ANARCHY IN THE I.T.
Oklahoma Today|September/October 2020
DURING THE WILD AND WOOLY DAYS BEFORE OKLAHOMA STATEHOOD, ONE PANHANDLE TOWN GAINED NOTORIETY AS THE MOST LAWLESS PLACE ON THE PLAINS. WELCOME TO BEER CITY.
BRIAN TED JONES

IN AUGUST 1888, two newspapers reported on the unfortunate death of a twenty-eight-year-old painter named Charley Meyers—or Charles Myers, or maybe Charles Meyer; the name is spelled three ways across the two accounts.

The Indian Chieftain of Vinita related the story: Meyers was standing in a saloon near the saloonkeeper, George Shoemaker, who was handling a revolver carelessly. The gun discharged, and the ball struck Meyers in the arm before entering his stomach. He died within fifteen minutes.

The Wichita Eagle of Wichita, Kansas, had reported the same story two days earlier, adding a few personal details: Meyers was considered a harmless man, and it was said he had two children living with relatives in Colorado. Both papers noted the place where Meyers died was a town called Beer City on the Neutral Strip. The Eagle went so far as to claim Meyers lived there.

Except Beer City wasn’t actually a town, per se. There never was a Beer City post office, a Beer City church, nor a Beer City school. The area was cattle country, but there were no cattle pens in Beer City. The Beer City townsite was never platted. And when the merchants of Beer City pitched their community to prospective settlers in newspaper advertisements, their chief selling point was the town’s lack of any civic code whatsoever. They bragged about Beer City being “the only town of its kind in the civilized world where there is absolutely no law.”

Witnesses claimed the shooting of Charley Meyers was accidental, absolving George Shoemaker of any intentional killing. But in a place like Beer City, would it have mattered?

TO UNDERSTAND BEER City and its brief spell of anarchy, one must begin on May 4, 1493, when Pope Alexander VI granted the Spanish crown “all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered” on an area of the planet corresponding roughly to the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. This included the rectangle of land measuring about 5,700 square miles that today makes up the Oklahoma Panhandle’s three counties of Cimarron, Texas, and Beaver.

Spain claimed undisputed title to the land until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which placed the border between the United States and the Spanish empire into serious doubt. In 1819, though, the Adams-Onis Treaty resolved the issue by setting the boundary at the 100th meridian, where the line between Harper and Beaver counties—the Panhandle’s eastern boundary—runs today.

President John Quincy Adams signed the treaty confirming Spanish control over the area on February 22, 1819. But on August 24, 1821, Spain would lose the Panhandle to Mexico in the Mexican War of Independence.

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