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Ira Nathan Terrill in Oklahoma

Submitted & © 2000-02 by: Donald L. Terrill

Ira Nathan Terrill, (1853-1921), a geologist, inventor and poet from Wichita, Kansas participated in the opening of the Unassigned Lands, (the Oklahoma Land Rush) on April 22, 1889. On June 27, 1889 he homesteaded 70 acres southwest of the present city of Stillwater, Oklahoma on the north bank of the Cimarron River on a ford at Wild Horse Creek. Terrill had been a member of "Payne's Boomers" a group led by David L. Payne and William L. Couch which early on pushed for the opening of unoccupied Oklahoma lands, which were then extensively used by cattle companies. He was with Couch's party when they established a settlement at Stillwater and were subsequently removed back to Kansas by federal troops in 1884.
A leader of the Farmer's Alliance in the Populist Party, Terrill was elected, on August 5, 1890, to the First Oklahoma Territorial Legislature for the 1890-91 term. Oklahoma historian Marion Tuttle Rock said of Terrill, " His Herculean blows in defense of the peoples rights made him one of the prominent members of the first legislature. He was brave and fearless in the defense of any and all principles that he conceived to be just, and whether in the majority or minority was a matter of supreme indifference to him." Tradition has it that Terrill sponsored the Oklahoma homicide law under which he became the first person to be tried and convicted. It was his vigorous support of the Occupying Claimants Act that incurred the lasting vengeance of lawyers, land speculators and cattlemen who viciously preyed upon the property of those who lost homesteads in court cases over 'soonerism.' A 'sooner,' who had been in the territory thirty days prior to the opening was ineligible by federal law to homestead. Such homesteaders lost their land and improvements which was auctioned off to the highest bidder. Terrill's law required that the losing homesteader be paid for his improvements from the auction proceeds. Land speculators, shyster lawyers and cattlemen were the primary instigators of 'sooner' claims and were generally the only ones with the means to buy and profit from the disputed land. They frequently resorted to hiring professional witnesses to testify that homesteaders were sooners whether or not they actually were. History records that the practice of perjury was notorious, and a December 1889 issue of the GUTHRIE NEWS said: "This business of filing contests for blood money -- for it can be nothing else -- deserves the severest condemnation and the most thorough exposure." The requirement to reimburse the homesteader's for their improvements reduced profits and the fact that Terrill helped many homesteaders dispute the sooner charges gained him numerous political enemies among the speculators, lawyers and cattlemen.
George M. Embree (Embrey) from Texas, known only to be a large man over 200 pounds and under 40 years of age, reputed to be a ne'er-do-well even though his family were apparently industrious and well-liked homesteaders in the area, served as a professional witness for the land speculators, lawyers and cattlemen. He reportedly testified in a number of sooner cases and quickly ran afoul of Terrill, even apparently threatening to kill him on several occasions. On January 3, 1891 Ira N. Terrill, with his brother David Bliss Terrill, was in the Land Office, on the federal acre, in Guthrie, Oklahoma. He had gone there either to commute his own homestead by paying $1.25 an acre or to help another party contest a sooner charge. Embree was reportedly in a nearby saloon when he was told Terrill was in town and egged on by some of his benefactor lawyers and speculators went to the land office to challenge Terrill. Some reports indicate he intended to question Terrill's right to prove up on his homestead. The two met as Terrill was leaving the land office. Both men were armed as was the custom of the day, a gunfight ensued, Embree was killed and Terrill wounded in the right arm or hand.
There were varying accounts of the fatal encounter. Terrill maintained he had acted in self defense and several witnesses agreed with him. The Perkins, OKLAHOMA BEE newspaper of the day said, "Had Terrill been a leading Republican or Democrat, they would have handled his case with gloves, and gross misconduct in the jury room while his case was being considered would have been ample grounds for a new trial. But Terrill was a Populist, and it makes all the difference in the world." No concise records can be found but some accounts indicate that a trial was held in Guthrie that resulted in a hung jury, 10 for conviction and two for acquittal, but some of Terrill's descendents adamantly maintained that he was apparently first tried in Payne County (Stillwater or Perkins ?) and a jury acquitted him. In actions that led to his lifelong claims of double jeopardy, as well as self defense, he apparently was tried again in Logan County (Guthrie ?) and was eventually sentenced from Noble County (Perry ?) to twelve years for manslaughter in the first degree. These last two locations possibly being temporarily designated as Federal District Courts as the shooting took place on the federal acre at the Guthrie Land Office, a fact which deprived local courts of any authority in the matter and there were no federal courts in the Territory at the time. Oklahoma had no prison during that period so he was eventually incarcerated, under a contract with it's warden, at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing. Terrill spent his entire time in prison filing appeals on numerous grounds for release, (including the legality of Kansas imprisoning him,) and in 1905 agreed to an insanity plea with the statement. "I'm crazy to think I will ever get justice from this system." A few months later (Oklahoma ?) Governor Frank Frantz pardoned him.
In 1907 Terrill published a three act play, "A PURGATORY MADE OF PARADISE, A Tragedy Depicting Early Day Scenes in Oklahoma." The gunfight in Guthrie is depicted in the play. Few copies of this and other of Terrill's works remain but in 1961-62, Dr. B. B. Chapman of the History Department of Oklahoma State University at Stillwater (whose predecessor Oklahoma A and M College Terrill helped establish while in the legislature) made an extensive study of Terrill's history and published a book named after and including the play.
The 1966 winter edition of OLD WEST magazine carried an article "Ira Terrill - Lawbreaker, Madman or Political Scapegoat?" by Paul T. Nolan. This appears to be a romanticized, factually questionable depiction of the events at Guthrie which draws on some of Chapman's research.
Ira N. Terrill spent the remainder of his life lecturing on prison reform and prospecting for oil and minerals throughout Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. During that period he established the town of Terlton, on the Cimarron River, west of present day Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died on October 14, 1921 at the home of a daughter May Agnes (Terrill) James in Wichita Falls, Texas and is buried in Columbus, Kansas.
Some information, either family history or memories, in the above was obtained from children of Ira N. Terrill:
Cora Bell (Terrill) Taylor ( 1886 - 1960 )
Henry George Terrill (1888 - 1973)
Charles Curtis Terrill ( 1893 - 1975 )
Ira Nathan was the 7th child of Ira Curtis Terrill (1820-1883) and Martha Maria Bingham (1822-1904) who were married 7 April 1842 at Mt. Vernon, Knox County, Ohio. The children and their years of birth were:
Cordellia    1843                   Ira Nathan    1853
Henry Curtis    1844             John Horton    1855
David Bliss    1846                Daniel Knowles    1856
Vesta Elvira    1847              Edna Victoria    1857
Ester Elizabeth    1849          Hannah    1860
Phebe    1851
It is unknown how many of the children survived into adulthood.
Compiled by Donald L. Terrill, grandson of Ira Nathan Terrill on July 9, 2000.

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