Pioneer, Sooner & newspaperwoman.
Petite Nannita Daisey lifted her dusty skirts and plopped her high-top boot onto the platform of the Santa Fe Boomer Special, which would carry her to the “Promised Land” on April 22, 1889. Reporters jampacked the coach, and she was one of them—a rare occupation then even for a venturesome woman. At 30-something, she had landed herself a plum assignment, covering the first Oklahoma land rush for the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Gazette.
The Boomer Special was stationed at Purcell, just south of the border of the Unassigned Lands, 2 million acres of Indian Territory that would open to settlement at noon. Almost 2,500 hopeful settlers packed the coaches beyond capacity, many riding on platforms, steps and roofs. At the same moment, an estimated 50,000 home seekers on horseback, in wagons and on foot crowded the borders of the new lands.
At 11:40 a.m. there was a deafening yell and the firing of rifles and six-shooters as the train left the station. Once inside the Unassigned Lands, the engineers were limited to a speed of 15 mph to ensure that railroad passengers did not have an unfair advantage over those on horseback or in wagons. The train slowed at times to a near stop so men could jump off to stake claims. About 20,000 people used the Santa Fe railroad to reach the Oklahoma District, almost half the total land seekers.
About 50 miles into the district, near Edmond Station, lay a choice allotment Daisey had staked out on a previous trip into the territory. The railway’s right of way crossed four quarter-section corner stones, marking a homestead that would provide convenient access by rail to Guthrie, where she intended to file her newspaper stories. Here is how she described her plucky scheme:
You see, I’d been in this territory a good deal, and I had a good claim picked out. It’s about 20 miles south of [Guthrie], just alongside the railroad. I got on the first train the day it was opened—got on the engine. Jiminy! I had my cloak, a revolver and my two claim stakes with my name on them. When I got even with my claim I gave a jump while the train was in motion. I landed feet first, you can bet your life, while everybody in the cars yelled “Hurrah for Nannita Daisey!” As the train went by I planted my stakes, threw my cloak over one, then fell on my knees and discharged my revolver in the air exclaiming: “Thus I salute the Kentucky Daisey’s claim!”
She preferred the moniker Kentucky Daisey, a tribute to her time in the East. Born about 1855 in Pennsylvania, she was raised in a Catholic orphanage in St. Louis, then attempted to lead the life of a schoolmarm in Kentucky—an unlikely fit for someone with an independent spirit and bohemian eccentricities. In the 1880s, she covered society news for the Louisville Courier Journal, but she wanted something more stimulating than that. She headed West, where an independent woman could more freely act out her passions, as Daisey did with her Oklahoma land grab.
After setting her stakes, Daisey caught the tail end of the train that arrived in Guthrie at 3:30 p.m. There she could telegraph her newspaper story. Within a few days she had filed her land claim. She returned to her property, only to be confronted by a Santa Fe engineer named Stafford who had abandoned his watch before 12 o’clock the day of the run in order to stake out that particular homestead. Raising her clenched fist, she swore: “I’ll die before I go. You’ll have to put a bullet through my heart and walk over my dead body before you got [sic] a foot of that dirt.” Stafford fired three shots, one causing a slight flesh wound just below the elbow. The scuffle earned her a mention in The New York Times.
Settlers were obliged to make improvements and begin living on their homesteads within six months. Daisey most likely camped on her site and rode the train to Guthrie daily, where she dashed around with her reporter’s notebook while participating in the opening of the Territorial Legislature. She fell for and married Andreas E.J. Ueland Svegeborg, a dashing Norwegian, who was in the U.S. Army and was nine years her junior. At the time, she claimed to be in her late 20s but was actually about 34. A reporter from the Chicago Herald described her as decidedly pretty with a “dashing, vivacious way which captured those with whom she came in contact.”
Oklahoma’s second land run, into the Iowa, Sac, Fox, Pottawatomie and Shawnee lands, took place in September 1891. Ineligible to compete for a second homestead, Daisey entered the melee for valuable lots in the township of Chandler. During the stampede on horseback, she fell from her mount, and The New York Times reported her dead. The National Police Gazette ran a full-page illustration of the fallen heroine, trampled and lifeless. However, the following day, a dispatch announced that Daisey had not died; she had only been rendered senseless, eventually returning to consciousness to reportedly declare, “The lot is mine!”
When the Cheyenne and Arapaho lands opened in April 1892, Daisey managed to become Oklahoma’s first nationally renowned female “Sooner,” the name given to anyone who entered or occupied land rush areas prior to the opening—an illegal act. She led 11 other women, all in their early 20s, unmarried, well educated in the East and North and accustomed to refined homes. Each woman was provisioned with a horse, a rifle and a revolver. They camped in a deep, secluded gulch planning to claim preselected tracts at the signal. There was much hullabaloo in the press over this incident. When the dust finally settled, the young ladies most likely acquired a few homesteads that they divided among themselves.
Daisey returned to her newspaper work, but soon may have been involved in another Oklahoma Territory land run. She supposedly led a group of 36 women homesteaders on to the Cherokee Outlet in September 1893 to create a female-only colony, “The Town Without Men.” A story in the Evening Oklahoman that the women had built a 15-room house seems fanciful. Yet the legend flourished about a settlement, named Bethsheba, where no male of any species was allowed—bulls, roosters, stallions and especially no human male.
Daisey’s years of pioneering and notoriety were brief— 1889 to 1893. A mention in the Chicago Herald in 1892 noted: “Miss Daisey has thus been roughing it in the west, and is now somewhat broken, though still a handsome woman. Her face has been burned bronze by the sun and wind of the plains.” As her looks faded so did her fame and notoriety. Svegeborg, her young husband, eventually tired of her, moved away and filed for divorce. She lived in a wood cabin on her property, suffered ill health and died in 1903 when she was in her late 40s. Her property interests—including the original homestead she had claimed in her famous leap from the train— were extensive, but back taxes consumed any profits. There were no heirs.
After her death, the Daily Oklahoman ran a sensationalized account of Daisey’s life, maintaining a falsehood that would define her thereafter. It claimed that when she leapt from the train in 1889, she had been riding on the cowcatcher. A board member of the Edmond Historical Society, Burnis Argo, remains adamantly skeptical, saying, “If she had been riding the cowcatcher in the long skirts of the day, she would not only have been boiled by the engine but probably dragged to her death when she tried to jump off.”
Nevertheless, Edmond, where Kentucky Daisey claimed her original quarter-section, dedicated a bronze and granite memorial to her in 2007, as part of Oklahoma’s centennial commemoration. The sculpture depicts Daisey with billowing skirts hiked above the knees, stakes in hand, jumping from a train’s cowcatcher. She was such a publicity hound, it’s a surprise she didn’t think of the cowcatcher story herself. Were she alive today, she would be thrilled to know that her legacy lives on, even as flawed folklore. The Chicago Herald had it right in 1892 when it commented that instead of writing dime novels, Daisey preferred to live them.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.