The term "sooner" was used in a derogatory fashion to describe the group of American settlers who unlawfully claimed lands in what eventually became Oklahoma. These people staked their claim to land when it was called the “Unassigned Lands,” prior to the territory being opened by President Benjamin Harrison with his Indian Appropriation Act of 1889. These lands were opened up for land claims in the famous land runs of that year, in which settlers basically participated in a race to claim a piece of land for themselves.
Legal settlers believed that the sooners cheated their way into their land claim by laying claim to the land before the official beginning of the run. This event was portrayed in the movie Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, in 1992. Legal settlers resented the illegal methods with which some people had settled the land, and many of these people were forced to defend their claims in court, in cases such as Smith v. Townsend in 1893.
A sooner should not be confused with a boomer, who believed that the Indian lands were public property. Many boomers participated in raids to attempt to compel the settlement of the lands by whites. This practice was deemed illegal, and many boomers were physically removed from the Unassigned Lands. It was due in part to their actions that the land runs of 1889 were made possible.
The term “legal sooner” was used to describe settlers who had been in the territory legally prior to the land run, such as railroad workers and federal marshals. Although they were in the area legally to help build the infrastructure of what would become Oklahoma, their land claims were also denied because they had not participated in the land runs.
Over time, the term lost its derogatory connotations and began to represent the irrepressible, hardy pioneer spirit of Oklahoma. The word was adopted by the University of Oklahoma in 1908 as their football team’s name, and Oklahoma was unofficially deemed the “Sooner State” in the 20th century. The term now identifies members of University of Oklahoma sports teams, current students and alumni, and devoted fans of the university’s teams. It has become a badge of honor among many Oklahomans.