin Harrison cancelled this lease and decided to open this "strip" of land for settlement. Nine points of registration were chosen: five to the north in Kansas and four to the south in Indian Territory. Arkansas City, chosen as one of nine registration points for the Cherokee Strip Land Run, became the largest entry point.

(image from Wikipedia)

People were desperate for land after "...a decade when droughts, sharply declining agricultural prices, and the Panic of 1893 bankrupted many farmers. Clustering in Kansas's boomer camps, multitudes waited, on the verge of starvation, living in tents or makeshift dwellings, anticipating the opening of the last large portion of good land in the public domain." [Source: "Cherokee Outlet Opening" at]

After Waiting Six Months, Chicago Daily Tribune, Chicago, Illinois14 Sep 1893,
page 1, column 1
, digital image, (, accessed 04 Feb 2015

"Tens of thousands gathered at booths, located on the prairie with neither shelter nor immediate access to water or other necessities. Only forty-five clerks staffed the nine locations, so lines often reached a mile long with people four abreast. Many held their places for days without water. Dry weather, choking dust, and smoke from nearby prairie fires afflicted the shuffling crowds. At least ten people died of heat stroke and similar problems. Arkansas City newspapers reported fifty cases of sunstroke in one day; six victims died that night. About 115,000 individuals eventually received certificates, but many people never managed to register; at least twenty thousand still stood in lines the day before the run." [Source: "Cherokee Outlet Opening" at]

A Pen Picture, Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania18 Sep 1893,
page 1, column 6
, digital image, (, accessed 04 Feb 2015

Finally, at noon on the 16th of September, 1893, a cannon "boomed" and the settlers took their flags to claim the already marked out parcels of land. They did the 'run' not only on horseback and with buggies and wagons, but also on foot, by bicycle, and by train. I wonder if my great grandfather, Emil Peters, and his family watched this historic event.

Not long after the Cherokee Strip Land Run
(Photo in possession of my Uncle Jim of Arkansas City, KS)

My grand aunt, Beulah (Peters) Brewer, wrote in her genealogy notes that her father, Emil Wilhelm Peters, "was a water boy for some who ran in the Cherokee Strip." He must have brought water to the people in their tents or waiting in line during the days and even months leading up to the largest land run in the United States history.

Not a Garden of Eden, The Record-UnionSacremento, California18 Sep 1893,
page 1, column 3
, digital image, (, accessed 04 Feb 2015

As I did newspaper research, I came up with more about the "water boys" of the Cherokee Strip Land Run. This is from the Chicago Daily Tribune:

To add to the discomfort there is such a scarcity of water that boys are peddling that necessity of life at five cents a cup, and the dirty fluid is eagerly bought. Men human enough to give their horses drink, pay 20 cents a pailful, or at the rate of $8 a barrel, and yet this is just the beginning. So-called restaurants sell sandwiches and pies dirty and filthy looking. The hungry purchaser never stops to cut off the outside for fear of losing a morsel of the precious food. All the water is hauled from Arkansas City, four and one-half miles distant, and yet supply is far short of the demand. [Source: Boomers Lack Bread, Chicago Daily Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 11 Sep 1893, page 2, column 5, digital image, (, accessed 04 Feb 2015]

This article answered some of the questions I had about Emil's life as a water boy, but I'd still love to know...

  • Did the whole family watch the big run that day? And, what was it like to see so many people?
  • Did Emil work with his older brother, William? Or with a friend? Or did he work by himself?
  • Did he make a lot of money? And what did he do with it? 
  • Did he see a lot of suffering? Did he ever just stop and help a young child or an elderly woman who was choking on the dust or suffering from heat exhaustion? 
  • Did he realize what a historic event he was witnessing?
I will end with a quote of J. S. Wade who was thirteen in 1893. Sixty-three years after the Cherokee Strip Land Run, he recorded what he remembered from that day. In those pages, he wrote: " ...what a day it had been! Before that day had ended over six million acres had become a land of homesteaders. In this country no other equal area of land ever before had been settled with such speed and completeness. What a day it had been! [Source: "Uncle Sam's Horse-Race for Land: The Opening of the 'Cherokee Strip'" by J. S. Wade]

Other Source: various American Countryside podcasts

(Thanks to Amy Johnson Crow at "No Story Too Small" for creating "52 Ancestors" where we can share our ancestors stories, one week at a time.)

Do we share common ancestors? I'd love to talk! Please write me at


  1. How interesting! It sounds like Emil could have made quite a bit of money, since there was such a demand for water.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Beth! Yes, there was quite the demand! I wonder how much he could carry in a day? And what 5 cents was worth... quite a bit I'm guessing. I just have so many questions & thought most of them would go unanswered, but was thrilled to find that article which answered some... like how much the water was selling for & how far they carried the water.

  3. That article was a great find! I came across this Web site, which may help you figure out what 5 cents was worth in 1893:

    Historical Value of U.S. Dollar (Estimated)

  4. Thanks! That site could come in handy often. So, 5 cents was worth about $3.70. Ouch! I'm sure they had trouble imaging paying for a cup of water for that price... and dirty water at that!


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