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An American Story

July 4, 2012 by John Myers 

On a hot June afternoon in 1998 in Spokane, Wash., I raised my right hand and pledged my allegiance to the flag and to the United States of America.

Today, I have that pledge framed and hanging on my office wall. It reads in part:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic…

I felt a lot of emotions that day. I had become a citizen of the greatest Nation on Earth. Yet in some ways I didn’t feel much different, no doubt because of my paternal roots.

I remember leaving my small country school to attend the biggest high school in Calgary four decades ago. The kids teased me with words like “Yankee.” I never disputed what they thought were catcalls and proudly embraced the fact they believed I was an American.

I remember the dinnertime stories my father would tell about his father Amil and his grandfather, Gustov, a bearded German who spoke English with a harsh accent.

Amil was all of 9 and had just become a naturalized citizen a few weeks before he and his father embarked on one of the greatest American adventures ever: the Oklahoma land rush of 1889.

Those Unassigned Lands were considered some of the best unoccupied public land in the United States. The Indian Appropriations Act for 1890 was passed and signed into law with an amendment by Representative William Springer (D-Ill.). The Springer Amendment authorized the President to open Unassigned Lands for settlement. Because of the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, legal settlers could claim lots up to 160 acres of surveyed, unclaimed public domain. If the settler lived on the land for five years, improved it and paid claim registration fees, he could receive the title to the land.

My American heritage is hardly blue-blooded; but as much as any group, the people of that time put down stakes for a Nation that would dominate the world in just 50 years.

Stubborn Men And Beasts

An estimated 50,000 people lined up for their share of the land. The race began at high noon on April 22, 1889, when starting signals were given at the points of entry.

Gustov and Amil Myers were among the settlers in a hastily built wagon box that was pulled by an aged gelding and a mean mule.

Everything they owned was in that wood-and-iron wagon, and everything they dreamed lay in front of them.

It was a dash the moment the gunshot echoed across the prairie. Gustov’s mixed-team raced the first half mile. The horse was breathing hard and the mule would not run any farther than she had to.

Those behind were on bicycles or on foot. My grandfather remembered one man carrying four wooden stakes tied to his belt loops, but no hammer. Those ahead were disappearing on the horizon; the richest land would be theirs.

Gustov and Amil were under a 72-hour-deadline to stake their claim; they made it in less than half that time. The family would go on to farm and ranch off this land and would be part of the greatest population expansion ever.

A decade later, Amil was a young man. He staked another claim, this one on the rich homestead land offered in Southern Alberta by the Canadian government. He and my grandmother went on to have three children, survive the Great Depression and expand their land from 160 acres to more than 1,000 acres.

The Leftover Legacy

I marvel at the things my grandfather and father did. My dad was born into a 12-by-12 foot shack on the cold Canadian prairie 100 years ago. At age 6, he rode a pony eight miles to school and back. My uncle, Amil’s youngest son, now age 84, sold the final quarter section of the homestead last month.

The descendants of the man who as a boy was part of the Oklahoma land run have gone on to be lawyers, dentists, teachers and writers. Whatever our accomplishments, they pale in comparison to those of our ancestors who pioneered North America.

I can recall the asthma attacks I had as a child. May dad would say that if I were of his generation, I would not be alive. It was true. Perhaps because the challenges we once faced no longer exist, there is a great deal that we Americans no longer dare.

There is a lesson in this as we pick the next President of the United States. Many of you share my feelings of despair that our Presidents are not the quality of men that they once were. But then again, are we? Let us hope that fortitude is within us as we celebrate this Fourth of July.