In honor of the state’s Centennial celebration, OETA presents a digitally re-mastered encore of its five-part dramatic film series tracing 150 years of Oklahoma history — from the Trail of Tears to space exploration.
The series focuses on the fictional Benton family, beginning with Abraham Benton, a mixed-blood Cherokee Indian. His pre-Trail of Tears immigration, to Indian Territory in the mid-1830s begins a saga spanning six generations of Bentons. The family bears witness to more than 150 years of Oklahoma history, including Indian settlements during the Civil War, the Land Run of ’89, statehood, the 1920’s oil boom, the Dust Bowl and beyond.
Each episode of Oklahoma Passage is woven together by Miz Hannah, the matriarch of the Benton family. Although the Bentons are fictional, the historical events and figures they encounter are factual. Miz Hannah is a remarkable woman who was once an aviatrix and barn-stormer and friend of both Wiley Post and Will Rogers.
Part One: 1829-1861
In Georgia during July of 1830, Abraham Benton worked as a printer for the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper written and printed by American Indians. Through the eyes of the fictional Abraham Benton, the real-life history and hardships of the Cherokee people begin to unfold.
Two years later, in mid-1835, Benton establishes a new printing operation in northeastern Indian Territory, near Fort Gibson. He marries Emma Butler, a schoolteacher and daughter of a white dragoon officer from Fort Gibson. The birth of their first son the following year coincides with President Martin Van Buren’s order for the removal of the remaining Cherokees from Georgia. Of the 18,000 Cherokees who are forced to make the trek to Indian Territory, 4,000 die of disease and exposure.
Soon, the issue of slavery begins to heat the political cauldron, eventually boiling over into Civil War. The leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes, some of whom owned plantations in the South and still hold slaves, talk of annexing Indian Territory to the Confederate States of America. The Bentons’ sons, John and Joseph, are divided on the issue, symbolic of the split in their tribe.
Part Two: 1861-1880
Not only did the Civil War split the country and the Cherokee tribe, it split the Benton family. Just as some Cherokee men joined the Union Army while others chose to fight for the Confederacy, John Benton fought for the North while Joseph Benton enlisted in a Confederate regiment.
Back in Park Hill in Indian Territory, their sister, Jessica, educated at the famous Cherokee Female Seminary, teaches high school students in a log schoolhouse. Their father, Abraham Benton, and the other Cherokee elders, continue to farm and try to keep going through the devastation of the war years. Their mother, Emma, works in the Park Hill hospital, tending to the wounded soldiers who have returned from the battlefields.
By 1863, the fortunes of war are working against the Confederate troops in Indian Territory when John and Joseph meet face to face. Joseph participates in a raid on a Union patrol from Fort Gibson, fighting alongside such dubious allies as Jesse James and
Cole Younger, two men who are beginning to build reputations of their own. Less than two years later, the war is over.
John Benton briefly returns home briefly, then rides into Texas and takes a job driving cattle. John comes to know intimately every mile and town along the dusty Chisholm Trail. During this time, the railroads begin crossing the Indian Territory, and the tribes begin leasing their lands to ranchers. The Unassigned Lands of Indian Territory feed the land hunger among both the wealthy businessmen and impoverished individuals.
A group of people known as the Boomers openly violate the laws governing Indian Territory. At the same time, news of the James Gang’s robbing and killing reaches John Benton. He happens to see a wanted poster bearing the likeness of Jesse James and tracks him to a ranch owned by an old outlaw married to Belle Starr, “the Bandit Queen.” There, in the thick of thieves and killers, John Benton faces Jesse James in a vengeful showdown.
Part Three: 1881-1903
John Benton’s friend Jake Henry Jefferson, an African American, becomes a deputy U.S. marshal and performs in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show and even rode the outlaw trail with Bill Doolin’s gang for a time.
John Benton, now married with a child, goes to work for the Santa Fe Railroad, which is building an extension through the heart of Indian Territory’s Unassigned Lands. After a long, grueling day of driving railroad spikes, he runs into Jake Henry Jefferson, now a scout for the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry.
Pressure finally moves Congress to open some two million acres of Indian Territory, bringing on the famous Land Run of 1889. Soldiers guard the starting line to keep people from crossing before the designated time, but some have managed to sneak through anyway and stake their claims early, earning themselves the dubious distinction of being called “Sooners.” One would-be Sooner is John Benton, who has ridden ahead and staked his desired parcel of land. The Bentons’ covered wagon is in a line of other wagons, riders on horseback and bicyclists stretching across the prairie as far as the eye can see.
The next few years are hard for the Bentons, yet they survive through searing summers and chilling winters in a sod hut. The family’s farm finally begins to prosper, and others prosper as well. Communities begin to grow into towns across the landscape.
Part Four: 1904-1929
Miz Hannah’s historic yarn takes up again in 1906, a year before her birth. A small group of men gather to discuss Oklahoma’s impending statehood — Clem Rogers and his 27-year-old son Will, future Oklahoma Governor Alfalfa Bill Murray, Colonel Joe Miller, who owns the famed 101 Ranch, and Miz Hannah’s father, Nat Benton, who has been elected a delegate to the Oklahoma constitutional convention.
In Guthrie, the delegates from Indian Territory, Oklahoma Territory and the Osage Nation hammer out a state constitution that William Jennings Bryan will call “one of the great documents of modern times.” Then on Nov. 16, 1907, the day Hannah Benton is born, Oklahoma – a Choctaw word meaning “Land of the Red Man” – becomes the 46th state.
Meanwhile, Hannah’s half-brother George works as a roughneck in the oil discovery south of Tulsa which became known as the Glenn Pool. He comes home with galvanizing tales of people becoming overnight millionaires — and becomes one himself. He introduces young Hannah to an oil field worker named Wiley Post, an aviator who teaches her the wonders of flying.
Part Five: 1930-1990
Will Rogers pays an occasional visit to the Benton homestead with amusing tales of the 1928 Democratic and Republican conventions and talk of joining Wiley Post for an ill-fated flight around the world.
Soon, the stock market crashes and America plunges into the Great Depression. In 1931, the hot, dusty elements seem to reflect the times. On the Benton homestead, the house is in disrepair. They have lost everything and devote their lives to helping the poor people who populate the shanty towns. Amid this Dust Bowl destitution, the Bentons chance to meet a wandering minstrel from Okemah by the name of Woody Guthrie.
During World War II, Hannah’s brother Daniel joins the Oklahoma National Guard and after training at Fort Sill, fights in Europe with the 45th Division, which General George Patton would later describe as “the best division in the history of American arms.”
The years fly by and soon, Hannah anxiously waits with her family as one of the Bentons, an astronaut, embarks on his first mission.