The Green Corn Rebellion 


                                      “He was full of stories about the Green Corn Rebellion, of which I had never even heard.”
              Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel. (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 297.
              "...the last armed insurrection against the United States of America by a body of its citizens."
              Nicholas Von Hoffman, Make-Believe Presidents (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978): 11.

But why should we remember the Green Corn Rebellion?  That war, and that draft, went on anyway. Sure, we can wonder how many bubbas and buckaroos throughout the American Southwest know about the radicals on that very ground of 100 years earlier. And that they rebelled against a war, a real war and not the imagined terrors of government-provided medical care. And if we consider the jail sentences after the Rebellion we conclude that any armed resistance against military service causes concern in Washington, DC. It might be reason enough, though, just to recall that some said no along the Canadian River, in the old Indian Territory of Oklahoma, during the summer of 1917.1

August 2 through Sunday, August 5, 1917: the Green Corn Rebellion was an armed revolt by tenant farmers in Seminole, Pontotoc, and Hughes counties Oklahoma against military service for World War I. After the United States Government passed the “draft act” in May organizers for the Working Class Union (WCU) became more active in this former “Indian Territory.” Up to one-third of voters there had been supporting the Socialist Party but impending conscription caused an increasing number to change their support over the summer to the inflammatory and virulently anti-war WCU, “that insanely beautiful thing”.2  Then over the summer the United States and Oklahoma governments moved to enforce the draft registration that was supposed to have happened on June 5. On August 2 some 400 tenant farmers, ranging in age from as young as 16 to as old as 66 (most were under 31), assembled to march on Washington, DC.  

They would take wagonloads of “green corn” 3 to roast and “requisition” the occasional cow to survive the march; they were to be a part of the “three armies of Oklahoma” and three million other American farmers and workers were to join them along the way. When they all reached Washington they would confront “Big Slick,” as they called President Woodrow Wilson, and force repeal of the draft law.

The main body of insurrectionists met at Spear’s Bluff, also called Roasting Ear Ridge, near the South Canadian River in Seminole County; later a smaller body regrouped at Lone Dove near Konawa. The local sheriff and a force of some 70 moved to challenge the rebels. Had these tenant farmers enjoyed effective military discipline the Green Corn Rebellion might well be remembered as a sickening blood bath. Faced with a gun battle with the sheriff and their neighbors, instead of the Federal Government, the rebels chose to quit their position and disperse over the three counties.4

There were exchanges of gunfire, some “fire fights,” and several deaths. By Monday up to 900 locals wearing white armbands, “Home Guards”, “town boys”, “pool room sports” aided by the National Guard, brought hundreds of exhausted, hungry tenant farmers into custody. The Federal Government charged 146 of the men and by August 17 the United States Commissioner started arraignments and preliminary hearings at the state penitentiary in McAlester. After a series of trials later in 1917 a total of 86 men received terms, some to be served in federal and others in state prisons. While some sentences were up to 10 years in the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, most judgments were between 90 days and two years.5 In late 1917 the Socialist Party of Oklahoma voluntarily disbanded so that the Federal Government could not associate events in Oklahoma with the trials for treason of the American Socialist leaders being held in Chicago.6

When most texts note the Green Corn Rebellion in passing, if indeed they mention it at all, they characterize it in a few sentences. Typical words used to describe the rebels are “confused,” “lived in ignorance,” “naive,” “fools,” “nitwits,”  “pathetic” as well as “backward and retiring.” As one writer noted: “The confused Indian and black and white tenant farmers of eastern Oklahoma who took up arms...followed only the dimmest road map of political reality.”7 Is that true?  Among words to describe why, “instigated” is prominent; the specter of the “outside agitator” from other places, such as Kansas, hovers over the explanations. But do men really put themselves in harm's way solely, or even partially, because of the urging and encouragement of outside agitators? 

There is another reason why we might remember. The tenant farmers were businessmen (mocked as “Little Capitalists”) who voted for the Socialist party, which received almost twenty percent of the vote statewide in Oklahoma in 1912. Indeed, there were no purer operators in the capitalist system than tenant farmers. They borrowed money, grew and sold a crop on the open market (banks required it be cotton), “settled up” with the banks (also the landlord), then, maybe with what was left, they could buy their own farm. Maybe.8 And of “political reality”? Clearly they had no understanding of the logistics or geography necessary for an armed march on Washington DC. Nonetheless, these tenant farmers were certainly under no illusions that their economic interests were the same as large landowners or of the other corporate interests that controlled the political economy. And that is another reason why we should remember. Why would small businessmen ever believe that their interests are the same as the listings on the Fortune 500. And, why do some wage workers? 

                 “ was a beautiful dream, it was something to remember.”
                 Nathan Asch, “Novels No End” The New Republic, (October 23, 1935): 310.

1. For a list of writings on the Rebellion see: Hanne. “The Green Corn Rebellion, Oklahoma, August, 1917: A Descriptive Bibliography of Secondary Sources.”  The Chronicles of Oklahoma LXXIX, No. 3 (Fall 2001): 343 – 357.
There is a screenplay: The Green Corn Rebellion on display at InkTip; Writers Script Network

2. Asch, Nathan “Novels No End.” The New Republic, (October 23, 1935): 310.

3. Thus the name, but it was also much more than a coincidence that the Rebellion happened at the same time as the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole peoples’ Green Corn Ceremony, the time in late June to early August when the green corn first appears – a time for hope and renewal.  Native Americans as well as Black Americans took part in the Rebellion.

4. A Federal Writers’ Project interview with Walter Strong, one of the rebels, explains the dilemma of the confrontation at Spears’ Bluff: “The papers said we were cowards, but we weren’t.  Some of the men in the posse were neighbors of ours and we couldn’t shoot them down in cold blood.  That’s the way we felt ‘bout the Germans too. We didn’t have no quarrel with them at all.” Green, James R.  Grass-Roots Socialism; Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943.  (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1987):  360.

5. During 1923 the Federal Government released the remaining Green Corn Rebels held in Leavenworth through amnesty procedures resulting, in part, from a march on Washington lead by Kate Richards O'Hair. " Hanley, Marla Martin.  "The Children's Crusade of 1922: Kate O'Hair and the Campaign to Free Radical War Dissenters in the Era of America's First Red Scare." Gateway Heritage 10 (Summer, 1989): 34 – 43. “.…the leaders  went off laughin' and singin', but they came back old men.”  Walter Strong. Green. Grass-Roots Socialism: 360.

6. Ameringer, Oscar. If You Don't Weaken; the Autobiography of Oscar Ameringer.  (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1940): 356.  The Green Corn Rebellion was organized, to the extent that it was organized, by the Working Class Union, not by the Socialist Party. Socialist leaders urged peaceful opposition and argued against armed resistance. See: Ameringer, If You Don't Weaken:  347-356. No matter, the government made no such distinction and blamed the Socialists for all resistance.

7. Von Hoffman, Nicholas Make-Believe Presidents (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978): 164.

8. Maybe they could have by then; the market price of cotton per pound had nearly tripled in the three years leading to August 1917 (1915 $011.64, 1916 $018.84, 1917 $028.96, August prices in New Orleans).  Agricultural Statistics (Washington, US GPO, 1936): 75-76.